At the heart of the latest release from Jon Scieszka, former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, is a lesson on media literacy. The author doesn’t hide his contempt for the advertising tactics and ubiquitous sloganeering of the modern era—his protagonist Michael K. is a savvy fifth grader with a healthy dose of skepticism. That’s a quality that Scieszka is eager to instill in his readers. To foster a better understanding of the media blitz directed at today’s children, Spaceheadz includes clever, interactive Web material designed to allow readers to create their own content. Here, the former teacher spoke with Kirkus about his fifth-grade friends at Brooklyn’s P.S. 58, incorporating new technology into basic storytelling and diplomatic immunity.
Tell us about your new series, Spaceheadz.
It’s an idea I’ve had for probably 10 years now, I’ve been mulling over how funny it would be to have a bunch of aliens that attack Earth who have learned everything they know about Earth from TV and TV ads. How dimwitted they would be!
At the heart of this book is media literacy. I want kids to first realize that people are pitching them like mad, all the time. They’re deluged with pitches, ads—lies, basically. The best way to get kids to understand that is to get kids inside that world, to realize the pitch and then turn it around and make it their own. I’ve been going to schools and libraries with this book, and the amount of advertising that comes out of their heads shocks me. It even shocks them. They know all the catchphrases and jingles. I was at a presentation once, and out of nowhere, in the middle of what I was reading, this kid just jumped up and shouted, “Kid-tested, Mother-approved!” It was the perfect Spaceheadz response—he’d probably heard that a hundred times, in the last week alone.
The book is dedicated to a class at Brooklyn’s P.S. 58—can you share the story behind that?
I was just there doing a presentation for fifth graders about books in general. At that time,
Spaceheadz was still a manuscript. But I ended up talking about it, showing them the rough draft—as a way to illustrate how ideas get started. The whole fifth-grade class lit up. They understood the idea instantly and were on fire with their own ideas.
I was an elementary teacher for 10 years in New York. Honestly, it’s where all my books come from, that experience and my own two kids. I want to see where kids can take me. All kinds of new things happen, and you’re able to cut away all the showy, writer-y stuff, just cut to the chase. I let kids be a part of the creation. I ended up stopping by this one fifth-grade class four or five times that year. They were writing science-fiction stories of their own, so we got to know each other more as equals, hosting writers’ workshops where we’d compare notes and share our stories. Now, those guys are in seventh grade, frighteningly enough. So, it’s also shown them the slow-turning wheels of publishing. They were aghast when I told them how long it would take, they always thought I’d have the book done the next week. Now, I’m tracking them down to give them copies.
In 2008, you were named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress—what does that entail?
Basically, being a spokesperson for all of children’s books. It was a partnership between the Children’s Book Council and the Library of Congress. They’d been thinking of creating this position for years; it’s kind of like being National Laureate of Children’s Literature. They should have just named it that—it’d be a lot easier to explain to people.
But it was my job to let people in the bigger population know what a great world we have in children’s books. I got to go out and tell people about all the cool books there are in children’s and YA publishing. I got to be a big cheerleader for kids’ books—whether we’re talking about the board-book readers, graphic novels, a Shaun Tan picture book or some of the YA stuff that’s breaking new ground. How many times have I seen adults reading Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games on the subway?
And I got diplomatic immunity as well, which is great. At least, I think I did. We’ll see if the parking tickets come through.
Ambassador emeritus Scieszka, founder of the Guys Read movement, weighs in with his favorite books for middle graders of 2010.
NERDS, by Michael Buckley: “Nerdy fifth graders get upgraded into crime-fighting superagents. There are two books out in the NERDS series now, and they are too funny and too action-packed and too weird and too slightly gross to believe. I love these because they are smart and crazy and demented.”
The Crossing: How George Washington Saved the American Revolution, by Jim Murphy: “A fantastic retelling of a story that everyone thinks they already know. This is the beauty of great nonfiction—it brings real stories to life. Jim Murphy, like George Washington, is a national treasure. Nonfiction is real reading. And Murphy writes great nonfiction.”
Bone, by Jeff Smith: “Here are 13 years’ worth of epic storytelling in a graphic-novel format. Heroic, funny, exciting, beautiful. It didn't technically come out in 2010, but it is timeless, and a real must-read.”
A Whole Nother Story, by Dr. Cuthbert Soup: “This book was actually published Dec. 22, 2009, but Ethan Cheeseman, genius scientist, has invented a Luminal Velocity Regulator which makes it possible to travel in time. The Cheeseman Family is on the run from bad guys who want to steal the LVR. Dr. Cuthbert Soup is your narrator... and he is a funny/mysterious guy. The second book, Another Whole Nother Story is coming out any minute now. Or, with the help of the LVR, it may have already come out.”
Axe Cop, created and written by Malachai Nicolle (age 5), art by Ethan Nicolle (age 29): “A Web comic written by a 5-year-old and illustrated by his 29-year-old brother. There is a cop with an axe, a baby, a unicorn horn and so much more. That is probably all you need to know before you go read it.”
For more great books featuring boy characters in Kirkus’ Best of 2010, click here.
For a complete list of graphic novels and illustrated chapter books featured in Kirkus’ Best Children’s Books of 2010, click here.
For a complete list of fantasy and science fiction titles featured in Kirkus’ Best Children's Books of 2010, click here.
SPACEHEADZ: Book #1!
Jon Scieszka with Francesco Sedita; illustrated by Shane Prigmore
Simon & Schuster / June / 9781416979517 / $14.99