New Book Ambassador Reaches Out to Children

Posted January 29, 2008 at 4:38pm

Author Jon Scieszka already has his work cut out for him as he travels the country trying to get kids excited about his books.

But that hasn’t stopped Scieszka from taking on the extra challenge of promoting not only his books, but books in general, to what can be a tough audience. He was named the national ambassador for young people’s literature for the Library of Congress earlier this month — a position he described as representing children, parents, teachers, librarians and booksellers, and bringing all of them together to raise literacy rates.

He said being on tour to promote his new children’s series called “Trucktown,” which tells stories about a group of trucks that act like preschoolers, has helped him do this job.

Traveling around the country allows him to interact directly with the people he represents, particularly parents who are trying to get their children turned on to reading.

He said that the most common question he gets from parents on the tour is: “How can I get my child to want to read?”

His advice: “Let kids be part of the process. Let them choose what they want to read. It’s OK if all they want to read is ‘Captain Underpants’ or books about sharks.”

That philosophy, Scieszka said, should be used more with children at school. As an example, Scieszka said that when he was a child, he liked to read Dr. Seuss, which was very different from the assigned “Dick and Jane” readings in the classroom. Having fun in reading is key, he added.

“I didn’t want to read ‘Dick and Jane,’” he said. “I would have rather had dirt-clod wars with my brothers.”

Scieszka said that later he became interested in history after having a teacher who “made you feel like you were at the Constitutional Convention and brought the Founding Fathers to life.”

That’s the feeling he said he tried to convey as a teacher. And it’s the one he is aiming for with his new books, including the “Trucktown” series. The first of that series, called “Smash! Crash!” is about trucks named Jack and Dan who are best friends and love to spend their day — as the title suggests — smashing and crashing into everything.

“I wanted to just give preschoolers something they can recognize themselves in,” Scieszka said. “In a real way, they’re rowdy and funny, and their books don’t reflect that.”

He said he based the characters in the books on about 14 different preschoolers he worked with over his years teaching in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Scieszka said he plans to publish other installments in the “Trucktown” series in different formats so they can appeal to multiple age groups. Some may be board books and pop-up books, for instance.

Scieszka added that in his new ambassador role, he wants to work with book companies to get more books to more children.

“There’s great stuff at different book companies, but some of that never makes it out to kids,” he said.

Scieszka is optimistic about his chances of sparking increased interest in children’s literature, especially with the blizzard of attention he said he has attracted since he accepted the ambassador position. Above all else, he said, he really hopes to spread the message that children should be involved in selecting what they read, both at home and in school.

“We seem to insist they read novels,” Scieszka said. “We’re so concentrated on testing, or reading a novel and making them answer 50 questions about it. Just let your kids enjoy books — not everything has to be tested.”