By Sonja Bolle
August 24, 2008
"Crazy," according to him, is where kids' minds will go when you let them.
The author of many distinctive children's books beloved for their subversive humor -- the best known is "The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales" -- the 53-year-old former schoolteacher was the perfect choice for the first ambassador. Besides the fact that he's infectiously funny, he already was an ambassador of sorts, having demonstrated his commitment to a larger promotion of reading than the average author on tour by starting up Guys Read, a nonprofit literacy program aimed at males of all ages.
Scieszka (pronounced "Sheska") took up the scepter in January. "The fun thing about this position is that there never was an ambassador before. I get to make it up as I go along. At one of my first appearances, David Shannon [author of "No, David!" and many other books], who was with me, taught a roomful of kindergartners to do the ambassador's salaam. There's nothing like 300 kids bowing and waving and going 'Salaaahhhm!' I try to make the adults salaam, too, but that's harder."
The main idea of the ambassadorship, he explains, "is to connect in a way we don't always [manage] as children's book authors and illustrators. We tend to stay in our own self-imposed ghetto. We talk to each other, but that's preaching to the choir. We have to get out there to the mass audience."
He's been trying to find more creative -- crazier -- ways to reach readers. This summer, he headlined a Guys Read Extravaganza at a Minnesota Twins baseball game.
"The Hennepin County Library has been a big supporter of Guys Read," he said. "They took the template and ran with it. That's what I had hoped would happen with Guys Read. They knew the county commissioners and the owners of the Twins were community-minded, so they set up this event. We gave away 'Time Warp Trio' books [a series Scieszka wrote with frequent illustrator Lane Smith] donated by Penguin to the first 5,000 kids who came in the gates. I was set up at a table and signed books during the first innings. Kids would come up and ask me: 'Hey, aren't you the "Stinky Cheese" guy?' They weren't baseball books, but the message was: Here's a guy who's a fan of baseball and books. You can be both."
As one of six brothers, Scieszka has a particular interest in boys' relationships to books.
"We were all crazy boys, but there was a whole range of readers," he said. "I was always a good reader, and I saw what that could do for you. I went to Catholic school through the 9th or 10th grade. The teachers' attitudes were always, 'Oh, that wouldn't be Jon getting in trouble in the back of the room, he's such a good reader!' So it would be my friend Tim who always got whacked. It's helpful to be the reader, I learned.
"Then I was an elementary schoolteacher for 10 years, and I saw firsthand that boys had a harder time getting into reading. I also have a son and daughter of my own. It was almost stereotypical -- my daughter [Casey, now 24] was crazy about reading, and my son [Jake, now 22 and a student at NYU] . . . not so crazy."
One of the widest planks in Scieszka's ambassadorial platform is to broaden adults' ideas of what reading is, and he observes how much more weight his tips seem to carry coming from Ambassador Scieszka than from Author Scieszka. "My first tip is to include not just fiction in your idea of reading. Include graphic novels, include "Calvin and Hobbes." Third- and fourth-grade boys devour those -- and they're really sophisticated, but parents will say, 'Oh, that's not really reading.' "
Scieszka calls this a "William Bennett position": "If they're not reading Greek myth, don't let them do it at all."
But Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series, Scieszka says, "Is Greek myth," or at least a way into it. "I first saw fairy tales in 'The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show,' and they sounded kind of familiar. Then I read the fairy tales. Then I wrote my own books [in which he often, in a smart-alecky way, fractures traditional stories] and messed them all up for everyone. Now that's got a happy ending!!" he says, cheerfully anarchic.
Scieszka considers the debate about what qualifies as "real reading" a red herring. Online reading is certainly reading, he asserts, and it's foolish to ignore new media, as it is the new frontier in publishing: "Everyone's kind of chasing it, but no one knows what it's going to look like yet." His own "Trucktown" series for beginning readers has a website with interactive games, which he hopes will develop into a social site on the order of Webkinz. He is curious to see how Scholastic's forthcoming multimedia project, "The 39 Clues," will fare, and he has his own project in the works ("Spaceheadz," scheduled for 2009), in which kids will have a say in the development of a story through reading blogs, examining pictures and offering feedback.
"It may seem like heresy," says the ambassador, "for the children's literature ambassador to say reading is not the be-all and end-all. But kids could be watching great TV, designing their own video games, or making their own animation." It's all good brain work, he believes.
The point he wants to underline, though, is that "reading can do things that those other media can't. Reading is important, it gets at the heart of how people think. It's the basis of democracy to have informed citizens who don't fall for some quick slogan or easy phrase." For example, he asks rhetorically, "What really is offshore drilling?"
The greatest development in children's publishing in recent years, he says, is the wide variety of books being written for all ages. "I've been thrilled and excited about how much great writing there is for kids: Y.A. fiction, fantasy and sci-fi, vampire books, graphic novels -- they're all just taking off."
There is, however, a darker trend occurring at just the same time, Scieszka warns. "There's this thing happening with testing in every school that's just killing kids' -- and teachers' -- interest in reading. When I was teaching, we could follow a passion. If I wanted to read 'The Phantom Tollbooth,' we'd do it. We didn't have to be in lock-step with Week 23 of The Curriculum. I've seen the results of letting kids pursue what they love. It's much better than giving rules; if kids are inspired, they can do crazy things."
So it will be "a delicate moment" when the ambassador comes face to face in September with First Lady Laura Bush to receive a medal at the National Book Festival, the celebration of reading that Mrs. Bush started in the capital eight years ago. "This administration had taken us down the tubes" as far as reading is concerned, Scieszka says.
Perhaps killing No Child Left Behind is too big a job for a single diplomat, but there are crises that only an ambassador can avert. Mo Willems is working on his third Knuffle Bunny book, in which Trixie's beloved rabbit will be lost in transit at an airport, and he needed a photograph of the security gates. (His trademark style in the Knuffle Bunny books combines photographs with illustration.) Readers can imagine how that request sent airport security into fits.
"Everyone at the New York airports laughed at him," says Scieszka. "Then he thought: 'I know who can help me!' So he came to me: 'You're the ambassador, you've got a title longer than your arm, can't you do something?' I called the Library of Congress people, they called Homeland Security, and finally someone said, 'Sure, we can do that.' They turned out to be the nicest people.
"They did the shoot at Newark airport last week [in early August], and Mo got his picture. So the next time you have to take off your shoes, watch, rings and everything at the airport, you can thank them for striking a blow for children's books."
Also striking a blow is Cheerios, which is sponsoring the ambassador position to the tune of $25,000 per year. "The Children's Book Council is a trade organization," Scieszka observes, "which means it depends on funding from publishers. It's not a crazy money-making organization, so it's cool that Cheerios made the offer."
This is not the cereal company's first foray into literacy efforts; it has run the Spoonful of Stories program for some years, in which it gives away miniature books in boxes of cereal. Scieszka praises the company for doing it the right way: "They went out of the way to get all kinds of books."
Scieszka has lofty plans for the collaboration with Cheerios: "I want to get my face on a cereal box. So far I've just gotten a cup and a T-shirt, but I'm working my way up." Actually, there are quite a lot of additional honors Scieszka feels the ambassador should be accorded. "I keep asking John Cole [director of the Center for the Book] for a helicopter. I think kids would be impressed if I touched down in an Apache attack helicopter, and of course we would have to blow something up on our way out. Now that would get boys reading! At least I should get a little flag for my car."
Meanwhile, Scieszka is having a big publishing year himself, with several books coming out. In " Walt Disney's Alice in Wonderland" (Disney Book Group, September), he has retold the Lewis Carroll story to accompany art done by Mary Blair in designing the look of the 1951 film. "Melvin Might?" is the next book in his "Trucktown" series of picture books for early readers that launched in January; it's coming from Simon & Schuster in October. Also in October, Penguin is publishing his autobiography, "Knuckleheads."
"I've had great reaction from kids," Scieszka says. "There's a chapter in it called 'Crossing Swords,' about all of us brothers going to the bathroom at once. I was visiting a school with about 300 third-graders, and it was one of the things I was reading to them. By the third day a teacher came to me and quietly asked if perhaps I could skip that story: There were complaints from the custodian about the mess in the bathroom. That's the power of the written word -- it can cause havoc!" Scieszka cries with relish. "But I've got diplomatic immunity."
Sonja Bolle's Wordplay column appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.
To see Jon Scieszka's reading lists for guys of all ages, go to www.guysread.com.
To see the website and online games for Jon Scieszka's "Trucktown" for beginning readers, go to www.trucktown.com.
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