An Interview with the Master of Twisted Children’s Literature
Written by Bwog Staff
Bwog editor emerita Sara Vogel bumped into Jon Scieszka, one of her childhood heroes, on 112th street and Broadway a few weeks ago. When she found out that the author of The Stinky Cheese Man and other Fairly Stupid Tales, Math Curse, and the Time Warp Trio series got his Master’s at Columbia in the late 70’s, she took down his number, and followed up. He’s planning a new series about trucks and books about a cowboy and an octopus, and he’s on the board of 826NYC – for all of you non-McSweeneyites, the tutoring center disguised as the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co. Here Scieszka muses about kindergarteners, coming up with Borat way before Sasha Cohen, and why he’s second best to Roald Dahl.
So sorry I accosted you on the street the other day.
No, I thought that was kind of funny.
Does that happen to you a lot, where you get people recognizing you and stopping you on the street?
Not so much. But I was out in Arizona on a book tour and one little guy asked me if I had security. Like he was wondering if I had a body guard or something. I said, “No, most people don’t even know what I look like.” Except there’s this whole little crew of kindergarteners that I was working with last year that will wave to me on the street and go, “Hi Jon Scieszka.” And their parents will go, “Who was that guy? Who are you talking to?”
Why were you working with kindergarteners?
I’m actually working on this pre-school project where I’ve thought up this whole world called ‘Trucktown’ where all the characters are trucks. I definitely needed to get into the classroom to see what four-year-olds are like.
What’d you learn?
Mostly that kindergarteners are like little guys with Alzheimer’s on acid. They are nuts, man. It’s like the world is completely reinvented for them every fifteen minutes. Any kind of parody or satire, which is what I really enjoy writing, just is way beyond them. Since the world is so brand new every fifteen minutes, you can’t really make fun of it. They don’t even know what the rules are for the regular world. We were in there for Saint Patrick’s Day and the teacher was telling them, “Oh, well if you don’t wear green, the Leprechaun is going to come around and pinch you” and immediately half the kids looked really worried. They thought “oh no, I don’t have green on, I’m going to get pinched!”
Would you ever write for adults?
Weirdly that’s where I started because I came out here to New York to go to the Master’s Program. I spent a year at Brooklyn College because I liked a lot of the writers who were out there, and then I finished up my MFA at Columbia. I was all about writing for adults then. Carlos Fuentes was up there, and Chip McGrath…these were spectacular guys to be working with. I think I always saw myself as some brooding, Eastern European Kafka kind of writer.
What was Columbia like for you?
It was an interesting time to have an audience. That’s the one great thing that an MFA program does. It forces you to write stuff and have it on a deadline and then have to listen to what people say.
In fact, I was sort of running into the deadline, I think we needed something like 150 pages of fiction at the end of the year and so I was about 50 pages short. So I thought of this idea, “Why don’t I write a history of the US, as written by a Latvian immigrant?” So I had the guy completely organize it according to chapters, he wrote a forward; I wrote an editor’s foreword to the foreword. It was goofing around with the form of storytelling, which I really liked. It was “Mythical American Histories, Ivan Kupala,” who was like my early version of Borat, who just completely misunderstands American myths of how the country started, like Pilgrims landing on Plymouth rock. He doesn’t believe that that many pilgrims could actually stand on the rock, so he does these mathematical equations on yet another page. That’s like four pages there already!
Soon I realized there’s one, two places in the world that would actually pay for that. I discovered my audience in second grade when I started teaching.
But I’m thinking about working on a novel for like, eighth graders, so maybe eventually adults. But I get such a kick out of the kids because they’re so committed to a book. It kind of spoils you for any other kind of audience. Adults aren’t like that. Half of them aren’t even paying attention, or they’re reading the book backwards, reading through it or skipping pages.
Why do you think your books work with kids, especially the ones that take a twist on favorite stories?
I think kids feel good about themselves for getting the joke. I did see that with the kindergarteners when they started getting the knock-knock joke, or, sort of getting the knock-knock joke. They would like explain to their friends why it was so funny. “See, he says, ‘Lettuce in!’” I think that’s what being a reader is all about. You see what the form is, and then you see, “Oh, it got twisted.”
A few authors that have that kind of humor. Do you ever get comparisons to Roald Dahl?
Definitely from my teaching days he was one of my favorites. His stuff was so funny and so readable. But I know teachers that wouldn’t read it. One teacher in particular disagreed with the way he described the grandma’s mouth as all puckered “like a dog’s bottom,” which was like my favorite line in the whole book [George’s Marvelous Medicine]. One of my favorite letters I ever got was from a kid who said he had to write to his favorite author but Roald Dahl was dead, so he was going to write to me. I thought, “That’s kind of nice, I at least get to be second best to Roald Dahl.”