A Laureate for Kids

Every self-respecting kid in America has heard of Jon Scieszka, the funny author of "The Stinky Cheese Man," The Time Warp Trio series and "The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs!" (told from the wolf's point of view). Their parents will know him, too, now that the Children's Book Council, along with the Library of Congress's Center for the Book, have made him the nation's first children's laureate—officially called the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. During his two-year term, Scieszka, 53, will try to get kids more excited about reading. He'll also build on the success of his six-year-old Guys Read initiative, designed to get boys to love literature, too. Before he became a kid-lit hit, Scieszka taught elementary school. He also tested his tales on his students—and on his daughter, Casey, now 23, and his son, Jake, now 21. Next month he introduces his new toddler series, Trucktown. He spoke with NEWSWEEK's Karen Springen about his life and his goals in his new post.

NEWSWEEK: Especially now that you're the children's laureate, we need to make sure everyone gets your last name right. You tell people that it's the Polish word for "path" and that it rhymes with Fresca. Does that usually do the trick?
Jon Scieszka:
That's a good start, but people still butcher it.

As the first children's laureate, you're supposed to get kids excited about reading. Will you use humor?
Humor is essential. When I was teaching second grade, if they were going to get a laugh out of something, they'd read it. The Children's Book Council and the Library of Congress wanted to change our image of kids' books being staid and calm and sweet!

So they realized the appeal of humor?
We just have all kinds of great books out. It also came out of the books I've done with the Guys Read literacy initiative I started for boys—just to connect these kids who don't see themselves as readers with all the great stuff out there. I'm looking forward to promoting books across a broad range—action-adventure, graphic novels, online reading, which I think people are still a little leery about.

Who would you like to see be the next children's laureate after your two-year term ends?
I haven't even thought that far. I think somebody like Jack Gantos [best known for his books about Joey Pigza, a boy with ADHD], who I love, who's just a crazy, funny guy, or Katherine Paterson [best known for "Bridge to Terabithia"]. She can make everybody cry. Joke around with Scieszka and cry with Patterson.

Will you visit a lot of schools and libraries?
The two big events will be children's books week in May and the national book fair in Washington, D.C., in the fall. That will be the big hoopla, where I'll get my cape and scepter and crown.

What do you tell everyone who asks you how to become a successful kids' book writer?
I tell them don't even attempt to do what I did because it's just a weird story. Like grow up with five brothers and teach for 10 years, then get a master's in fiction writing from Columbia—which entitled me to paint apartments in New York. No, if you think you've got a story for kids, go read to kids that aren't your nephew or your niece, and you will know within three minutes whether you have a story. They'll either fall asleep or start throwing things at you or pick their nose—or be engaged.

How do you write funny?
I devour all kinds of funny reading and funny television and funny movies. I just like funny stuff. To write funny is very tough. It really just takes honing it. Which is why I'm glad I get to go out and try my stuff on kids.

Like a standup comedian?
Yeah. You can try things out with kids' books, and you should. That's where "Stinky" came from. I just read that stuff coast to coast. And same with "Cowboy and Octopus," which just came out. You read it to yourself—and then you take it out to an audience. And sometimes it's just a matter of one word that makes all the difference.

Your JSWorld.com site says you get 75 cents per hardcover and 15 cents per paperback. Is that true?
That's pretty close. I tell that to kids all the time. That's up there with, "Where do you get your ideas?" One kid asked, "Do you have a real job?"

Your site lists some true questions you've gotten. I like, "We had to write to our favorite author, but Roald Dahl is dead so I am writing to you." Do you write back to these kids, or would it take so much time that you could never finish another book?
I make sure to write back to kids. Having been a teacher, I know how much work they put into that. With my audience in particular, a lot of them just crazed boys, you know it took this guy an entire day of agony to write that. I feel it's my duty to at least send them back a postcard to say, "Got your letter. So glad Roald Dahl is dead."

As a kid, you enjoyed "Green Eggs and Ham," "The Carrot Seed" and "Go, Dog. Go." Are these your top recommendations (besides your own books) for getting kids interested in reading?
That's a nice mixture of some of the books that turned me on to reading, and also they're the kinds of things that still hold up that will connect with kids. There's some classic stuff that's still spectacular. And every year new great stuff comes out.

Tell us more about Trucktown, your new preschool series with characters who are all trucks. The first book goes on sale Jan. 8 and, in your words, "tells the heartwarming story of two trucks, best friends, who … smash and crash things." Sounds like a winner for little boys?
I just thought back to what I liked to read—trucks! My dad used to take [my five brothers and me] to construction sites, and we'd just stay there for hours. We were all cheap dates.

Your Web site lists your "output statistics," with how many books you've written that are rectangular (24), square (3), cheese related (1) and not yet published (49). Is that true? Can we look forward to at least 49 more books?
I would hope so!

What do you think of the Harry Potter books?
That entire series was just a spectacular phenomenon.

But J. K. Rowling can't be our children's laureate because she's British!
Exactly. I would have picked her otherwise! I'm not really a fantasy, sci-fi fan, but I love being able to recommend that. That's kind of what I tell parents and teachers. That may not be your favorite reading, but step outside yourself and think what would a 7-year-old girl love. Don't just say, "We're all going to read 'Kidnapped'," or "We're all going to read 'Little House on the Prairie'." I know you love "Little House on the Prairie," but don't try to make your 7-year-old son try to read that.

What's your goal as children's laureate, and what does it mean for you?
It's this whole combination of all the stuff I've been doing in the past. It gives this great legitimacy to humor. The guys I hang out with are like Mo Willems, who writes "Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus," or Gordon Korman [author of "No More Dead Dogs"]. We're always whining, "Nobody loves the funny books, we don't get the awards!" People buy a lot of them, but we don't get any prizes. Now I did!

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