LIVE FROM BEA: Author Interview with Jon Scieszka
A final interview LIVE FROM BEA, courtesy of Amber and Arianna of ShelfNotes!
Shelf Notes had the pleasure of sitting down with Guys Read creator (and author of many great books, including The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales), Jon Scieszka for a short chat between his busy visit to BEA 2014. We have to grudgingly admit that we went into the interview a little wary of the idea of a book geared entirely towards getting boys to read. Why can't they just discover the joy of reading for themselves?, we thought. But Mr. Scieszka removed all of our doubts in the below interview, and we were converts by the end of our time together. He truly has a passion for sharing his own love of reading with boys in any way possible, which we found is much more difficult than it may sound! Luckily, today's young male readers have a smart, funny, and never-endingly enthusiastic leader to bring them into the book-loving fold.
SN: So, where did you come up with the ideas for the book?
JS: They kind of grew out of the whole guys read program. And the the heart of the Guys Read idea is not to tell boys what to read, but to hear from them what they enjoy reading.
SN: Ohhh, okay.
JS: So the website honestly just does what the web does well, which is collect information from everybody. We just said, "Send us books that boys love! And we'll pass those on to other guys." And it's kind of this great grassroots, so instead of from the top down, it's from the bottom up. It's like everyone goes "Yeah, we love Gary Paulson, we'll read anything by Gary Paulson," so we just collect all that information. That was about 10 years ago that the site's been going. And then I thought we could take the next step and actually use all these people who wanted to do their own for connecting with the boys, and then we could also lead them to some authors they might not know about. Because that's hard for any reader: where do you find that next book?
SN: That is very true.
JS: And doubly hard if you're not much of a reader. Because my son was like that, he would walk into the bookstore and he would just go, "Ugh, kill me now."
SN: "Where do I go?" Yeah. In the library world, they're called "readalikes."
JS: Yup. And that's so important. So we thought, let's just do that. And I loved short stories as a kid. And then, having been a teacher too, I also realized that that's a great little thing. Like we always had throughout the school year that "Drop everything and read," "Stop everything and read."
SN: I loved that.
JS: I did, too! But - there's this great 40-minute period, and always there would be boys coming up to me just going, "I don't have anything to read!" And I'd just go, "We do this EVERY DAY, this is not a surprise!" [laughter] So I would have a whole collection of short stories, graphic novels, stuff that they could get into and kind of out of in 45 minutes.
SN: And you saw that more with the boys? Like, the girls never needed to find something to read?
JS: The girls always had their stuff. They had pencils, they were organized. [laughter] They had their Trapper Keepers and all that stuff. The boys had nothing! It was like, "I don't have a pencil." It was like, "Oh my god, you're in school, how do you not have a pencil?"
SN: You could find one on the floor!
JS: Yeah, exactly. Look around a little bit. [laughter] But short stories are great and kind of non-threatening, too. Because you could say, "You know what? You don't have to love the whole book. If you don't like a story, stop reading it! Read the next one." And that's a great thing for a reader, because otherwise they don't get that permission too often. Because in school you have to read [the assigned book], it's required.
SN: So, have all the books been a part of the Core Curriculum?
JS: We started with those bigger kind of genre subject areas, so the first one was all humor stories, just because that's what I thought of.
SN: And boys do really like humor.
JS: And it did so well, too. Because you realize that what you do in school, there's not that much funny stuff for required reading. It's, like, ehhhhhh....
SN: Yeah, if your teacher tries to tell you its funny, you're just like "No, it's not funny." [laughs]
JS: That's usually true, too!
SN: What grade did you teach, by the way?
JS: A little of everything, I started as a first grade assistant teacher, and then just hopped around and did second, third.
SN: Mostly elementary, though?
JS: Yeah. And just up through sixth, seventh, and eighth.
SN: So that's probably a great thing for the boys to see you, because, you know, so many female elementary teachers.
JS: Well that was a huge part of even shaping the project. And I grew up with five brothers! I had an all-guy house, and then I went into elementary school teaching, and as you know, it's all women! And it's just like "Oh my god, I'm on a different planet!" I was mystified! Like, "Are we actually going to listen to each other and not wrestle?!" [laughter] We worked in different ways. But [males] were really underrepresented in that way. I think my little guys didn't see a role model for reading. Because it's their mom, it's the librarian, the teachers - they were all women. Who are all well-meaning, and trying to connect them, and have a range of tastes, but I think the boys honestly would look around and be like, "Yeah, you say reading's for everyone, but it doesn't look like it!" And I have two kids, too - a daughter who's a crazy reader, like from birth. She was one of those little kids who would flip a book and pretend like she was reading, and kind of babble to herself. And then my son Jake two years later was just like "Eh" and not really that excited about it. It's like, "I'll play hockey instead." And to this day, he doesn't - he reads a ton, but kind of in his own way. Like online sites and information. He honestly told me, I think it was in seventh grade or so, he goes: "Why would you read something that was just made up?" It's a good question.
SN: I hear that a lot, actually.
JS: Because the boys want something true, something real, something that they can use - and you can tell when they're little bullshit artists, they just are getting more material that they can challenge people with, I think. [laughs]
SN: So this book is the true stories.
JS: Yeah, and we got some great stories in here. Man. And they're a perfect kind of mix of adventure, history, and disgusting.
SN: Yeah, I saw the tarantula!
JS: Oh, the tarantula's beautiful! [laughter] And then Steve Sheinkin, you know his stuff? He did Bomb, that was probably his most famous book. So he writes this story about these guys who are pirates, but they get shipwrecked on the west coast of Africa, get taken prisoner as they're trying to get across the Sahara, lose like 100 pounds, and they start drinking camel urine, and then they just don't get to eat, they're eating their own skin that's falling off! It's just - the details are so good.
SN: That's perfect! And that's a true story?
JS: Yeah. And then Nathan Hale, who does those, they're kind of graphic novels with Abrams [a publisher], he writes about a mountain man, Jim Bridger, and a couple other guys. So this other guy gets shot, and they wait for him to die, in the 1800s out in the West, and these guys finally go, "He's not gonna die, let's just take his stuff and leave him." Two days later, he comes alive, because he's been attacked by a bear. So he's mauled, he's got a broken leg, and he crawls across like 200 miles, lays in a bed of maggots to clean his wounds, it's good details like that! [laughter] Like your kind of story.
SN: Where did you get all these ideas? Was this stories that you knew?
JS: No, we let all these writers find it.
SN: Okay, so the writers found their own stories.
JS: Candace Fleming did this other great story about Jumbo the elephant. Hit by a train, that's how Jumbo died. - Spoiler alert! In case you didn't know that. - But it's terrible. [laughter] But that's the cool thing that nonfiction writers do. In fact, I was trying to get our publisher to do nonfiction from the beginning, but they were a little afraid of it. Like it doesn't sell or didn't sell as well back in the day?
SN: Or the combination between nonfiction and short stories, maybe?
JS: Yeah. And yeah, short stories always kind of drive the publishers crazy, too. Because they're like, "Eh, they don't sell very well." But they could!
SN: I do think you have a good point, that it's going to allow the boys to engage with something that they don't have to commit to.
JS: And then they get to look across this great range of writers. And then you find somebody, like a Steve Sheinkin, or Nathan Hale, and you go "I'm gonna go look at his other stuff!" And that's how we kind of make sure to get those authors whose stuff will lead somewhere else. And same with the women authors that we pick, because Kate DeCamillo did a thing early on for us, in the humor thing, I wrote a piece with her. Shannon Hale did a great piece. Jackie Woodson. So you want them, if they go read some more, to look up Kate DeCamillo [or the author they enjoyed]. Plenty of boys love her stuff. And then I think they don't feel so creepy about it, somehow. It's not just a "girl book" to them.
SN: So you say you were a reader, you are a big reader, you were when you were young?
JS: Yeah, I grew up as a reader. I don't know how that happened.
SN: Did you have parents who read a lot?
JS: My dad doesn't read hardly at all, even though he's an elementary school principal - he's a information, magazine reader. My mom was probably a bigger reader. And she read a lot to us. But out of the six boys in our house, I would say half of us are readers, and the other half, not really. It's a weird thing. And that was the same I found with my kids, they grew up in the same household, they kind of had the same influence, but something weird happened, yeah.
SN: Did you have a favorite book when you were little?
JS: Yeah, I had a couple. But I think one of my all-time favorites was Go Dog, Go.
SN: Yeah! Love that book.
JS: Because it has just the craziest thing going on. I grew up, like in school, we had to learn with Dick and Jane. And those are just so lame! You read that and you go like, "Why am I reading this?!" It's like, "There's no reason to be a reader!" Then I read Go Dog, Go, and I thought: "This is good. I want more like this."
SN: That's great.
SN: Where do you find the authors, are you friends with them?
JS: Well that was part of the thing! I realized, so I've been doing this - Three Little Pigs came out 25 years ago. So I've been doing this for like 25+ years, and I just end up knowing a lot of these people. And now kind of it's like a small group. So Jack Gantos was one of the first guys I asked, because I just thought, "This guy's hysterical!" [To our surprise, he gestures Jack Gantos over and we spoke briefly.]
SN: Which of the books have the kids most responded to? Was it the humor one?
JS: Yeah, I think humor's like the easiest. But this one, I think it'll get a ton of fans, because it so meshes with "our guys" who are such information fans. And it cuts across the weirdest collection of stuff, too.
SN: I don't know if you ever see controversy [over this], but do people say, "Why make a book for just guys?"
JS: Yeah, usually the third grade girls. [laughter] They like to read me the riot act. They're like, "That's stupid! Why are you making a book just for guys?!" And I go, "Because they need help!" And I think everyone who's a teacher and a librarian understands, we need all the help we can get. Because it's a difficult thing! Boys are a tough sell. And some of it's genetic, I'm convinced, some of it's biological, we know boys develop later than girls, so they start in school, they're kind of behind, and then they're not successful, and, with all this stuff with testing has pushed reading accomplishment lower and lower, like down to kindergarten - no kindergartner should be taking written tests! That's ridiculous. So the boys are even less successful. Because they don't become readers till second grade. Some of them third grade! And there's nothing wrong with that. So by and large, man, no I've had just the best response. From teachers especially, and librarians. And parents! Who just really know, and they say, "Oh, thank goodness!" And now we can point to them, to this set, and go, "Here's 50 different stories. You'll find something." And it's a good low-pressure thing, too. Because you say to the boys, "You DON'T have to love them all." Like you can say, I am a mystery reader. I am a sci-fi reader. I am a nonfiction reader. And then that's part of their identity.
SN: And you have it all covered. -- So, what's the next one?
JS: We have 3 options. One is ghost stories, which the editor really likes. Another one's action/adventure...maybe a heroes and villains kind of thing? One other thing we're kind of circling around is just real stories of real kids. To not be fiction, to not be fantasy. And there's a strong history of that, like Wayside School? A little crazy, which I like, too. Or even all of the Andrew Clements stuff, like Frindle? Stuff that happens in a kid's life. I think that's why Wimpy Kid is such a success, because that's what happens to them.
SN: Our last question is: what is you favorite type of candy?
JS: My favorite type of candy? ...Potato chips?
SN: That's not a candy!
JS: No, but I think of it as my favorite thing, so it just came to mind.
SN: So, it's more of your favorite guilty pleasure. [laughter]
JS: Yeah. But if it's candy, I would say bittersweet chocolate.
SN: All right, nice! That's a very adult thing to say. We are candy fanatics, so we have to ask that.
The interview was great, and we are now big fans of Mr. Scieszka. We look forward to introducing the young boys in our own lives to this wonderful collection!
The interview's last words: "Reading for pleasure, we gotta keep fighting for that. Guys Reads is out there fighting for you!"
(We'd like to thank Jon Scieszka, his publicist, Walden Pond Press and Armchair BEA for connecting us for such a wonderful interview!)
We'd like to share a few pictures from the interview and some shots of Jon Scieszka signing his book:
Follow Jon Scieszka on Social Media:
Arianna & Amber