Wednesday, December 29, 2010 at 3:27PM
One of the most influential children's writers of the past 20 years is Jon Scieszka. His books, which include The True Story of The Three Little Pigs as well as the classic The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales have introduced countless children to the fine art of parody, and don't underestimate the intelligence of a 7-year old. I fondly remember reading The Stinky Cheese Man when it came out in 1992, and my entire second grade class considered it to be the funniest book ever written (it still ranks high on my list). His Time Warp Trio series has been adapted into a TV show, and his literary organization Guys Read, meant to promote literacy in adolescent boys, has launched his Trucktown series and website to national prominence. Earlier this week we had a chat about his writing, his past, and his love for the neighborhood he's called home for over 30 years, Park Slope.
HPS: Why did you decide to start writing children's books?
Jon: Wow, it was kind of a weird, loopy process, actually. When I started out, I was actually going to be a doctor. At least that's what my mom told me I should have done. I was studying Pre-med, but then at the last minute I decided that wasn't such a good idea.
I moved out to Brooklyn to get my MFA in writing at Brooklyn College. Jonathan Baumbach was the head of the department then, and I just loved some of the weird, formal stuff those guys were writing. So I came out here to Brooklyn with my then-girlfriend (now wife), and I spent one year at Brooklyn, one year at Columbia. And then right after that went right into painting apartments. Not much you can do with an MFA, apparently.
After a couple years of that, I started teaching. I heard about a job that was available at a private school up in Manhattan called the Day School, up on 90th and 5th, and since you didn't need the education credentials to teach at a private school that worked out well for me, because I didn't have any. I became a first grade assistant teacher, and when I was there I found my audience. I realized it wasn't adults, it wasn't college kids, it was definitely these crazy little guys in second grade. I took a year off from teaching-- this has to be the mid-80s by now-- and just set out to write children's books. I read everything I could, and sent my writing out and was rejected everywhere. Including the Stinky Cheese stories and the Three Little Pigs, everyone just thought it was too weird. They actually called it too sophisticated, which is basically the code word for "Please don't send anything again."
HPS: For lots of kids, myself included, this was the first introduction to the parody. What inspired you to spoof these classic stories as opposed to just making up your own?
Jon: Man, because parody is the stuff I love! I've always been a reader, and grew up watching Rocky and Bullwinkle and reading Mad Magazine. And as a kid I just thought that was the funniest thing ever. But when I started teaching I just didn't see that humor in schools. There were some things that were kind of funny, but children's books in the '80s and into the early '90s were pretty staid. I was teaching my students to read, and some of those textbooks are just awful. I remember one of my second graders asked me, "Why are we reading these?" and that was such a great question! It just stopped me, and I said, "I don't know!" These were just awful stories; there was no reason to keep reading them.
But parody I've always loved. When I was at the MFA program, the guys I liked to read were those kind of Formalists and Postmodernists like Pynchon, John Barth, that whole crew. Roald Dahl, his stories are just beautifully crafted. And it just came to me when I was teaching second grade. I realized second graders are capable of understanding parody. In fact, that's probably the age where it really kinda clicks in, when those little wise guys really start to get a sense of humor. Or not, some kids just never get it.
HPS: In order to understand parody, you have to understand the source material a little bit too.
Jon: That's exactly right. And that's the thing that really excited me as a teacher, when I realized that the kids who were getting the parody were getting the story on a much deeper level. They were understanding three things: the original, the twist, and then that third thing that came out of it. I've always loved that. It's funny, even my taste in music runs to like, weird covers.
HPS: Parody aside, Stinky Cheese Man was different from books kids are used to in lots of other ways as well. Characters pop up in later stories, a page is upside down, in one story the lettering just gets smaller and smaller until it’s impossible to read; for a 7 year old, who’s only read traditional fairy tales, this is revolutionary stuff! Turning these widely established conventions on their head- that’s pretty much textbook postmodernism. Did you set out to be a revolutionary postmodern children’s writer?
Jon: Well that wasn't a goal I set but those are definitely the writers I love. that's the same thing that Cervantes did in Don Quixote. And John Barth too, and Jonathan Baumbach. Those guys were always playing with the form, and I just thought, yeah, what a perfect way to bring kids in to understanding what a title page is, just have a massive thing that says "Title Page"! I took every postmodernist trick I could think of. That's why it fits so well to do a collection of stories, because one story has no plot, another has no character, it's just like every element I could think of to mess with.
HPS: What was your path from Michigan to Park Slope?
Jon: It was 1977, and a friend of my wife actually knew some people that lived out here. I distinctly remember that, because it was the year the Son of Sam was killing everyone all summer. Which made my parents just thrilled.
I had flown out here for a couple days just to look for someplace to live. I rang doorbells, and one old lady said, "You know what, I think Albert Zbyszewski is painting an apartment down the street!" And he was this old school Polish guy, and when he saw my name he just started speaking Polish to me, and I went, "Oh, yeah! Yagshemash! Keilbasa! Babushka!" and he just thought that was great, a Polish guy looking for an apartment. Then I had to go meet his wife Wanda, and her first question was, "You're not going to have all your relatives come live with you, are you?" "No, it's just me and my wife, I swear!"
HPS: What were you looking for that you found in Park Slope?
Jon: Well I was just looking for space, to start with. I grew up in Michigan, out in the woods half the time with my five brothers. It was pretty horrifying to be down in SoHo and not see any trees! And I knew the park was out here, was was a great draw for me. And man, once I got out here and saw the buildings themselves, it was just such a funky spot.
We ended up staying here and raising our kids here, and what really became apparent very quickly was the personal community that's out here. You can't really match that. It's the best of both worlds; you're in this small town, and you're ten, fifteen minutes away from Manhattan. I traveled all over the place after the books took off, and honestly now at this point our kids are grown up and graduated from college, so we could live anywhere, but I haven't found any place else in the world that's as cool as Park Slope is.
Even when we got here in the 70s, man, the neighborhood looked a little rough around the edges. More than a little rough. One time a friend and I got chased down Fifth Avenue. We got in the middle of some beef, with cars coming screeching around the corner, guys with guns, and we just ran! My friend got all freaked out, he said "What kind of neighborhood is this?" We probably shouldn't have gone down to Fifth Avenue. But that's all changed now. I love all the energy from people opening up stores, restaurants and shops.
HPS: What are some of your favorite restaurants in the neighborhood?
Jon: Stone Park is probably my favorite restaurant. Those guys are just incredible. I'm glad that two ramen joints finally came to town too, Naruto is pretty good. And pizza. Pino's is our pizza of choice. And Franny's is just wonderful. That's what I miss when I travel, not being able to walk around and get spectacular food.
HPS: If there's one thing that you'd like to see more of in Park Slope, what would it be?
Jon: I wish we had more real bars on Seventh Avenue. And actually more real restaurants would be good, too. There are some awful restaurants on Seventh Avenue. And there used to be a lot more walk-in old man bars. Every other block or so, like on the corner of Third and Seventh there was one that was pretty close to us, and it was just like a drop-in place and you could get a 25 cent schooner of beer, one of those little glasses that looks like a sherbet glass; I thought those were the coolest thing! There were also those guys who were sitting there since 8 in the morning.
But you can still find those guys down at Jackie's Fifth Amendment, which I'm proud to have snuck into my latest book series, Spaceheadz. It's about three aliens who come and take over the world, but they're not very smart, so they turn themselves into Fifth Graders. And I just kinda made them live down around Jackie's, right next to it. I just drop the name in a couple times.
HPS: How else has Park Slope influenced your writing?
Jon: Oh, well it's a gold mine for an audience. When people complain about strollers, I just say, "No, those are my people!" I always go to the local schools; I'm pretty good friends with the principal down at 321, and in fact I started a series for kindergarteners called Trucktown, where all the characters are trucks. And I'd never worked with kindergarteners, so I went down there and it was just the greatest class. And I dedicated the book to them.
The other cool thing about the neighborhood is that it's just full of writers and illustrators in the children's book world. And the editors. You can't walk down the street without bumping into somebody. Which is kind of good and kind of bad. "Oh, yeah I owe you a manuscript!"
Going back even to Jane Jacobs, you need neighborhoods where people can walk around. Where you see the coffee guy, you see the guy at O'Connor's, you see your regular newspaper guy. In fact, the house where I live now was originally owned by the guy I bought my newspaper from every day for like, 5 years. And we've been there for about 15 years now.