Jon Scieszka—author of hilarious children’s classics like The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs—is the king of boy books.
Although he doesn’t want to be pegged as an author who only writes for boys (“I have some of the craziest girl fans!”), Scieszka tends to write action-driven stories with goofy male characters. “I can hardly help it, having had five brothers and no sisters,” he said in an interview with BookPage.
It’s no secret that boys are usually slower to read than girls, have lower test scores and are less likely to read for fun. To combat this gap, Scieszka founded GuysRead.com, an interactive website filled with guy-friendly book suggestions divided into funny categories like “At least one explosion” and “Monkeys and/or apes.”
“Rather than imposing something from the top down, Guys Read is really the ultimate grassroots kind of movement,” Scieszka says. “We hear from our readers what they enjoy.”
Scieszka, who once worked as an elementary school teacher, says the current emphasis on standardized testing has made it even more difficult to connect boys with appealing books. “The whole country has followed this mania for testing, and it’s pushed it down to younger and younger grades, which has really had a terrible adverse effect on boys who are not developmentally ready. The boys are even less equipped to be successful in that world.”
The key to getting boys to read, Scieszka says, is to “show them a reason to want to be a reader, and support them in their interests.”
COMPETING WITH “THE SCREEN”
Another obstacle in getting boys to read is the instantly accessible entertainment available online and on television. That entertainment is more reachable than ever as younger kids have cell phones or even iPads, which Scieszka calls “just like crack or candy—some combination of both.”
The rewards that come from reading are “so different from what you get watching a screen, or even interacting with a screen,” Scieszka says, although he has become involved with creating different kinds of digital entertainment—like Spaceheadz, book one in his new series from Simon & Schuster.
Spaceheadz is about a group of aliens—two in the form of wacky kids, one in the form of a hamster—who invade Michael K.’s fifth grade class. Their mission is to get 3.14 million (and one) kids to say they are Spaceheadz—or else the world will turn off.
The aliens have learned everything they know about Earth from advertising, so their hilarious dialogue sounds like a kooky commercial mash-up. Readers are introduced to the story traditionally—through short, fast-paced chapters in a book packed with Shane Prigmore’s expressive illustrations—but they can continue it off the page with a whole slew of online media. For example, the hamster has a Twitter page, and Michael K.’s teacher has a website readers can really visit. There’s also a “Be SPHDZ, Save the World” website where kids can press a button to support the Spaceheadz cause. Since the website launched a few months ago, more than 12,000 kids have signed up.
Scieszka’s latest project is Funny Business, volume one of the Guys Read Library, which he edited along with Jordan Brown of Harper’s Walden Pond Press. Funny Business has a humor theme and is filled with stories from superstars such as Jeff Kinney, Adam Rex, Mac Burnett and Kate DiCamillo. (Scieszka is quick to point out that “there are plenty of women writers who have written stuff that really appeals to guys, too.”) He is now working on the second volume in the Library, a mystery- and thriller-themed book for which Brett Helquist is illustrating stories by the likes of Walter Dean Myers and Margaret Peterson Haddix.
In the introduction to Funny Business, Scieszka writes that he found “some of the best and funniest writers around” to contribute to the collection—but he explained in our interview that it’s not “the easiest potty humor.” Funny Business is what a guy might read when he needs something beyond those simpler stories.
“I really love the Captain Underpants stuff, how it mixed up visuals and text, but I know that just drives some people crazy,” Scieszka says. “There are misspellings intentionally in there—the grammar’s not right. The same thing happened to me when I was reading the Sweet Farts books or Sir Fartsalot. . . . It’s sort of like the cheap movie laughs when someone just gets kicked in the crotch. It’s sort of funny, but that’s not hard to do. There are a lot funnier things. So we always try to challenge our readers to aspire to something funnier, more thrilling, more mysterious.”
AN ONGOING ADVOCATE
During 2008 and 2009, Scieszka served as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, a post Katherine Paterson took over in January. Scieszka remains involved with the Children’s Book Council, “trying to promote children’s books in the best and most broad way.” A message he is passionate about now is the value of the picture book, which he says has “been a victim of that test mania of people thinking that their kids have to be overachievers,” a trend that garnered national attention with the publication of a recent article in the New York Times. The article reported that many parents are steering their children away from picture books in the belief that only chapter books can increase test scores—a claim that has provoked a furious backlash from many teachers and librarians.
“I think that’s a thing we can do out of the Ambassador program—talk to people and say, ‘no, go ahead, let your kids read picture books.’ They don’t have to have a test on everything.”
In all his years promoting books for boys, Scieszka has seen a great change in how people view the issue. Although boys’ test scores are “just as miserable” as they’ve always been, Scieszka says people can at least talk about the problem now. Ten years ago that was not the case; there was just an “unspoken understanding” that boys don’t read.
What is most exciting to Scieszka is the burgeoning credibility of genres that typically appeal to boys—like graphic novels, fantasy and science fiction.
He said, “A lot of those kinds of reading that I talked about way back when have really become accepted in the teachers and library world.”