Children's Author/Illustrator Biographies
September 8, 1954 -
2009 Ludington Award Winner
"Jon Scieszka." Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, 2nd ed., 8 vols. Gale Group, 2002. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2007.
Photograph provided by Penguin Books for Young Readers.
"Jon Scieszka," wrote a critic in Children's Books and Their Creators, "enters classic fairy tales, turns them upside down, and exits with a smirk." In works such as The True Story of the Three Little Pigs!, The Frog Prince, Continued, The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, and Math Curse, Scieszka and his collaborator/artist friend Lane Smith bring a postmodern sense of absurdity and a satiric edge to a classic category of writing. They take away the sense of easy familiarity and boredom that sometimes surrounds modern perceptions of the fairy tale genre. "What remains," the Children's Books and Their Creators contributor concluded, "is hilarious buffoonery within these energetic, yet sophisticated parodies." Scieszka and Smith also have parodied fables and produced wildly humorous works about aliens, time travel, and a variety of other subjects, and Scieszka has become an activist for encouraging boys to read.
The fact that Scieszka's parody plays to a more mature audience has surprised some critics. His works--sold as picture books intended for beginning readers--are equally funny to older children and young adults who have grown beyond the picture-book stage and are used to sophisticated humor. In doing this he follows the pioneering examples of other great writers in children's literature, such as L. Frank Baum, E. Nesbit, and Dr. Seuss. "What Scieszka has done," wrote Patrick Jones and Christine Miller in Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, "is make a book equivalent of a happy meal--taking the things that most kids like in books like humor, adventure, fairy tales, and plain old silliness, and combining them into easy to read tomes which will indeed appeal to an audience of all ages." "Our audience is hardcore silly kids," Scieszka told Publishers Weekly interviewer Amanda Smith. "And there are a lot of 'em out there."
Scieszka was a jokester early in life; he once told another Publishers Weekly interviewer, Leonard S. Marcus, that he was "a stealth kid," making his friends laugh in class while he maintained an impassive, innocent expression. Scieszka eventually attended Columbia University and studied writing there. He intended, Smith related in her article, to "write the Great American novel." The author reported, "Then I taught first and second grade and got sidetracked." Later he realized that a children's book is a condensed short story, and since he enjoyed writing short stories, he decided to try writing children's books. He remarked that it was surprising he hadn't thought of writing for children sooner, since he came from a large family, had always loved children, was the son of an elementary school teacher, and had enjoyed being a teacher himself.
Scieszka met author and illustrator Lane Smith in the late 1980s through the women in their lives; Scieszka's wife, Jerilyn Hansen, was friends with Smith's girlfriend, Molly Leach, who later became his wife and has designed several of the Scieszka-Smith books. Scieszka took a sabbatical from teaching and began to develop book ideas with Smith. Regina Hayes at Viking Press saw the early drawings and text for The True Story of the Three Little Pigs! and decided to take a risk and publish the story. "Lane and I got turned down in a lot of places," Scieszka told Amanda Smith, "because people thought the manuscript of The Three Little Pigs was too sophisticated. That became a curse word--the 'S' word." "People don't give kids enough credit for knowing the fairy tales and being able to get what parody is," Scieszka continued. "When I taught second-graders, that's the age when they first discover parody. They're just getting those reading skills and nothing cracks them up like a joke that turns stuff upside down." Teachers confirm this idea at book signings, saying how useful the book is in teaching point of view as an important facet of any story.
The True Story of the Three Little Pigs! is the story of Alexander T. Wolf ("Call me Al"). A. Wolf has, he believes, been framed for the deaths of two of the three little pigs. This "revisionist 'autobiography,'" as Stephanie Zvirin called it in her Booklist interview with Scieszka and Lane Smith, presents the familiar story from a different aspect. "It turns out that Alexander . . . only wanted to borrow a cup of sugar for a birthday cake for his granny," wrote Roger Sutton in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. "After knocking politely on the first pig's door, Al's nose started to itch. 'I felt a sneeze coming on. Well I huffed. And I snuffed. And I sneezed a great sneeze. And do you know what? That whole darn straw house fell down.'" The scene is repeated at the wooden home of the second pig, and Al continues to the home of the third pig, where he is finally arrested, tried, and confined in the "Pig Penn."
Al maintains his innocence, as Kimberly Olson Fakih and Diane Roback reported in Publishers Weekly, by implying "that had the first two (pigs) happened to build more durable homes and the third kept a civil tongue in his head, the wolf's helpless sneezes wouldn't have toppled them." "He ably points out that wolves just naturally eat cute little animals like bunnies and sheep and pigs. It's just their normal dietary practice," explained Frank Gannon in the New York Times Book Review. "'If cheeseburgers were cute,' says A. Wolf, 'folks would probably think you were Big and Bad, too.' It's hard to argue with him on that point."
One of the factors making The True Story of the Three Little Pigs! intriguing to readers is its dark humor. There is a sly contrast between Scieszka's "innocent wolf" narrator and Lane Smith's sometimes morally ambiguous pictures. Alexander's grandmother, noted Sutton, "looks a bit all-the-better-to-eat-you-with herself, and is that a pair of bunny ears poking out of the cake batter?" "At one strategic point the letter 'N' appears as a string of sausages," observed Marilyn Fain Apseloff in the Children's Literature Association Quarterly. "After the destruction of their homes, the first two pigs are shown bottom-up in the midst of the rubble; it is hard to tell if they are really dead or are just trying to hide. We have to take the wolf's word for their demise." One view of the second little pig frames his backside between a knife and fork. The reader's final view of Alexander shows him, older, behind bars, and dressed in a convict's uniform, still trying to borrow that cup of sugar.
Scieszka's second fairy tale, The Frog Prince, Continued, was illustrated by Steve Johnson rather than Smith. As the title indicates, it takes up the story of The Frog Prince and traces it through its traditional happily-ever-after ending. It seems that the disenchanted Prince and his Princess are not well matched. "In fact," wrote Linda Boyles in School Library Journal, "they're downright miserable. He misses the pond; she's tired of him sticking out his tongue and hopping on the furniture." The Prince decides to resolve his unhappy home life by finding a witch to change him back into a frog. He encounters several witches and magic makers from other fairy tales, but none of them has the power to resolve the situation. "At the end, tired and bedraggled and ready to re-count his old blessings," explained New York Times Book Review contributor Peggy Noonan, "he returns home to a by now anxious and rueful Princess, who is eager to kiss his moist amphibian mouth." Several reviewers commented on Scieszka's continued use of a witty, mature outlook in The Frog Prince, Continued. "Like Sondheim's Into the Woods, " remarked Mary M. Burns in Horn Book, "Scieszka's tale is a sophisticated variant on traditional themes; it has a wry, adult perspective and yet is accessible to younger readers who enjoy--and understand--the art of parody and lampoon." Noonan also expressed the opinion that the book speaks best to older readers. "To fully appreciate The Frog Prince, Continued, " she stated, "you have to have a highly developed sense of irony and a sharp sense of the absurd, which most children don't develop before they can read, despite exposure to random television programming."
Scieszka and Lane Smith have also produced a series of books for younger readers called "The Time Warp Trio." The books are, according to Amanda Smith, "an introduction for children to other genres of literature." They tend to downplay the satire and parody of their picture books in favor of fast-moving plots and contemporary comedy. "I saw a need for something between a picture book and a chapter book," Scieszka told Amanda Smith. "Kids get stuck in that lull there. When I taught third and fourth grades, I couldn't find cool-looking books to hand to boys, who, for the most part, were reluctant readers and didn't want to be seen as dummies." Scieszka and Smith wanted to make the books attractive to those readers, he continued, "so they'd pick 'em up and not feel bad about walkin' around with 'em. But still make 'em short enough, action-packed
enough, disgusting enough." The titles take the three boys, Joe, Fred, and Sam, to the court of King Arthur in Knights of the Kitchen Table, to face the pirate Blackbeard in The Not-So-Jolly Roger, into the distant future to meet their own descendants in 2095, and through bizarre encounters with characters from classic children's stories in Summer Reading Is Killing Me! The books, observed a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, "demonstrate Scieszka's perfect ear for schoolyard dialogue and humor--most notably of the bodily function variety." Some of the later titles in the series are illustrated by Adam McCauley rather than Smith.
Scieszka and Smith teamed up again for The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, which takes on still more classic fairy tales. "With a relentless application of the sarcasm that tickled readers of The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, " related Diane Roback and Richard Donahue in Publishers Weekly, "Scieszka and Smith skewer a host of juvenile favorites." "Blend 'Saturday Night Live' with 'Monty Python,' add a dash of Mad magazine with maybe a touch of 'Fractured Fairy Tales' from the old 'Rocky and Bullwinkle' show," stated Horn Book contributor Mary M. Burns, "and you have an eclectic, frenetic mix of text and pictures with a kinetic display of typefaces." The stories range from "The Little Red Hen" and "Jack and the Beanstalk" to "Cinderumplestiltskin," "Little Red Running Shorts," and "The Tortoise and the Hair." Not only does Cinderella fail to win the prince, but Little Red Running Shorts out paces the wolf to Grandma's house, the Ugly Duckling grows into an Ugly Duck, and the Frog Prince turns out to be . . . a frog. Even the title character has a twist; unlike the more famous Gingerbread Man, the Stinky Cheese Man is avoided by everyone. "What marvelous liberties Scieszka and Smith take here," remarked Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books contributor Roger Sutton, "playing around with the entire case of Into the Woods, but managing to be twice as funny as Stephen Sondheim."
Some of the most noticeable aspects of The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales are its unconventional arrangement of pages--along with other surprising elements of Molly Leach's design--and its anarchic approach to storytelling. Jack and the Hen serve as commentators and narrators in the text. "The little reddish hen on the back makes fun of the ISBN, and one blurb from the flap brags that there are 73 percent more pages than 'those old 32-page "Brand X" books,'" explained Signe Wilkinson in the New York Times Book Review. "The title page reads 'Title Page' in blaring two-and-a-half-inch-tall generic black type." The Table of Contents appears in the middle of the book instead of the front. Jack complains when the first story begins on the endpapers of the book instead of the first leaf. Later he avoids being eaten by the giant by distracting him with a never-ending story. The Hen--"a kvetch if ever there was one," as Burns put it--appears at odd points in the volume, complaining about the position of her story in the book. In a dark moment, after one of these appearances she is apparently eaten by the giant. "For those that are studying fairy tales at the college level," Wilkinson stated, "'The Stinky Cheese Man' would be the perfect key to the genre, but no one would mistake it for the old-fashioned originals."
In an interview with Leonard S. Marcus for Publishers Weekly, Scieszka praised Leach's contribution to the book. "People leafing through The Stinky Cheese Man would see that something different was going on--and realize that a good part of that 'something' was Molly's design," he told Marcus. Of his continuing collaboration with both Smith and Leach, Scieszka told Teacher Librarian contributor Mary Berry, "I love to work with Lane because he is an absolute perfectionist about always making the best story, or drawing, or film, or joke possible. We trade ideas back and forth and always add on to my draft of any story. Then we do the same thing working with Lane's wife, Molly, as she designs the book."
Although The Book That Jack Wrote was not a Scieszka-Smith project--the illustrations are by Daniel Adel--it continues Scieszka's theme of taking traditional fairy tales and nursery rhymes, including the works of Lewis Carroll, and turning them upside down. Its pictures are more realistic but fully as surreal as any of the collaborations between Scieszka and Smith. "The characters are borrowed largely from children's literature--a grinning Cheshiresque cat, a cow jumping over the moon, a pieman at the fair, Humpty Dumpty, and the Mad Hatter--but they bear only a passing resemblance to their traditional forms," noted Nancy Menaldi-Scanlan in School Library Journal. "Readers who require logic will be stymied," observed Elizabeth Devereaux and Diane Roback in Publishers Weekly; "those who appreciate near-Victorian oddities and Escher-like conundrums will tumble right in." "This one," said a Kirkus Reviews contributor, "will wow even the most sophisticated."
Like The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, The Book That Jack Wrote operates on several different levels, according to the sophistication of the reader. The original rhyme, "The House That Jack Built," is very old--perhaps dating back to 1590, according to William S. and Ceil Baring-Gould in their The Annotated Mother Goose--and belongs to a class of poems known to scholars as "accumulative rhymes." It builds on a single statement and adds more and more detail with each line, like the Christmas carol "The Twelve Days of Christmas." In The Book That Jack Wrote, however, Scieszka and Adel turn this structure on its head by looping the last page to the first page--the title character appears on both pages crushed under a fallen portrait. So what appears to be a straight-line story is in fact a never-ending circle.
Math Curse, another Smith-Scieszka collaboration, "is one of the great books of the decade, if not of the century," commented Dorothy M. Broderick in Voice of Youth Advocates. The narrator, a little girl, is caught up in a remark made by her math teacher, Mrs. Fibonacci: "You know, you can turn almost anything into a math problem." "The result," according to Deborah Stevenson in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, "is a story problem gone exponentially berserk." Soon the anonymous narrator can think of nothing except math problems. "It's a math curse: for the next 24 hours no activity remains uncontaminated by this compulsive perspective," explained Amy Edith Johnson in the New York Times Book Review. She finally "breaks out of her prison," Stevenson continued, "by using two halves of chalk to make a (w)hole."
As in Scieszka and Smith's earlier works, Math Curse slyly introduces mature elements of humor. Mrs. Fibonacci likes to count using the Fibonacci series of numbers. The author and illustrator credits are contained within a Venn diagram, and the price is written in binary rather than Arabic numerals. Like a traditional math textbook, the answers to the questions are printed in the book: in this case, they appear upside-down on the back cover. "This isn't coating math with fun to make it palatable," remarked Stevenson, "it's genuine math as genuine fun." Scieszka and Smith, Johnson concluded, "capture a genuine intellectual phenomenon: possession . . . that can swallow up a student, generally in junior high school, as systems of thought spring into three dimensions and ideas become worlds--for a time."
In Squids Will Be Squids: Fresh Morals, Beastly Fables, Scieszka and Smith offer a new twist on fables, as their earlier works did for fairy tales. The stories are billed as "fables that Aesop might have told if he were alive today and sitting in the back of the class daydreaming," and their morals include "Don't ever listen to a talking bug" and "You should always tell the truth. But if your mom is out having the hair taken off her lip, you might want to forget a few of the details." "As with all successful parodies . . . the reader does not need to know the original to appreciate the caricature," commented New York Times Book Review contributor Patricia Marx, who described the book as "a funny collection of warped fables." Roger Sutton, writing in Horn Book, remarked that "the humor is definitely juvenile and wears a little thin, but Scieszka has perfect pitch when it comes to this kind of thing." A Publishers Weekly reviewer thought Scieszka and Smith, even while sending up the genre, pay "tribute to the original fables' economy and moral intent. . . . Beneath this duo's playful eccentricity readers will discover some powerful insights into human nature."
Scieszka and Smith teamed up again for Baloney (Henry P.), a tale of a creature on another planet who is chronically late for school, so he comes up with creative excuses in a most unusual language. This language includes many foreign words and some coined by Scieszka; a guide at the end of the book helps readers translate. "The message of the book . . . is that mysterious words are not frightening but fun," related Ben McIntyre in the New York Times Book Review. He thought "the words used to describe Baloney's odyssey through space and language are rather more interesting and unexpected than anything that actually happens to him," but added that "there is something pleasantly subversive . . . about this bug-eyed linguistic space creature." Toby Clements of London's Daily Telegraph deemed Baloney (Henry P.) "a wonderful book, with illustrations that inspire and amuse," while the Los Angeles Times Book Review chose it as one of the best children's books of 2001.
Also in 2001, Scieszka launched the "Guys Read" campaign, designed to encourage boys to read. He was distressed by statistics indicating that boys are far less proficient at reading than girls are. "Boys are (viewed) like criminals in school; they're seen as toxic," he told Los Angeles Times reporter Barbara J. Odanaka. "And I'd like to save boys from that." Odanaka related that Scieszka "is quick to stress that Guys Read is not anti-girl, but pro-boy," and that he likens it to programs that encourage girls' work in math and science. Aspects of the campaign include developing father-son book clubs and raising educators' awareness of the types of books that will appeal to boys. "They want to read books that will titillate or electrify them first," Scieszka told Publishers Weekly contributor Shannon Maughan. "Then we can move them into something more sophisticated, with an emotional palette that helps them become more well-rounded people." Overall, he hopes to show boys that reading is cool.
Scieszka's distinctive brand of humor already has made many boys--and girls--consider reading cool. "I think that turning something upside down or doing something wrong is the peak of what's funny to second graders," Scieszka told Booklist interviewer Stephanie Zvirin. "Catching adults or the world at large doing something wrong empowers kids because they know the right thing--like brushing your hair with your toothbrush. If they get a gag like that, they know they're in the real world."
Last name rhymes with "Fresca"; born September 8, 1954, in Flint, MI; son of Louis (an elementary school principal) and Shirley (a nurse) Scieszka; married Jerilyn Hansen (an art director); children: Casey (a daughter), Jake. Avocation: "Many." Education: Attended Culver Military Academy; Albion College, B.A., 1976; Columbia University, M.F.A., 1980. Addresses: Agent--c/o Viking Penguin, 375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014-3658.
Writer. The Day School, Manhattan, NY, elementary school teacher, 1980--. Has also worked as a painter, a lifeguard, and a magazine writer, among other odd jobs.
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