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Jon Scieszka, A Seriously Funny 'Knucklehead'

by Tom Vitale
Nov 29, 2008 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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Children's author Jon Scieszka has written two dozen children's books, including The Stinky Cheese Man and the Time Warp Trio series, but his most recent work is a memoir. Knucklehead, an autobiography for young readers, details Scieszka's experiences growing up in Flint, Mich., where he was the second-oldest of six brothers.

In one chapter, Scieszka writes about his own experience as a young reader encountering the "strange alien family" of Dick and Jane and wondering why the characters repeated each other's names so frequently.

"If Jane didn't see the dog, Dick would say, 'Look Jane, look. There is the dog next to Sally, Jane,' " Scieszka says. "I thought they were afraid they might forget each other's names, because they always said each other's names — a lot."

'Oh Man, Here's My Audience'

Dick And Jane never made Scieszka want to read, but Dr. Seuss's The Cat In The Hat and the funny parodies in Mad Magazine did. Later, when Scieszka was a graduate student at Columbia University, he began writing his own fiction. His heroes were Borges, Cervantes and Kafka — writers who played with language and new ways to tell stories.

After he got his degree, Scieszka brought his post-modern sensibility to a Manhattan elementary school, where he was teaching. He remembers telling the second-grade class about Kafka's Metamorphosis.

"[I said] 'What if a guy woke up one day and he was a bug? Wouldn't that be weird?' and they loved that," Scieszka says. "And I think that was the trigger that made me think ... oh man, here's my audience. They're just a lot shorter than I ever thought they might be."

Scieszka started to write funny, twisted stories just like the ones he used to write in graduate school — this time with kids in mind. His first book, published in 1989 with illustrator Lane Smith, was The True Story Of The Three Little Pigs, told from the point of view of Al, the wolf who laments his "big bad" reputation. ("Hey, it's not my fault wolves eat cute little animals like bunnies, and sheep and pigs," Al says. "That's just the way we are. If cheeseburgers were cute, folks would probably think you were big and bad, too.")

'You Just Want To Keep Reading'

Three years later, Scieszka's next book, a collection of contorted fairy tales called The Stinky Cheese Man, became a bestseller. He has since sold nearly 9 million books. Leonard Marcus, author of Minders Of Make-Believe, a history of children's literature, calls Scieszka "one of the funniest writers to come along for children."

"He has a way of reaching children by making them feel that they're part of the joke," Marcus says. "It was really refreshing for a lot of kids to feel that someone was making books for them. ... There's something wonderful about that for a child."

Sandra DiRe, a fifth-grade teacher at the Glen Head school in suburban Long Island, uses The True Story Of The Three Little Pigs to talk with her students about point of view and the nature of truth. She says the book is good for teaching because she's interested in it, and the children can relate to it.

Ten-year-old Carly Rovner agrees: "All [Scieszka's] books kind of connect, because all his characters are either running away from something or running to find something," she says. "But it's interesting along the way. ... You just want to keep reading."

'Painless Inoculation'

As the Library of Congress' first national ambassador to children's literature, Scieszka is on a mission to connect kids with books they like. He says the key to getting kids to read is not to force-feed them literature, but to let them read what they want — be it comic books, magazines or graphic novels — and eventually they'll move on to some great writing and great reading.

After the success of his twisted fairy tales, Scieszka wrote funny books that made math, science and history accessible. His Time Warp Trio series, which was adapted for children's television, is about three kids who travel through time. Scieszka says the initial idea for the series was to write something kids would want to read — then he realized he could infuse the books with history lessons.

"I thought, what a cool thing — just, like, have them go anywhere in history. And I can just plug this great historical knowledge, and use that, and kids don't even know it," he says. "It's kind of like a painless inoculation."

Scieszka says he's flabbergasted by his success, and feels lucky to get up every day and make up wild stories for kids.

"If the day gets really bad, I can always pull out fan mail," he says with a laugh. "Who else gets mail where kids write to you and say, 'Dear Mr. Scieszka, We were supposed to write to our favorite author, but Roald Dahl is dead. So I'm writing to you.' "

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