DEAR EDUCATORS: Now Seeking School Visits for Fall, Spring 2016

 

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DEAR EDUCATORS,

An important and rewarding aspect of my career in children’s books is when I  get out from behind my desk to visit schools. I very much enjoy meeting teachers and speaking with students, sharing my love of books. It’s also an important source of revenue for me as a writer. In truth, school visits allow me to keep doing what I love — writing books for young readers.

795.Sch_Jigsaw_jones_0.tifAfter answering a series of individual emails on this topic over the past decade or so, I finally decided to get around to providing a general description of a typical visit. Hopefully it will help to answer questions in advance and give you some idea if I’m the right guy for your school.

I am relaxed and experienced speaking with students at any grade level, though, of course, the content of those talks varies according to age level. I’ve written a range of books that are appropriate for kindergarten up to middle school, and many of them available in paperback at affordable prices.

Typically, I’ll do three 45-50 minutes presentations during a full-day visit. In addition, schools sometimes like to set up lunches with a small group of students, and I’ve always enjoyed that. I am also very happy to sign books. It is understood that the sponsoring organization will handle all book sales.

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For the best results, I’ve found that it makes a huge difference when students are familiar with my work and have thought about questions in advance. Like just about everything else in life, what you get out of it is in direct proportion to the energy that’s put into it. If the school leaders are excited and enthusiastic, that energy transfers to the students –- and we all have a terrific, rewarding experience.

CourageTestFrontCvrI don’t juggle, blow bubbles, or stand on my head. I’m an author talking about what I do for a living, reading a bit, answering questions, all (hopefully) in an authentic and entertaining fashion.

Fees are available upon request. I do try to be flexible to the specific needs of each individual school. For schools that require serious travel, it works best for me if 2-5 days worth of visits can be arranged with different schools in your district. Sponsors should plan on paying for travel expenses, which can be shared with other area schools. I can’t tell you how often I am asked to visit a school in, say, Montana. For one day. And sadly, that just never works; there has to be more of a coherent, cohesive plan to get me from here to you, way out there. That said, I’ve been to SC, FLA, CT, MA, NJ, PA, IL, MI, OH, OK, NY, and more. But my real dream is a week in San Francisco. So come on, folks, let’s make that happen!

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Please Note, A Word About “Scary Tales” Series

61ZJfCfXgSL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_July, 2013, saw the launch of a new series of books for me, called SCARY TALES. I am very proud of these books, and I’m confident the books will reach even reluctant readers. They are best for grades 3-5, but these things are hard to pin down. As a visiting author, I fully recognize and respect that distinction between, say, a parent-purchased book in a store compared to a guest author in a school, where children do not have choice. Therefore, in a grade 2-3 presentation, I will talk about the series in terms of using the imagination, asking “what if?” questions, story-building and characterization. I do not dwell on anything particularly scary. At the same time, I will likely read a carefully-selected passage that gives readers a sense of the, um, literate creepiness of the books. I’m trying to say, I can work with you on this, not looking to scare young readers. I’m looking to inspire and motivate them. October makes for an especially fun time of year to highlight these stories (there are six in the series in all).

Middle Schools, Bystander, Anti-Bullying

The popularity of the book, Bystander, opened up new worlds to me, specifically middle schools. In many schools around the country, Bystander has been widely read and shared, sometimes with an entire grade or school, cover_final_bystander_lo-203x300featured in a “One Book, One School” context. The idea is that it can serve as a positive, educational springboard for conversations and activities about the dynamics of bullying, and the various roles we all play in those situations. But I stress: it’s a story, a work of fiction, and I have been a published writer of children’s books since 1986. (You remember ’86, don’t you?) So while I am thrilled and honored to speak to large and small groups about this book, and the issues within it, I am not an anti-bullying presenter. I don’t offer ten easy steps for bully-proofing your school. I don’t climb on the soapbox. I love to visit middle schools, I am fascinated and inspired by this age group (today, 2012, I share my home with a 6th-grader and an 8th-grader), and I care about this issue very deeply. But I approach it as a writer, if that makes sense.

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NEW BOOKS

The Courage Test comes out in September, for grades 4-7. For more information on that book, a work of fiction which closely connects to the history of the Lewis and Clark Trail, this is a good place to start. 

TheFall-1The Fall, which serves as a strong companion to Bystander, will be available in paperback this September.

If you wish, please feel free to write to me and we can chat about it in more detail.

For more on a James Preller-styled school visit, plus some advice of running a successful author visit, you should click here. Really, that will tell you all you need to know. But if you really dig research, go to the “School Visits” icon on the right sidebar, under “Categories,” and click madly, deeply.

Here’s one particular post you might find instructive.

So, there it is in a clamshell. I look forward to hearing from you!

Thanks!

 

A Thought for Back to School

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I came across this quote in my recent reading, jotted it down so I’d remember it, and this morning searched out a meme to share with my Nation of Readers.

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SLJ Calls THE COURAGE TEST “A Middle Grade Winner!” See Full Review & Minor Correction.

 

More good news for my upcoming book, now just one measly month away from hitting the shelves. The Courage Test has already earned a starred review from Booklist and been named a 2016 Junior Library Guild Selection. Below, please find the full review from School Library Journal. While I am grateful for any positive attention, and impressed with the amount of information this reviewer conveys in a difficult, condensed format, I should clarify two points:

1) Will and his father live in Minneapolis and travel in a long, dull drive to Fort Mandan, North Dakota, where they pick up the old Lewis & Clark Trail. From that point on, they loosely follow the trail all the way to Seaside, Oregon.

Sacagawea on the trail with her son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, nicknamed Pompy.

Sacagawea on the trail with her son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, nicknamed Pompy.

2) The character of Maria Rosa is 15 and pregnant, not coincidentally in the same condition as that of Sacagawea when the explorers first encountered her in Fort Mandan. Sacagawea grew up with the Shoshones and had been kidnapped by the Hidatsa tribe at around age ten. A few years later she was sold to a fur trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau. It is not clear in The Courage Test that Maria is exactly a “runaway,” but it is strongly intimated that she came into the United States illegally from Mexico, seeking a new life. The title of Chapter Three is “An Illegal Girl,” for example.

 

THE COURAGE TEST 

Author: James Preller 

Publisher: Feiwel and Friends
Pages: 224
Price (Hardcover): $16.99
Publication Date: September 2016 
ISBN (Hardcover): 9781250093912

 
Gr 4-7–William Meriwether Miller—named after Lewis and Clark—is not happy about embarking on a wilderness adventure with the father who walked out on him and his mother. It’s not what he had in mind for his summer (he’s missing the chance to play on the All-Stars baseball team), but his mother insists. So he and his father, a history professor working on a book about the famous explorers, set off from Minnesota to North Dakota, driving, camping, rafting, and hiking along the Lewis and Clark Trail. As they work together to overcome obstacles and help a pregnant 15-year-old runaway, Will slowly gains a better understanding of his father. When he finally learns the reason behind the trip—his mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer and is starting treatment—he comes to appreciate his family as they are and not as he wishes they could be. The lively narrative is interspersed with Will’s entries for a school writing assignment, which contain lots of facts about the original journey, as well as postcards to his mother. Despite the emotional heft, there is plenty of action, including white-water rafting and a close encounter with a bear. VERDICT A middle grade winner to hand to fans of history, adventure, and family drama.–Laurie Slagenwhite Walters, Brighton District Library, Brighton, MI <<

Thinking about Fear, Featuring a Very Short Excerpt from “Scary Tales”

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It’s a classic “horror” setup: the kid alone in bed in a dark room. Common to all. We’ve felt it, we remember that zipper of fear along our spines, that feeling of something else — something other — also in our childhood rooms.

Innocence meets experience.

Or was it just the strange pleasure of jarring ourselves to full wakefulness? A feeling we craved because, weirdly, we liked it? We sought it, that roller coaster of the mind. And so we invented it?

Writing the “Scary Tales” series (grades 2-5) I’ve had been able to try my hand at some of those moments — writing comfortably within the tradition, as well as attempting to conjure new chills of my own.

Here’s a paragraph from Swamp Monster, the 6th and last book in the series.

Darkness filled the room. It felt like a presence, a living thing that came to spend the night, watching in a corner, waiting. Lance breathed in the dark. It filled his lungs, entered his stomach. He closed his eyes and the darkness waited. He opened them and it seemed to smile. The invisible night’s sharp teeth. Lance breathed out. He disliked the long nights when the sounds of Dismal Swamp played like an eerie orchestra in the air. Frogs croaking, bugs buzzing . . . and the sudden, startled cry of a rodent killed by some winged creature in the night.

Be sure to read them all, folks. A strong addition to any classroom library, illustrated by the great Iacopo Bruno.

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Fan Mail Wednesday #232: Bears In Backyards

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I received this note from Ethan, who likes my style. But before I get to that, I should note that 98% of my fan mail comes during the school year, and many arrive with the aroma of “assignment.” That’s not a bad thing, mind you, just reality. In today’s case, this is a letter I received in late July, along with a stamped and self-addressed envelope (love that!). I can’t help but sense a  parent’s helping hand making this all possible.

“Would you like to write to the author?”

I don’t know where I’m going with that observation. Except to say that behind every enthusiastic reader, there’s usually a loving adult helping to cultivate & nurture that experience. Thank you for that, and for this:

 

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I replied:

 

Dear Ethan,

Thank you for your letter. I am pleased to learn that you like my style. Yes, style points!

You know, it seems like every Spring there’s an incident in Upstate, New York (where we both live), when a bear wanders out of the woods and into a town, or near stores, or into someone’s backyard. It’s a worrying thing, because bears are big, strong,  wild animals. Often, animal control has to get involved for everyone’s safety. I read articles like this in the newspaper every year.

I wondered why this happens, so I found an animal expert. He told me that bears are “territorial,” they like to have their own area –- a territory is like the property of your house –- and that sometimes a big male bear will make a smaller male go find his own territory. They don’t like to share. So the young male goes looking for somewhere to live, and sometimes he gets confused, make a few wrong turns, and ends up at Crossgates Shopping Mall. Yikes! What’s a bear doing at Banana Republic? The poor bear is lost. Bears don’t want to hurt people –- bears are usually shy; they don’t look for trouble -– but bears can be dangerous. It’s a sad and scary situation for everybody.

Writers often start with “what if?” questions. And that’s how I began The Case of the Bear Scare. I’m so glad you read it. Thank you.

This is a rough sketch for an illustration in my upcoming Jigsaw Jones book, THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE, illustrated by my pal R.W. Alley. The character depicted here is Joey Pignattano on a stake-out.

This is a rough sketch for an illustration in my upcoming Jigsaw Jones book, THE CASE FROM OUTER SPACE, illustrated by my pal R.W. Alley. The character depicted here is Joey Pignattano on a stake-out.

I just finished a new Jigsaw Jones book titled The Case from Outer Space. It will be out in the summer of 2017 and it’s pretty funny. I hope you check it out. My newest book is called The Courage Test (grades 4-7) and comes out in September. And guess what? There’s a mama bear in it, and a boy hiking in the woods of Idaho . . .

Stay cool and have a great summer!

Your friend,

James Preller

Booklist Gives Starred Review to THE COURAGE TEST!

 

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I am thrilled to share the terrific news that the good folks at Booklist, particularly long-time reviewer John Peters, just gave The Courage Test a killer review — and a great big star. Note: I will backtrack to provide a link as soon as one becomes available. In the meantime, you’re just going to have to trust me. I am not making this up.

A great review is a fine thing, of course. But outside of what it means to me as an author (validation! affirmation!), or for my book (massive sales! yachts! librarians! ice cream sundaes!), it’s simply an impressive writing feat, a true literary skill. In limited space, Peters concisely, cogently manages to articulate so much of the book’s content. No easy task. A tip of the hat to Mister Peters. I’m really glad you liked the book.

 

 THE COURAGE TEST 

Author: James Preller 

Publisher: Feiwel and Friends
Pages: 224
Price (Hardcover): $16.99
Publication Date: September 2016 
ISBN (Hardcover): 9781250093912

Preller stirs doses of American history into a first-rate road trip that does traditional double-duty as plot device and coming-of-age metaphor. Will is initially baffled and furious at being abruptly forced to accompany his divorced father, a history professor, on a long journey retracing much of the trail of Lewis and Clark. The trip soon becomes an adventure, though, because as the wonders of the great outdoors work their old magic on Will’s disposition, his father and a Nez Perce friend (who turns out to be a Brooklyn banker) fill him in on the Corps of Discovery’s encounters with nature and native peoples. Also, along with helping a young runaway find a new home, Will survives a meeting with a bear and a spill into dangerous rapids—tests of courage that will help him weather the bad news that awaits him at home. Despite the many plot threads, the story never seems overstuffed or weighed down by agendas. Leading a cast of appealing characters Will and his father are both vulnerable sorts who share a damaged, uneasy bond that firms up with realistic slowness and occasional backsliding. Additionally, not only does the author slip cogent historical facts and insights into his simply told narrative without disturbing its flow, he offers more detail, plus sources of information, in an afterword. 

— John Peters

 

First Official Review of THE COURAGE TEST, from The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

Things just got real.

The first review is in for The Courage Test, and the word is good.

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Money quote:

“Preller traverses both domestic drama and adventure story with equally sure footing, delivering the thrills of a whitewater rafting accident and a mama bear encounter, and shifting effortlessly to the revelation of Mom’s illness and the now urgent rapprochement between Dad and Will. Whatever young explorers look for on their literary road trips, they’ll find it here. — Elizabeth Bush, The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.

You can click here to read the review in its entirety.

A photo from a few years back, rafting the rapids on the Hudson River, guided by my dauntless nephew, Dan Rice. In that boat, that's Lisa's with mouth agape, and I'm in the back right. Also in the boat, my three kids: Nick (behind Lisa), Gavin (front), and Maggie, smiling. Good times.

A photo from a few years back, rafting the rapids on the Hudson River, guided by my dauntless nephew & river guide, Dan Rice. In the boat, that’s Lisa with mouth agape, and I’m in the back right. Also in the boat, my three kids: Nick (behind Lisa), Gavin (front), and Maggie, smiling. Good times.

Thank you, Elizabeth Bush, whoever you are!

In other news, The Courage Test was recently named as a Junior Library Guild Selection. I consider that a high honor, and very good tidings. Bystander was my last book to each that acclaim.

Ask for The Courage Test in your local independent book store. Publishing date: September 13, 2016.

Write Your Elsewhere

On May 31, 1805, Meriwether Lewis wrote: "As we passed on it seemed as if those seens of visionary inchantment would never have an end." In my book THE COURAGE TEST, I needed my characters to travel through that same place.

On May 31, 1805, Meriwether Lewis wrote: “As we passed on it seemed as if those seens of visionary inchantment would never have an end.” In my book THE COURAGE TEST, I needed my characters to travel through that same place.

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Write your elsewhere.

That’s a great phrase, isn’t it? I wish I could take credit for it, but it was written by Colum McCann, one of the great writers of our time. I love his work.

McCann issued that phrase in a brief blog post titled “Don’t Write What You Know,”  words that had me nodding my head in emphatic agreement. It felt like a post that I could have written, though not nearly as well, for I’ve shared those same thoughts. The way I’ve often put it in the past was: Write what you don’t know. That is, the inverse of the time-tested trope: Write what you know (which is also good advice — sometimes!).

Here’s McCann:

Don’t write about what you know, write towards what you want to know. Step out of your skin. Adventure in the elsewhere. This opens up the world. Go to another place. Investigate what lies beyond your curtains, beyond the wall, beyond the street corner, beyond your town, beyond your country even. A young writer is an explorer. She knows she wants to get somewhere, but she doesn’t even know if the somewhere even exists yet. It is there to be created. In the process of creating it we find out how varied and complex we are. The world is so much more than one story. Don’t sit around thinking about yourself. That’s boring. Don’t be boring, please please please don’t be boring! In the end your navel contains only lint. The only true way to expand your world is to think about others. We find in others the ongoing of ourselves. There is one simple word for this: empathy. Don’t let them fool you. Empathy is violent. Empathy is tough. Empathy can rip you open. But once you go there you can be changed. The cynics are the sentimental ones. They live in a cloud of their limited nostalgia. Leave them be. Step into an otherness instead. Believe that your story is bigger than yourself. In the end we only write what we know, but if we write towards what we don’t know we will find out what we knew but weren’t yet aware of. Rage on. Write your elsewhere.

As writers, people who are basically just wanderers with words in white space, it’s important not to be limited in our imaginings. Sure, it’s fine to tell young writers, “Hey, you’ve been to Cape Cod? You can write about that!” or, say, “You play soccer? Great, center a story around a soccer game!” But it’s not necessary that we end there, limited to only the things we’ve experienced. To write only what we know. For what is writing, if not some bold new experience? Or some new exciting way of knowing?

Step into an otherness instead. 

Believe that your story is bigger than yourself.

CourageTestFrontCvrIn my upcoming middle-grade book, The Courage Test (September, 2016), a father and son travel from Minneapolis, MN, to Seaside, OR, linking their trip to the trail originally followed by the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. However, I had a problem. I hadn’t been to most of those places, and I didn’t have the time or the budget to engage in that kind of direct research. Fortunately in today’s world there are incredible resources available to the (resourceful!) writer.

You don’t have to write what you know, as long as you make the effort to find out. To learn. To explore. To discover.

McCann again:

Adventure in your elsewhere.

A young writer is an explorer.

To site one example from my book, I knew that I wanted to get my characters on the water. Because, of course, that’s predominantly how Lewis & Clark traveled, and, hey, water. Ever since reading Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Homer’s “Odyssey,” I’ve been wise to the metaphoric possibilities of water: the passage of time, the collective unconscious, our watery beginnings in amniotic fluid, and so on. Water in literature is always a good thing. So after poking around in books and websites, looking at photos and blogs, I decided they would travel on the Missouri River from Fort Benton to Judith’s Landing, backtracking east with the current.

To that end, I ordered a Boaters’ Guide to the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. The 64-page booklet was perfect for my intentions, rich in detail, and covered the exact passage that my fictional characters would travel. I imagined, appropriately, that they would possess a copy of their own. The booklet came with great maps and information about landmarks and hikes — places where my characters would walk, visit, see, and feel.

Young Will and Ollie made this hike in my book.

Young Will and Ollie made this hike in my book.

 

From The Courage Test, page 85:

That night, we camp where the Corps of Discovery camped more than two hundred years ago. Meriwether Lewis and his men. Under the same starry skies, staring into the same fire, beside the same chalky cliffs.

I want to tell my father about the bald eagle Ollie and I saw. And the pronghorn. And about the hard, dangerous hike to the top of the Hole in the Wall trail. How it looked so tiny from the river, but was twice my size when we finally got up to it after some dicey scrambling. How Ollie had pointed out ponderosa pines and cottonwoods. Instead, I ate and yawned and climbed into my sleeping bag. Dog tired. My heart confused.

This is the spot where Ollie, Will, and his father camped.

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That’s one message I sometimes share with young writers when I visit schools. A faint echo of McCann. Write what you know, surely. But don’t feel constrained by that. Break those chains. Travel that blank white space, pen in hand. Dare to write what you don’t know.

A young writer is an explorer.

Go, seek, find out.

And by all means, yes, bring back news of your adventures.

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #231: These Kids Can’t Spell, But They Sure Can Communicate

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Just wanted to share four terrific thank-you notes that I received after a school visit. I find that select teachers do that immediately after an author visit: they go back to the room, talk about what happened, and everybody writes. Sounds perfect to me. The debriefing is a valuable part of any new experience. What just happened? What did we learn? What did we like?

I love the artwork and the invented spellings. However, these comments do tend to make my visits sound something less than deeply pedagogical. All I can say, in my defense, is that it’s funny what makes an impression. Despite all my “valuable content,” most young readers respond best to the small details that make an author seem like an actual human being. And, of course, we remember the things that make us laugh.

"I liked the part when you said the diaper on the monkeys. It was funny."

“I liked the part when you said the diaper on the monkeys. It was funny.”

Comment: Um, does this need explanation? As in: Why is a visiting author talking about monkey diapers with our students? I guess you had to be there. But in this case, I gave an example of how a writer works. I needed to write a scene in a pet store, so I took my writer’s journal and visited a pet store. I looked around. I took notes. I found a cage of monkeys that were all wearing diapers. So I put it in the book, Jigsaw Jones: The Case of Hermie the Missing Hamster. The word diaper always gets an easy laugh.

"I liked the pat when you said drive me bananas. I liked every part."

“I liked the pat when you said drive me bananas. I liked every part.”

Comment: Those bananas look suspiciously like giant pieces of macaroni to me. But how about that last line? So sweet. “Evre part.”

"I liked when you said that our grandma was wearing a dead animal on your grandma."

“I liked when you said that our grandma was wearing a dead animal on your grandma.”

Comment: Well, Dean, that wasn’t exactly what I said. But, yes, it’s true. My grandmother wore a mink stole fur wrap. It both fascinated and terrified me.

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Comment: The artwork in this one, by Lauren, is just insanely amazing. And again, yes,  this is true: early in talks, I sometimes joke to the little ones that if they call out and raise their hands while I’m trying to talk, that it will drive me bananas and I might jump out the window. Together we agree that wouldn’t be a great way to conclude an author visit — with a trip to the hospital. I ask to save their questions for the end. And then they ask me probing questions like, “I have a dog named Daisy, too.”

SNEAK PREVIEW: Three Rough Sketches from the Upcoming Jigsaw Jones Book!

The book centers around a note found in a book at a Little Free Library.  I love those libraries -- they are sprinkled all over my town -- and I'm glad to spotlight the idea in my book.

The book centers around a note found in a book at a Little Free Library. I love those libraries — they are sprinkled all over my town — and I’m glad to spotlight the idea in my book.

 

Fans of Jigsaw Jones know that it has been some time since there’s been a new book in the series. Even worse, the old books have been slowly going out of print. All of that is changing in a big way, come the summer of 2017. Four previous titles will be re-released by Macmillan, plus a new book — the 41st overall! — will be published. (Click here to read a short sample from that manuscript.)

The process has been a pure pleasure for me. I loved revisiting those characters and the classic “Jigsaw Jones” brand of humor and mystery. Writing this story, The Case from Outer Space, was a rare joy. And I hope that pleasure comes through in the story itself. It’s a happy book, intended to make readers smile.

Last week the book’s gifted illustrator, R.W. Alley, sent along 27 rough-sketch illustrations that will eventually appear in the book’s interior pages in refined form. I’ve received permission from my fabulous editor, Liz Szabla, to share with you a few of those rough, unfinished sketches. I think R.W. has done a masterful job, capturing the humor and essence of these characters. I’m feeling grateful all around — and excited, too. Jigsaw Jones is back on the case!

Jigsaw's brother Billy, reading on the couch, tells Jigsaw to answer the door. The door opens and the case begins.

Jigsaw’s brother Billy, reading on the couch, tells Jigsaw to answer the door. The door opens and the case begins.

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Joey eats, Jigsaw listens, and Danika explains the mysterious clue.

Joey eats, Jigsaw listens, and Danika explains the mysterious clue.

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