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Talking with Jon Scieszka

The year 2008 was a big year for children’s book author Jon Scieszka. In January, the Children’s Book Council and Library of Congress pronounced him the first National Ambassador of Books for Young People. Then he left on a national tour with David Shannon, the madcap illustrator of his Trucktown series. Scieszka describes a wild two weeks. “Kids all over the country made me sashes and crowns. We laughed ourselves sick, and because this was the first ambassadorship, we used the opportunity to make things up left and right on how it should go.”

Jon Scieszka has been rocking the children’s book world by making things up since THE TRUE STORY OF THE 3 LITTLE PIGS was released in 1989. In 2002, he started Guys Read to support reticent young male readers. As part of his crusade, he also launched Guys Listen and started With the help of active Texas librarian Rose Brock, the Web site champions, educates, and recommends audio productions for hesitant boy readers. “Boys like stories just as much as girls,” Scieszka explains, “but they don’t always give books a chance. Give them audios, and they’ll get excited by messing around with technology and goofing around with something mechanical, and before they know it, they’ll be hooked by the story.”

Ten years ago, Scieszka noted a prejudice against almost anything but reading fiction in schools. “Nonfiction, science fiction, graphic novels, and audiobooks were seen as cheating.” But in his recent travels as the ambassador, he saw a significant change in teachers, who have become comfortable with different kinds of media. “They now see formats like audiobooks not as the enemies of reading but as supporters.”

His classroom visits to students in lower grades revealed something curious. “So few children knew nursery rhymes that I had to recite the originals before I could parody them.” He wonders if this situation comes partly from a busy world that limits the time of parents and teachers. “Audiobooks can counteract this for kids who don’t always get enough read-aloud experiences.”

As a teacher, Jon Scieszka loved reading aloud to his students. “They’d ask why I chose books like THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH or authors like Roald Dahl when their previous teacher had read aloud poetry and the one before her had liked reading something else. You could see little lightbulbs go off over their heads as they realized that not everybody has to like the same kind of books. They did see adults who were really passionate about all different kinds of literature.”

Scieszka’s mother was a teacher, and her reading aloud encouraged his early reading and probably started his writing career. “Wanting to hear books like GO, DOG. GO! and CAPS FOR SALE gave me a reason to read.” Today, reading aloud is an important part of his writing process. “I told the Stinky Cheese Man stories for a whole year before I ever wrote them down in the final version. Reading them aloud with kids completely honed them.”

Scieszka loves audio versions of books, and he narrates his autobiography, KNUCKLEHEAD. In the audio version, Scieszka adds an additional chapter, telling, among other things, how listening “tickles the sound part of the brain just right.”

What audio qualities does he think tickle the ear best? He believes readings need to be “compelling,” but here Scieszka finds a specific definition elusive. All kinds of genres and styles are recommended on He says, “There are lots of ways to be compelling--with a soothing voice or a crazy voice--and what pleases some audio listeners might not please others.”

But Scieszka is clear that sound stimulates the ancient reptilian part of the brain. “That’s why music moves us so much, and storytelling took a poetic form. So it could be remembered and keep history alive. Audiobooks are a satisfying combination of an old-fashioned tradition and today’s technology.”--Susie Wilde

© AudioFile 2010, Portland, Maine

Photo © Marty Umans

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