Transcript from an interview with Jon Scieszka

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Jon Scieszka. The transcript is divided into the following clips:

Jon Scieszka

One of six brothers

Actually, I was one of the quieter guys in school, because I was young for my year. My birthday's in September, so I was of that younger age. I always hung out in the back and tried to be quiet and not get in too much trouble. Well, I guess going to Catholic school teaches you that, too. If you stand out too much, you get whacked. I made sure to tell my jokes secretly.

I had practice at home, because our dinner tables were raucous events where all the brothers would be around, you know, spilling milk, ripping chicken legs off the chicken. You have to find a way to survive at the dinner table. My older brother Jim, who became a lawyer, actually learned how to talk very fast.

My technique was to crack up the family, make everybody laugh, and while they were laughing, I could make a grab for some more chicken — which has served me well even today. To learn how to survive in that crazy mix of six guys really comes in handy.

But you know what? That's the thing, too. That's interesting that, having grown up with all boys in our family. I actually went to high school at Culver Military Academy, which was all guys, up until my senior year.

And then from there, when I went into elementary school teaching, it was like whiplash. I was in these all-guy worlds, and then suddenly I was in this all-female world. And I had no idea where I was. It was like people talking about feelings. They wanted to hear what other people had to say. You actually had to listen to other people. You couldn't just wrestle them. I think maybe that was probably the low point of my early career — trying to wrestle people in the faculty lounge.

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Mr. Scieszka's classroom

I'd be scared to think what kind of teacher kids thought I was. I think I was not a particularly in-control teacher, but maybe that's a good thing that I brought to the classroom as a guy, having lived with five brothers. A lot of stuff just didn't faze me — like an unbelievable noise level in my classroom, which I notice was a little different from some of the ladies' classes down the hall. Where Miss Alberti, who was in first grade, and everyone listened quietly.

I never could get them to do that thing where everyone sits in the circle and listens to each other. Mostly, I think because they saw through it, and they thought, "He doesn't do that. We don't have to do that."

But luckily I worked in a school where the headmaster was a great supporter of me, too. And one time, he said, "Scieszka, we have a hard time taking pictures of your class. We go in there and everyone's outta their seats, and you just see their butts up in the air."

I thought I was in trouble, and the next thing he said was, "You now, I like that, though. It means they're interested." And they were. There's pictures of the kids hunched over the table and they're looking at the science stuff we're doing, where they're checking out the meal worms, or they're playing with the math materials.

I always tried to really motivate kids by getting them excited about stuff — and even being a little mysterious about it, just saying, "I don't know. We got this stuff. We have to figure it out. It's up to you guys," and then lay something on them. And I always found that really piqued their interest better than lecturing them.

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Meeting Lane Smith

Yeah, that was a really funny, weird, quirky thing that I actually met up with Lane, because most authors never even work with their illustrator. But I happened to meet him through my wife and his wife worked together on magazines. I was trying to publish stories, and nobody was liking them. I met Lane. He was trying to get some books going. Everyone thought his artwork was too weird. But then we met up with each other and I showed Lane the story of the Three Little Pigs, and he read it, and he goes, "Wow! This is great."

He did the first painting of the wolf, and I just thought, "Oh! That's what he would look like. This will be perfect." So, we took that out and tried to sell it to people and got rejected all over the place again. Some people would say, "I like the paintings, but I don't like the story so much." Other people would look at the story and go, "I kinda like the story. The paintings are too dark." And "sophisticated" was a word they used a lot, in a bad way, to say "This s too sophisticated for kids. They won't understand."

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Smart little kids

I actually started writing, thinking more I would be writing for adults. I actually got a Masters in fiction writing from Columbia, which then led me to paint apartments in New York, because that's about all you can do with an M.F.A. in fiction writing.

But I was thinking adults would be a great audience until I started teaching second grade and just saw how smart these little guys were. But in different ways. I mean it's not like they're gonna explain something to you or write a position paper, but they just understand what's going on. I knew they would understand Three Little Pigs told by the wolf, or they would understand goofing around with fairytales. I think that's what informs all my writing. I always go back to just how smart those little kids are. I just know that at some deep level.

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Mary had a little parasite

I think I was lucky to have been a teacher for so long, for ten years, that it seeped into me. I don't consciously think about teaching a lesson, because that really seems to kill a book. Like if you've got too much of a moral or a message that you're trying to get across. I try to let it come out of the story, and then I hear after the fact, from a million teachers who have told me that they use Three Little Pigs to teach different points of view — which I think is spectacular. I didn't sit down, thinking, "Now, how would I teach different points of view? Let's have the wolf tell the story." Or, with Stinky, I realized how much fun that would be to mess up storytelling in as many ways as I possibly could.

I think that's why I really get along with Lane. That's his take on the world, too — "How could I make this funnier?", "How could I do this so the Stinky Cheese Man looks like the funniest thing you've ever seen?"

Now that we've been working together for so long, I like to set challenges for him, too, "How would you illustrate a character that's a beef snack stick?" which he did in Squids Will Be Squids. Or, in the science stuff, the Science Verse, I've got one verse that's, "Mary had a little worm. She thought it was a chigger, but everything that Mary ate only made it bigger. It came with her to school one day and gave the kids a fright — especially when the teacher said, 'Now, that's a parasite.'" I just wondered, "Alright. So, how's Lane gonna illustrate a little kid with a parasite?" He's got Mary with little curls and he just kinda did this nice cutaway of her stomach with a kind of a cute, little worm. But I had no idea what he was gonna do. I was kind of amazed that he got outta that, though.

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Reading motivation

I think I learned from teaching, it was a more effective way to motivate kids by getting them interested rather than lecturing them. My approach with books was not to say, "Reading is wonderful," or, "Reading is magic," or even kinda lecture them where we say, "You know, you have to read if you wanna be a real citizen," because that — I don't know that just doesn't make sense to kids at that young age. It makes so much more sense if you read the first chapter of a cliffhanger and just leave it hanging there, and they say, "What happens next?" You go, "I don't know. You have to read it," and then just leave the book there.

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Guys Read

Guys Read is a literacy program for boys that I started about three years ago just to specifically address the problem of how boys are having trouble reading. A big piece of the effort — the literacy effort — was just to say, "Let's check this out." We know boys are having trouble reading. Parents know it. Teachers know it. We've been testing kids for 25 years and finding that boys are doing worse than girls as a group, but nobody's done anything about it. And it's so frustrating. People haven't even studied it as it might be a gender-related problem.

It's so concrete that we can just give boys books that they enjoy and not try to force them to read other books that we enjoy, but to say, "Hey, what books do boys like to read?" to collect that information from people and then spread that around to other boys.

There's a couple things that boys like to read that aren't really seen as legitimate reading in school. Nonfiction is a big one. Boys wanna read information and find out about something that's happening. They really are not that crazy about, you know, what happened to little Laura on the prairie. I mean that was my experience with my son. He struggled through those required reading books of Little House on the Prairie. And in some ways, they're good books, but for him as a third grader, that was not a good book. It just turned him off.

Humor is another big one. For some reason, I mean it hardly ever gets assigned in schools. It's just not seen as legitimate reading. And boys that's just, like, the thing they live and breath. Captain Underpants is just such a great series of books. Just the word[s] "Captain Underpants" gets boys excited about it, like, "Oh, I'd like to read that." But boys get the message from the teachers, who are kinda going like, "E-eh, that's not really reading."

Visual storytelling is another one. Like the graphic novels that are available now are a great way to get boys excited who aren't too crazy about text. And they really have advanced from what they were as, say, comic books before. So now, the biggest part of the program is just to get people to carry that message on of how we can help boys read. And across the country, there's been some nice things libraries are doing where they set up their own Guys Read divisions within the public libraries, in a classroom and some of it's as easy as, say, "Let's just make a shelf that has all these suggested titles that boys like." So, let's have Seymour Simon's nonfiction. Let's have Dave Pilke's humor stuff, Jack Gantos. Let's have graphic novels. Let's have magazines — information kinda text — and then boys feel a little better, like they don't have to go shop around this whole reading world. They can go to the shelf and find a good book or find one that they might like.

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Two different rocket ships

A lot of the stuff that guys like Michael Gurion do really get into the way male and female brains are different, how males see motion more than color and texture — which explains all kinds of really interesting things. Like, you see a kindergarten boy drawing a picture of a rocket ship, and it's one, black crayon. And he's going, "It's blasting off! It's going to the moon." And he just keeps scribbling over it as he's describing the picture. And then you see little Jennifer's picture next to him and it's a family that's in a little house. And they're all inside the rocket ship, and they're in full color, and she can describe the relationship of everybody.

And so when the kindergarten teacher comes up and she looks at Jennifer's picture and goes, "That's beautiful," and she goes over and see our little guy's picture and goes, "What the hell is going on here?" Like, "What happened?" And he's going, "What? What?" But boys are just different from girls that way. And we don't accommodate kids when they're that young, which is scary that we're not seeing they're different that way.

All that stuff blends over into reading — what we're having them read, the ways we're having them learn how to read. My boys in second grade just needed to get up and move around a lot. I think I understood that from having brothers and why it didn't bug me that kids were wandering around in my classroom. I knew they don't sit still. That's all right. They can still listen. Their ears still work while they're moving around. Just had to keep them within limits.

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"To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark." — Victor Hugo, Les Miserables