I don’t know if it’s because I’m messed up in the head or what, but I do love some Jon Scieszka! He’s a little wacky like Louis Sacher and a little witty like Mo Willems, and his signature style appeals particularly to mid-to-upper elementary boys. (This might be why he founded the Guys Read literacy initiative to encourage boys to become engaged in reading for a lifetime by providing them with books they will actually like reading!) Maybe I like his books so much because I taught fifth grade for so long (and once with a classroom that was 80% boys, and we got along swimmingly!)…or maybe that’s why I liked teaching fifth grade, because I liked things like his books! Anyway, Scieszka (pronounced “shes-kuh” (“pretty much rhymes with ‘Fresca’”)) will not be everybody’s cup of tea, but if you’ve got a reluctant reader (particularly a boy) on your hands, you might give some of his books a try!
For Small Truck Lovers–the Trucktown series:
Smash! Crash! (Jon Scieszka’s Trucktown) (2008): BoyChild loved this book…especially the end papers and back cover with all the different truck characters together! The story itself is simple: Jack Truck and Dump Truck Dan go around town doing what they do best…smash and crash! A big shadow with a big voice keeps calling for them, and they scoot off to a different place to smash and crash to keep out of trouble. Some of their smashing and crashing is pretty irresponsible and destructive, but some of it has creative results. In the end, they discover that the big shadow and voice belong to Wrecking Crane Rosie and she wants them…to smash and crash with her! One of a number of books (including board books) in the Trucktown series, a series created by Scieszka and illustrated with designs co-created by David Shannon (No, David!), Loren Long (Otis), and David Gordon (The Three Little Rigs).
For Young Space Cadets:
Robot Zot (2009): Robot Zot, a tiny invader from outer space, crash lands his Attack Ship in enemy territory: somebody’s backyard. The appliances are no match for him, and he leaves a trail of destruction behind him as he makes his way through one suburban home. He finds the Earth Queen (a toy telephone) guarded by two evil babydoll toys, and he manages to rescue his new love and escape toward his ship. The ferocious General (an overly friendly dog) is his last barrier before he can take off in his ship for distant galaxies, and he conquers once again (and the dog gets blamed for all his mess). There is a lot of assonance in this book for preschool to early elementary listeners or independent readers, so even BoyChild got the hang of it and will leaf through this book saying, “Bot! Zot! Bot! Zot!” so it’s a keeper!
Fractured Folk and Fairy Tales:
The Frog Prince Continued (1991): The Frog Prince is feeling a little disillusioned after his wedding to the princess because things aren’t quite so “happily ever after” as he hoped; he misses his froggy ways, and she keeps pressuring him to be more princely. The Prince decides to seek out a witch to turn him back into a frog, and his trip through the forest puts him in contact with the evil witches from three other fairy tales and a one-trick-pony kind of fairy godmother, but a stroke of luck (and the stroke of midnight) gives him the chance to run safely home into the arms of the (understandably) worried and (somewhat understandably) nagging Princess. When he thinks about how she believed in him when no one else had and that she “had actually kissed his slimy frog lips” and how she loves him, he kisses her; they both turn into frogs and live happily ever after (for real this time). I performed this one in high school as a part of a three-person team for a reader’s theater production for speech class (I played all the female characters by switching hats, one guy was the narrator, and the other was the Prince). It was great fun–you should try it!
The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs!, by A. Wolf (1989): The wolf known as the Big Bad Wolf takes this opportunity to tell his side of the story, and, according to him, “The real story is about a sneeze and a cup of sugar.” Told in first person, this story tells of how Al Wolf (aka, the Big Bad Wolf) goes from house to house asking to borrow a cup of sugar to finish a cake for his ailing granny (who just so happens to be from the Little Red Riding Hood story, if the portrait on Wolf’s wall is any indication). Some ill-timed and powerful sneezes result in the deaths of the first two little pigs (which he eats because he doesn’t want them going to waste!). The third pig, the one in the brick house, is pretty rude and insults the wolf’s granny, so the wolf loses his temper and gets the police called on him, and that’s how he ends up in jail. Since the real story isn’t very exciting, the reporters embellish it and make Al Wolf out to be big and bad. (This was Scieskza’s first published book.)
The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (1992): “What is that funky smell?” This memorable line–spoken by the fox to the title character–is what keeps bringing me back to this book! (Okay, it’s what reminds me that this 1993 Caldecott Honor Book exists and amuses me to no end!) This is a perfect book for kids with quirky senses of humor who are tired of trite fairy tales or those who just like peculiar stories with running visual and literary gags. Some of the illustrations are almost Picasso-esque in their absurdity and skewed perspective, and the stories are pretty much just as skewed. If you want to hear an elementary age boy cackle aloud while reading, this just might be the book! It’s just unfortunate that “The Boy Who Cried ‘Cow Patty’” broke off the table of contents (and is therefore not included in the book) when it fell and crushed the Chicken Licken crowd…
Also try: Squids Will Be Squids: Fresh Morals, Beastly Fables (1998) and The Book that Jack Wrote (1994)
Math Curse (1995): “On Monday in math class, Mrs. Fibonacci says, ‘You know, you can think of almost everything as a math problem.’” The problem is, suddenly the narrator does! The whole next day, she (he? it’s actually kind of unclear) is overwhelmed by the word problems and math-related questions that arise as a normal part of the day. Even that night’s dreams are full of math, and the only way to break the curse comes in the form of the oldest joke in the book (figuratively)–the one about two halves making a (w)hole. Too bad it all starts again in science class the next day… Each page has a number of real math problems that can be solved along with a completely silly question or two. I’ve read this book to my fifth grade math classes at the beginning of the year (Erin McEwan, Your Days Are Numbered is another one, but it takes longer and isn’t as funny) to demonstrate how math happens in real life all the time, so it’s important (and also that Jon Scieszka writes some funny, funny stuff that they should check out.)
Science Verse (2004): Featuring the bespectacled classmate sitting next to the narrator of Math Curse, this book starts with Mr. Newton announcing, “You know, if you listen closely enough, you can hear the poetry of science in everything.” What follows is a series of bizarre poems about science topics (from the nutrient-based take on “Jabberwocky” to the limerick about mixing electrical currents and metal) and the equally bizarre illustrations of the main character to go with each one. A variety of different types of poems, mostly poems based on actual, published poetry, are included, and a hilarious “Observations and Conclusions” appendix helps clarify which is which in case you don’t recognize the inspiration. Again, this is a cross-curricular boon (as long as you don’t assign a bunch of stuff based on the book and ruin the fun for everyone…try them as part of a center or something!) and might pique a poet’s interest in science or a scientist’s interest in poetry if the timing is right!
Seen Art? (2005): “It all started when I told my friend Art I would meet him on the corner of Fifth and Fifty-third.” Another Scieszka/Smith collaboration, this book combines a little wordplay with a little modern art. When Art isn’t where the narrator is supposed to meet him, the narrator asks a passing woman, “Seen Art?” Her response, “MoMA?” confuses him, but he still follows her directions to the “beautiful new building” down Fifty-third Street. He remains completely clueless as he meets person after person who responds to his, “Seen Art?” (or other similar) question by leading him to another room full of paintings or sculptures or whatever to find what that person considers “art.” (His facial expressions are pretty hilarious for some of the pieces, including a furry cup and saucer…) He finally decides to look for Art on his own (and peruses some art along the way), and, just when he gives up on finding Art, he suddenly realizes that he has found art. Then he walks outside and actually finds Art. (See what they did there?) An appendix shows each of the featured works of art with the identifying information (name of piece, artist, size of the work, etc.) for interested readers and their teachers. (This volume is actually horizontal, but I can’t rotate the image for some reason!)
Middle Grade Time-Traveling Series, The Time Warp Trio:
The Time Warp Trio: Knights of the Kitchen Table (2004 (2nd edition)): Joe, Sam, and Fred are transported back in time to the age of King Arthur when Fred makes a wish when he opens up The Book, a gift that Joe has just opened from his magician uncle, Joe the Magnificent. Smoke fills the room, and when it clears, they have no idea where–or when!–they are! The three friends face the Black Knight, a giant, and a dragon before Merlin figures out how to send the pesky interlopers back home again (just in time for Joe’s mom to finish scolding him for the smoke bomb she thinks he set off in the kitchen). The first book of the series, Knights of the Kitchen Table sets the tone for the rest: a little bit of magic, a little bit of history, and a whole lot of goofy middle grade humor! (I almost included this series as cross-curricular because of the historical element, but there is enough legend and fantasy involved in most of the books that the historical value is lessened. However, these books just might spark an interest in further reading about King Arthur, Blackbeard (The Not-So-Jolly Roger), the Old West (The Good, the Bad, and the Goofy), or King Tut (Tut, Tut), so there is every possibility of a history tie-in for the careful teacher!) At a brief 50-odd pages each, these are high-interest books that are neither intimidating nor embarrassing to be caught reading, so it’s another great series for reluctant readers!
Cowboy & Octopus (2007): I don’t really know how to explain this book, actually. The vintage-feel illustrations–done by Lane Smith, a frequent collaborator of Scieszka’s–are collage images where there is one cut-out of an octopus and one of a cowboy in various situations. We discover that Cowboy is not very bright and that Octopus is a caring and patient friend. Quite a bit of inference is necessary to really get what exactly is happening in this book, but I imagine that less mature readers (in multiple senses of the word) would still get a kick out of the silliness of the story and the illustrations without fully knowing what is going on!
Baloney (Henry P.) (2001): When I first read this book, I was a little confused. Henry P. Baloney is an alien who has arrived late to school one time too many and is told by his teacher, Miss Bugscuffle, that he’ll have Permanent Lifelong Detention if he doesn’t have “one very good and very believable excuse.” Henry P. launches into a long, detailed explanation for his lateness that is peppered with words that I at first assumed to be a kind of alien-speak for a variety of words whose meaning could be figured out by context or illustration clues or, occasionally, similarity to the English word. (This is where I got confused, because a few of the first “nonsense” words were near-cognates and others were seemingly random and others were just mangled versions of the replaced word. I couldn’t figure out the pattern.) In the end, although his story is completely unbelievable, the day’s assignment just so happens to be to write a tall tale, so the teacher lets it slide so he can get writing. Then I read the afterword and the “decoder” page…and it explains the origin of the words, some in other languages, some Spoonerisms or nonsense words created by transposition. Well played, gentlemen. Well played. A kid with a high tolerance for confusion or good context skills could be given this book without preface and would probably find the discovery at the end enlightening, but a child who might be frustrated or embarrassed by the inability to understand the non-English words might be better off if given fair warning (and a bookmark on the decoder page) before starting to read.
The Guys Read Initiative:
Founded by Scieszka, the First National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature, Guys Read’s “mission is to help boys become self-motivated, lifelong readers.” The books listed and featured on the site are books “that guys have told us they like,” and interest is the only real way to get someone hooked on reading. Along with literacy information for the adults in a reader’s life, the site has books listed by theme or topic or genre, so it’s easy for a guy to browse the headings and find something he might like to read. (There are other ways to find book suggestions, too, if you take some time to familiarize yourself with the site.) Because these are books that guys have self-selected, you’re probably going to find a lot of things that a “typical” guy likes…so there will be things like potty humor, violence, sports, and some language in some of the books. Just like I mentioned that Scieszka might not be everybody’s cup of tea, neither will these books. As a parent or teacher, you’ll have to know your guy to know if you’ll want to suggest these books to him since not every boy responds to these things in literature and entertainment the same way. (Actually, the following note on the books page shows how in tune Guys Read is with this idea: “Important Note: These are not the only good books in the world. Not every guy will love every book here. This is a collection that will grow with every recommendation and rating. So help out. Suggest a book. Rate a book. Help Guys Read.”) In addition to the recommended books from the site, the Guys Read initiative is also responsible for several anthologies geared toward guys (mostly upper elementary and middle school) and edited by Scieszka.
Guys Write for Guys Read (2005): This book is a collection of stories, drawings, and memoirs by some of boys’ favorite authors–all about their different experiences growing up. As Scieszka, the editor, says in the foreword, it is not meant to be read through from start to finish; it is designed and compiled for browsing, self-selection, and just general enjoyment–no assigned reading allowed! I tried to read it straight through, but I can see how picking and choosing what entries to read (perhaps based on if you know the writer’s works or just the draw of the title or illustrations) would be a better way to approach this book since some of the parts just weren’t appealing to me. Each entry includes an incredibly brief biography of the selection’s author and a selected bibliography that might facilitate further reading (ie., if the kid likes that entry, maybe finding one of the author’s books to read would be a good thing).
Guys Read: Thriller (2011): Ghosts, private eyes, monster hunters, atomic pudding…ten short stories (including one in graphic novel style) by a wide sampling of famous authors are included in this second anthology in the Guys Read series. (The first is Guys Read: Funny Business, and Guys Read: The Sports Pages is the third.) Where Guys Write for Guys Read includes brief essays of two to four pages, these stories are mostly from 20 to 40 pages in length. Like the other books in this series, Guys Read: Thriller includes stories (written specifically for this book, I believe) from the theme or genre by a variety of writers and, therefore, a variety of readers. Again, if a reader enjoys a specific story in this volume, it’s not hard to find more by that author that might continue to intrigue and encourage more reading. Guys Read: Thriller is intended for upper elementary and middle school readers.
A Very Different Sort of Autobiography:
Knucklehead (2008): With a cover designed to resemble an old comic book (and featuring a childhood portrait of the author superimposed over the face of a man in an army tank), this collection of stories of Scieszka’s childhood is intended for readers in middle to upper elementary, but I think it would probably appeal more to slightly older children and adults because it relies, in part, on some background knowledge of the era that most younger readers won’t have. Then again, it might not matter because it seems like boys are boys no matter what the decade, and Scieszka’s family included six of them (he was the second oldest) growing up in Flint, Michigan. Told in random vignettes and illustrated with family photos and images of other memorabilia, this book gives readers a glimpse into what made Scieszka the kind of reader and writer he grew up to be, and, as you might expect, it’s a pretty funny recollection! While the typical nonfiction features are there (the table of contents, captions, and the “not your usual index”), the contents are very much not what you would find in the dry biographies so commonly assigned for author research!
So, there you have it. Jon Scieszka has actually written even more than what I’ve included here, but this is a good sampling and includes most of my favorites. Again, if you have a reluctant middle grade reader on your hands, put ones of these books in his (hands, that is)!