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'Stinky' Jon Scieszka has a read on kids

Susan Notes:

I've known and admired Jon Scieszka for years. How great it is that the Library of Congress first ever ambassador for young people's literature announces that James Marshall's The Stupids are the best!!

Go, Jon. A great vote for the importance of humor.

By Greg Toppo

NEW YORK Γ’€” America's children aren't reading very much or very well these days, so the nation's finest minds have come up with a Big Idea: Find an author who can tap into the richness of children's literature and persuade kids to drop their idle pursuits Γ’€” their Facebooks, Nanos and Wiis Γ’€” for the thrill of a good book.

Last month, the Library of Congress and the Children's Book Council, a trade group, announced the appointment of the USA's first "ambassador for young people's literature," a sort of poet laureate for the Harry Potter set. As the inaugural ambassador, they named renowned author Jon Scieszka.

Which is fine until you start reading (or rereading) a few of his 30 books. You remember that the hero of his most popular story, The Stinky Cheese Man, is in fact a tiny wheel of odiferous cheese, or that one of his well-loved passages, out of another book called Science Verse, is:

Mary had a little worm.
She thought it was a chigger.
But everything that Mary ate,
Only made it bigger.

OK, that's pretty funny, actually.

Would you like the payoff?

It came with her to school one day,
And gave the kids a fright,
Especially when the teacher said,
"Now, that's a parasite."

And that's the Big Idea: Make kids laugh and they'll keep reading.

Scieszka ("rhymes with Fresca") will travel the USA over the next two years, speaking to parents and school groups. He'll appear at Children's Book Week here in May and at the National Book Festival in Washington in September.

For Scieszka, the appointment comes as "a great vote for the importance of humor" to win converts to reading.

It also comes as a huge surprise to the 53-year-old author, who spent 10 years teaching before his writing career took off in the early 1990s Γ’€” and who has spent the past six years incubating Guys Read, an online effort to get boys to read.

"I was just so honored when the Library of Congress and the Children's Book Council guys called me," he says. "I mean, at first I really did think they'd made some kind of mistake. I said, 'Did you misdial the number there? What is this? Am I in trouble?' But I thought that was cool that they actually thought, 'Yeah, let's start this with a guy who writes funny stuff.' "

Sitting in his small, book-filled office on the top floor of his Brooklyn brownstone, Scieszka says he hopes to break the stereotype of the children's book enthusiast as the gray-haired lady who's always shushing children.

Children's writer and illustrator David Shannon, a collaborator on Scieszka's newest book series, says the Michigan-born author is a natural for the job. "I wish I could say that the biggest reason he'll make a great ambassador is because he's equally at home getting silly with little kids during one of his stories or talking seriously with adults about the power of reading," Shannon says. "But the truth is, even more important, he looks really good wearing a sash."

The appointment comes amid worries about children's reading skills. Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have shown little improvement in the past 15 years.

Last November, the National Endowment for the Arts reported that all Americans are reading less. Among findings: Only 30% of 13-year-olds said they read for fun "almost every day."

The problem is especially acute for boys, who lag in most measures of reading.

Into this pressure cooker, enter Scieszka, who says adults have done a disservice to children in general Γ’€” and boys in particular: First, we've failed to acknowledge how difficult reading is for many kids. And the way reading is taught in school is problematic. "Why would you want to read? So you can answer more questions on the test? Or read the textbooks, which for the most part were pretty dull?"

For kids to enjoy reading, Scieszka says, it has to have a payoff, whether it's finding out what happens in The Phantom Tollbooth or getting the joke in MAD magazine or a Roald Dahl novel.

But educators have rejected what he considers a wealth of materials that suit boys, such as comic books or graphic novels.

"A lot of our generation still thinks of that as kind of cheating," Scieszka says. "It's like you're just looking at pictures. 'It's just comic books Γ’€” that's not real reading.' "

Adults also should take another look at non-fiction books and, for lack of a better term, gross-out books, such as Captain Underpants.

His basic message: Relax. If your child wants to read Captain Underpants, fine. As a kid, Scieszka read Sgt. Rock comics. Now he delights in Kafka, Günter Grass and Thomas Pynchon.

Let children become readers at their own pace, he says, and they'll surprise you. "They'll seek out better and better books. And, ultimately, that's what I've found: Kids are a pretty good judge of good books."

Jon Scieszka's book recommendations, with his comments about each title:

Classic for little guys that holds up wonderfully:
Go, Dog. Go! by P.D. Eastman

"Different color dogs drive around in cars, wear party hats, and end up in a giant tree. Do you need to know more? I didn't think so. Zen perfection."

Classic you should try to read yourself before you recommend it to any kid because it is really difficult to read:
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

"Groundbreaking, yes. Influential, yes. But something to engage a struggling modern reader, no."

Random cool book that I just saw in a store and had to pick up:
Paleo Sharks: Survival of the Strangest by Timothy J. Bradley

"Sure, you know about the Carcharodon Megalodon. But oh the Helicoprion! The Paleospinax! The Stethacanthus!"

You might not think it's reading, but your kid does, and it is:
Fashion Kitty by Charise Mericle Harper

"The Kittie family has a pet mouse. Good thing these cats are vegetarians. Plus there is a fashion flipbook inside, and glitter on the cover. I need more Fashion Kitty now."

You really think this is cheating, but trust me, it can lead to reading:
Frog and Toad (by Arnold Lobel) CDs
George and Martha (by James Marshall) CDs
Harry Potter (by J.K. Rowling) CDs

Any book CD a kid is interested in hearing.

Best title ever:
The Stupids Die by James Marshall

"The lights go out in the Stupids' house. They think they are in heaven. Grandpa Stupid crashes through the wall on his motorcycle and tells them they are still in Cleveland."

Don't tell them it's poetry:
Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein

"New World"

Upside-down trees swingin' free,
Busses float and buildings dangle:
Now and then it's nice to see
The world from a different angle.

Something for everyone:
"Most everything by Roald Dahl. Dahl always champions kids, he is a storyteller like no other, and the bad guy always gets what he/she deserves."

More cool and beautiful non-fiction:
Actual Size (and plenty of others) by Steve Jenkins

"How cool would it be to see the actual size of a giant Gippsland earthworm? A rat-eating Goliath frog? The hand of the gorilla on the cover? You can. In this book. Yes, it's reading."

Interview with author Jon Scieszka

By Greg Toppo, USA TODAY

Author Jon Scieszka has taken on the challenge of becoming an ambassador for young people's literature. Here's the transcript of his interview with USA TODAY on Feb. 3:

Q: I've been rereading as many of your books as I could find Γ’€” and I actually listened to a few on the way up (to New York). So far, at least, there's not an ounce of seriousness.

A: Excellent! I'm glad you actually felt that way, because that's exactly what I think the answer is to getting kids engaged in reading. And I get this from 10 years of being a teacher and 24-plus years of being a dad: I think it's all about engaging kids first and then sparking their interest in something. It's that sense of playing around with knowledge or playing around with the actual reading. Instead of lecturing them, say, for The True Story of the Three Little Pigs on narrative, perspective and the unreliable narrator, you just show them that, in the funniest way. The same with The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales. Every part of the book is deconstructed and messed around with, but that's the way I found to really teach my second-graders about something as mundane as parts of a book. So if the end papers are four pages before the end of the book, first they just crack up. They go, "What are the end papers doing here?" which then makes them realize that, Oh yeah, the end papers are on the end of a book, or a title page has the title. I just love messing around with stuff like that Γ’€” and that's the way that I've found to really connect with kids.

Q: I remember reading about you growing up with this big family of boys. You made everybody laugh (around the dinner table) and you could get a piece of chicken because everybody was distracted.

A: It was definitely a good strategy. Because we had this crazy family of six boys and we all fit in 10 years. Luckily I was second-oldest and I got some more of the clothes before they were too worn-out. My brother Jim the older one, he was the fast talker in the family. He became a lawyer.

Q: Do you think anybody could have predicted your trajectory?

A: Yeah, you know, I think so. I always loved strange stories like the Dr. Seuss stuff. Go, Dog. Go! was one of my favorite stories Γ’€” it still is. It's just such a bizarre yet true book. And I did well reading and writing as a kid throughout school. I think early on that's what made me realize what an advantage that is. That's part of what I hope to connect with kids too, to let them know that if you are a reader you can do so many more things. It's kind of the basis you end up doing.

Q: What actually got you writing?

A: I like to tell kids that I started thinking about stories when I first started reading stuff like Dr. Seuss and Go, Dog. Go!, thinking, "Oh yeah, that's funny. I'd like to do that." And then writing throughout school, but at the same time I was studying pre-med stuff, because my mom told me I should be a doctor. So I was kind of blindly pursuing that until I realized what a yucky profession that would be, just because it was so gross, cutting up frogs and cow eyeballs. I just thought, "I don't want to start like that. Who wants to start their day like that?" Then I just actually wrote all the time and kind of kept almost a double life. In college I'd be going to comparative anatomy but also going to modern fiction classes Γ’€” and loving both of them, really Γ’€” and then just kind of smashing them together, and thinking, "I don't know if I can put these two together." And then I came out here to go to both Brooklyn (College) and Columbia (University) and got a master's in fiction writing. So then I was seriously pursuing writing as some kind of career. But I had no idea that it could be with little guys. That didn't happen until after, when I was teaching for a couple of years.

Q: I remember you saying that you wrote "serious adult books" or "tortured fiction."

A: Well, that was my model. I loved the brooding, eastern European, German guys. Kafka was my favorite, one of my early favorites. I just thought something like The Trial was just so beautiful in this weird, horrible way. Interestingly enough he thought he was a funny guy too. You read something like The Castle or The Trial and you think, "Where's the funny part, exactly?" It's not really knee-slapping. Or Thomas Mann, Gunther Grass. I just thought, "That would be good to be a brooding guy wearing a big overcoat." (laughs) But then I hung out with second-graders and just thought, "You can bring that sense of the bizarre." In fact, I remember telling my second-graders a quick synopsis of something like The Metamorphosis: "It's a story about this guy who wakes up and he's a bug," and they went, "Wow!" (laughs). And then I realized, "Oh man, yeah: These guys are a great audience!" Because nobody is more willing to suspend disbelief. I think they don't even have it in those early ages, kindergarten and first grade. What you tell them is just like gospel truth. So I thought, "Wow, here's an audience for me."

Q: Though now you find that your new job is to fix a problem associated with that.

A: The big problem is just this kind of gigantic piece, of kids reading less and liking it less and so getting worse at it. It's kind of this terrible spiral: Since they're not so good at it they do less of it, get worse at it, do less of it. And it's really what I discovered five, six years ago when I started the Guys Read thing. Just when I was teaching school I recognized this big chunk of boys falling out of the whole idea of reading. It was just not something they would choose to do. They just thought it was a school assignment. And I think that's what we've pushed all kids into now, especially with the testing that's all across the country. Now kids think, "Why would I read a book? Someone's just going to ask me a bunch of questions and I'm going to get graded on it." So I think that's the challenge, how to connect kids with reading again. And the answer is, I know all kinds of great books. I think that's what I get from having been writing and been in the children's field for 20 years. I've worked with a lot of different publishers. All this stuff back in the corner here (indicates a huge pile of books) is stuff recommended to me by kids and teachers and librarians. I started it as just kind of like the Guys Read corner, stuff where kids said, "Yeah, I like this book." There's all this good stuff but it's about getting kids to realize it's out there.

Q: Do you feel like you have to read every book or try to at least figure what every book is about?

A: I have to be kind of the expert to be able to talk intelligently about stuff like graphic novels, ranging from stuff like Fashion Kitty for the girls too, who are looking for something that's a little different from just literary fiction. That's a piece that we did for years and years, where we told kids, "All TV is bad, all that other media is bad. Books are good. Just read classics." Which I think then turned kids off, because in their world, they grew up with all this stuff. I mean, we're kind of tourists in that multimedia world.

Q: Digital natives Γ’€Β¦

A: Yeah, digital immigrants, digital natives. I think there's really something to that, and it sets us up, I think, as really not knowing the truth if we tell kids, "Books are good, all other media is bad." Because they realize that's not true Γ’€” adults are watching TV. You wouldn't read about the Super Bowl Γ’€” it's so much better to see. It's a television event. There can be storytelling online or on TV that's different from book storytelling. But that's what I want to promote to kids, to let them see: You can have all those different kinds of storytelling, and books can do things specifically that only books can do.

Q: I wanted to talk a little bit about, for lack of a better word, your qualifications for this job. Somebody used the word "charisma" Γ’€Β¦

A: Hmm (laughs). I like that.

Q: That you've got the charisma that it takes to get people interested in this subject and talking about it. It's funny that that's what it takes, but maybe that is what it takes.

A: Yeah, there's something to that. That's almost like having a good teacher, it was that teacher that you were really drawn to and you could trust and made some kind of connection to. Because there is that stereotype of the children's book person who's the older lady with gray hair who's telling you to be quiet, kind of connected to that whole librarian world. That's why I was just so honored when the Library of Congress and the Children's Book Council guys called me. I mean, at first I really did think they'd made some kind of mistake. I said, "Did you misdial the number there? What is this? Am I in trouble?" But I thought that was cool that they actually thought, "Yeah, let's start this with a guy who writes funny stuff." Because I had always thought for the last 20 years or so that funny books never get anything either. It's that same problem: Funny movies aren't winning Oscars. It's just that humor is not trusted or valued. But here was a great vote for the importance of humor.

Q: You have a great line about how you want to get away from this idea that "books are magic." That's what we grew up with too, right? "They'll take you places you've never been." And it's pretty darned true, but is that becoming problematic?

A: Yeah Γ’€” I think that's part of where we did ourselves a disservice, by saying, "Books will solve everything." And I think I learned that from my son, actually, who is not particularly a big fan of reading. Early on I would sort of try to con him into reading. Because he's a big hockey fan I'd show him the newspaper in the morning and say, "Wow, did you see what the Rangers did last night? You can read about it right here." He'd say, "No, I saw it." It made me realize that maybe reading isn't the answer to everything. That is a better way, if you're a hockey player, to see a hockey game.

Q: To see the actual shot?

A: And see how the move was made. And reading is a different piece of that. But he wasn't interested in reading about hockey. He liked playing it, which was so different. And everyone always tried to buy him hockey books, which was so funny. And the Matt Christopher ones were just lame. We read through those together: It was like, "What is that? 'Shoe skates,' they even called them. They were so old, they were written so long ago. So I think that's where kids started drifting away from reading too, because they felt like, "These adults are trying to sell me a bill of goods here." For a lot of kids, reading is not magical. It's really hard work. I got that from being a teacher too Γ’€” I saw what a struggle that is for a lot of kids, say, in second grade, which I taught the longest. And it's just an incredibly difficult process when you think about it. When you go back to see what it takes to learn the letter, the sound of the letter, the syllable that becomes words that becomes sentences. It's like, "Wow, that's overwhelming!" When you break it down into pieces you just think, "Nobody should be able to read. It's just too hard."

Q: Objectively?

A: Yeah. And I don't think we ever acknowledged that with kids. We never said, "This is really difficult." So we need to give them a reason. Why would you want to spend all that time and effort learning how to do this thing? What are you getting? And I got that from a lot of boys, whose response was like, "Yeah, I can just plug into my video game. I'm good at that Γ’€” and I can just keep playing and get better and better and better." But I don't think they felt like that with reading. What was the reason? Why would you want to read? So you can answer more questions on the test? Or read the textbooks, which for the most part were pretty dull? And that's where it comes in to say: No, because then you can read Frog & Toad. You can find out what happens in The Phantom Tollboth or in The Twits. Or you can get the joke of a Roald Dahl book. And that's where I just started discovering that power Γ’€” that's the motivation, if the kids would want to learn to read, I think that's critical.

Q: To use kind of an awful technical phrase, "reading engagement" is something we haven't really spent much time on.

A: That's huge. And that comes out of the Guys Read stuff too because I think that's key for boys, where they feel like they're not engaged, they're not asked, their opinion doesn't matter, their preferences don't matter. What they're largely interested in is non-fiction and humor, graphic novels, stuff about war, hunting. Any of that is just kind of forbidden in school. It's just not looked on as real reading. I saw that early on.

Q: You talk about things that are forbidden. As you go into schools nowadays, do you see books that are forbidden?

A: No one's quite that blatant, because they realize there's the whole "Banned Books" thing. But subtly forbidden is stuff like Captain Underpants, just because some teachers aren't so comfortable with that. They think it's just coarse humor Γ’€” or just that you even say "underpants," which gets a good laugh out of second-graders. And some of the words are misspelled in there, and it's two little boys just kind of being knuckleheads. That's on the borderline. Graphic novels too. A lot of our generation still thinks of that as kind of cheating. It's like you're just looking at pictures. It's just comic books Γ’€” that's not real reading. Audio books are another one, which really is helpful to a lot of readers who are struggling. But I think to a lot of people that's not real reading Γ’€” you're being lazy.

Q: Just as an aside, my younger daughter, who's 11, is not a very strong reader, not a very engaged reader, but my wife started bringing home the audiobooks of Harry Potter. I think in the past year she's spent pretty much every waking hour where she wasn't eating or sleeping Γ’€Β¦

A: Listening.

Q: Listening to Harry Potter.

A: That is spectacular. What grade is she in?

Q: She's in sixth grade. And she got this last book for Christmas from her grandparents, and the thing that really blows me away: She listened to it straight through Γ’€” it was, like 15 hours, and then she listened to it again. And now, as far as I can tell, she just picks a random disc Γ’€” she just puts it in.

A: And just starts on the spot?

Q: And just starts wherever she is in the story.

A: See, now I think that's a great use of technology that wasn't available when we were readers. I remember when they started tape, you would have to scroll through everything. But it's just like a way kids experience stories now, in the same way, like DVDs Γ’€” we couldn't just call up a story on demand Γ’€” you had to wait and see whatever got broadcast on TV. So their brains are different. But I think we need to catch up with that too.

Q: There's a phrase that I once heard: "The tyranny of choice." Kids have too much to choose from, and that can be problematic. Is that part of the problem or the solution or a little of both?

A: Tyranny of choice in the largest way, just because there's so much competing for kids' attention, and stuff that's so much more easily accessible. If you can just watch something online, you can watch YouTube, that's easy to do. You just call that up. Or to text your friends or to play your Wii or to just watch TV or Γ’€Β¦. There's so much more competing for (kids' attention). I think I almost started reading out of some of that classic "nothing else to do around the house." You were done running around, you'd played with all your friends, you were sick of going outdoors, you just like, found some weird book on the shelf and just thought, "Oh, man Γ’€” yeah, what is this?" It's my little glimpse into the adult world, where you first started reading stuff. But now when you look at the stuff kids have available to them, I think that's part of it. It is too much for them to choose.

Q: It sounds almost like there's no Γ’€” I want to say "downtime" Γ’€” but there's no time when you've got to figure out what to do.

A: To entertain yourself. No. In fact, again, when I was teaching second grade, we had kids who, since they were raised here in New York, had never really had unsupervised play time, which I think is just huge Γ’€” though if you look back at it now (laughs), I wonder if my parents would be up for neglect or something. We grew up in Michigan and in the summers we'd be out at my grandfather's place on the lake and stay for like a month or two. We'd just get a buzz haircut in the morning, the first day of summer vacation, and just run out there, on the water, in boats, with motors, with B-B guns, knives, matches Γ’€” you know, just doing Boy Scout stuff, or just imagining ourselves as wild Indians.

Q: Flammable liquids?

A: Yeah, anything! Exactly. Doing experiments with little brothers Γ’€” "I wonder what this'll do to him." So I would take second-graders up to this farm that the school had, and they were just lost for that first day. We would actually tell them, "All right, for the next five hours you guys have to just entertain yourselves. And sure enough, within 15 minutes, every time, a couple of kids would come back and say, "We don't know what to do." They didn't have anyone telling them. It was so ingrained to them. They were just never at their own devices. And I think they never learned how to do that. They didn't learn how to resolve disputes among themselves. It was all that kind of playground knowledge that we got as kids, because you were just hanging out there with a bunch of kids from the block and you learned how to be a citizen.

Q: I want to talk a little bit about looking forward, what's going to happen now. When I think about what this job is like, my conception is that you're going to be speaking to groups, you're going to be going to schools. It seems like you're going to be preaching to the choir wherever you go. Am I wrong about that?

A: No, actually that's the great change. In fact, that's what I talked about when they first called me about this position. In fact, I think I even used that phrase and said, "You know what? I don't want to just be preaching to the choir." Because that's what we do in the children's book business. Authors go and speak at these big conferences, the American Library Association, The International Reading Association and Book Expo America. So it's booksellers, librarians and teachers, which is totally the choir. And we always give these great, rousing speeches: "We love reading! Reading is magic! Reading is great!" And everybody cheers and it's like, "Yeah!" And then you get out there and it doesn't get out to the public. So I'm specifically picking those kinds of events that reach a bigger public, and that's why it's so great that it's got the interest of the media, like you guys, and TV. We can get on those kinds of shows where usually people aren't talking about kids and reading, they're talking about a million other things. But to really make this a story, really make this a focal point. The Children's Book Council is reviving Children's Book Week and putting it in the spring to make it really a blast across the country to really have people concentrate on it. And the other big piece is the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. Those are going to be the two big bookend events every year.

Q: But I was at the Book Festival in D.C. last year, and that seemed like book lovers.

A: Yeah, well it starts with book lovers, but I think you get some more national attention. And then I'm trying to find those events that will be high-profile enough to get out to other people, which I think mostly are just the parents, kind of parents at large Γ’€” and to give them a positive message: "Don't worry about all this testing stuff Γ’€” in fact, let's kind of get rid of all the testing stuff if we can and let your kids read for enjoyment." And make them feel good about letting their kids read. If they want to read a graphic novel, if they want to read a comic book, that's fine. Or if your kid's reading Captain Underpants, that's great Γ’€” let him keep reading that.

Q: It almost seems like there are two messages Γ’€” two at the least: No. 1, "It's O.K. to read different kinds of books." But then it seems like the other message Γ’€” and maybe this is another audience Γ’€” is: "Why aren't your kids reading? Turn the TV or the Wii off."

A: But I think they're interconnected in that way, where that's the way to get them to not always be playing the Wii, just to say, "You can choose something that doesn't have to be required school reading. You can." Because that's the stuff I remember finding as a reader. My brother and I, on our own, collected the Hardy Boys books Γ’€” it wasn't part of school reading. Or we read Sgt. Rock comics or G.I. Combat, which were so good! No school teacher was going to tell you to read that! Or MAD magazine. And you could find those other pieces of reading that were particularly your interest, not driven by school. So I think if we can start with that, let kids choose their own reading, be the people who actually make the choice, be somewhat in control of their reading, and pick from a wider range of stuff. I think a lot of kids actually are readers but we just don't see it as reading if they're reading online or they're reading magazines that we don't think of as reading Γ’€” to go ahead and encourage that, say, "Yeah, that is reading. That's O.K."

Q: So tell me about your son. Whatever happened to him?

A: He's reading more now that interests him in kind of a business way. He's 22, playing hockey at NYU (New York University) and loving it Γ’€” and getting great grades in college that he's in charge of, though by the end of high school I think he was just so tired of the whole academic school setup he actually took a year off and played junior hockey in upstate New York, and lived in an apartment and worked in a pizza store, which he just loved. And that was so him. But then he realized, "Oh man, I miss being in New York." So he was the one that put together coming back to New York and getting into NYU, and was just motivated to do that on his own.

Q: So tell me again what he reads?

A: I don't know that he reads novels. I think he reads online stuff. He'll read hockey stuff. And then he and some friends got interested in just how weird some of these companies like Blackwater were, so he started reading this stuff about (private military contractors) Blackwater and Triple Canopy. And it's more information books Γ’€” it's like reading for what he sees as a purpose. He was kind of a classic kid like that: He never even liked when we'd go on vacation and ride bicycles somewhere, or go sailing. He'd say, "Why? Where are we going?" (laughs) He's like a real results guy. He wants to do things with a purpose. So if you're riding your bike around, why would you just go out and come back? You didn't do anything. Same with sailing Γ’€” sailing was like the ultimate waste of time as far as he was concerned. Why would you go out and just go back and forth and then come back?

Q: It sounds like he wants to win.

A: He wants to win. He wants to go somewhere, which is true of a lot of guys, which is why the video games make so much sense to them, because it comes in increments you can achieve by levels. It's very clear when you do win and don't win and that you can just gradually go up. So I don't know that he'll ever be somebody who loves reading novels, which is fine. I actually still think he might be missing that thing that I love, which is when you really get lost in a book, lost in a novel, but I don't know. I think that's probably not necessary that everyone does that. He can do things on the ice when he's playing hockey, he's experiencing this thing that I never will. I think that's similar to that same rush that I get out of reading a great novel.

Q: There are some people who would say your education is incomplete if you don't experience these great stories.

A: And the Great Books. Yeah, I kind of wonder about that. In fact, as you read back on some books too, I don't know that they're all so great. I read through a lot of classic old books when I was doing the Guys Read program, because inevitably someone would recommend that, would say, "Yeah, boys will love all of Shakespeare." And that's definitely not true.

Those are very difficult texts. And there is that enjoyment that comes with being a good enough reader to decode a Shakespearean text Γ’€” those are tough. But even stuff like some Robert Louis Stevenson is really difficult. Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde is really tough. Kidnapped is pretty accesible still, and readable.

And you do want to keep some of those Great Books, and that's what I think can happen if we let kids become readers at their own pace. They'll seek out better and better books. And ultimately that's what I've found: Kids are a pretty good judge of good books, which is why my second-graders were such Roald Dahl fans. They would read some other kind of, I don't know, mass-market, yuck-it-up sort of joke books, which they enjoyed on one level, but plenty of kids then moved to realize, "Yeah, that's why Roald Dahl is really funny Γ’€” there's something really in a great storytelling way." So I think quality will out.

— Greg Toppo
USA Today



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