Writing Worlds for the Next Generation
Jamie Potter '01
by Cathryn Larsen
Sometimes the bad stuff seems inescapable. News reports bombard us with climate change, gun violence, discrimination, political polarization, and foreign wars, giving rise to anxiety and, all too frequently, confrontation. Despite our best efforts to understand complex topics and maintain an even keel, the world can feel like a scary place.
Imagine navigating this reality on a daily basis not as your adult self, but as you were at 12 or 13. And imagine the weight of knowing that, as a member of the next generation, it will be up to you to try to make things right. Adolescence was always a challenging time, even before a 24-hour news cycle and the cacophony of social media. But being 12 or 13 today is a new and even more stressful experience.
Author and illustrator Jamie Potter ’01 has keyed into this truth, and his books offer young people some reassuring insights.
“I can’t really imagine what it’s like to be a preteen or teen in today’s world,” says Jamie. “It was hard enough in the happy ’90s.”
Jamie, who attended The Potomac School for seventh through ninth grades during those “happy ’90s,” thinks back on his own experience as a young teen and what he has brought with him from those times. He says, “I was a kid who fell in love with writing, music, and drawing all at the same time. And for better or worse, I’ve tried to do a little bit of all of those since then.” Jamie cites Potomac teachers Ida Cook, Cort Morgan, Dan Newman, and Connie Randall as inspirations and “life rafts during the choppy seas of adolescence.”
Now, writing as J.R. Potter, Jamie strives to be a life raft himself – weaving wonder and hope into stories for a young audience. With a brand he describes as “a cross between the spooky and the nerdy,” Jamie aims to capture the feeling of being a preteen or teenager in a turbulent world.
Some of his books, like the Thomas Creeper mystery series, are targeted to the middle grades crowd, while others, like the recently published RAGTAG: City of Ash and Fire, lean older, fitting into the young adult fiction category. In every case, Jamie’s stories highlight bright, adventurous young underdogs who, faced with personal and societal challenges, use their intellect and spirit of ingenuity to adapt, overcome, and thrive.
“I love an underdog because they have nothing to lose and everything to gain,” Jamie reflects. “Characters like Superman have never been relatable to me – the Kryptonite element is his only interesting trait.”
In writing underdogs, particularly his character Thomas Creeper, Jamie puts himself back into his middle school shoes. He says, “With Thomas, I thought about all the times that I was on the outside or the fringe growing up, which I think is a universal feeling. I wanted a character in a strange and tough situation – a kid growing up in a miserable town where the sun only comes out twice a year and everyone is undernourished. His father is the town undertaker, and his peers call him ‘Corpse Boy.’ His home life is even darker – his brother has died in mysterious circumstances, his father is a demanding workaholic with a short temper, his loving mother is trying to keep the family afloat but is compromised by grief.”
Jamie continues, “I thought if in the midst of all that, this young person can find a way for his empathy and intelligence to guide him to do something that the grown-ups in his environment are too broken or jaded to be able to do, that’s the story I want to tell.”
The Thomas Creeper series includes two titles so far: Thomas Creeper and the Gloomsbury Secret and its sequel, Thomas Creeper and the Purple Corpse. In both stories, Thomas navigates his aptly named hometown of Gloomsbury, which turns out to be more interesting than it might seem on the surface. Challenged by ghostly apparitions, mysterious ciphers to crack, and odd quasi-human creatures from the nearby sea, Thomas unveils the secrets of his hometown and battles fearsome powers, armed only with his clever and creative spirit. Jamie’s original illustrations help bring Thomas’s world to vivid life.
His latest book, RAGTAG: City of Ash and Fire, is a story with similar themes, crafted for a slightly older audience. Published this September, it quickly became a top seller in Amazon’s New Releases: Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy category. RAGTAG – subtitled “a cyberpunk fairy tale” – is set in a post-apocalyptic America, in a colony known as the NSRA (the New Satellite Republic of America). It tells the story of Jezebel Winters, a privileged teen who is forced to seek protection in unknown and frightening parts of her city after a political coup and the murder of her parents. Searching for “her people,” Jezebel finds the Ragtag Whirly Girlies – a group of teen girls living underground who specialize in hacking, DIY engineering, and other rather surprising skills. Among their innovations are jet packs that enable them to fly through the city and evade capture.
Jamie reflects, “I think the thing I loved about being young was the fearlessness of trying new things. When you’re young, you dive in headlong; you may break your arm or get your heart ripped in two, but that fearlessness prompts you to take the risk. And it seems to me that now is a good time to validate that – to remind kids that there is strength in their fearlessness and that courage and creativity can help them overcome challenges. Jezebel has to try new things in order to survive, and young people in the real world today are going to have to try new things to create change.”
Jamie began working on RAGTAG back in 2009 but other pursuits soon took precedence. He spent the next decade writing the early readers’ book series Cowbots, developing the Thomas Creeper novels, and performing and recording music with his wife, Amy, as the duo Crooked Angels. But a couple of years ago, Jamie dove back into RAGTAG at what seemed the perfect time. He says, “We’re into some scary dystopian stuff now – pandemics, climate change, book-banning. It seemed like the right time to revisit this story.”
He reflects, “In all my writing, I try very hard to hearken back to the freedom and creative space I felt as a child. I look back on those times, trying to preserve something for myself and offer it to others as well – a vital sense of possibility, a world that feels fun, imaginative, and freeing, all of which is desperately needed in a time that too often feels the opposite of those things.”
Jamie adds, “At the end of the day, I’m writing for young people in a world where adults have the agency and believe that they have the answers yet have clearly failed to solve some big and very troubling problems. So the burden really is on this next generation, and they will need all the fearlessness, creativity, and resilience they can muster to confront these challenges. While young people might not yet have the experience and knowledge that adults purport to have, I do think they have an innate courage and a desire to be innovative – what you might call a DIY spirit. That’s what you see in the young people in my books, and I hope it’s an empowering message for today’s kids.”
In the bleak yet layered worlds Jamie has created, his protagonists take on responsibility amid the drama unfolding around them. While young people in the real world are unlikely to encounter the fantastical elements that confront some of Jamie’s characters, the situations they face can be equally scary and perplexing. Still, Jamie maintains, the world is a wonderful place, replete with possibility. And he hopes that young people will recognize and remember this, despite the drama, conflict, and noise assailing them on a daily basis.
He says, “I think we all have a responsibility to curate, and be custodians of, wonder. Nobody owns it; it’s our job to pass this sense of wonder on, to share what we love and marvel at, and be open to what others love and marvel at, too. I read a story once about a poet who, as a child, would go on walks with his father to look for birds. During their walks, the father would tell the boy to keep his eyes open because his eyes were fresher and clearer than his father’s, so the son might see something remarkable first. I think that’s such a beautiful, important sentiment, especially as we navigate this world of adult agency. Maybe young people’s eyes are clearer, fresher – maybe they will see something wonderful that we cannot.”
Excerpt from Thomas Creeper and the Purple Corpse
– eerie encounters –
There were only two other riders on the Gloomsbury-Hampswich crosstown bus that afternoon – only two living riders, that is.
To add to Thomas’s extensive list of woes – he was the son and heir to a small town funeral business run by his rigid and cantankerous father, Elijah Creeper the Fifth; he was painfully tall, a lanky lurch-a-saurus who kids around town called “Creepy Thomas” when they were feeling nice – Thomas could also see the dead everywhere he went. Ever since solving the mystery of his great aunt Silvie’s death earlier that summer, ghosts seemed to come out of the woodwork to accost Thomas who they considered a “Fixer,” a solver of mysteries unresolved at the time of a person’s death, or worse... their murder.
The only problem, as the ghost of his great aunt Silvie explained, was that in order to fix a ghost’s unresolved case, Thomas needed to possess their “Artifact of Unlocking.” An Artifact could be the missing revolver thrown into the ocean after their murder, or the loose nails from a faulty roof beam that shut off their lights forever.
Once an Artifact was recovered, a displeased ghost could then talk and indicate what the Fixer needed to do to help them find peace in the afterlife. But not possessing any of these items at present, Thomas was accompanied daily by ghosts who couldn’t speak, but leered back at him with yawning mouths and writhing, apoplectic fingers. They knew neither day or night and respected no boundaries of privacy. A headless ghost dressed in a pinstripe suit had even slid under the stalls at the public restroom at Town Beach to seek out Thomas’s services.
Thankfully, Thomas counted only two ghosts on the bus that afternoon: a child with sandy-blonde hair and half her face rotted away; and a soldier in faded blue military fatigues with sunken eyes who tried to get Thomas’s attention, but every time he waved, he clutched his hand back to his neck, blood squirting out between his gloved fingers. It was horror outside or inside the bus, however Thomas looked – dumb advertisements for a life he would never have, or miserable reminders of the life he could not possibly extricate himself from without becoming a ghost himself...
Excerpt from RAGTAG: City of Ash and Fire
– poised on the precipice –
My life has been a parade of facts. The fact that I am small and bony. The fact that my ears are too small, my chin too weak, my skin as pale as a seagull’s belly.
Not to mention the darker, scarier data.
The fact that the life expectancy of an illegal teen like me in the New Satellite Republic of America hovers in the single digits – the low single digits.
Facts. They hover and swarm all around me, invisible yet heavy with consequence. They chicken-wire my dreams and harass my hopes whenever I think of a life beyond the walls of this city that was once called Boston.
But I don’t listen to facts.
If I did, I probably wouldn’t find myself standing on the edge of this charred skyscraper, staring down at seven hundred feet of gray-green sky, swirling with fresh smog and old fallout from the ’47 Drops. And if I believed in the god of facts, in all his safe projections and figures, I’d never attempt what I’m about to do.
“Just suck in your fear and jump, Jezebel! You can do this!”
Laura, the one we call Wolf Mother, stands behind my trembling shoulders. She’s our Speaker, our leader in the all-girl gang called the Ragtag Whirly Girlies that takes its name from a poster of trapeze artists discovered in the ruins of the old Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Laura’s also my sponsor for recruitment. If I pass all of today’s tests, I’ll be embraced as a full member in the gang, a fellow Sister.
If I die, I’ll be just another waste of the gang’s time and resources...