One Impossible Visit from Jon Scieszka Before Breakfast (with a few illustrators stopping by…hey, let’s make it a party!)

h1 September 2nd, 2010 by jules

Roll out the red carpet: Jon Scieszka is here—wait! That’s right. He’s no longer the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. That title has been handed to the honorable Katherine Paterson. But Jon, you may remember, was the inaugural ambassador, appointed such in 2008 by the Library of Congress. And I can’t help but still envision him with that lovely, stylish sash.

It’s a pleasure to have the acclaimed author and the very funny Jon visit again. (Surely, you all don’t need an introduction? If so, how about I do it simply this way: The True Story of the Three Little Pigs; The Time Warp Trio series; The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Fairy Tales, which got some Caldecott love; and Trucktown. ‘Nough said?) He’s here to talk about his new science fiction book/multimedia project, Spaceheadz, written with Francesco Sedita, but while I have him here, I’m also taking the opportunity to ask him about how Guys Read is faring, about the great and abiding Stinky himself, whether or not we’ll ever be treated to more stories with this dynamic duo, and a few other things. And several folks stopped by to contribute art, since I seem to be physically incapable of doing posts sans illustrations.

First off, Spaceheadz, since you may be scratching your head and thinking, SpaceWHAT? What in the what the?… Well, here’s how it all begins (the cover and interior artwork for the book created by Shane Prigmore):


“Michael K. knew his first day in a new city was going to be weird. How could a first day at someplace in Brooklyn, New York, called P.S. 858 not be weird?”
(Click to super-size image.)

The book, released this summer by Simon & Schuster, tells the story of Michael K., who—as you can see above—just started fifth grade at a new school. Now, this is stressful enough for any child; one can only hope for a seamless transition from one school to another. But add to this another wee bitty stressor: The kids he seems to have made friends with, the very strange (think: FREAKO) Jennifer and Bob, are evidently aliens from the planet Spaceheadz. They’ve invaded the planet Earth in the shape of school children — and with none other than a hamster named Major Fluffy as their leader. Their mission? To convince 3,140,001 kids to BE SPHDZ, and they believe our Michael K. can do so. They’re not so sure they’re going to be met with success, given that their leader is a rodent, Michael K. is all new to this, and they talk like television commercials. (“Michael K. can do anything!” Bob tells Jennifer in Chapter 1. “He is like a rock. Mmm, mmm good.”) And, while Michael K. is trying to figure out how to escape, Agent Umber of the Anti-Alien Agency is hot on the trail of the freako aliens.


“This was getting beyond weird.”

“With this series kick-off, Scieszka and Sedita have just written the book (literally) on how to integrate new media into a ‘traditional’ book for children,” writes Kirkus. Yup, the book comes with websites, all functional and funny and which actually extend the narrative (adds that Kirkus review, describing it all as “{h}ysterical, sneakily instructive fun”). As in, here’s how it goes: At sphdz.com, you can sign up to be a SPHDZ and help stop the Earth from being “turned off.” At antialienagency.com, you can see what the government is doing to protect the Earth from the alien menace. And, at mrshalleyscomets.com, you can see Michael K.’s fifth-grade class website. Also involved? A Facebook page (freako Bob’s), a blog (Major Fluffy’s), some tweets (also Major Fluffy’s, which most days consist of “Eeeeek weeeee eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” or a variant thereof), and a YouTube channel (freako Jennifer’s).

Wanna know more about all this before Jon joins me for coffee? There’s always this video he made:

So, I’ve got the strong coffee. Jon’s here. Major Fluffy is nowhere to be seen. (This is good.) Let’s get right to it, and I thank him for visiting 7-Imp again.

* * * * * * *

7-Imp: So, I was sitting with a group of librarians and children’s-book lovers the other day, and they were saying that people who still say, to this day, “there are no good books for boys” just aren’t paying attention. As the brain (hey, that makes you sound like a zombie) behind Guys Read, how do you feel “guys’ lit” fares today?

Jon: As usual, your librarians and children’s book lovers are exactly right. There are all kinds of great choices for boy readers. And the range of reading, in styles and genres that boys tend to like, has never been better. Every publisher’s list has stunning non-fiction, like Peter Kent’s Big Book of Armor and City Across Time that I just read yesterday. Graphic novels—from early readers like Baby Mouse to sophisticated storytelling like Stitches—are being accepted as legitimate school reading. Ditto for fantasy, like Tony DiTerlizzi’s spiffy new Search for Wondla and humor like Dr. Cuthbert Soup’s A Whole Nother Story.

I think those people who are saying “there are no good books for boys” are really saying “boys don’t like to read what I think they should be reading.”



Illustration from and cover of Tony DiTerlizzi’s The Search for Wondla
(Simon & Schuster, September 2010)


7-Imp: What’s the most surprising thing you learned as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature? Describe your Best Day as the mighty Ambassador!

Jon: I don’t know that it was the most surprising, but it was most gratifying to meet up with all kinds of wonderful people doing all kinds of wonderful things to connect kids with reading. There is so much out in the news these days about the dismal state of education and how kids are not achieving. But I got to see die-hard booksellers, ecstatic librarians, turbo-charged teachers, and kids of all ages excited about stories.

And my Best Day as mighty Ambassador would have to be the day Dave Shannon (my Vice Ambassador) and I visited a group of kindergartners. Mr. Shannon explained to the little guys that the proper way to greet an Ambassador was to raise both hands overhead and bow in a salaam. And they did. And Dave filmed it:

And I’ve insisted on getting my salaam ever since.

7-Imp: Your job looks like a whole lot of fun. You seem to do a lot of travelling and meeting with kids, librarians, and teachers. Is it as fun as it looks? And how do you think school kids today, based on what you’ve seen, are faring? Yes, I may or may not be hinting at how HARD LIBRARIANS ROCK. Smiley emoticon! Smiley emoticon!

Jon: My job is MORE fun than it looks. Did I mention that kids also made me an Ambassador sash and wrote an original Ambassador Fanfare and played it for me at an assembly? Fortunately, Vice Ambassador Dave Shannon was there to also capture this event:

Kids, teachers, and librarians are wrestling with incredible changes in how information and stories are passed on. The blizzard of data from sources that weren’t even around five years ago is mind-boggling. Apps, posts, tweets, and videos like the two you just watched are taking eyeballs away from the older print media. But, while many people are wringing their hands and railing against this change, guess who is taking it in stride, leading the way into the 21st century, and teaching our kids how to be literate in all these new ways? Our teachers and librarians.

7-Imp: On that note, how challenging was it to write a book that integrates new media with the traditional book format? And what was it like to collaborate with the digital writers on this series?

Jon: More challenging than I thought it would be. I knew it would be tricky. But I really wanted fully half of the Spaceheadz story to be told in the digital world and in the marketing and advertising that Spaceheadz love so much. The first hurdle is that traditional publishers aren’t built to deal with the digital world. It doesn’t make money for them in the same way the printed book does. So, it’s hard to coordinate the company and the storytelling. The challenge of complying with the COPA (Child Online Protection Act) regulations also hampers the creation of a real two-way social community, with kids contributing their ideas and stories and artwork. But I think we figured out a great way to include kids in the Spaceheadz world and to celebrate their creations.

The other big challenge is to mesh the print storyline that unfolds sequentially over four books with the online world that is simultaneous. My digital team was brilliant in figuring out first that this was a challenge and then, second, that there is a way to have the story unfold in sequence online, too. So, a kid reading the first book won’t stumble across any spoilers meant for the kid reading the fourth book.

7-Imp: How involved were you all with the creation of the story’s websites?

Jon: Very. Jason Chin, an author and illustrator in his own right, did all of the design and coding of the websites. The essential work of syncing the Spaceheadz print story with the online content—and all other digital bits, like Bob’s Facebook page and Jennifer’s YouTube channel and Major Fluffy’s blog and the SPHDZ video and all of the written content of the sites—was done by Spaceheadz Team Digital –- my daughter, Casey, and her boyfriend, Steven Weinberg. Casey is a writer, and Steven is an illustrator (with their own book, called To Timbuktu, coming out March 2011).

And it has been crazy good fun to work with them. They understand that the digital world is all about extending the lives of the characters — and that almost anything is worth trying. So, they draw the artwork posted on classroom teacher Mrs. Halley’s website in the styles of twenty different kids. They film the video that Agent Umber takes in his ill-advised excursion through the sewers. They make the song that the kindergartners sing in Book #2. They built and manned the cardboard version of the Internet SPHDZ Counter. They bring the print Spaceheadz world to life in every way they can.


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7-Imp: If you could give one free tip to those interested in writing series children’s titles, what would it be? How do you make a series “good”?

Jon: Characters. Solid characters. Great characters can really drive a series for both the reader and the writer. The reader wants to see character revealed by the actions of the character. And then, as the series progresses, it’s easier for the writer to put a character in a situation and let the character react in a way that reveals . . . character. (Was that too many uses of the word “character”? Could be a flaw in my character.)

7-Imp: Please, for the LOVE OF ALL THINGS SACRED, will you bring us another Cowboy and Octopus set of stories? Oh pleeeeeeease? (Hubba whoa, that large font size is mighty dramatic, but that’s kinda what I’m going for here, ’cause I love those stories somethin’ fierce.)

Jon: I do have a bunch more Cowboy and Octopus stories that I wrote, just because I loved those two guys and how they interact. Could be a good idea.

{Ed. Note, Though I Try Not to Intrude By Doing This Too Much: WOO HOO!}


“‘We are friends,’ says Cowboy. ‘And that’s why I’m telling you—your new hat looks like something my horse dropped behind him. ‘Cause that’s the truth.’

7-Imp: How does it feel to consider the oh-so iconic status of The Stinky Cheese Man? I mean, is it wild or what? Did you know, writing that book and collaborating with Lane, that it would become a modern classic?

Jon: It is both thrilling . . . and downright spooky. I’ve had everyone from noodle vendors in China to street kids in Morocco to random people at a neighbor’s party gasp in amazement and say, “No way! You wrote that book?” And the greatest thing about it is that everyone then goes on to say how much fun they had reading Stinky, that they still read Stinky, that they are giving a copy of Stinky to all of their friends.

And I think every writer, when they are in the middle of writing, hopes and believes that they are writing the best, coolest, funniest, smartest thing that’s ever been written. But Lane and I weren’t really trying to make a modern classic. We were trying to make the coolest and funniest kids’ book ever.



“Some early Stinky ruffs” from Lane Smith
(Click to enlarge each)

7-Imp: What’s next on your plate?

Jon: Lot’s more Spaceheadz. Books #3 and #4 and all kinds of digital craziness in the works.

I’m also messing around with ebooks and iPad and iPhone storytelling. I think that the world desperately needs original storytelling written specifically for that new media world. I believe print will stay around. And that both print and electronic storytelling will co-exist.

And the Guys Read work continues with Volume 1 of the new Guys Read Library, Guys Read: Funny Business, out this September. Original funny stories by Eoin Colfer, Adam Rex, Mac Barnett, Christopher Paul Curtis, Kate DiCamillo, and more more more.


Illustration by way of Adam Rex for Paul Feig’s story,
“My Parents Give My Bedroom to a Biker”
from
Guys Read: Funny Business
(forthcoming—September 2010—from Walden Pond Press)

More volumes to follow with original stories in genres like Mystery/Thriller, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Non-Fiction . . . . Our plan is to have a whole set of Guys Read books where guys are sure to find something they like — and sure to be inspired by writing they didn’t know they liked.

* * * * * * *

Boring But Very Necessary Copyright Info. Okay, Where Do I Even Begin?

Interior art from Spaceheadz © 2010 Shane Prigmore and used with permission of Simon & Schuster.

Interior art from The Search for Wondla © 2010 Tony DiTerlizzi and used with his permission.

Interior art from Cowboy & Octopus © 2007 Lane Smith and used with his permission.

Interior art and early sketches from The Stinky Cheese Man… used with permission of Lane Smith.

Interior art from Guys Read: Funny Business © 2010 Adam Rex and used with his permission.

All other images, with the exception of book covers, used with permission of Jon Scieszka.

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11 comments to “One Impossible Visit from Jon Scieszka Before Breakfast (with a few illustrators stopping by…hey, let’s make it a party!)

  1. I did want Former Ambassador Scieszka to stay in his position for a good while longer, but I daresay that Ambassador Paterson is going to have a ball with the job. I mean, what with the sash and the salaaming and the fanfare and all.

    Holy moly.

    I love Major Fluffy. Somehow that name is absolutely, perfectly … terrifying.


  2. *chanting* Cowboy and Octopus! Cowboy and Octopus!

    I’ve had the distinct pleasure of being in the presence of His Royal Sashness once at Books of Wonder, just a few words exchanged in a booksigning line — but he completely charmed me. A man of mega charisma and infinite kindness. And crazy, of course.

    Lurv his work! I’m worried about Major Fluffy, though.


  3. EEEEEEK. Eeee eee weee weeee eeee eee? Weeee eeeek. Eeeeeek! Eeeeeek! http://majorfluffy.wordpress.com/

    BE SPHDZ!! http://sphdz.com


  4. I became a big Scieszka fan when I was an elementary school librarian. Then I became an even bigger fan when, in the early days of the internets, I found his email address — and he emailed me back with encouragement to write! (What a guy, eh?)

    Then I started reading his books to my classes. By rough calculations, I’ve read “True Story…”, “Stinky Cheeseman…” and the first four of the Time Warp Trio books to over 600 kids.

    This is one great interview. Many thanks for posting it!

    – Tom


  5. Avid reader of your blog. Love it. Excellent job!

    And look what I found today: http://designismine.blogspot.com/2010/09/thought-of-day-impossible-things.html


  6. As usual you show us all how this interviewing thing is done Jules. Awesome.

    And more Cowboy & Octopus? VERY AWESOME


  7. MORE COWBOY & OCTOPUS!

    Thanks for this interview, guys!


  8. Jules, both you and Mr. Scieszka are rockin’ the blog with this interview Energy just jumping off the page. Lot of fun. Thanks.

    My favorite side foray? I went to Bob Spaceheadz’s facebook page and at the top there is this standard facebook message:

    “Wrong Bob Spaceheadz? Search for others:”

    Ha!ha!


  9. Whoah. I’ve been wondering when I’d see a really good multimedia book series and apparently it’s here. Earlier than expected.

    I’ll be keeping my out for these, because I think we’ll be seeing more and more digitally enhanced books in the future, especially with e-readers.

    Very cool interview. Thanks!


  10. Let me join the COWBOY AND OCTOPUS chant. That’s one of those books Jason and I read in storytimes together (Jason is Cowboy, I am Octopus), and it just gets everyone (including us) laughing.

    Also, I feel it is worth noting that I own a roll of Spaceheadz toilet paper. I keep it in my guest bathroom, the way some people keep nice soaps.


  11. Ditto on the Cowboy and Octopus movement. Great interview. Fun, fun!


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