June 2005

Gordon McAlpin


An Interview with Jon Scieszka

Children's book writer Jon Scieszka has been one busy guy lately. He's working on his first novel; his latest collaboration with Lane Smith, Seen Art?, was released in May; a new Time Warp Trio adventure -- their 15th -- will be released in the fall, illustrated by Adam McCauley; and, speaking of the Time Warp Trio, their long-awaited animated series finally hits the airwaves, starting July 2 on Discovery Kids' Saturday morning block on NBC.

But one recent project may be closer to his heart than any of the others. April saw the release of the Guys Write for Guys Read collection featuring prose, comics and drawings by Lloyd Alexander, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Dave McKean (with his son Liam), Avi, and other boys' favorites. With the collection's royalties benefiting Guys Read, the web-based, non-profit, guy-centric reading initiative Scieszka founded in 2001,Guys Write for Guys Read hopes to draw more boys into every Bookslut reader's favorite past-time. The Guys Read features a select library of books recommended by guys for guys, as well as materials for teachers and librarians to spread the word by starting their own Guys Read chapters.

Bookslut.com recently caught up with the very busy Mr. Scieszka by phone to discuss some of the problems guys today have with reading, how he got into reading himself, and some recent books that he's liked that he feels boys -- er, guys -- would enjoy.

What was your inspiration for founding Guys Read?

It kind of came out of my experience both as growing up a guy, for starters, and then going into elementary school teaching, where I found that the guy sensibility isn't really appreciated there, mostly that the world of elementary school is probably like 85% women -- teachers and librarians. So some of that's just the natural effect of women promoting the kind of reading that they enjoy. And a lot of times, that's not the reading that boys enjoy.

I saw boys struggling with reading, too, and then when I started looking into it, the statistics are just horrendous on how poorly boys have done for the last thirty years. It's kind of shocking that we haven't really done anything about it.

Do you think that it's maybe not such a good idea to teach boys and girls reading in exactly the same way, with exactly the same books?

Yeah, I definitely think that could change how boys see reading. I think a model which is really interesting would be what we've done in schools with teaching girls math and science, where we realized our approach just hasn't been working. Whatever we'd been doing in the past just wasn't working, because girls just weren't going into the sciences. And then once we took that effort to go, "Oh yeah, maybe girls are different, maybe they would benefit from a little different approach," things really turned around.

There was a USA Today article [May 3, 2005] about bringing comic books into the classroom, and Santa Monica High School teacher Carol Jago said, "Our job as teachers is to help students read hard texts. When a student tells you the work is hard, you should say, 'Good; now I know it's the right book for you.'"Do you agree with that?

Wow, I think that's wrong on just so many levels, it's not funny. That's just painfully wrong, I think. In fact, that's what gotten us where we are today, where we just keep telling kids, like, you know, "Take your medicine. Reading tastes bad, but it'll make you a better person, so suck it up." But it's not happening! Boys are just leaving reading in droves. And that's not right.

Part of the Guys Read program is where I go around and talk to teachers and librarians about [doing] exactly the opposite. Don't try to beat kids into reading. I think what we have to do is to motivate them to want to learn how to read. That's a difficult thing, so I think the best way to do it is to give them things they like to read. And what we haven't done with boys is we haven't really given them a broad range of reading. In schools, what's seen as reading is so narrow: it's literary, realistic fiction. It's feelings and problems, stuff that a lot of boys just aren't drawn to. So we're setting boys up for failure, because we have a literacy model that's just easier for girls.

And every time you read a book, you have to write a paper or answer some questions.

You can't just enjoy it.

Yeah, we're really missing that.

That's one thing that I think really strongly distinguishes Guys Read from other literacy initiatives, that it focuses on the enjoyment of reading and recognizes the fact that reading better and being a better student -- and being a better guy -- follow along with that naturally. What really got me into reading was comic books. And what I read these days is actually mostly nonfiction -- and comic books and children's books. I almost never read literary fiction.

See, I think that's a completely acceptable thing. I think we've sort of ghettoized kids -- and boys, in particular -- for so long that it makes them feel bad about their reading choices. I knew plenty of little guys when I was teaching second and third grade, that nonfiction was their favorite reading. I had some little guys who would just learn everything about submarines and the World Wars. And that was some really spectacular information, and you know what? That's what we use in real life, too. We should be helping kids learn how to filter information better.

What got you into reading? Was it a person, or…?

I was always a pretty good reader. My mom and dad were both readers. My mom always read kind of funny stuff to us. I definitely remember lots of Dr. Seuss. But I always sort of had that overlap with sort of Rocky & Bullwinkle and Bugs Bunny cartoons and comic books and the newspaper. They were all kind of the same to me. I just thought the stuff they were pushing in schools… I came up in the air when we were reading Dick & Jane. I just thought that was like bad castor oil medicine.

I think I had that same sort of mentality of teachers -- nuns, in particular, because I went to Catholic school -- just saying, "You learn to read. I don't care if you hate it, that probably means it's good for you." Oh, man. That gives me the shivers still.

Who were some of your literary role models?

I really liked all kinds of Eastern European fiction and sort of any dark humor -- ranging from guys like John Barth, maybe Joseph Heller of Catch-22, Thomas Pynchon, and sci-fi guys like Doug Adams and definitely Terry Pratchett. I think his Discworld novels are just spectacular for how they satirize all kinds of stuff. That's really intelligent stuff that people blew off for a long time. They just sort of dismissed science fiction. It's nice to see that both science fiction and graphic novels are getting a bit of a toehold in schools.

I was actually at the [Science Fiction Writers of America's] Nebula awards the other day, and Neil Gaiman gave the keynote [in part about how science fiction has become more accepted by the mainstream]. I noticed that he and Dave McKean both contributed to Guys Write for Guys Read.

Yeah, you know, and they were so cool about it, because I just contacted them by e-mail without having met either one of them, and they both just instantly said, "Oh yeah, this is a good thing. Spread the word around." They got it right away that they should be in a collection like this, that includes those literary guys from a different generation like Lloyd Alexander, or Avi, who writes the realistic fiction that the librarians love. That's why I talked to Dav Pilkey -- the Captain Underpants guy -- and Matt Groening. I said, "You guys have to be in there. This is what teachers and librarians need to see: that you are on equal footing with this stuff." So I was so excited that those guys agreed.

What are some things that parents can do in order to get their kids to enjoy reading?

Two things they can do most readily and easily is to, one, accept a really broad range of reading, and when your kid is reading newspapers and magazines, encourage that as reading. Information books, computer textbooks, reading online -- that's all reading, and that's a good thing. And then the second thing, that I think is hugely important, is [providing] some kind of male role model. Dads and brothers just have to get involved, because I think that it does so much, in so many more positive ways than what we've done before. When I was teaching I found that, too.

I was in second grade, when I started teaching, and some of my boys just took off as readers. And it was nothing particularly special that I did, it was just being there. Because I think they thought, "Oh, you can be a reader if you're a guy; you're not going to turn into a girl." Which I think is some weird kind of subconscious fear of theirs.

I think, through our culture and society, we're giving (kids) this message that reading is more of a feminine activity, because when you look around, it's your mom who is reading to you early on, it's women in the elementary school, it's women librarians, or women in publishing, too. And I think guys just subconsciously sort of absorb that message and go, "Oh yeah, this isn't for me."

Yeah, that's touched on in a lot of the pieces in the Guys Read anthology. There was one kind of shocking one…

The James Howe "faggot" one?

Yeah! (laughs) Exactly that one.

That stuck with me. I read that one, and I went, "Oh my God! Jim had some problems when he was a kid."

Yeah, I was seriously taken aback by that. But, you know, at the same time, I've been there. And I guess kids kind of throw that word around a lot…

I thought the same thing. And then I thought, "You know, this is good. And this needs to be in" -- right next to the Darren Shan thing: "Guys burp, guys fart, guys pick their teeth, guys blow their noses…" So you get both sides. And I think guys really will pick up on that -- that it includes a lot of things, and that that's okay not to be threatened by somebody just because they're different, without having to give that lecture.

One of the key points in Guys Read's mission statement is to be realistic and start small.

Actually, that's another good thing that parents can do, too, which I know is difficult. When they're younger, it's kind of easy for you to help them pick out books and quickly read through a book you like. But it gets tougher to pick those short novels (as kids get older).

That's where I hope Guys Read would help people with, kind of as a recommendation source. Because then you can pick from a library and a group of books that's that much more select and smaller, that other boys have liked. So you can just simply say to a boy, "Oh, here's a book, Artemis Fowl. Other guys have liked this book; you might like it, too." Or, "If you like Artemis Fowl, you might like Terry Pratchett or you might like Doug Adams." And just sort of make connections like that for boys. They don't seem to do that as readily as girls do.

My father had me reading a lot of classics when I was younger, and one book that kind of scared me off of reading for an entire summer was a book called The Scottish Chiefs, which was like 700 pages long.

Oh yeah! That's a really dusty old classic.

It's essentially the Braveheart story and a thousand others all in one book, but I was just so scared by it that I shut down, practically. And then he turned around and gave me something similar, but much slimmer -- Ivanhoe -- and I just devoured it.

That's a tricky thing with boys, in particular. I think they're more skittish readers, where I found girls in general would be willing to try a lot of different things. I found that happening with my boys. They'd get scared off if there was a book that was just too much for them or they didn't like. They would just opt out of it altogether and go, "I'm not a reader, then. I'm a baseball player, or become a business guy and I won't have to read."

That's a problem with some of those classic books, too. I reread a ton of stuff when I first set up the Guys Read thing, (and) I think people have faulty memories about those. Or they think, "Since we got whipped with them, you'll have to get whipped with them, too." Every once in a while there'd be some old fart of a guy who'd just recommend all the really old dusty classics… Yeah, I know, it's important, but we're looking for books to motivate people to want to read! Even stuff like Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde is really kind of an interesting book, but I reread that, and the language is so convoluted. It's nearly impossible for a middle grade reader to make that leap into that 19th century form of fiction.

It's very nearly a different language.

Yeah, it almost is. And the other thing is that there's just so much good writing in kids' books now that there's just a ton of stuff to choose from. That's what really excited me when I first started up the program and started getting recommendations. I thought it might just be the classics and Harry Potter and Captain Underpants… But man, there's everything from Philip Pullman to funny stuff, action-adventure stuff, some of the old things that still hold up, and then the graphic novels, humor, non-fiction… There's lots to choose from.

I take it Philip Pullman is one of your recent favorites?

Yeah, yeah. That was actually a while ago. I read all the Philip Pullman stuff, which just blew me away with its complexity. It's just a beautifully realized piece of work.

What are some other recent ones?

Some non-fiction stuff. Oh, the Jon Krakauer stuff is a little older. The most recent -- Artemis Fowl, I really got a kick out of, too. I just got a brand new one by this guy -- I don't think he's ever done young adult stuff before, he's called Rick Yancey, and it's called The Extraordinary Adventures of Alfred Kropp. It was just a lot of fun. Someone gave me an advance copy, and it's kind of this cool thing of this guy who gets involved in stealing Excalibur -- in the present day -- and then he gets caught up in this band of knights, who are descendants of the original Knights of the Round Table, who are now all trying to kill him. He's racing around the world -- with plenty of hot cars. He names, like, the kind of Maserati that he's driving, the Jaguar he jumps.…

So it's a boy book?

Yeah, definitely.

Where do you see Guys Read headed in the next couple of years?

I'm hoping it just takes off as a real grass roots kind of thing, because I've really encouraged people to just take whatever they can. And some people are so terminally polite and careful, it's kind of nice. It restores some of your faith in humanity when they write in and ask you, "Can I download these posters?" And it says right on there, "Yeah! Take the posters! Do anything you want with them! Take all the information!"

That's what I've been hearing from people, which is just thrilling: that they've done their own versions. They've taken what's on the website as a starting point, which is exactly what I wanted. Because I don't want to be the top-down boss of all this, I'd rather have it come from the bottom up, coming from what kids want and let teachers know what compels kids.

I'd really like to see it just take off to at least where people would recognize and maybe start to admit, like, oh yeah, boys are different than girls. Maybe we should be doing something about this. And it's nice to see that a bunch of research is starting to happen now, where people are actually doing studies… Oh yeah, maybe how people are built does affect how they learn about certain subjects!

It just makes too much sense.