Ambassador for the Joy of Reading

Posted September 26, 2008 at 3:57pm

Jon Scieszka grew up the second of six boys in Flint, Mich., and he was the smartest, nicest and best-looking.

According to him.

Scieszka, who made his first appearance as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature at the Library of Congress on Friday morning, told a crowd of Brent Elementary School students that he decided to become an author after an incident in his family’s living room. His mother had told the boys not to wrestle on the couch because they would break it. Sure enough, that day he and his older brother Jim were wrestling on the couch and it broke. Jon was distressed, but Jim promised to tell his mother the truth when she got home.

Of course, when she got home Jim told her that Jon broke the couch. There was lots of blame to go around, though: Jon blamed another brother, that one blamed the next and on down the line until the youngest brother blamed the dog. That was when Jon decided that he would be the one to tell the stories from then on.

The fourth- and fifth-graders in the audience loved this story. They asked Scieszka whether his brothers had ever gotten him into trouble before and what kind of jobs his brothers have now. They also loved the stories that Scieszka told from his soon-to-be-released book, “Knuckleheads,” an autobiography of vignettes from his childhood.

These are the kind of stories that get children reading, Scieszka said. As the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, Scieszka’s goal is to put the fun back into reading again. As a child, Scieszka, now 54, remembers being bored in school when he read the Dick and Jane books. The stories were “so bad” and didn’t remind him of anyone he knew. Then he discovered Dr. Seuss and a book called “Go, Dog, Go!” at home in first grade. Those funny books were the ones that motivated the future author to read and inspired his own stories, including “The Stinky Cheese Man” and “The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs!”

Scieszka, who has written about 35 books and is the founder of a group called Guys Read that encourages pre-teen boys to read, was the unanimous choice for the ambassadorship. His professional experiences as a teacher of children from first to eighth grades for 10 years and then as an author of children’s books for more than 20 years made him a prime candidate. The five-member jury was determined to choose an author or illustrator still active in his career, not someone who had retired, for the two-year term.

Scieszka is the first ambassador. The Children’s Book Council, an industry group whose members are children’s book publishers, had the idea for the role and brought it to John Cole, director of the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress. The jury chose Scieszka and approached him in November. Scieszka said he was sold on the idea when he realized it would be a chance to do what he was already doing: promoting children’s books.

Since he assumed the role in January, it has given him the opportunity to talk to a wide variety of media outlets. He said promoters are trying to get him on the morning and evening television shows. The center has even considered gathering children of Members of Congress to hear Scieszka read one of his books.

“Usually it’s tough to promote a single kid’s book,” Scieszka said. “They’ll say, ‘oh, here’s a guy with a new kid’s book,’ and they go, ‘great,’ and hang up the phone. If you say, ‘no, it’s the guy who’s the ambassador for all children’s books,’ the title’s great!”

Children have been enthusiastic about the ambassadorship. Scieszka asks audiences what kind of “ambassador stuff” they think he should get. Among the suggestions have been small flags for the front of his car, a helicopter and — Scieszka’s personal favorite — $1 million. Classes in California gave him a red sash that said ambassador on it and composed a theme song to be played when he enters a room.

Scieszka takes it all in stride. When he repeated his light-hearted demand for a helicopter with his audience’s support today, Cole dutifully bounded to the stage with a toy helicopter, just a couple inches long.