Wednesday, September 23, 2009

In the Attic with Jon Scieszka

Jon Scieszka, the author of kids' classics like The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, is also an advocate for literacy and started Guys Read to get boys reading. He has two new books out, Truckery Rhymes and Robot Zot! Scieszka will be appearing Saturday at the National Book Festival, and based on his reading last year (in which I, and many of the other adults in the audience, were in tears), you shouldn't miss it.

You’ve been to the National Book Festival in 2002 and 2008. What’s the experience like, and how is it different from other book events?

I’ve been a couple times. It’s spectacular. It’s really amazing to see how it’s grown. I was at the very first one, and there were just kind of seven or eight of us from the kids’ book world on stage, and last year there were 150,000 people, parents and kids. Everyone has something they’re interested in, and that’s the great thing about it. There are cookbook authors for cooking fans, mystery writers for mystery fans. It’s grown to be a beautiful, crazy thing.

Last year you read from Knucklehead. What will you be reading from this year?

This year I have two new books, one is Truckery Rhymes, for a younger audience and a picture book called Robot Zot! and [illustrator] Dave Shannon's going to be there two, so he and I are going to do some kind of presentation.

You taught elementary school for a while. Did you write while teaching? If not, how did you make the leap?

I taught for 10 years, which was great training and background for everything I do. I ended up teaching every grade from first to eighth and it gave me a new understanding of how kids’ brains worked, since they’re different from adults’.

Then I went and got a Master’s in fiction from Columbia and I was writing adult short stories, funny fiction, and I was getting published nowhere. It took me a couple years to put it together. I was teaching second grade at the time, and a light bulb went off — here are students, second graders are funny. I wrote The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, and took a year off to write kids’ books and get rejected.

What do you think about the way the country is going in terms of literacy? How can we encourage more people to read?

We’re on very shaky ground with literacy in general. But what’s even more frightening is the state of boys and reading. We’ve been testing kids for over 25 years now, at the national level every year, and we’re finding out that boys are doing worse than girls. We don’t do anything about it, but then just test them again next year. This mania for testing has adversely affected reading too… Boys in particular see reading as some kind of school thing.

There are a ton of good books out there, and if you can get a kid entranced by a book to start, they’ll read another book and another book. Non-fiction and humor are undervalued in schools, where I see adults taking away that book, saying ‘you can’t keep reading books about sharks and volcanoes.’ But I say, ‘maybe you can. Maybe you’re just a shark and volcano guy.’

What’s up next for you?

I’m working on a couple projects. One is to help kids understand media literacy. It’s called Space Headz, and it’s three about three aliens going to take over the world and they’re not too bright and end up taking over a fifth grade. One becomes a fifth grade boy, one becomes a fifth grade girl and one becomes the class hamster. There’s also going to be a web site, because the challenge is that Space Headz needs to sign up 3.14 million people to save the world, and it becomes an active experience. Fluffy the hamster is writing a blog, and you get the story from different parts and you have to decide what’s real and what’s not real.

I’m also working on an anthology called Guys Write for Guys Read, which will be a five volume set by genre. The first one is Guys Read humor, and will have a bunch of funny writers writing longer pieces. Ultimately we want to have kids who come to the library and say ‘I don’t have anything to read,’ and they can say, ‘check out our Guys Read library, there’s 12 funny stories in there, or 12 pieces of nonfiction.

Photo credit: Marty Umans

1 comment:

  1. Jon Scieszka's books are always favorites with my third-grade students. Already this year, my students are scrambling to read one of my 2 classroom copies of The Stinky Cheeseman and Other Fairly Stupid Tales!