At the 2013 National Book Festival
Jon Scieszka is the first National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, a program sponsored by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress and the Children's Book Council. He is the author of some of the best known and funniest books written for children, including "The True Story of the Three Little Pigs," the "Time Warp Trio" chapter book series, the Caldecott Honor Book "The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Fairy Tales" and the "Trucktown" series. Among several books that Scieszka will soon publish is "Robot Zot! "(2009), illustrated by David Shannon. Scieszka is the founder of Guys Read, a nonprofit literacy organization. He lives in New York.
Previous National Book Festival Appearances
From the 2009 National Book Festival
Where did you get your inspiration for your new book – Robot Zot?
When Dave Shannon and I worked together on Trucktown I really liked the way he made metal things (like trucks) come alive, and the way he gave them personalities. I started thinking of metal things. I thought of robots. Then I thought it would be funny if the robot was a little robot . . . who didn't know he was little. Zot is a lot like one of my favorite book characters of all time -- Don Quixote.
David Shannon illustrated Robot Zot. How do you go about collaborating with an illustrator?
I find an illustrator whose art and style I really like. I might brainstorm some of the ideas for the story with them. And then I like to write the story, get it just how I want it, and then hand it over to the illustrator without telling them much else. I think illustrators do their best work if they get a chance to imagine the story without someone telling them what to draw. Once they have drawn their version, it's fun to go back and forth and figure out how to make the words and pictures work together even better.
Tell us about your experiences during the past year as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.
Wow. It has been absolutely wonderfully crazy. I've been in the NY Times, chatted with Martha Stewart, met the First Lady and the President, and got to tell everyone to let kids read what they enjoy. I've been given a medal, sashes, an original musical Fanfare, and full diplomatic immunity. For life.
Do you have any new books or projects that you will be working on during the coming year?
Lots more Trucktown books coming out -- like TRUCKERY RHYMES. We are working on TRUCKTOWN television (and hopefully TRUCKTOWN pajamas). And I'm always thinking of new picture book ideas. For older kids, I'm working on a middle grade reader book series/website/and interactive craziness called SPHDZ. It's about 3 aliens who invade earth . . . but end up taking over a 5th grade classroom. They are total Spaceheadz. And they need help, or else the world might get wiped out. First book out in 2010.
You are the founder of Guys Read. How did you get involved in that project?
Guys Read came out of my experience growing up with 5 brothers, raising a daughter and son of my own, and teaching school and seeing boys not interested in reading. I looked into the statistics, and found that boys were terrible at reading...and getting worse. I found a great way to get any kid reading is to help them find reading they are interested in. And that's what GUYS READ does. We are re-launching the www.guysread.com site in September with a mess more recommended books, and tips on how to get guys reading. We are also working on a cool Guys Read Library set of books. Volume 1 will probably be out in late 2010.
From the 2008 National Book Festival
What sparked your imagination for your new Trucktown series?
I’ve always been interested in motivating kids to be readers by writing stories that they want to read. So I decided to write for the youngest readers. And I decided to write about characters sure to excite first time readers – trucks. All of the characters in Trucktown are trucks . . . who act like 4 year olds.
You have collaborated with several different illustrators. Can you tell us about that process?
The process for Trucktown was unlike any other books I’ve ever worked on. The idea was to create a whole world that could exist everywhere – print, animation, online, toys, underwear . . . So we used the technique of movie studios, and had 3 great artists (Dave Shannon, Loren Long, and Dave Gordon) work together to create the original characters and backgrounds that other artists use as models. That way everything (all 52 books over the next 3 years, and the website, and the animation) looks great.
What challenges do you face in your writing process? How do you overcome them?
Writing is always a challenge. It’s like ditch digging. You just have to keep at it every day. So that’s what I do. I try to dig a little more of my ditches every day.
What tips or advice can you share with young students who hope to start writing?
Read everything you can. I started writing by imitating my favorite writers. Then comes the hard part – you have to actually sit down and write. And then write some more. Then change it. Edit it. Make it better. Write some more. Then take a nap.
Can you suggest a fun writing topic to get them started?
Write about your family. That’s what I just did. I wrote stories remembering funny things that happened when I was growing up with my five brothers. It’s called Knucklehead. And I illustrated it with old family photos and my drawings from kindergarten and stuff from my scrapbook.
What is your list of favorite children or teen books?
I have a bazillion favorites. But here are some recent finds:
- The Adventures of Polo by Regis Faller – a fun wordless picture book.
- Paleo Bugs by Timothy J. Bradley – Oh yeah. Prehistoric bugs.
- The Elephant and Piggie books by Mo Willems – great, funny beginning readers. And there are a bunch of them.
- The Fog Mound Trilogy by Susan Schade and Jon Buller – an illustrated novel about Thelonious Chipmunk and pals. Heroic.
- Old Blood and Guts (and the rest of the fantastic Sterling Point Book series of biographies and histories) by Alden Hatch – the life of General Patton.
- Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link – wonderfully weird short stories, with spot illustrations by Shaun Tan (whose The Arrival is a must read too.)
- ALL of the CALDECOTT and NEWBERY Award winners from 2007. A spectacular bunch.
The Library of Congress recently appointed you as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Can you tell us what that involves?
Most of it is very top-secret, and involves me flying around in my official Apache Attack Helicopter (with my Ambassador Seal painted on the side door). But I can tell you that my basic job is to tell people about all of the great children’s books out there, and to get kids reading by helping them find the book that they will enjoy the most. I’m appointed for two years. And I am the host of Children’s Book Week in the spring in NY. And I’m in charge of the whole National Book Festival . . . well, maybe the whole Children’s Book area . . . my tent? . . . my signing?
What is your advice to parents for passing the joys of reading on to their children?
Read with your children, and have a fun time doing it. It isn’t medicine. It’s discovering worlds of prehistoric bugs, little puppies with flying boats, Dancing Elephants, and Flying Piggies . . . and discovering these worlds together with your children.