If you don’t have one of Jon Scieszka’s books on your kid’s shelf, get thee to your local bookstore now. His stories are smart, subversive and filled with the kind of irreverent subjects that kids love.
Our favorite, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, tells the well-known story from the wolf’s perspective. (What happened? He was set up by the man. Uh, or, by the pig.) His The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales earned its place as a Caldecott Honor book by skewering classic fairy tales. (The ugly duckling grows up to be . . . an ugly duck!)
In January, the Library of Congress named Scieszka the first National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, a role he accepts with equal measure of gravitas and goofiness. He heads a group called Guys Read, which tries to encourage literacy for boys. And you can happily lose twenty minutes surfing his website, which has something called “Ask Beef Snak Stick!” that . . . well . . . you just have to see it for yourself.
Babble caught up with Scieszka (rhymes with “Fresca”) on tour for Trucktown, a series of books about trucks that act like preschoolers. He talked about what it was like growing up as one of five brothers, the origins of the Stinky Cheese Man and why children’s authors should aim higher than the fart joke. – Jennifer V. Hughes
So are there any perks that come with the position of Ambassador for Children’s Literature? Diplomat parking in NYC? I’m envisioning maybe a military-style uniform with gold epaulettes.
Everyone loves to speculate on what comes with that. I keep asking the Library of Congress guy for my helicopter. I’m hoping to get a cape soon. Diplomatic immunity would definitely be good.
How did you come up with the idea for The True Story of The Three Little Pigs?
I think it came from growing up with five brothers – we always blamed someone else when anything happened. It also came out of teaching second grade for a few years and those little guys, that’s just what they loved. It’s about messing around with a fairy tale they know so well. I actually get a ton of mail from kids who write a fairy tale and then they mess it up.
Really? Like what?
I had one little guy write me a version of “The Princess and the Pea” written by the pea. It was very short: “Oh. It’s dark. I can’t see anything.” (Laughs.) I thought it was brilliant in a really twisted way.
Why do so few kids want to read for fun?
Part of it is that there are so many things competing for their attention. The other piece is that we’ve made reading just a school activity, and particularly with the boys and kids who are not good readers, that just turns them off. That was like my son; he just thought reading was an assignment. He actually thought that every book comes with a bunch of questions and an essay you have to write at the end, and that just killed it for him.
The other thing I’ve been telling adults is that they need to expand their notion of “what is reading?” We’re so focused on literature and novels that we miss some stuff that kids are naturally interested in. Non-fiction or graphic novels are not seen as “reading” at school, and you don’t get credit for it if you read every shark book or every volcano book.
Are we just romanticizing our childhoods? Did we really while away our time reading Nancy Drew books curled up with an afghan?
But that’s a good thing to remember – that’s why we want to connect kids to reading. I remember trading Hardy Boys books or reading the new Mad magazine, and that opened up a whole crazy world. My mom read us Go Dog Go!, and I thought “Man! This is so much more fun than Dick and Jane.” If I had not found those books, I don’t know if I would have been a reader.
Wow – it is so funny you just mentioned Go Dog Go!. I read that book to my kid so many times that I really really started to hate it. What book did you get sick of reading to your kids? “We got turned down by so many publishers who thought it was too sophisticated. I knew that kids would get the jokes.”
Mine was The Gingerbread Man – that story was my daughter’s favorite and she wanted it a million times. That’s what became The Stinky Cheese Man. I decided I couldn’t read it anymore and I had to find a way to change the story.
Your website is insane. I like the flow chart about where you get your ideas: a certain percentage from “loud music,” another from “Schenectady.”
It’s for everyone, the same way Stinky Cheese was for everyone. We got turned down by so many publishers who thought it was too sophisticated. I knew that kids would get the jokes. It’s so much better to shoot high and not go for the lowest common denominator. It’s easy to make the fart joke. I try to steer kids to books that will expand their sense of humor.
What’s your latest project, Trucktown, about?
The first book is called Smash! Crash!, and [the two trucks] Jack and Dan just rip around Truck Town, smashing and crashing. They get chased by a big shadow and they don’t know what it is. They help their friends by playing. That’s the heart of the book: play around and you’ll learn stuff.
You’ve been in The New York Times for this ambassador thing – is that totally crazy?
It’s really kind of spooky. Six months ago, I was just Jon Scieszka saying these things and now I’m a [adopts fancy, authoritative voice] National Ambassador saying it. It’s a great opportunity to use that kind of clout to get people to pay attention. Plus, I get to hear about what kind of stuff an ambassador should have. One little kid said I should get a million dollars. I said he should be on my staff.