Jon Scieszka, A Seriously Funny 'Knucklehead' Children's author Jon Scieszka has written two dozen fantastical books, including The Stinky Cheese Man and the Time Warp Trio series, but his most recent work is an autobiography geared toward children.

Jon Scieszka, A Seriously Funny 'Knucklehead'

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This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, Dave Barry and I venture back into the classroom. But first, Children's author Jon Scieszka has written a memoir called "Knucklehead." He says the book is an attempt to answer the question, where do you get your ideas? And Mr. Scieszka has had plenty. His two dozen books include "The Stinky Cheese Man," the popular "Time Warp Trio" series, and this year the Library of Congress named Jon Scieszka the nation's first ambassador to children's literature. From New York, Tom Vitale has the story.

TOM VITALE: Jon Scieszka's memoir, "Knucklehead," is about the author's childhood in Flint, Michigan, as one of six brothers. In one chapter he writes about his own experience learning to read from brightly colored books about a strange alien family.

(Soundbite of memoir "Knucklehead")

Mr. JON SCIESZKA (Author, "Knucklehead"): (Reading) When I read the Dick and Jane stories, I thought they were afraid they might forget each other's names because they always said each others names - a lot. So if Jane didn't see the dog, Dick would say, "Look Jane, look. There is the dog next to Sally, Jane. The dog is also next to mother, Jane. The dog is next to father, Jane." Ha ha ha.

TOM VITALE: Scieszka says Dick and Jane never made him want to read. What did whet his appetite for reading was "The Cat In The Hat" by Dr. Seuss and the funny parodies in Mad Magazine. When Scieszka began writing his own fiction as a graduate student at Columbia University, he says his heroes were writers who played with language and new ways to tell stories: Borges, Cervantes, Kafka. After he got his degree, when Scieszka started teaching at a Manhattan elementary school, he brought his post-modern sensibility with him.

Mr. SCIESZKA: And I remember telling my second-graders the basic "Metamorphosis" story, saying, like, what about - what if a guy woke up one morning and he was a bug? Wouldn't that be weird? And they loved that. And I think that was the trigger that made me think, like, oh man, here's my audience. They're just a lot shorter than I ever thought they might be.

VITALE: So Scieszka started to write funny, twisted stories just like the ones he used to write in grad school, only with kids in mind. His first book in 1989 with illustrator Lane Smith was "The True Story Of The Three Little Pigs," told from the wolf's point of view.

(Soundbite of story "The True Story Of The Three Little Pigs")

Mr. SCIESZKA: (Reading) I don't know how this whole big, bad wolf thing got started, but it's all wrong. Maybe it's because of our diet. Hey, it's not my fault wolves eat cute little animals like bunnies and sheep and pigs. That's just the way we are. If cheeseburgers were cute, folks would probably think you were big and bad, too.

VITALE: Three years later, Scieszka's next book, "The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales" became a bestseller.

Mr. LEONARD MARCUS (Author, "Minders Of Make-Believe"): He's one of the funniest writers to come along for children. And I think he has a way of reaching children by making them feel they're part of the joke.

VITALE: Leonard Marcus is the author of the history of children's literature called "Minders Of Make-Believe." He says the sophisticated humor in Scieszka's early picture books made them an immediate hit with kids.

Mr. MARCUS: I think it was very refreshing for a lot of kids to feel that someone was making books for them which view them as, you know, on their own level. There's something wonderful about that for a child.

(Soundbite of story "The True Story Of The Three Little Pigs")

Mr. SCIESZKA: (Reading) Now, this neighbor was a pig, and he wasn't too bright either. He had built his whole house out of straw. Can you believe it? I mean, who in his right mind would build a house of straw? So, of course, the minute I knocked on the door, it fell right in.

(Soundbite of fifth-grade class, Glen Head School, Long Island)

Ms. SANDRA DIRE (Teacher, Glen Head School, Long Island): Christy(ph).

CHRISTY (Student, Glen Head School, Long Island): She said that he might have just sneezed, but it's not like that in, like, the real story.

Ms. DIRE: So, are you saying this isn't the real story?

CHRISTY: Well, I don't really think that anybody really knows.

VITALE: At the Glen Head School in suburban Long Island, Sandra DiRe's fifth-grade class is using Scieszka's story to talk about point of view and the nature of truth.

CHRISTY: They think that the wolf is a bad guy because wolves eat pigs and...

VITALE: DiRe says teaching John Scieszka's books makes her job easier.

Ms. DIRE: Well, I'm interested in it. And anything that I'm interested in will make it easier for me to teach because I want to teach it. And the children can relate to it. They understand the language, and they get it.

VITALE: Ten-year-old Carly Rovner certainly gets it.

Ms. CARLY ROVNER (Student, Glen Head School, Long Island): All his books kind of connect, because all the characters are either running away from something or running to find something. But it's interesting along the way. Like if they make stops, it's either funny or interesting, and you just want to keep reading.

VITALE: Getting kids to keep reading is Jon Scieszka's mission. Scieszka is the Library of Congress's first national ambassador to children's literature.

Mr. SCIESZKA: Oh, man, I should have brought my fanfare. I usually have a fanfare when I come in a room. Some fifth graders in San Diego wrote this thing for me, and it is spectacular.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SCIESZKA: So after a fanfare, I come in, and I can pretty much do anything. And the best part is I'm the first national ambassador, so I can kind of make it up as I go along. But the basic job is to promote children's literature. I'm just trying to get kids motivated to be readers by connecting them with a book they like.

TOM VITALE: Jon Scieszka says the key to getting kids to read is not to force-feed them books like bad medicine, but to let them read what they want - comic books, magazines, graphic novels - and eventually they'll move on to some great writing and great reading. And Scieszka has done his part to make books kids like. After the success of his twisted fairy tales, he wrote funny books that made math, science, and history accessible. His "Time Warp Trio" series about three kids who time travel was adapted for children's television.

(Soundbite of children's television show "Time Warp Trio")

Unidentified Actor #1: Excuse me, but have you seen a dorky looking kid with big glasses and pointy hair, mister?

Unidentified Actor #2: Who dares to talk to Napoleon?

Mr. SCIESZKA: And then the "Time Warp Trio" was really that - my same initial idea of, like, let's write something kids really want to read in a form that they can read. And then 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. It's kind of like a painless inoculation.

VITALE: Jon Scieszka says kids are always asking him where he gets his ideas. He says he wrote his memoir, "Knucklehead," to answer that question.

Mr. SCIESZKA: Yeah, I think I get those ideas from being the second oldest of six boys, and you had to find some way to really, like, stake out your territory at the dinner table. And my way was to, like, say something funny and then make a grab for the chicken while everybody was laughing.

VITALE: According to his publisher, Jon Scieszka has sold just under nine million books. The 54-year-old author says he's flabbergasted by his success and how lucky he is to get up each day and go to work making up wild stories for kids.

Mr. SCIESZKA: And then if the day gets really bad, I can always pull out fan mail. 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.

VITALE: Jon Scieszka says now he's working on a series of books for pre-schoolers called "Trucktown" and a multimedia project for older kids called "Space Heads".

(Soundbite of story "The True Story Of The Three Little Pigs")

Mr. SCIESZKA: And right in the middle of the pile of straw was the first little pig, dead as a doornail. He had been home the whole time. It seemed like a shame to leave a perfectly good ham dinner lying there in the straw. So, I ate it up. Think of it as a big cheeseburger just lying there.

VITALE: For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

SIMON: And you can see a photo of Jon Scieszka from when he was in the fourth grade, and you can read a chapter of "Knucklehead" that details a disastrous family car trip on our Web site,

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