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Turning Boys into Readers: An Interview with Children's Literature Laureate Jon Scieszka

vonzastrowc's picture

scieszka.jpg Even with a name that's murder to spell and downright painful to type, Jon Scieszka has become one of the nation's most celebrated and beloved children's book authors--and he has recently added a new honor to his store:  In January, the Library of Congress named him the nation's first Ambassador for Children's Literature.  But with honor comes great responsibility.  Scieszka, who has sold more than 11 million books worldwide, will spend his term reaching out to children, parents and teachers as a missionary for reading.

As part of my celebration of NEA's Read Across America, I was lucky enough to speak with Jon about his ambassadorial duties, his long-term efforts to encourage more children to read, and some of his forthcoming projects.

scieszka2.jpgThe man who wrote The Stinky Cheese Man and The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs (as told from the Wolf's perspective) focused on his concern that boys in particular are becoming ever more reluctant readers.

 He offered several thoughts for turning boys on to reading:

  • Give them greater choice in what they read--Reading shouldn't be a bitter pill;
  • Give them more male role models who read for pleasure;
  • Don't demonize electronic media. Use those media to support boys' reading; 

Scieszka has been actively promoting this agenda through Guys Read, a literacy program and website that aims to "motivate boys to read by connecting them with materials they will want to read, in ways they like to read."

By the way, it rhymes with "Fresca". 


[Listen to about four minutes of highlights from this interview - you can read a transcript of those highlights below.  You can also click here for the full 17-minute version.]

Of, if you'd like, you can choose specific segments of the interview from the following list:

So, what does an Ambassador do? (2:43) 

Don't Demonize the Internet! (or Other Electronic Media) (1:44) 

What Happens When Kids Choose Their Books? (4:58)

The Guys Read Initiative (4:09) 

What's on Jon's Horizon? Trucks and Knuckleheads! (1:33)

Closing Thoughts: Think about the Kids (1:02) 

 

Highlights Transcript

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS:  You are the nation's first children's literature laureate.

SCIESZKA:  Yeah, it's actually an incredible honor.  I'm the very first National Ambassador of Young People's Literature, the official long title.  But it's a great mission.  The idea is just to find a way to let kids know all the great books that are available and to get kids reading.  And really try to get some national attention for kids and reading.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS:  It seems a lot of people are worried that children are actually reading less and less these days.  Do you think this is true?

SCIESZKA:  Yeah, unfortunately, I think it is.  That's kind of what got me involved in "Guys Read" and trying to get boys reading.  I was teaching in a classroom for 10 years here in New York City and I just saw the boys falling out of it.  All the different things competing for kids' attention now...[It] is really kind of tough for books to hold their own against all that.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS:  So do you think that electronic media are the villains here?

SCIESZKA:  I try to tell people to not demonize other media.  I think we can show kids you can get something out of books that you wouldn't get out of a video game or you wouldn't get out of a TV show.  And not to say TV is bad or video games are bad, it's just they're different.  Show [kids] how they're different.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS:  I've heard you say that we should allow boys to have a choice in what it is they read.  Do you think they don't get a choice these days in most of our reading environments?

SCIESZKA:  Yeah.  A lot of times I think we just assign kids what they have to read.  It's just boys end up fighting against that more.  And I've found this out with kids I taught in school, and then my own kids - I have a daughter and a son.  It hasn't been working, where we always prescribe to kids what they have to read.  It becomes bad medicine.  We just keep telling kids, "Go!  Take it, it'll be good for you.  Eventually you'll be able to read what you like."  Boys don't have role models, they don't get to read the kind of reading that they enjoy.

Another thing I like to recommend to parents and teachers to do is to really expand our definition of what we call reading, because boys tend to like things like nonfiction, humor, graphic novels, and that's all stuff that in school we don't "okay."  The fiction novel seems to be the height of reading.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS:  Tell me a bit more about your program, Guys Read.  Exactly how does it work?

SCIESZKA:  The first mission of Guys Read was really to even get people to notice that [there] was a problem [in getting boys reading].  And then the next step is [to] assemble titles of books guys like to read.  And the thing is, it's pretty particular.  They like very particular books.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS:  Do you have any work on the horizon you wanted to talk about?

SCIESZKA:  I've got a couple interesting things I'm working on now that kind of came out of soaking myself in this challenge of getting boys started [reading].  One is this program called "Truck Town," which is going to be 50 books over the next three years.  And all the characters are trucks.  It's specifically for pre-schoolers and first graders.         

For older guys, I just finished something that's coming out in the fall that's kind of an autobiography of me in my elementary school years, called "Knucklehead."  Which is what my dad used to call me and all my brothers.  It's stories of growing up with all my brothers.        

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS:  Do you have any major parting messages for the public education community in the Learning First Alliance?

SCIESZKA:  I would say just to let kids play around, and let them play around with reading.

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He's all the rage

The Washington Post published a story on Scieszka today.

The article includes in interesting quotation about what Scieszka calls the "death spiral" of reading, in which children's disinclination to read material that doesn't interest them makes them worse at reading, which in turn deepens their aversion to reading: "Books that appeal to a child's interests can avoid.. 'the death spiral,' which goes like this: 'It's where kids aren't reading and then are worse at reading because they aren't reading, and then they read less because it is hard and they get worse, and then they see themselves as non-readers, and it's such a shame.'"