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Superheroes and Lost Things

J.S. Puller
J.S. Puller

The titles of J.S. Puller’s first two books intrigued me so much that I imme­di­ate­ly checked them out of the library.

It turns out The Lost Things Club is about a young boy who has stopped talk­ing. His fam­i­ly, cousin, and friends are beside them­selves. What will help TJ? Sur­pris­ing­ly, a laun­dro­mat, the things that are lost in said laun­dro­mat, and inven­tive friends who cre­ate a pup­pet video series about “The Land of Lost Things.” It’s a book based on today’s head­lines, offer­ing com­fort and hope. 

Cap­tain Superla­tive!, her first book, fea­tures Janey, a qui­et mid­dle school girl who likes stay­ing in the back­ground, meet­ing a new super­hero at school. That’s right. A class­mate dress­es in a cape, tights, a swim­suit, high-top sneak­ers, and a mask. No one knows who this is but Cap­tain Superla­tive is seem­ing­ly fear­less, stand­ing up to bul­lies, help­ing peo­ple do good things for each oth­er, and ulti­mate­ly cre­at­ing a very dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ty at Deer­wood Park Mid­dle School. But the super­hero has a secret and Janey is deter­mined to find out what it is.

I liked these books so much that I asked for an interview.

QUESTION: In your two books for young readers, you’ve written about an eccentric character who changes a school culture and a little boy suffering from PTSD in the aftermath of an elementary school shooting. These are serious topics. What drew you to spending countless hours writing stories about these topics?

ANSWER: My tendency to tackle serious topics with children absolutely stems from my background in theatre, specifically my studies in theatre for young audiences.  A huge inspiration for me was a play by Aurand Harris, called The Arkansaw Bear.  I was introduced to both Aurand Harris and his body of work by my undergraduate mentor, Rives Collins.  The Arkansaw Bear is a play about death.  It’s filled with music, talking animals, and magical changes.  It’s a beautiful story, one that makes you laugh as much as it makes you cry.  It opened my eyes to a new world of writing possibilities.  It made me realize that serious topics didn’t have to be tackled in a gloomy, depressing way.  While both Captain Superlative and The Lost Things Club deal with serious topics, I don’t think they’re books about the serious topics, if that makes sense.  Both, in their own way, are celebrations of life.  And that’s so important for young people to understand.  They’re making meaning out of the world around them.  Which includes a lot of ugliness.  It’s vital to find the joy, even in the saddest of times.

QUESTION:  Your back­ground includes degrees in the­ater, ele­men­tary edu­ca­tion, and work with social emo­tion­al behav­ior, cre­ative arts, and writ­ing plays. When did you decide to add writ­ing books for young read­ers to your repertoire?

ANSWER: As my friends like to joke, I was always a writer; I was just the last one to figure it out.  I started out the same way most writers probably do: Playing make-believe games on the playground.  As I got older, I was determined to become first a Broadway singer (but I couldn’t sing) and then an actor (but I couldn’t act).  All the while, I was constantly writing.  First it was fanfiction—which I encourage students to write—and then plays.  As a junior in high school, I attempted my first novel with my best friend.  My second attempt was my senior year of college.  It was around that time that I started to get interested in theatre for young audiences.  When I graduated from undergrad, I realized that I knew a lot about theatre, but not a lot about children.  If I wanted to write plays for young people, it was important to understand the audience.  So I went back and I got my master’s in elementary education.  The most valuable lesson I learned in graduate school?  Teaching is a calling, not a career.  And I didn’t have the courage and soul of a teacher, but I loved creative work with kids and I especially enjoyed children’s literature.  Things just kind of flowed naturally from there.  I still write plays—and I’ve even attempted to write for adults—but writing for kids and getting to visit their schools and talk to them about my books and how they can come up with their own stories just sort of feels like home.

QUESTION: The Lost Things Club includes pup­petry and broad­cast­ing a ser­i­al pup­pet show on YouTube. As a read­er, I felt encour­aged to get out mate­ri­als for pup­pet-mak­ing. How would you like read­ers to respond to your cre­ative arts inspiration?

ANSWER: Well, first, I have to give a huge shout-out to the Lit­tle Brown School and Library team, who actu­al­ly put togeth­er a how-to guide for cre­at­ing puppets:

Beyond that, I want to stress that I believe in the cre­ative arts as a form of ther­a­py.  As I was begin­ning to out­line The Lost Things Club, I was serv­ing as a researcher assis­tant on a project with the UChica­go Con­sor­tium on School Research and Inge­nu­ity, Inc., which became Arts Edu­ca­tion and Social-Emo­tion­al Learn­ing Out­comes Among K‑12 Stu­dents: Devel­op­ing a The­o­ry of Action.  This project addressed the wide­spread belief that arts edu­ca­tion con­tributes to children’s and ado­les­cents’ social-emo­tion­al devel­op­ment.  There is a par­tic­u­lar sto­ry from the field­work that I share over and over again, when I talk about The Lost Things Club:

A theatre teaching artist noted, in reflecting on the way in which her work might affect students socially and emotionally, that “One of the hardest things in class is showing up, just showing up.” So she designed an activity around “showing up”: having each student stand up, one by one, while the other students clapped, and recite a line using a “performance voice.” At the end of the activity, a classroom teacher approached the theatre teaching artist, so moved that she herself could barely speak, and said, “That child doesn’t talk.” The teaching artist noted that this was normal—sometimes students did not wish to talk in front of their peers. The classroom teacher replied “No, you don’t understand, it’s on his IEP. We try to get him to speak, he doesn’t speak. He has elective mutism.” But in the context of this theatre activity, he chose to use his voice. (pg. 21)

This story was a game-changer for me.  It was the foundation of TJ’s character, for one thing.  For another, I think it’s a profound example of the power that arts education can have over kids.  I believe in art for art’s sake.  But I also believe that every child can benefit from any kind of creative activity.  So to get back to the question, I suppose what I want is for my readers to feel inspired to go out and do something creative.  To use that energy and that passion to examine themselves and their worlds.

QUESTION: Writ­ing about an ele­men­tary school shoot­ing involves big emo­tions. How did you work with these emo­tions while work­ing through your draft, sub­se­quent revi­sions, and final book?

ANSWER: The answer to this is prob­a­bly a healthy com­bi­na­tion of both research and sim­ply being a human being.  I’m for­tu­nate that I work with the mar­velous researchers at the UChica­go Con­sor­tium on School Research, who are con­stant­ly striv­ing to improve out­comes for stu­dents.  They were an excel­lent resource for writ­ing both Cap­tain Superla­tive and The Lost Things Club, direct­ing me to some won­der­ful arti­cles, jour­nals, and stud­ies about how stu­dents and schools deal with trau­ma.  I also read inter­views and watched doc­u­men­taries, get­ting first­hand accounts from sur­vivors of the trag­ic string of school shoot­ings that have plagued this coun­try, going as far back as the 1960s.  This was the easy part.  The hard­er part was exam­in­ing my own feel­ings in this real­i­ty.  As some­one who works in edu­ca­tion, I spend a lot of time on Twit­ter and news sites.  When there’s a new inci­dent — what an innocu­ous word! — I’m usu­al­ly the first per­son in the office to know.  I broke the news to my col­leagues about Sandy Hook and Park­land.  You can­not read about these tragedies with­out feel­ing some pret­ty strong emo­tions.  Park­land, in par­tic­u­lar, hit very close to home because that was my cousin’s high school.  Now, my cousin is a few months old­er than I am, so he was nowhere near the school at the time of the shoot­ing.  All human beings, how­ev­er, play the “What if…?” game.  This fueled a lot of the emo­tions that Leah went through, lov­ing her own cousin who sur­vived some­thing ter­ri­ble.  It was a sim­ple mat­ter of ask­ing myself how I would feel in her sit­u­a­tion.  I’m a the­atre kid.  And the­atre teach­es you empa­thy.  All that to say…there were occa­sion­al tears while writ­ing.  Espe­cial­ly the last cou­ple of chap­ters.  And those emo­tions linger on, long after the book has been pub­lished and print­ed.  I was in High­land Park this year on the Fourth of July.  I was born there, I go to that parade every sin­gle year and would have been at the shoot­ing, if it hadn’t been for the fact that I decid­ed to sleep late that morn­ing.  It’s pulled up a lot of those thoughts and feel­ings again.  This will prob­a­bly stay with me the rest of my life.

QUESTION: I describe your writ­ing as “cin­e­mat­ic,” eas­i­ly trans­lat­ed to a movie in my mind while I am read­ing. Is this a result you con­scious­ly strive for while writing?

ANSWER: First of all, thank you for say­ing that!  It’s a love­ly com­pli­ment!  I think most authors will tell you that they would be thrilled to have their work adapt­ed into movies.  I know I would!  How­ev­er, I’m not sure I would call it a result I’m con­scious­ly striv­ing toward.  First and fore­most, espe­cial­ly with The Lost Things Club, my goal was to write a sto­ry that read well on the page.  And one that read­ers would find relat­able, enter­tain­ing, and thought-pro­vok­ing.  Inter­est­ing­ly, Cap­tain Superla­tive took some­thing of a dif­fer­ent jour­ney.  The sto­ry actu­al­ly began as a play.  As I love to tell stu­dents when I vis­it their schools, I wrote the out­line on a Fri­day, the first act on a Sat­ur­day, and the sec­ond act on a Sun­day.  And then spent years revis­ing it before I was lucky enough to see it pro­duced on stage.  Hear­ing the teenage actors recite my dia­logue told me I wasn’t fin­ished with the sto­ry, and that’s what drove me to turn it into a nov­el.  I think it would be thrilling to see it go full cir­cle and end up back on stage (maybe as a musi­cal, I’ve writ­ten some songs!) or on the screen!  I’m also real­is­tic enough to know that the odds aren’t fan­tas­tic.  And if my work goes no fur­ther than the page, I’m still immense­ly grateful.

QUESTION: Are you some­one who works with a ful­ly devel­oped out­line while writ­ing or do you approach a book scene by scene?

ANSWER: I am a very, very strin­gent out­lin­er.  I absolute­ly can­not begin a sto­ry until I know how it ends.  Obvi­ous­ly, draft­ing and revi­sion means that things change.  New scenes are added, old scenes tak­en away.  But with both The Lost Things Club and Cap­tain Superla­tive, as well as most of my plays, I had a full and com­plete out­line before I even attempt­ed to write a sin­gle word.  I can only think of one time that I’ve ever writ­ten in a more free-form sort of way, and that was with a play that start­ed out as an assign­ment.  When I was in col­lege, my play­writ­ing pro­fes­sor had us go to Post­Se­cret and select a secret, then write a scene where one char­ac­ter had that secret.  After the assign­ment, I was so excit­ed by what I’d done, that I decid­ed to keep writ­ing.  That even­tu­al­ly became one of my most dec­o­rat­ed plays, The Cre­ator.

QUESTION: Do you have plans for more books? If so, what new chal­lenges have you set for yourself?

ANSWER: This is an easy ques­tion to answer.  Absolute­ly, I have plans for more books!  I would be very hap­py to spend the rest of my life writ­ing!  Unfor­tu­nate­ly, pub­lish­ing is a very com­pli­cat­ed busi­ness.  There’s a cer­tain stereo­typ­i­cal image a lot of peo­ple have in their heads of writ­ers.  They see us as eccen­tric lon­ers, sit­ting alone in a dark room with a type­writer, cack­ling soft­ly to our­selves like Golem.  But it’s so much more than that!  For one thing, writ­ing is not a soli­tary endeav­or.  It requires the buy-in and feed­back of dozens of oth­er peo­ple.  So, I sup­pose the first chal­lenge ahead of me isn’t so much about writ­ing as it is about find­ing an agent to rep­re­sent me going for­ward.  Eas­i­er said than done, espe­cial­ly fol­low­ing the pan­dem­ic, which proved fer­tile ground for new inspi­ra­tion and new authors.  That said, if I’m lucky enough to find myself an agent, I have a lot of writ­ing chal­lenges I would like to tack­le.  There are new gen­res I want to attempt, includ­ing urban fan­ta­sy, his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, and sci­ence fic­tion.  I also dream of one day writ­ing a whole series!  And there’s still a lot of com­pli­cat­ed sub­ject mat­ter I want to address, as well.  I have ideas for sto­ries about abuse, COVID-19, racism, anti-Semi­tism, war, homo­pho­bia, trans­pho­bia, child actors, and a whole host of fam­i­ly com­pli­ca­tions.  No mat­ter what, I will keep writ­ing.  I’ve already draft­ed two nov­els this year, and I haven’t even made it to Nation­al Nov­el Writ­ing Month yet!

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