Does He Really Have to Go?

h1 January 4th, 2010 by jules

{Note: This is Adam Rex’s caricature of Jon Scieszka, revived from my 2007 interview with Jon.}

Oh, I am Generally Not Prepared for this, but I must do this post today, which I am whipping up on the spot and so forgive any errors and my general lack of organization.

Today the kidlitosphere is thanking Jon Scieszka for his wonderful work for the past two years as the nation’s first National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. The position, as you can read there at that link, was created by the Library of Congress in 2008 to “raise national awareness of the importance of young people’s literature as it relates to lifelong literacy, education, and the development and betterment of the lives of young people.”

Immediately after being given his sash, Jon said the following at this School Library Journal interview, which just went to prove how perfect a choice he was:

“A big part of my platform will be to reach reluctant readers and to put their parents at ease, especially those parents who are worried about testing or their kids not reading. I can be the official guy who says, ‘Take a deep breath; relax. Let’s not freak out about these tests. We know kids are having trouble reading. But we’ve got the answer for you. Let’s stop testing kids and beating them with a stick. Let’s try the carrot. Let’s let them read good books, because we’ve got a lot of them. Let’s let kids enjoy reading.'”

Oh thank you thank you, Jon. He also discussed the following things for the past two years, while touring the country:

  • Expanding the definition of “reading” to include such things such as nonfiction, graphic novels, science fiction, and humor on teachers’ and librarians’ reading lists. (Sadly, this was necessary.)
  • Not demonizing television and video games for children.
  • Oh, just go and read this December ’09 goodbye from Jon, in which he recaps what he accomplished.

The wonderful folks at A Year of Reading are rounding-up today all the we-love-you-Jon posts, and so I add this tiny one to the bunch. And I will do so by remembering when Jon stopped by 7-Imp in 2007 and my favorite part from that interview:

7-Imp: I (Jules, that is) loved how -– in your recent Horn Book interview -– you talked about how sometimes we “tyrannize kids” by saying everybody has to love reading, that “reading is magic” but that it’s really hard work for many of them. It reminded me of when I interned in library school, and I found myself irritated with all those “readers are leaders”-type signs, draping from many elementary school walls, and I couldn’t quite figure out why they were bothering me. And I laughed when my husband said, “I think it irritates you, because it’s not necessarily true. A lot of forty-year old science fiction geeks still live in their mothers’ basements.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but they’re certainly not the CEOs that some elementary teachers and librarians suggested they would be, just ‘cause they love reading. On that note, if you could change anything about the way in which instructors approach reading at the primary/elementary level of instruction, what would it be?

Jon: Your husband is a wise man. I think I love him already . . . and we just met! So I think the change he and I would make to teaching reading would be to try to get everyone to relax about the whole thing. A little more enjoyment of the reading itself, and a lot less testing and grading. Accepting a wider range of texts (like humor, non-fiction, graphic novels, war stories . . .) would be a good way to start adding to kids’ enjoyment. Reading doesn’t have to be everyone’s favorite activity.

I love that—not because he calls my husband a wise man, though I admit that’s pretty flippin’ great—but because, as a librarian myself, I hear a lot of this stress from parents. I’m not currently in a children’s library, but I still hear it from friends-with-kids. And I find myself echoing Jon’s words to them, because he is EXACTLY RIGHT. I think people are shocked to hear librarians like myself and authors like Jon say, “reading doesn’t have to be everyone’s favorite activity,” but it doesn’t. And, for many teachers and librarians, hearing Jon say that, while he toured the country with his tiara these past two years, may have very well been an epiphany for them. A good, good epiphany, and we need more educators to be thinking about this, or so I think.

When I worked in school libraries, my focus was always story. Let’s enjoy these books. There are lots of them out there. Let’s find what those so-called reluctant readers are going to enjoy, in whatever form it may be, and let them enjoy it. Not stand over them fretting. There will be enough time for that in their lives.

So, in summary, could there have been a more perfect inaugural ambassador? I don’t think so. Thank you, Library of Congress, and thank you, Jon.

Again, the Year of Reading round-up is here. Enjoy.

8 comments to “Does He Really Have to Go?”

  1. Lovely post. Jane Yolen said a very similar thing when she was at UR: not everyone will be a reader. (For that matter, not all leaders are readers, but that’s another issue.) I think it’s a helpful reminder and may take some pressure off kids who *will* read, at their own pace, if they’re not beat over the head with it.

  2. I became addicted to reading in the summer between first and second grade. I remember how, after all the fuss grownups made about children learning to read, they then pestered me (or so it seemed) to do things other than read. My favorite part of school was sustained silent reading without pesky reading comprehension quizzes.

    Hurrah for Scieszka!

  3. I think accepting a wider range of texts is a big idea. My grandfather allowed comic books in his classroom when he taught elementary school in the 40’s and 50’s, and was criticized for it. But not only were comics less intimidating than books to his students, they were more affordable for the population he worked with.

    I met Jon Scieszka early in his ambassadorship. His laid-back attitude toward his position and reading and his unique sense of humor made him very approachable. With his warm and open demeanor, I’m sure he helped many kids become more interested in reading.

  4. How do I love Mr. Scieszka-Rhymes-With-Fresca? Let me count the ways…

    He has been SO AWESOME for children’s literature, and has raised the bar quite high for those who come after. I really do hope they give him a crown and cape trimmed with glitter or something for his time. He really took it seriously and did well.

  5. Thanks for the nice tribute Jules. I’m glad you are out there working to help kids every day. Now I think I’ll get back to my desk and get working on some more stories for you to spread around.

  6. What a guy. Y’know?

  7. Love this post…and love that he came and visited us all!

  8. I know, Mary Lee. Class-act, huh? Thanks for hosting us all…

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