Revising Jigsaw Jones by James Preller
Writers are not often given the opportunity to revise our work post-publication. We labor like the dickens throughout the writing process -– drafting, daydreaming, dithering -– until those last desperate hours of corrections. Then we let the book go scampering off into the wild. Not perfect, not ever perfect, but the best we could do at the time.
In the case of the Jigsaw Jones mystery series, I’ve enjoyed a unique experience. The books had gone out of print with my original publisher. And then, to my great delight, the good folks at Feiwel & Friends (Macmillan) decided to bring the books back into print. The plan was to launch with a brand-new title, The Case from Outer Space, but also to bring back eight previously published titles that had been unavailable.
I was given the rare chance to go back and fix things. Update, revise, tweak, correct. It’s been an instructive experience. I’ll begin with a specific example. Early in The Case of the Disappearing Dinosaur, Jigsaw is having a catch with Mila. The book read:
I threw the baseball in a high, long arc to Mila. She drifted back and caught it easily. Mila is a pretty good ballplayer. She is also my partner. We’re detectives.
One word troubled me. Pretty. Mila was a pretty good ballplayer. There was something condescending there, a hint of sexism. It doesn’t read “for a girl,” but it’s implied. So, working closely with assistant editor, Anna Poon, we decided to simply strike that word. Now it reads: Mila is a good ballplayer.
There, much better. Plain and simple, a stated fact. For the most part, that’s been the kind of revision I’ve done. Sure, the world has changed; there were issues with phones in several places. But overall I was relieved to see that the sentences didn’t bother me. I wasn’t constantly pulling out my hair, ashamed at sloppy constructions. I didn’t feel a need to rewrite the books in a major way.
I’d learned while writing the series to (mostly) avoid specific cultural references. But even so, I slipped up. So I needed to strike references to Britney Spears’ bellybutton (shaking head, even now), Blue’s Clues, baseball slugger Mike Piazza, and Barney the (annoying) Dinosaur. It would be more relatable for young readers if I shifted to generic descriptions, i.e., the hit song on the radio.
Wait: Do radios still exist? Do stereos? Better to have the music blast from the speakers and leave it at that.
The world keeps shifting, and it was fascinating to see that change through the perspective of books that were written only 10-15 years ago. In The Case of the Bicycle Bandit, Jigsaw makes “photocopies” of a flyer. “Camcorders whirred” in The Case of the Mummy Mystery. But not anymore, folks.
I didn’t find much in the way of terrible, shameful mistakes. Some issues crept into a book here and there. Nothing horrible –- and even defensible from the perspective that the book’s narrator, Jigsaw Jones, might himself be a little imperfect. He’s just a boy after all. I didn’t want to sterilize the books, but here was my chance to revisit these stories and think them through one more time.
There was a star athlete in The Case of the Smelly Sneaker (formerly titled The Case of the Sneaker Sneak, a title I loathed and was eager to change), Lydia Zuckerman. Something a little off slipped into my descriptions of Lydia. Her nickname, for example, was “The Brown Street Bruiser.”
At one point, Jigsaw made this regrettable observation: “She’s not a girl. She’s a . . . a . . . terrorist in tights.”
Um, not cool, not now, and not really what I meant to say. Also there was this description:
Lydia Zuckerman was in fifth grade, but she already looked like an NFL linebacker. Lydia was tough – a stomping, sneering, snarling mass of muscles.
On another page, Lydia is described as “big and mean.”
Okay, I get it. I was trying to be lightly humorous. I played up the fear that Jigsaw and the other boys might have for a strong, powerful, imposing girl. But in retrospect I feel like I missed an opportunity to say something deeper, more meaningful. After all, I am the father of a 16-year-old daughter, Maggie, who is a strong, tall, dedicated athlete. I didn’t want to reduce Lydia to a cartoon. So instead of “big and mean,” Jigsaw now describes her as “tall and talented.” And Lydia is now known as “The Brown Street Superstar.”
I feel better about it, glad that I had a chance to revise these eight books and share them again with a new generation of readers. And what is revision if not the chance to step back, to see again? And maybe, here and there, in small ways, to go back and try to make it better.
James Preller is the author of the acclaimed novels Six Innings, Bystander, The Fall, and The Courage Test and the Scary Tales series, all published by Feiwel and Friends. He has also written several picture books, but is perhaps best known for the Jigsaw Jones series. He travels to classrooms around the country and maintains a blog about writing and literacy. He lives in Delmar, New York, with his family.
There’s a great message here for student writers. If “real” authors find it helpful to revisit and revise a piece of work that has already been published, then it must be okay for learners to do the same. As Lucy Calkins says, “a piece of writing is never done and it is never perfect. Just get it as good as you can at that point in your life, and then stop.”
I very much agree with your comment. This is a great lesson for student writes. Even successful stories can be better, especially after the author has been away from the piece for awhile and comes back to reread and revise. I hope teachers will share the post with their students! – Susan
When I work with young writers, so many of them simply want to be done. Finished! To type those two glorious words, THE END. Somehow we’ve got to get to them before that feeling comes along. I used to have a college teacher who advised me against using a typewriter on my poems because it gave the illusion of being “finished.” So clean and perfect. I still start all my books by hand. Thanks so much for reading my little essay & for finding something useful in it.
What a great opportunity to revise previous work! And what a great lesson for all writers to avoid things that will date our stories. I have to check out Jigsaw Jones!
Thanks, Mary, I hope you do!
Love that you are able to revise and have the opportunity to republish. I can’t wait to read the whole new series. I love the name Jigsaw Jones for a detective. Congratulations!
Love the thoughtful changes! And how far society has come in just a decade.
I know, the phones alone made me crazy. It makes me wonder, writing today, where the world will be in the next ten years. I think we’ll all have chips in our necks like debit cards.
I love the fact that you revised these books. I loved JIGSAW JONES before, and I know I will love the revised ones. When are the new ones being released? I will happily replace the original copies in my school library song with your thoughtful article about a few of the changes.
Linda, five books are out new, with four more revisions coming out this November. I appreciate your interest and — biased as I am — believe that these stories still fill a need for early chapter books that are sweet and kind and appeal to both boys and girls. (Yuck, sorry for that commercial interruption; I try to stay away from that kind of thing.)