Kids are the perfect audience to Jon Scieszka. They are ripe to explore the world, go along with a story (no matter how unlikely) and demolish the status quo by laughing wildly at end pages placed in the middle of the book. Any adult smart enough to get Jon's jokes is welcome to join the revelry, just don't expect a life lesson on every page. Scieszka, with some help from illustrator Lane Smith, is the author of the life-changing children's book The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales as well as other award-winning yarns based somewhere between absurd and genius. Scieszka is touring in support of the duo's latest release, Cowboy and Octopus, a tale of two unlikely friends doing what friends do best. Before heading out West, he took some time out of his stinky day to talk with the Alibi.
I got a copy of your new book, Cowboy and Octopus, and it's a lot of fun.
It was a lot of fun to put together. Lane [Smith] and I have been working together for years, but this is the first one where I ever had an idea for the artwork before we even started, which kind of drove Lane crazy. I thought, “Wouldn't it be funny if the characters never changed, if they were always exactly the same?” Lane just thought that was insane.
I was interested in the styles out there now using clip art—it just seemed to work so well with how kids play with toys. You animate them yourself and all that imagination comes out of you. You can just imagine kids playing with Cowboy and Octopus.
Why the reworking of fairy tales?
That's just weirdly something I think is funny and enjoy, and that's why I so love second- and third-graders. I realized they have this take on the world where it's really funny to mess things up. They are just learning all these rules, like [not] moving the end papers around. I have more little kids who think that's so funny, and you wouldn't think that joke is a laugh riot, but they just feel so good about themselves because they know the end papers are supposed to be at the end of the book. Having been a teacher, that connected with my style of teaching to encourage kids to mess around with what's handed down as given knowledge. They love to do that and it really reinforces them and celebrates what they do know. And fairy tales are what kids know.
Lane and I got turned down for about a solid year because the publishers at first thought [The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs!] was too sophisticated; they didn't think kids would understand either the humor or the artwork. I knew kids were way smarter than that. People would say, “These books aren't really for kids, they're for adults.” At first, I would just laugh it off and then I starting telling people, “No, you're wrong. In fact, these are for kids first but if you happen to get it and you’re a smart enough adult, that's OK. You can join in, too.” It's an insult. Those were adults saying kids are too stupid and they won't understand. But they do.
In 1998, Jerome Weeks said in the Dallas Morning News that you have the emotional makeup of a 6-year-old. Is that true?
(Laughs) I hope not! My wife would be really sad. I took it as a compliment because I saw what he was circling around. It's that sense of appreciating what a 6-year-old is, and that is a real talent. You can't be condescending about it—you can't just be “Aw, they're so cute!” because they're not always so cute. They're crazy, wild little beings. That's the part that I love, their sense that anything is possible—the whole world is open in front of them and they're willing to give almost anything a try as long as you're honest about it and honest with them.
How did your literacy program for boys get started? Did it have to do with your experience as a teacher?
Yeah, definitely. I taught for 10 years at the elementary level and I grew up with five brothers, so I came out of this all-boy world and then went into this world that was actually almost all women, which was all of the teachers and librarians. I just felt like there was something weird going on where the boys were not becoming interested in reading; they just weren't grabbing onto it. I taught that second/third grade age the longest, where kids start really taking off as readers, they move from picture books to chapter books. Within the school setting, I was realizing the boys were really falling out of it, they were just feeling like failures. I started looking around and realized maybe it had something to do with just that they're boys and aren't feeling like reading is a thing for them. Then I started looking around for research—this was back around 2000 or so—and there wasn't much research. The only thing that was going on was testing, the federal programs testing at third grade and fifth grade and eighth grade. At every level, the boys were doing worse than the girls, and that had been true for 25 years. They kept keeping these statistics but no one actually said, “Hey, let's do something different” instead of just keep testing.
It's a really weird, complicated problem of social and cultural and developmental and biological [implications] all rolled into one, starting with [the fact that] boys develop slower and they're not ready for a lot of academic tasks as early as girls. There's even brain development research that shows that, and that's why the girls in general are better at small motor tasks and sitting quietly in the circle, with the boys bouncing around going, “Weaallleaaa!” They're just wired different. All the teachers and parents I've talked to confirm my thought, too, that the guys are different, and that's OK. People were just too freaked out to even talk about it for a while, like you can't say boys and girls are different--we have to raise them all the same. From raising a daughter and a son, I've found the same thing.
When I took off and started writing, I naturally wrote stuff to try to connect to those kids who might not see themselves as readers, and that’s boys and girls.I've found that boys are ultra picky—they want to be motivated, they want to read with a purpose. They won't just do something because the teacher says it. Where I think the girls are more sophisticated and realize, “Oh, all right. I'll do this and get through this and the teacher will like it and then I'll be able to do other things with it.” Where the boys can't even think that far. They just go, “Don't like book, won't read it.” And then they shoot themselves in the foot.
Maybe just start by finding out what boys do like to read. That was the initial idea with the website (www.guysread.com); to just collect titles boys really enjoy, not what we think they should like, ’cause there's plenty of that. We tell them, “Here, reading is wonderful! Take this Shakespeare and tell me what it means.” And they're in third grade.
Many stories in Cowboy and Octopus share a moral about the greatness of friendship, but others depict some of the tougher sides of the relationship. Is that something you consciously tried to do or did it surface naturally through the process?
That's something that started out of my natural sense of humor. That's why I love writers like Roald Dahl. You think he's just weird and strange on some levels, but on other levels he is a real moral and educational kind of guy. The bad guys get their just desserts in the end with Roald Dahl. That's why I think kids love his writing. And some adults it just freaks out. “You can't have the nasty kid fall into the river of chocolate, can you?” Sure you can! He's a dick!
The same thing is true with Cowboy and Octopus. I intentionally try to subvert some of that stuff. That's the other mistake people make trying to write children's books, they think everything has to be a lesson and really hammer kids with it. It's fun to sometimes say no, there's not a lesson in everything all the time. That's the lesson: Don't take yourselves so seriously.