A weekend interview with ...
... Jon Scieszka, an award winning children's author (The Stinky Cheese Man and other Fairly Stupid Tales, The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs!) who has been appointed first National Ambassador of Young People's Literature by the Library of Congress. Scieszka spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about keeping kids reading.
How do we get kids to keep reading when there is no assignment?
That's actually the best opportunity, because I think a bit of the problem now is that kids aren't getting to read for entertainment. They have to read just for school and they think of it just as an assignment. So summer is actually kind of the best time where they can pick a much wider range of reading. And that's like a fun thing to do. Because then kids get to pick from things like graphic novels, comic books, wordless books, picture books, humor books, comic strips, science fiction. Non-fiction is a great one, too.
About all those different kinds. I've been noticing that some of them have been filtering in to schools more and more, like graphic novels and comic books. How do we call that reading? I remember that being a distraction when I was growing up.
That's actually a very interesting thing that's been happening in the business in say the last five years or so, starting with more sophisticated picture books, even, which led the way for kids reading visually. So they're actually reading the artwork, which is quite a skill these days, considering how much design is out there in the world. And now the stuff that is out there available in comic book form, or what is called graphic novel form now, which is a great mixture or words and pictures, is just really spectacular.
I wonder about comprehension on those types of books. Because I've seen kids go to tests, for instance, if the story includes a picture and the picture doesn't show what the story is telling, they get the questions wrong because they're looking at the picture and they see one thing that the story doesn't necessarily say.
Yeah. Well, actually, that's probably a problem with the test, which I think we should address more and like fix the test. Because the kids are smart and they're actually answering the questions for what's being shown. So I would be a fan of just saying fix the test, not the kids.
I know a lot of people are very familiar with your work, and a lot of it is funny. It's okay to be funny and to enjoy the reading?
Oh, yeah. In fact, that's another area in the expanded notion of reading, to include humor. Because that's a thing that is not often included in the school curriculum. And I understand, having been a teacher myself for 10 years, that not everyone has the same sense of humor. I think that's why funny books don't often get chosen for awards or chosen for everyone to read. Because people just don't agree on what's funny. But, man, that's one of the all-time great things to get kids to want to read. Now that's a great reason to read, if you're going to get a laugh out of it.
I've seen your books on a lot of reading lists for schools. Do you have ones you write specifically for that kind of audience? Or do you just write whatever sort of strikes your fancy?
No, I definitely write just to fit the form of whatever I am. Because I love fairy tales. That's what got me starting to write stuff like The True Story or The Stinky Cheese Man. Because I just got such a kick out of that stuff. That's more like, it just sort of happens.
Once you get to the point of saying, Okay, we have these books, and they are funny or they are interesting or they have cool art, then how do you get the kids to the next step of saying, You should be reading these things as opposed to all the other things you can be doing? Or, at least, included in all the other things you can be doing?
That's a really great distinction, actually, just that last word you said. Because that's another important tip that I tell parents and teachers, not to demonize other technologies. Like, to let kids understand that they can get story telling in all those different forms, like it's okay that they can do all of those things. They can read a book. They can watch TV. They can watch a movie. They can play on the computer. And you get stories from all those places in a different way. And reading gives you stories in a way unlike anything else.
So I think we made a mistake in the past when we told kids that all TV is bad. Because that's not true. And not all reading is better than all TV. And look at all that is possible on the computer now. So I think we need to show kids what books can do. Because books can do really particular things that you might not be able to get on a screen. So I think it's nice to charge kids with that responsibility, to be their own independent readers and learners.
Do you think the idea of writing their own books, or trying to do what you do, would be a way to get them further interested? Say, set them down with crayons?
Yeah. In fact, I think that's a great thing that I love to see kids do on their own. In that way that's not an assignment, and that's another thing during the summer that kids can do. I get artwork and stories from all kinds of kids who use my books as kind of a model for where to start. And I think that's thrilling, because no one told them to do that. But they thought, 'Oh, this guy messes up fairy tales. I can do that, too. Let me try that.' Which is really wonderful. I think that's exactly what they should be doing.
Are there recommendations that you give someone that wants to get started, either on the writing or the reading side? Specific books to get them started, give them ideas?
That's kind of the challenge, too, in how to get kids really interested in reading, matching the kid's interest with that book or that text. Because say a kid is interested in sharks. You can find some great shark books out there. ... But then if a kid is not interested in sharks, you have to find that angle, like if it's funny books, you have to find humorous books. Or Calvin and Hobbes, which is some really sophisticated comic strip art. It's a great place for kids to start. Because they'll take that challenge and say, 'Oh, yeah. I can draw three pictures in a row and make it funny. I'll try to do it just like them.'
What about for little kids who are just starting to read, 4 or 5 years old, they're not quite at that level yet. Are there any suggestions you have for them on things they can do?
Yeah. Same things. In fact, that's what motivated me to get into this new series of books I'm working on called Trucktown, which is going to be 50 books over the next three years. And it's aimed to be books and computer and TV animation and toys that kind of incorporate all that story telling. And it really came out of my experience with Guys Read and trying to get kids interested in reading. So I just made all of the characters trucks. There's 14 different trucks. And they're all just personalities like 3- and 4-year-olds. I based them on kids I worked with here in Brooklyn at a school near me.
Are they out this summer?
Yep. The first one is out already, called Smash! Crash! Which is a picture book. Then this June there's going to be another eight books, which is picture books, early readers. There's a bunch of good early reader books that are out now. That's what made me excited about it, too, is that these are books that very beginning readers can understand and start with. And then Mo Willems, the guy who wrote Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, he's got some good early readers called Elephant and Piggie, which are two best friends. They're very cool.