Author Interview: Jon Sciezska
by Mary Brigid Barrett
“Someday I might write for adults, but I think kids are the greatest audience for a writer. No one can believe a story or love one as much as a kid does.” – Jon Scieszka
Jon Scieszka, literacy advocate and literary heir to Dr. Seuss, was born in Flint, Michigan on September 8, 1954. He shares the same birthday as Peter Sellers and the Virgin Mary, the astrological implications of which are mind-boggling. His dad, an elementary school principal and his mom, a registered nurse, were parents to six boys. Jon was the second oldest, and he claims, the nicest.
Jon attended a military academy and later studied pre-med at Albion College, but ended up majoring in writing. He was accepted into John Hopkins Medical School, but, instead, got an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University. He has worked as a lifeguard, a carpenter, and an apartment painter. And he taught elementary school, grades one through eight, for ten years. He reads everything: myths, legends, comic books, graphic novels, history, poems, novels, science books, picture books, short stories, newspapers, funny bits, codes, hieroglyphics, encyclopedias, dictionaries, subway ads, sides of cereal boxes, matchbook covers, mattress tags, and any little scraps of paper with writing on them. He is a lifelong afficionado of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Dr. Seuss, and MAD magazine. All of which have provided him with robust training for his ultimate career choice: writing books for kids.
Jon gets his ideas from other books, his two kids Jake and Casey, kids he’s taught, kids he’s learned from, watching movies, playing with his cat, talking to his wife Jeri, staring out the window, and “about a million other places.” Jon says what turns his ideas into stories and books is sitting down and writing and re-writing, and throwing away writing, and writing some more. “I write books because I love to make kids laugh,” he explains.
NCBLA President Mary Brigid Barrett interviewed Jon Scieszka.
Jon, boys are crazy about your books. Do you consciously write with a guy audience in mind?
I think my writing comes out of mix of growing up as a guy with five brothers (no sisters) and teaching elementary school for ten years. I don’t consciously write for guys. It just kind of comes out the way it does. But I am conscious of trying to reach every kid in a class. I want those kids dozing in the back row to hear my stories and sit up and say, “What was that? What happens next?”
What were you like as a kid? Did you read a lot? What kind of books did you read?
I was definitely a reader as a kid. Early on, I found things I liked to read because my mom and dad read me books like Green Eggs and Ham, Go Dog Go, Caps for Sale, Mike Mulligan . . . We had to read Dick and Jane readers in school, and I thought those were just bizarre.
The first book my husband bought with his own money was The Greatest Heroes of the NFL. What was the first book you bought with your own money?
The first things I bought on my own were comic books. I bought Fantastic Four comics, Spiderman, Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, and Mad Magazine.
You taught elementary school for years. Did you see a difference between boys’ and girls’ reading abilities and habits?
That’s part of what led me to start my literacy program for boys, Guys Read. The most obvious difference between boys and girls was in the different kinds of stories they liked to read. And not many of the boy’s preferences –– non-fiction, humor, action –– were included in required reading.
My son reads a lot and reads everything, fiction and nonfiction. My husband reads mainly non-fiction. He reads a few books a year, but devours magazines and newspapers, and reads a great deal online. Because he does not read loads of books he considered himself a nonreader. He thinks my son is the reader in the family. Do you think that is a fair assessment? Do guys read more nonfiction than fiction? Should we make generalizations?
I think a lot of guys, boys and men, prefer to read nonfiction over fiction. But we shouldn’t call these guys non–readers. We should expand our notion, especially in school, of what is “legitimate” reading.
Do you think the differences in guy and girl reading are nurture or nature differences?
That’s a very complex question. And I think part of the problem is that we haven’t done enough hard research on what makes the differences. I suspect that it’s a combination of nature and nurture. Biologically speaking, boys are slower to develop than girls. That puts them at a disadvantage learning to read in early elementary. But then our society also tells boys that it’s not masculine to express and discuss feelings. . .the heart of most literary fiction. The fact that 75% of elementary school teachers and librarians are women has to have some influence on what boys think about reading.
So, what is Guys Read, is it an organization, an initiative, a slogan? And why did you start it?
Guys Read is a literacy program for boys. It’s a call for people to become aware that boys are having trouble reading and to look into this problem. The heart of the program is the idea that maybe we can motivate boys to read by giving them books and other texts they will want to read.
Where can kids and adults find out more about Guys Read?
Guys Read is at GuysRead.com. The first website that’s up now is a good place to learn about what’s going on and get tips on what boys like to read. And this summer, the new website is going to be up with a recommendation feature that runs on Amazon software. You tell the Guys Read guy what author or book or kind of book you like –– the website will tell you what other books guys liked that are similar to your favorite.
What can parents and teachers do right now, to get guys reading? What can dads do?
1. Expand your idea of what reading is. Include nonfiction, humor, magazines, graphic novels
2. Ask your boys what they like to read.
3. Let your guys make a Guys Read bookshelf.
4. Men must get involved as real role models. We have to show that guys reading is important, not just tell them.
Do you have any new books coming out? I hear there is a TV program based on your Time Warp Trio series. Is it on the air?
I’ve put together an anthology of seventy-five writers and illustrators who guys really like. It’s called GUYS WRITE for GUYS READ. And all kinds of great writers have written about what being a guy was like for them. Illustrators have found drawings they did as boys and drawn new versions of the same. Lemony Snicket, Gary Paulsen, Avi, Jack Gantos, Eoin Colfer, Walter Dean Myers, Dav Pilkey, Chris Van Allsburg, Stephen King, Matt Groening, writers from Sports Illustrated and Esquire magazines, and a whole mess of other guys have contributed. Lane Smith and I also have a new book, Science Verse. It picks up where Math Curse ended. A kid in school has everything turn into a science poem. I took old favorite poems and rhymes and songs, and turned them into poems like:
Glory glory evolution,
Darwin found us a solution.
Your mama is that shape,
And your knuckles always scrape,
‘Cause Grandpa was an ape.
Lane and I had the greatest time putting this together. We also recorded a CD of all of the poems which is included in the back of each book. And yes, the Time Warp Trio TV show is going to premiere on July 2nd, Saturday morning on NBC. A companion website, which will have activities for teachers based on each show, will be up at DiscoveryKids.com by the first of July. And Seen Art? –– a book Lane and I did with MoMA came out May 5th.
Summer is just around the corner. Can you recommend a great read for boys in middle grades for fun summer reading?
Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider Adventure, Eagle Strike, is great and about a British spy kid. The Cirque du Freak series by Darren Shan has gotten a lot of recommendations. And so has Eoin Colfer’s three Artemis Fowl books. Any of those should be entertaining.
Some of our favorite Jon Scieszka books are:
Squids Will Be Squids
The True Story of the Three Little Pigs!
The Stinky Cheese Man
The Frog Prince Continued
The Book That Jack Wrote
Baloney (Harry P.)
And his Time Warp Trio books are loved by all readers, especially boys:
It’s All Greek to Me
The Good, the Bad, and the Goofy
Your Mother was a Neanderthal
Knights of the Kitchen Table
The Not-So-Jolly Roger
Summer Reading is Killing Me!
See You Later, Gladiator
Hey Kid, Want To Buy a Bridge?
Viking It and Liking It
Learn more about Jon Scieszka on his website: JSWorldwide.com
© 2015 The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance