Thursday, September 21, 2006

It Feels Like the First Time

From James

Foreigner. That’s who sang the song with the title of today’s blog—the song that you are now unable to get out of your head, thanks to me. Sorry.

So now that we’ve put that behind us, let’s talk books.

When my first novel was released in 1994, I got some advice from a wise older (I said older, not old) lawyer-turned-author by the name of Paul Levine. His words were something to the effect that I should enjoy every minute of it, “There will never be another first book.”

For the next ten novels, I’d have to say he was right. Sure, I still get a thrill when I walk into a bookstore and see my newest novel on the shelf. Any writer who doesn’t feel that thrill should probably stop writing. But it has never quite been like that first book.

Until now.

Last Friday I launched my fist young adult novel, Leapholes. Over 200 people turned up at Books & Books in Coral Gables for the event. Every chair was taken, people were standing in the aisles, more were sitting outside in the courtyard and listening only to the audio. Kids crowded onto the floor in front of me. My own children were there, too, still young enough to think that their dad is cool. This was better than my first book.

“Daddy, was Rosa Parks a real person?”

My daughter Kaylee asked me that question in February 2003, after learning about the civil rights movement in the first grade. I told her that she was real; that her arrest in 1955 started a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama led by Martin Luther King, Jr.; and that the battle eventually ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Can we go there?” she asked.
“The Supreme Court?”
“Where then?”
“Nineteen fifty-five,” she said.

She was making a joke, and I laughed. But then I thought to myself: Why not? I liked making up bedtime stories for my kids, and I’d even written poems for them. Every time the Grippando family visited a bookstore, Kaylee and her little brother Ryan would hunt down one of my novels for adults and ask if they could buy it. I would explain that I had plenty of free copies at home, but they wouldn’t be reading them until they were in high school. Seeing their disappointment made me want to write a book that I could share with them as children. I also liked the idea of helping them understand what I did as a trial lawyer. So I was immediately taken with this idea of traveling back in time and meeting people like Rosa Parks who were involved in famous legal cases.

Harry Potter Meets John Grisham—Cool!

So I came up with the story of a boy named Ryan (my son's name is Ryan), a boy who hates middle school and who is in a lot of troube--trouble with the law. The one person who can help Ryan is a mysterious old lawyer named Hezekiah. Hezekiah may have magical powers, or he may have the most elaborate computerized law library ever conceived. Either way, together, Ryan and Hezekiah do their legal research by zooming through “leapholes,” physically entering the law books, and coming face-to-face with actual people from some of our nation’s most famous cases—like Rosa Parks—who will help Ryan defend himself in court.

So, that was the concept—a work of fiction that incorporated real cases. The hard part was trying to figure out what cases to put into the story.

"Hey, was that my Grandma you just threw overboard?"

On April 19, 1841, the American ship William Brown hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic while en route from Liverpool to Philadelphia. It was loaded with Irish emigrants. Roughly half the passengers went down with the ship, and the rest piled into two lifeboats. The boat commanded by the first mate was so badly overloaded that it began to sink. In the face of crashing waves and a driving rainstorm, the first mate in utter desperation ordered his crew to lighten the load. Twelve men and two women were thrown overboard and drowned at sea.

When the survivors finally reached land, one of the crewmen who had thrown passengers overboard faced criminal charges. It was undisputed that the lifeboat would have sunk and all would have perished if it had remained in its overloaded state. However, the American judge who decided the prisoner’s fate wrote that the passengers should have cast lots to determine who should live and who should die. This opinion sparked sharp debate among jurists and legal scholars. Some believed that casting lots was fair, almost an appeal to God. Others believed that casting lots was effectively "playing God," a practice that dehumanized all of us.

What do you think?

Sounds like heady stuff for middle schoolers, but it’s all in the story telling. And in writing Leapholes, I adhered to Rule #1: keep it fun. But I also kept it accurate. The case of The William Brown, for example, is reported at United States v. Holmes (1842).

Legal Evil

A large part of the book is set where Legal Evil lives. This is where Ryan must go after his friend Hezekiah gets trapped in an old law book without a return leaphole. I figured that Legal Evil should live in the worst decision the Supreme Court has ever decided. I won't spoil the mystery by telling you which case that is, but I can tell you that it's in the same general neighborhood as Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). Dred Scott was a slave whose owner took him into Illinois (a free state) and Wisconsin (a free territory) for twelve years. When his owner took him back to Missouri and said you're still my slave, Dred basically said, "Ain't happenin' dude." He sued his owner saying that he was free, because his owner had taken him into free territory.

The Supreme Court sided with the slave owner. The cool thing about this case (at least for Leapholes) is that the Justice who wrote that opinion--Chief Justice Roger Taney--was the PERFECT candidate for legal evil personified--my villian. If I were not a computer idiot, I'd show you his picture. Google him. Does he look happy to you?

The ABA--and I don't mean the American Booksellers Association

One other cool thing about Leapholes is that it is the first novel for young adults ever published by the American Bar Association. The ABA is doing a wonderful job sharing the book with schools across the country. And teaming up with the ABA has allowed me do things I couldn’t possibly do with another publisher.

Take the Afterword, for example. We asked some famous lawyers and lawyer/authors to tell middle school kids in their own words why they became a lawyer. The submissions were incredible, and we were able to put together an allstar line up that includes former U.S. Attorneys General Richard Thornburgh and Benjamin Civiletti; U.S. Senator Mel Martinez; famous trial lawyers Roy Black, David Boies, and Willie Gary; lawyer/authors David Baldacci, Linda Fairstein, Jeremiah Healy, Phillip Margolin, and Lisa Scottoline; Judge Phyllis Kravitch (longest-sitting female federal judge in America); Lance Liebman (Director of the prestigious American Law Institute), Jamie Gorelick (former 9/11 Commisioner and Deputy U.S. Attorney General); Judge Marilyn Milian (the “People’s Court” judge) and two NFL Hall of Fame Footballs players who are also lawyers, Nick Buoniconti and Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan C. Page. In appreciation of their contributions I’m donating a portion of the profits from Leapholes to charity to promote children’s literacy.

So check it out. Have fun. Be a kid again.


  1. Hey, James:
    Leapholes sounds like a lot of fun. :-) I enjoy reading YA novels and I'll put your book on my list to get.
    About your kids, in the bookstore, wanting to buy one of your books: well, let's say that it might be more about the hushed joy of 'wow, I can buy something my dad created, right here in this bookstore - just like other people can all over the world' than actually reading one of your books, James. (At least right now) You feel the fluttery feel of publishing for the first time -whether it be adult fiction, or young adult fiction - but your kids have that exquisite shivery joy of working out that their dad is a mover and shaker in the much bigger world, and that what you've created can be reached out and touched by people they don't know all over the world. That's kind of a mind boggling experience: wonderful and kind of scary all at the same time.
    Sounds like you have great kids, James. And they still think you're cool... :-D

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  3. Leapholes sounds like a great read--and I love your daughter's idea of travel!

  4. James,
    Usually novelists write what Graham Greene called, somewhat self-disparangly, "entertainments." You've written a novel that is both educational and entertaining. (It would also make a terrific series on PBS).

    What a great way to teach legal history. Raising this question. Why not use novelistic techniques to teach history in the school systems? Wouldn't the students find class more interesting?

    Not that this should be taken too far. When my son attended a supposedly high-class private school (just a little west of you on Kendall Drive), he studied the Roman Empire in history class. I asked him what book they were reading. "We're not," he said. "We're watching a movie."

    So, I figure it's something from the History Channel, one of those well-done dramatizations of real events. Nope.

    It's "Cleopatra" starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

    Now, as for your worst Supreme Court cases. I'd agree Dred Scott has to be at the top of the list. Plessy vs. Ferguson (upholding state mandated segregation 30 years after the Civil War) has to be mentioned. So does Korematsu, permitting the federal government to place American citizens of Japanese descent in concentration camps. Bush vs. Gore is an obvious contender for the worst of all time, and...

    Finally, the PAC-10 officials' blown call on the on-side kick in last week's Oklahoma-Oregon game belongs in its own Hall of Shame.

  5. It's amazing how many grown ups (like Marianne) read YA fiction. Many get hooked (as I did) when they start reading what their kids are reading so that they can talk about it over dinner. . . . And in case anyone is wondering the deleted comment was from J.K. Rowling. Her praise was just too embarassing to publicize. :-)

  6. Leapholes sounds like a real winner. I see a movie deal in your future.

  7. James,
    I started reading YA fiction when I was a kid! I just didn't feel I had to stop. Besides, I still have some favourites from back then and a later ones as satellites to my childrens picture book collection. I tend towards futurist and post appocolyptic, ghost and anything to do with WW1 in the YA area. A couple of faves are 'The Forgotten Door' by Alexander Keyes, 'The Missing Persons League' by Frank Bonham, "Waiting for the End of the World' by Lee Harding (incredible imagery), and a couple by Penelope Lively, and 'The Dark is Rising' sequence by Susan Cooper. Too many to list, really. :-D

  8. This sounds like such an awesome idea. I always wondered about the difference between YA and Adult fiction, and the authors usual choice of sticking to just on genre. By stepping over the boundary, you've expanded your audience, and most like found more fans!
    Good luck in this new venture.

  9. I'll certainly check out your new book. The premise sounds very cool. I have a fellow writer with a young lad in her household that will love the story.

    Congrats for making the leap to YA.

  10. Congrats, James......I seem to remember a series back in the late 80s----a Saturday morning kids show, which had the same "vehicle." The main character, a young boy, would leap, ala Quantum Leap, into various "issues in time." At the end of the show he would urge the viewers to go to their local library if they wanted to learn more about _____ [whatever the event was in that episode].

    The whole notion has always fascinated me........when I was young there was a similar setup in the show Time Tunnel. One of the problems with the notion of time travel, is how that phenomena, of injecting someone from the present into the past, would affect the making of history.

    I'm eager to check out your book because it sounds not only informative and entertaining, but thought provoking, too.......and I don't think we can every get too much of provoking the youth to read and THINK!

    While your book may not be the same rush as that virginal adventure of yesteryear, I trust the rush of how well this book is received, will really FEEL like the first time..........
    OH MY, now I can't get that Foreigner's song out of my mind !!!!

  11. I just ordered Leapholes and I am anxiously awaiting its arrival!! I am taking Paralegal classes and my instructor recommended this book and told us about the adult series. So, I am anxious and excited to read Leapholes and I have ordered one for my son and for my daughter....they are excited as well. We decided that three of us would read Leapholes together and ask questions and look up any of the cases the kids would have questions about. Talk about a great way to get kids involved in history and this will be a great way to teach them how to look up cases!! Thank you so much for using your creativity!! So, does this mean there is more to come as far as a kids series????