Friday, September 3, 2010

First Friday Favorite Authors: Jon Scieszka (with a Dash of Lane Smith for Good Measure)

Lane Smith and Jon Scieszka
The best job I ever had was as an Elementary School Librarian.  I spent my days working with young kids, teaching them how to do research, different types of literature, and, of course, reading to them.

When I started the job I was just barely prepared. Reading was the "easy" part of the job, but what to read?  I knew of some good picture book authors from spending time in the public library with our son, but those books didn't reach well to the older kids.

Eventually, I found "The True Story of the Three Little Pigs" written by Jon Scieszka and illustrated by Lane Smith.  It's a retelling of "The Three Little Pigs" but from the wolf's perspective -- a peaceful, law-abiding wolf who was framed for a crime he did not commit by those three pigs.  It was such a simple, brilliant idea that I was stunned.  The story was incredibly well told and the slightly chaotic drawings were perfect.  I started making up relevant, educational excuses to read it to all of my classes.

It was about this time that I became comfortable with reading aloud to kids.  I had started to see the books that I was reading as needing to be not just read, but performed.  Instead of just reading "The True Story..." I had come to read the story as A. Wolf.  The text became more than just words, they became his humble attempt to plead his case to the public.

By the time (the 1993 Caldecott Honor winning) "The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales" came out (written by Scieszka and illustrated by Smith) I had become pretty good at looking through the illustrations and finding a voice for the characters.  The role of the Narrator for "The Stinky Cheese Man..." became the Hen, a shrill, whiny creature.  The fact that the book was just barely long enough to be read in a class period (with time taken out for book returns and new book checkouts) made for a frantic read, with character voice changes dashing in and dashing out.

When I discovered The Time Warp Trio books (written by Sciezska and illustrated by Smith) I was in heaven.  Not just Elementary School Librarian heaven, but in personal heaven.  True, these were exactly the kind of book that I had been looking for to read to my older students, but they were such intense, fun books to read.  Reading them reminded me of reading my favorite books when I was a kid.

(I have given the first book in the series, "The Knights of the Kitchen Table" to a writer friend as an example of how to start a book.  The first sentence (one I roar out when reading it aloud -- it's The Black Knight challenging Joe, Sam and Fred to a fight for trespassing for goodness sake) stops you cold.  The opening sentences draw you into the story with an immediate sense of danger and curiosity (how did the boys get back to King Arthur's time?) and shows that the story has started as far into the full story as possible.  That first chapter ends with a great "we're all going to die" cliffhanger. Chapter Two provides just enough back story to explain things, but nothing more.  Chapter Three moves right back into the action and starts to give us a feel for just how dire the circumstances are.  Sprinkle in personality and additional backstory throughout the book.  Brilliant)

I did some rough calculations a while back and I figured that I have read Jon Sciezska's books to over 600 kids.

As if that alone didn't qualify Scieszka as a favorite author, there's more:

All of this was taking place in the early days of the internets.  By doing some AltaVista searches I managed to find an email address for Scieszka.  'What the heck,' I thought, and I emailed him.  I wrote a fanboy paragraph and then asked him some questions about writing and publishing.  A few days later he emailed back with an encouraging reply and even responded to my follow-up questions.

I still read every new book Scieszka and/or Smith write.  (Speaking of which, check out Lane Smith's latest book, "It's a Book", a book near and dear to my printed, bound pages-loving heart)

In 2008, the Library of Congress named Jon Scieszka as their first Ambassador for Young People's Literature.  How cool is that?

ADDED BONUS: Jules over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast has a seriously great interview with Scieszka where he talks about his Ambassadorship and his new series, Spaceheadz.

-- Tom

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