Seven Impossible Interviews Before Breakfast #53 (Winter Blog Blast Tour Edition): Jon Scieszka

h1 November 6th, 2007 by Eisha and Jules

{Note: Please see the post below this one for today’s Robert’s Snow schedule}

One More Note: This is our second entry in this week’s Winter Blog Blast Tour. To see the master schedule of all interviews this week, go here at Chasing Ray, and for today’s schedule of interviews, scroll to the bottom of this post. We will also be interviewing Jack Gantos on Thursday and YA author Gabrielle Zevin on Friday of this week.

It’s difficult to do an interview with the one and only Jon Scieszka (drawn in caricature here by Adam Rex and used with Adam’s permission) when it’s coming on the heels of the informative interview in the most recent special issue of the Horn Book (the September/October issue), “Boys and Girls.” There was also Roger Sutton’s August podcast interview with Jon, which can still be accessed here, in which Jon discusses teaching, reading, and the singular wit of second graders.

But we interviewed him anyway, ’cause we could not pass up the chance. If you’re a children’s lit aficionado who has been living under a rock, we suppose you might need a Scieszka 101, but arguably he’s an author who needs no introduction. But here’s a brief rundown:

If you didn’t already know that Jon started out as an elementary teacher, you may not be surprised to hear it, since his books are loved by children with an intensity that rivals the heat of the sun. As his bio at his site states, “{h}e started as a 1st grade Assistant Teacher, graduated to teaching 2nd grade, taught 3rd and 4th grade Math, 5th grade History, and then some 6th, 7th and 8th grade. Teaching school, Jon re-discovered how smart kids are, and found the best audience for the weird and funny stories he had always liked to read and write.” After meeting illustrator Lane Smith, Jon gave him the text for a story he had named A. Wolf’s Tale. Lane drew some illustrations for the story, and it was then promptly rejected by several publishers. Eventually, in 1989 it was published after an editor at Viking said she liked it, and that book was the wildly popular and widely-acclaimed The True Story of the Three Little Pigs (“There has obviously been some kind of mistake,” writes Alexander T. Wolf from the pig penitentiary where he’s doing time for his alleged crimes of ten years ago). Can anyone else believe that book will be twenty years old soon? But we digress . . . Over three million copies of that book have been sold to date, and it’s been translated into fourteen different languages.

For almost twenty years now, Jon — who also founded Guys Read in 2001, a literary organization to promote literacy in men and boys — and Lane have collaborated on a whole slew ‘o’ books (how’s that for precise?), including the Time Warp Trio books (now an animated television series). Molly Leach, Lane’s wife, has designed their picture books. You know ’em and you (likely) love ’em: the classic Stinky Cheese Man and other Fairly Stupid Tales from 1992 (like Adam Rex said about himself in the above link to his caricature of Jon, Jules remembers seeing that book while working in a bookstore — way before she ever knew picture books could be that great and that cool and that fun and that clever — and being wow’ed. That book probably single-handedly turned a lot of folks on to children’s lit); 1995’s Math Curse and 2004’s Science Verse; 2001’s Baloney (Henry P.); and more, including their most recent book, which is made of 100% organic awesome-ness (no fillers) — Cowboy & Octopus, published in September by Viking and reviewed here by Jules (and which Jon discusses a bit below).

Currently, Jon is collaborating with illustrators on an original publishing program/preschool series, entitled Trucktown, scheduled to be published in ’08 by Simon & Schuster. It’s a world in which everybody is a truck: “And all of the trucks,” he writes at his site, “act like real preschoolers — loud and crazy and wild and funny” . . . “This rough and tumble, high octane, boisterous series can boast having the very best that children’s books have to offer under its hood — its enormous commercial appeal with a strong literary core,” the Trucktown site states.

As great as Jon’s books are, and as fabulous as our interview is (heh), you should really take any chance you can get to hear him speak in person. He’s every bit as funny and animated as you think he would be, but he’s also brilliant and completely devoted to the cause of getting kids (especially those reluctant boys) to read.

If you don’t have the chance to see him in person any time soon, you can sate yourself with this video of Jon and Mo Willems as members of a Precision Drill Cart Competition at ALA in 2006. Jon’s the one in the bathrobe and cheese hat lurking on the sidelines until the last few seconds of the routine:

We are so thrilled to have the honor of interviewing one of our literary heroes. Big thanks are due to Jon for taking the time to converse with us. Enjoy the interview!

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7-Imp: How did you get to be so awesome? (See also the response to question #1 in our recent interview with Adam Rex) . . .

Jon: I can’t believe that damn Adam Rex gave away the secret -– the total montage of ninjutsu, beach sprints, and wearing the headband. Good thing he left out the part about leg-wrestling Chuck Norris, and the fact that the montage is more TEAM AMERICA style.

7-Imp: What advice do you have for an author who wants to write books which middle-grade boys will read and enjoy?

Jon: Go hang out with middle grade boys for a while. You have to re-experience what it is like to be a middle schooler. Do not trust your hazy, cool-corrected memory of having been a middle schooler. Action-driven plots with plenty of humor and lots of insults will also help you. This is one of those skills that cannot be acquired by montage.

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?

photo from Jon's recent visit to ChinaJon (pictured here in a recent visit to China): 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.

7-Imp: On that note, how can we best eradicate the condescension that sometimes rears its head in schools when it comes to what a lot of (but not all, of course) boys (and some girls, to be sure!) like to read -– things like comics, nonfiction magazines, newspapers, technical manuals, etc.? Do we need to start by examining the notion that girls are seen as the standard in schools, “so boys are only defective girls,” as you explained in the recent Horn Book interview when you talked about psychologist Michael Gurian’s book?

Jon: I don’t think the preference for fiction is as harsh as the word “condescension” might imply. A lot of teachers and librarians just prefer literary fiction. So they naturally want to share this excitement and preference with kids. I’ve found that when I describe to teachers/librarians/parents that their kids might just enjoy kinds of reading different from ours, they get it right away. We just need to keep spreading the word.

7-Imp: What do you miss most about teaching? What do you miss the least?

Jon: I miss hanging out and growing up with a group of second graders. It is absolutely mind-boggling to see what those little guys learn in a year. I don’t miss faculty meetings. It’s equally mind-boggling to see what doesn’t change in a year.

7-Imp: We think Cowboy & Octopus is terrifically funny (and so do a lot of our blog’s readers) and that it channels the clever and witty and warm spirit of James Marshall’s George and Martha stories in a way no other book since those books have done. Can you talk a little bit about the composition of those stories? Did you originally set out to write seven separate stories? And, please oh please, tell us there will be another book featuring this duo, that their “Adios Amigos” was only temporary.

Jon: I’m so glad you and your blogsters appreciated the kid-centered humor and GeorgeandMarthaness of Cowboy & Octopus. It was a very conscious homage to all of James Marshall’s George and Martha tales and to Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad adventures. I read those, and loved those, with my second graders a kajillion times each. This was the first book with Lane where I had an idea for the art before I wrote the stories. I found a Dover clip-art octopus and a clip art cowboy and just started playing around with them. I wrote probably 15 or 20 stories just getting to know these guys. And I really don’t like to do sequels (kids talked me into doing Science Verse, I swear). But it would be kind of cool to have a lot of stories about these pals. They crack me up.

7-Imp: How weird was it to see your Time Warp Trio books become a cartoon series? And a graphic novel series, too? Are they getting it right, more or less, or do they kinda make you cringe?

Jon: I worked on both the TV series and the graphic novels with the writers/producers/
publishers. So I think we got it as close as possible, given the constraints of the different media. I love seeing the Time Warp guys in different formats. In fact, I think it’s our duty to create good TV, and good graphic novels, and good online stories for kids. Though we probably don’t need Stinky Cheese ringtones from Verizon.

7-Imp: Do you realize how many elementary school librarians want to buy you a drink for the fact that The Stinky Cheese Man educates children about book features (title, table of contents, copyright notice, endpapers, etc.) by poking fun at those conventions? And that’s ‘cause teaching the parts of a book can be so boring (but necessary). Did you all set out to do that, or did that idea come up later when discussing the book’s design? (I — Jules, that is — wanted to ask an altogether more profound question about this book, but this is what came out).

Jon: I’m sure Jules wanted to ask more about the meta-fictional and fractal nature of the Stinky Cheese Man stories and design, but I’m glad to say that the same answer will work for both questions: Stinky came together as a combination of my love of metafictional writers like Cervantes and Borges and Barth and Pynchon and my experience of seeing kids crack up when they found obvious mistakes. I set out to break every rule of story-telling and book making that I could, and hopefully entertain, then sneakily educate kids along the way.

7-Imp: For those of our readers who haven’t heard or read about the wonderfully loud, raucous Trucktown, can you tell us a bit about that? What was it like to collaborate on character development with all those talented illustrators? (And did you help design that Simon & Schuster office, made to look like a garage — cool!)? Are you working on any other new books that you can tell us about?

Jon: Trucktown was just an absolute thrill to work on. I came up with the idea of a loud, funny book series all about trucks for pre-schoolers/kindergartners. S&S went nuts and turned it into 52 books over the next 3 years with Dave Shannon, Loren Long, and Dave Gordon designing the characters and backgrounds. We put it together like a movie -– with a Series Bible that I wrote and a Style Guide we all collaborated on together. We did a lot of work online, but then met up for the final design in NY where we dressed up in our Trucktown overalls, and worked for a solid week in the S&S conference room that they had a theater designer turn into a garage. I’m writing 4 picture books, 12 of the Ready-To-Reads, and supervising all of the board books, coloring and activity books, sticker books, you-name-it books . . .

There’s a good look at the Garage, and some of the pre-K kids I worked with for a year here.

I want Trucktown to be those books a little pre-K kid sees on the first day of school, picks up, and then thinks, “Yeah, this whole reading thing could be for me.”

7-Imp: What are some of the more memorable questions/comments you’ve received from an audience member at a school visit/reading?

Jon: My favorite is probably, “Is that your real name?” Though a close second is, “Do you have a real job?”

7-Imp: What, if anything, do you consider the most valuable advice for an up-and-coming picture book author today?

Jon: Go read your story to a group of kids. Repeat 30 times. Their reactions (or lack of) will tell you everything you need to know about how your story is working.

7-Imp: We know you briefly address your writing process on the FAQs page of your web site. So, even though we’re dying to ask about it, we won’t. But may we ask: Do you and Lane Smith (and/or Molly Leach) collaborate from moment one, or do you typically provide the text first? And one more quick “process” question: Do you outline a great deal of the book you’re creating before you write or just let your muse lead you on and see where you end up?

Jon: I always start with a pretty advanced/edited/kid-tested version of the text. It’s easier for Lane to illustrate that story . . . rather than have to change too much if I change the text later. And I outline all of the Time Warps because they are so necessarily structured the same. But the other texts? Anything goes. Middle first, sometimes end, sometimes title, sometimes punchline.

7-Imp: On that note, we know authors probably always get asked: “How long does it take you to write a book?” Therefore, we risk sounding very trite asking you this, but really, it must have taken longer than usual to write the “language game” (as Publishers Weekly put it) that Baloney (Henry P.) is. What was your process like for that one?

Jon: I owe much of Baloney, Henry P. to the translating wonders of and a portable language translator called a LINGO. Special thanks also to Finnish for having such deliciously weird words.

7-Imp: If you could have three (living) authors and/or illustrators — whom you have not yet met — over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?

Jon: Terry Pratchett, because I am such a mental fan of his Discworld books. Jack Gantos, even though we’ve met a bunch of times (because as you know I like to break rules), and also because Jack is one of the most wickedly funny guys I know. And Dick Cheney, because I’ve got some questions I want to ask him, and I know Jack and I could get some answers.

The Pivot Questionnaire:

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Jon: Today it is “kerfuffle.”

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Jon: “Deplane.” I refuse to deplane.

7-Imp: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Jon: Kids. The pure genius, goodness, evil, and funniness of kids drives all of my writing.

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Jon: Dickpipe adults who underestimate kids.

7-Imp: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Jon: “Dickpipe.” A word invented last year by lexicographer Steven Weinberg. He’s trying to make it an accepted word by always dropping it into conversations. I’m helping.

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you love?

Jon: Kids laughing at the funny parts of my books. Also the blorping sound of oatmeal as it’s cooking and just about done.

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you hate?

Jon: Screeching glass on glass is pretty nasty. And a cat getting ready to yack is distinctively unlikeable.

7-Imp: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Friedrich NietszcheJon: I don’t know that it would be called a profession, but I would like to be the guy who is in charge of all of the hunting for a small tribe living on a beautiful tropical island with a lot of fish and game. I’d be The Hunter.

7-Imp: What profession would you not like to do?

Jon: Toll booth guy at the Brooklyn entrance to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel.

7-Imp: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Jon: “Scieszka -– Ha! Just kidding. There is no God. It’s me: Friedrich Nietzsche. Come on. Pratchett and Gantos are already on the second bottle.”

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For more online information on Jon Scieszka:

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Winter Blog Blast Tour interview schedule for Tuesday, November 6, 2007:

27 comments to “Seven Impossible Interviews Before Breakfast #53 (Winter Blog Blast Tour Edition): Jon Scieszka”

  1. I am going to be laughing about that last line ALL DAY.

  2. Ladies,

    This has been great–two super interviews in two days! I love Jon’s wacky sense of humor. If you recall from my 7-Imp interview, Jon was one of the authors I wanted to invite over for a glass of wine.

    I taught second grade for many years. Jon is right. Humor and kids go together. I loved to read books and poems that made my students laugh…that brought them joy. I hope I have the opportunity to meet Jon some day. I love being around funny, bright, talented people.

    Tell Jon I’ll cook him up a batch of homemade pierogi if he calls ahead when he’s planning a visit to my neck of the woods.

  3. I refuse to “deplane” too, as long as Jon is talking, writing, or making me laugh.

  4. You want to know something funny, which I think I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog recently? My husband teases me — I want to emphasize that he’s just teasing — about me reading “chicklit” and me never, ever wanting to read the books that he likes (mostly science fiction). He teases, ’cause he knows I LOATHE the phrase “chick lit.” So, one day when we were discussing this during dinner — and BEFORE Jon jokingly used the phrase “dicklit” in the recent Horn Book interview — my husband TOTALLY used that word. He came up with “dicklit” on the spot, as in I just need to read and review more dicklit at our blog (again, he’s joking) — and I laughed so hard I thought I’d choke on my food. I thought he had stumbled upon a great, new catch-phrase.

    And then Jon used the same word in the Horn Book interview, and oh my was it funny. Maybe Jon and my husband are psychic brain twins. Or, I dunno, maybe people have been walking around saying “dicklit” forever now, and it’s just all new to me.

  5. I think if Jules is married to Jon’s psychic brain twin that she’s very lucky. And very likely to be choking on a lot of food. (Do you think dickpipes read dicklit mostly?)
    OK, I laughed and laughed at this interview, natch, but y’know what I really loved? An author who says, “Reading doesn’t have to be everyone’s favorite activity.” Y’know? I mean, we may all eat books for breakfast, lunch and supper but the kids we’re writing for may have a few other ideas. A game of marbles every once in awhile. Right? I just think Jon’s respect for kids is monumentally awesome…

  6. Liz, I don’t mean to hog the comments here, but this is what I LOVE LOVE, too — just to hear a children’s lit author say this is monumental, indeed. Really.

    You put it very well, too — yes, I might eat, breathe, and die books, but even with my own wee daughters, I try to remind myself all the time that there are different kinds of learning and that if one of them ends up being a more, I dunno, kinesthetic learner, say, or whatever…and doesn’t enjoy reading, that it’s really all a-okay. I used to be a sign language interpreter, and people assume I’m signing ASL with my daughters all the time, too. But just ’cause I have an interest in the gorgeous language that is ASL doesn’t necessarily mean my daughters will, too. If they’re interested in it later, great. But I’m not gonna push it.

    Anyway, yes, when Jon talked about that in the Horn Book interview, I think I squealed. Lots of really brilliant people I know don’t care for reading. Just ’cause I would rather sit inside and read with a cup of coffee in hand over just about anything else (other than being with my family) doesn’t mean that the child who would rather play outside is suffering in some way.

  7. I am so adding “dickpipe” to my vocabulary, and to that of my teen daughters by association.

    What a great, stand-up kind of guy. I love authors who really love kids and “get” them, and who think about their audience and craft equally and with such great respect.

    Kudos to you guys for a great interview, and to Jon for being made of awesome.

  8. Fantastic interview! “the blorping sound of oatmeal as it’s cooking and just about done.” Blorping. Love that word. 😀

  9. If you will indulge me in a bit of fan-girldom here, I have had a glass of red wine with Jon Sciezka… or rather, in the same room as Jon Sciezka. He is definitely someone you don’t mind at all being the life of the party.:)

  10. […] at Chasing Ray Perry Moore at Interactive Reader Christopher Barzak at Shaken & Stirred Jon Scieszka at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast Gabrielle Zevin at Jen Robinson’s Book Page Judy Blume at Not Your Mother’s Book Club […]

  11. Oh, my word. Jon is too funny! I love this interview. Thankfully I had finished drinking my coffee before reading this interview.

  12. […] Oh, yes. That perception has changed entirely. Look at Dan Handler, or Jon Scieszka, or J.K. Rowling. They’ve busted the pink bubble mold forever. We should all be grateful to […]

  13. Enjoying Time Warp Trio

  14. […] Check out 7-Imp’s interview with the amazing Jon Scieszka here. […]

  15. […] U.S. in 1997, and shortly after arriving, I came across the picture book The Stinky Cheese Man by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith. That book rocked my world. I thought it was the most amazing thing I had ever seen! […]

  16. […] whole X-Station 5000 bit in Book 2 made me think of part of what Jon Scieszka said he’d talk about during his term as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature: […]

  17. […] in the best possible sense.” I say that the Emberleys’ version can join hands with Scieszka’s equally wacked-out version of the tale from this classic. These two versions have all the spunk […]

  18. […] pure joy is what it is. And, for further validation, it includes a word from The Cool One himself, Jon Scieszka: “So now you don’t have to moan about your mom throwing away your best comics anymore, […]

  19. […] from Jon Scieszka’s Hey Kid, Want to Buy a Bridge?,Viking Books, […]

  20. […] his bathroom when we met. Then, one day, I wandered over to his bookshelf. I remember pulling out Jon Scieszka and Steve Johnson’s The Frog Prince, Continued. I laughed out loud from the first page, […]

  21. […] 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 […]

  22. […] September he joined up with Mac Barnett, Adam Rex (who drew a rather brilliant picture of Jon here), and the aforementioned David Shannon in the Guys With Books tour.  Ostensibly they were […]

  23. […] 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 […]

  24. […] notes below, like to mess with books, deface images, channel their inner wise guy. When Mac and Jon Scieszka decided to join forces and create a picture book, Battle Bunny (Simon & Schuster), that looks […]

  25. […] kids: Sachar, Hiassen, Scieszka, […]

  26. […] to later wanting to make them myself, I think that an early seed was planted in the fourth grade. Jon Scieszka came and did a presentation for my class, and I was blown away. The Stinky Cheese Man was one of my […]

  27. […] Dahl, Dr. Seuss, and Richard Scarry, and later, she became excited about Edward Gorey, Barry Moser, Jon Scieszka/Lane Smith, or the Brothers […]

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