portrait Interview with Jon Scieszka

interviewed by Ryan Boudinot

Published in Issue No. 19 ~ December, 1998

Jon Scieszka is the author of the most subversive and intelligent children’s books around. He has teamed up with a number of illustrators, most notably Lane Smith, who has lent a funky, dadaist aesthetic to Scieszka’s stories of bacteria, processed meat products, time-traveling kids and, of course, stinky cheese. Scieszka is the author of, among other things, The Stinky Cheese Man and other Fairly Stupid Tales, the Time Warp Trio books, and the new Squids Will Be Squids. We conversed via email.

Ryan Boudinot: I spoke to my sister (age 14) last night and she said her copy of The Stinky Cheese Man physically stinks. What’d you guys do, use bleu cheese dressing in the ink?

Jon Scieszka: We have many cheese secrets too strong, too overpowering, too life-changing to be shared. The answer to your question is one of those secrets.

RB: Your new book is kind of a way to introduce readers to Aesop. What do Aesop’s fables look like to the kid who’s read Squids Will Be Squids first? For that matter, what do fairy tales look like after The Stinky Cheese Man? How is the ginger bread man handling all of this?

JS: Kids in general have a much more flexible intelligence than adults ever give them credit for. They may first read the Squid Fables and the Stinky Fairy Tales for pure entertainment, but when they come upon Aesop and the Grimm Brothers later, they get the connection between the old and the new. I’ve found that it’s more the inflexible adult mind that thinks every kid has to know all of the “classic” fables and fairy tales before they can understand these new versions. But if adults were to think back on their own experience, they might remember that they first heard modern fairy tales and fables through cartoons like “Rocky and Bullwinkle” and the old Warner Bros. cartoons and Disney and advertising before they read the “classic” versions.

RB: I enjoy how you don’t talk down to your readers and acknowledge how savvy they are. At the same time, you seem intent on giving them something valuable, or if I’m allowed to say it, educational. How do you strike a balance between irreverence and instructiveness without seeming shallow on one hand and preachy on the other?

JS: With ten years of teaching elementary school (everything from 1st grade to 8th grade), I learned a lot from kids about how people learn. Most adults don’t believe you can learn anything when you are playing around. Most kids instinctively know the truth – that the best way to learn is by playing around. “Educational” has come to be a dirty word because people think education means drill and practice. To me education means playing around in the best way. Our books invite kids to ask questions, challenge assumptions, and have fun doing it. They also include many excellent words like “stinky,” “stupid” and “beefsnakstik.”

RB: What kinds of readers do you think the kids who read your books will grow up to be? What kinds of books will they read after being exposed to beefsnakstik and the Time Warp Trio?

JS: I hope the kids reading my books grow up to be expansive readers – readers who take on all kinds of texts from comic books to Bibles to matchbook covers and everything in between. I hope they grow up to be questioning readers, fearless readers, subversive readers who question the status quo. And the good news is, that after they’ve read Beefsnakstik and Stinky and the Time Warp Trio, they can follow any one of the reading clues in those stories – fables, fairy tales, history, science, anthropology, cheese mongering, meat by-product wrappers… The possibilities are endless.

RB: How do you and Lane Smith work together? Do you have the story pretty much done and he simply illustrates it, or does he have a hand in the actual telling?

JS: I usually have my stories pretty well finished and polished before I show them to Lane. Then he takes off on sketching up his ideas. Then we collaborate with his wife, Molly Leach, who designs our books to fit everything together as one. Within that process we all give and take and change things, but also leave each other free to do what we each do best.

RB: What’s the most hilarious thing a kid ever said about a book you’ve written?

JS: I always like the kids who write to tell me that their favorite author is someone like Roald Dahl but he’s dead so they’re writing to me. But my latest favorite letter was from a kid who wrote, “I really like all your Time Warp books. They are fantastic. But I think you should get David Weisner to do the illustrations.” I made several copies of that letter to show to Lane.

RB: Why is Dr. Seuss so dang cool?

JS: A lot of people take Dr. Seuss for granted now. But he was an absolute one-man revolution who exploded the possibilities of the kids book world. When I was growing up, school made us read those “Dick and Jane” books that are from another planet. When I first heard Dr. Seuss’ language and saw those funky pictures, I remember thinking that this was more real than any of those beginner readers. So he is someone who changed the way (and still changes the way) kids think.

The kids book world is such a great place to be because it keeps alive a wonderful bunch of writing. Something like Goodnight Moon has become a classic because it is a beautifully realized picture book. It wasn’t a plan by a marketing team, or an advertising campaign, or a focus group consensus – it’s a book that kids and parents have read and loved. In the same way, all kinds of fantastically subversive books have made it past the supposed guardians of “good taste” and “good literature” and become favorites because kids love them. Most of the work of Roald Dahl fits into this category. And I also love Daniel Pinkwater’s books for their questioning spirit.

RB: What other kinds of books did you read as a kid and what kinds of books do you read now?

JS: I read all kinds of stuff when I was little. My dad was an elementary school principal so we always had plenty of books around. I loved Go Dog Go, Caps for Sale, and The Carrot Seed. I made my mom read me Green Eggs and Ham a million times. I also loved leafing through The Golden Book Encyclopedia and “How and Why Wonder Books” and reading the back of cereal boxes and Mad magazine and Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos comic books.

I re-read my favorite books all the time because I experience a new reading of them at every different age. The Don Quixote I read when I was a junior in college is not the same Don Quixote I read now. I re-read The Carrot Seed, Gravity’s Rainbow, Go Dog Go, George and Martha, Tristram Shandy, Frog and Toad, Lord of the Flies, Green Eggs and Ham, myths, legends, fairy tales, fables, humor pieces by Benchley, Perleman, Cuppy… all the time because they are all stories rich enough to re-experience.

RB: I see kids all the time, especially at places like the mall, who look like they’re so pumped full of stimuli they’re about to explode. What are they trying to tell us?

JS: Kids are bombarded by probably more stimuli than ever before. But the good news is that kids are the ones who will adapt and change and grow brains that can process and use more and more. My 14-year-old daughter can listen to music while she talks on the phone and composes (and types) an essay on The Odyssey. I can’t do that. I think a lot of the people who grouse about kids not being like they used to be are afraid to admit that kids are faster and smarter and maybe just different than they used to be.

RB: Lately I’ve been playing with the idea of literature as a continuum, without barriers of genre. I’ve been thinking children’s literature is probably the most important lit there is, and that it should just be another part of any adult’s reading life as much as “grown up” books.

JS: I think you’re definitely onto something considering kids books as an important part of a broader literary continuum. In addition to being great fun, it’s a return to an earlier (and I think more integrated) approach to stories where fairy tales, fables, myths, and legends were told to all ages. Every different reader or listener brings different experiences to their understanding of a story. That’s okay. In fact, it’s more than okay. It’s the best way to experience stories. We shouldn’t feel we have to pre-determine the age at which listeners will “understand” every story.

I get most annoyed now at insecure adults who tell me that my books are not really for kids. I used to take it as a compliment to the multi-layered depth of a story that could entertain both kids and adults. Now in my crotchety old age I only see these adults thinking they are superior to children in every way and unable to imagine that they might enjoy something so lowly as a children’s book. Genre-bound, they must conclude therefore, that this can only be a book for adults. AIIIIIEEEEEEEEEEEEE!

RB: Honestly, now. Cheddar or American?

JS: I must admit that I am a huge fan of nearly every cheese I have ever met. Raised on humble supermarket Colby and Kraft American, I now love Cheddar, Cheshire, Camembert, Brie, Gouda, Reblochon, Taleggio, Chevre, Gorgonzola and more. I haven’t forgotten my cheese roots, I still love my foldable American and meltable Colby, but I don’t ever cross the line and descend to Individually Wrapped Slices or Spray Cheese Food Product.

RB: Oh yeah. How do you pronounce your name?

JS: “Sheh-ska”

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Ryan Boudinot is currently at work on a novel and a collection of short stories. He attends the Bennington Writing Seminars and lives in Seattle.