Jon Scieszka, A Seriously Funny 'Knucklehead'

Children's book author Jon Scieszka

Jon Scieszka was recently named the Library of Congress' first national ambassador to children's literature. He wrote his new memoir, Knucklehead, with young readers in mind. Marty Umans hide caption

itoggle caption Marty Umans

Read an excerpt.

Jon Scieszka, 4th grade

A fourth-grade Jon Scieszka smiles for the camera. hide caption

itoggle caption
The Scieszka brothers i i

In this photo from August 1962, Scieszka (far left) appears with four of his five brothers. hide caption

itoggle caption
The Scieszka brothers

In this photo from August 1962, Scieszka (far left) appears with four of his five brothers.

Children's author Jon Scieszka has written two dozen children's books, including The Stinky Cheese Man and the Time Warp Trio series, but his most recent work is a memoir. Knucklehead, an autobiography for young readers, details Scieszka's experiences growing up in Flint, Mich., where he was the second-oldest of six brothers.

In one chapter, Scieszka writes about his own experience as a young reader encountering the "strange alien family" of Dick and Jane and wondering why the characters repeated each other's names so frequently.

"If Jane didn't see the dog, Dick would say, 'Look Jane, look. There is the dog next to Sally, Jane,' " Scieszka says. "I thought they were afraid they might forget each other's names, because they always said each other's names — a lot."

'Oh Man, Here's My Audience'

Dick And Jane never made Scieszka want to read, but Dr. Seuss's The Cat In The Hat and the funny parodies in Mad Magazine did. Later, when Scieszka was a graduate student at Columbia University, he began writing his own fiction. His heroes were Borges, Cervantes and Kafka — writers who played with language and new ways to tell stories.

After he got his degree, Scieszka brought his post-modern sensibility to a Manhattan elementary school, where he was teaching. He remembers telling the second-grade class about Kafka's Metamorphosis.

"[I said] 'What if a guy woke up one day and he was a bug? Wouldn't that be weird?' and they loved that," Scieszka says. "And I think that was the trigger that made me think ... oh man, here's my audience. They're just a lot shorter than I ever thought they might be."

Scieszka started to write funny, twisted stories just like the ones he used to write in graduate school — this time with kids in mind. His first book, published in 1989 with illustrator Lane Smith, was The True Story Of The Three Little Pigs, told from the point of view of Al, the wolf who laments his "big bad" reputation. ("Hey, it's not my fault wolves eat cute little animals like bunnies, and sheep and pigs," Al says. "That's just the way we are. If cheeseburgers were cute, folks would probably think you were big and bad, too.")

'You Just Want To Keep Reading'

Three years later, Scieszka's next book, a collection of contorted fairy tales called The Stinky Cheese Man, became a bestseller. He has since sold nearly 9 million books. Leonard Marcus, author of Minders Of Make-Believe, a history of children's literature, calls Scieszka "one of the funniest writers to come along for children."

"He has a way of reaching children by making them feel that they're part of the joke," Marcus says. "It was really refreshing for a lot of kids to feel that someone was making books for them. ... There's something wonderful about that for a child."

Sandra DiRe, a fifth-grade teacher at the Glen Head school in suburban Long Island, uses The True Story Of The Three Little Pigs to talk with her students about point of view and the nature of truth. She says the book is good for teaching because she's interested in it, and the children can relate to it.

Ten-year-old Carly Rovner agrees: "All [Scieszka's] books kind of connect, because all his characters are either running away from something or running to find something," she says. "But it's interesting along the way. ... You just want to keep reading."

'Painless Inoculation'

As the Library of Congress' first national ambassador to children's literature, Scieszka is on a mission to connect kids with books they like. He says the key to getting kids to read is not to force-feed them literature, but to let them read what they want — be it comic books, magazines or graphic novels — and eventually they'll move on to some great writing and great reading.

After the success of his twisted fairy tales, Scieszka wrote funny books that made math, science and history accessible. His Time Warp Trio series, which was adapted for children's television, is about three kids who travel through time. Scieszka says the initial idea for the series was to write something kids would want to read — then he realized he could infuse the books with history lessons.

"I thought, what a cool thing — just, like, have them go anywhere in history. And I can just plug this great historical knowledge, and use that, and kids don't even know it," he says. "It's kind of like a painless inoculation."

Scieszka says he's flabbergasted by his success, and feels lucky to get up every day and make up wild stories for kids.

"If the day gets really bad, I can always pull out fan mail," he says with a laugh. "Who else gets mail where kids write to you and say, 'Dear Mr. Scieszka, We were supposed to write to our favorite author, but Roald Dahl is dead. So I'm writing to you.' "

Excerpt: 'Knucklehead'

cover of Jon Scieszka's 'Knucklehead'
Knucklehead
By Jon Scieszka
Paperback, 106 pages
Viking Juvenile
List price: $12.99

Chapter 33: Car Trip

Of all the Scieszka brother memories, I believe it was a family car trip that gave us our finest moment of brotherhood. We were driving cross-country from Michigan to Florida, all of us, including the family cat (a guy cat, naturally), in the family station wagon. Somewhere mid-trip we stopped at one of those Stuckey's rest-stop restaurants to eat and load up on Stuckey's candy.

We ate lunch, ran around like maniacs in the warm sun, then packed back into the station wagon—Mom and Dad up front, Jim, Jon, Tom, Gregg, Brian, Jeff, and the cat in back. Somebody dropped his Stuckey's Pecan Log Roll on the floor. The cat found it and must have scarfed every bit of it, because two minutes later we heard that awful ack ack ack sound of a cat getting ready to barf.

The cat puked up the pecan nut log. Jeff, the youngest and smallest (and closest to the floor) was the first to go. He got one look and whiff of the pecan-nut cat yack and blew his own sticky lunch all over the cat. The puke-covered cat jumped on Brian. Brian barfed on Gregg. Gregg upchucked on Tom. Tom burped a bit of Stuckey lunch back on Gregg. Jim and I rolled down the windows and hung out as far as we could, yelling in group-puke horror.

Dad didn't know what had hit the back of the car. No time to ask questions. He just pulled off to the side of the road. All of the brothers—Jim, Jon, Tom, Gregg, Brian, and Jeff—spilled out of the puke wagon and fell in the grass, gagging and yelling and laughing until we couldn't laugh anymore.

What does it all mean? What essential guy wisdom did I learn from this?

Stick with your brothers. Stick up for your brothers. And if you ever drop a pecan nut log in a car with your five brothers and the cat . . . you will probably stick to your brothers.

Chapter 36: What's So Funny, Mr. Scieszka?

The voice flew across the room and nailed me to the back of my seat.

"What's so funny, Mr. Scieszka?"

The voice belonged to Sister Margaret Mary. And it had just flown across our fifth-grade religion class at St. Luke's Elementary School to find me in what I had thought was the safety of the back row.

"What's so funny?" I repeated, trying desperately to stop laughing.

I knew the correct answer to this question was, "Nothing, Sister."

"I'm sorry, Sister," was also a very good reply.

And nine times out of ten, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, I would have used one of those answers. But that day in fifth-grade religion class, something happened. That day I reached a life-choice fork in the road.

My friend and back-row pal, Tim K. had just told me the funniest joke I had ever heard. The fact that he had told it while Sister Margaret Mary was droning on about our future place in heaven or hell only made it funnier.

Now I was called out.

I saw two life paths laid out clearly before me. Down the one path of the quick apology lay a good grade for religion class, a spot in heaven, maybe even sainthood if things worked out later in life. Down the other path lay the chance of a very big laugh . . . though mixed with punishment, maybe a note to my parents, quite possibly one mad God and forever in hell.

A good grade in religion class is always a good thing in Catholic school. I knew that. But I also knew this was a really funny joke. I was torn between going for the A and heaven, and going for the laugh with a chance of hell. Both were right in front of me.

So when Sister Margaret Mary asked her next question, "Would you like to share it with the rest of the class?" I chose my life's path.

"Well, there's this guy who wants to be a bell ringer," I begin. "But he doesn't have any arms."

Sister Margaret Mary's eyes pop open wider than I have ever seen them. The whole class turns to look at me and the train wreck about to happen. Even my pal Tim K. is shaking his head. Nobody in the history of St. Luke's Elementary School has ever chosen to "share it with the rest of the class." But I feel it. I have to do it. It is my path.

"The priest who is looking for a good bell ringer says, 'You can't ring the bells. You don't have any arms.'"

The faces of my fellow fifth-graders are looking a bit wavy and blurry. "'I don't need arms,' says the bell-ringing guy. 'Watch this.' And he runs up the bell tower and starts bouncing his face off the bells and making beautiful music."

Half of the class laughs. I'm not sure if it's out of nervousness or pity. But it's a lot of laughs.

Sister Margaret Mary's eyes open impossibly wider.

Light floods the classroom. I can't really see anybody now. I can only feel the punch line building. I head toward the light.

"So the bell-ringing guy goes to finish his song with one last smack of his face, but this time he misses the bell and falls right out of the tower. He lands on the ground and is knocked out. A whole crowd gathers around him."

The whole fifth-grade religion class has gathered around me. It is a feeling of unbelievable power mixed with terror for a low-profile fifth-grader like myself.

"'Who is this guy?' the villagers ask."

I feel the whole world pause for just a single beat, like it always does before a good punch line.

"'I don't know his name,' says the priest. 'But his face rings a bell.'"

I don't remember the grade I got in fifth-grade religion class. But I do remember the laugh I got. It was huge. It was the whole class (except Sister Margaret Mary). It was out-of-control hysterical. It was glorious. And it set me on my lifelong path of answering that classic question, "What's so funny, Mr. Scieszka?"

Excerpted from Knucklehead by Jon Scieszka. Copyright © 2008 by Jon Scieszka. Excerpted by permission of Viking Juvenile. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Books Featured In This Story

Knucklehead

Tall Tales & Almost True Stories About Growing Up Scieszka

by Jon Scieszka

Paperback, 106 pages | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
Knucklehead
Subtitle
Tall Tales & Almost True Stories About Growing Up Scieszka
Author
Jon Scieszka

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales

by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith

School And Library, 1 v. (unpaged) | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales
Author
Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs

by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith

Paperback, 1 v. (unpaged) | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs
Author
Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.