Jon Scieszka, author of such bestselling picture books as The Stinky Cheese Man and The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs, has been named the country’s first national ambassador for children’s books.
Modeled on the highly successful Children’s Laureate position in the U.K., the two-year appointment is a joint effort of the Library of Congress and the Children’s Book Council. “It’s an old idea that has kicked around for a while,” said John Cole, director of the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress, “but it got a new lease on life when I got an email from Robin Adelson,” back in October 2006. The email was one of Adelson’s first acts as the newly installed executive director of the CBC.
The two joined forces and the position was eventually approved by Librarian of Congress James Billington. This past October Cole and Adelson met with a five-person committee of children’s book experts to select the first ambassador.
“Jon is articulate, smart, funny, and is someone who appeals to kids,” Cole said. “His sense of humor makes him an especially attractive candidate. And with Guys Read, he’s already part of the network.” Scieszka, who calls his selection a “spectacular honor,” said he chose the theme “Reaching Reluctant Readers” as his platform to dovetail with the Guys Read initiative he founded in 2001, which focuses on boys and reading. “I see this as an extension of what I’m already doing now,” he said. “It’s a great way to expand that mission.”
Scieszka also hopes to expand the general definition of reading in this country. “Nonfiction, humor, online, magazines—it all counts!” He’d like people to “stop demonizing TV and online as the enemy,” saying that kids can and should be able to do both. “Reading will give them something those platforms can’t. And it would be nice to have more weight behind me to tell a teacher ‘Let the kid read Captain Underpants!’ ”
He plans to continue Guys Read, and will look for ways to join its message with his ambassadorial platform. “All the stuff I’ve learned for boys seems to work for everybody,” he said. “I’m speaking to that knucklehead in the back of the classroom, because that knucklehead was me.”
Today’s announcement also dovetails with the NEA’s highly publicized “To Read or Not to Read” study released last November, which stated that reading is on the decline. “The NEA studies confirm what we already know,” Scieszka said. “They got people focused on [the problem]. Let’s find those books kids like and let them read!” All of those involved with creating the position want to avoid merely preaching to the choir. “It’s the perfect opportunity to bust out of our small children’s book world of ALA, etc.,” Scieszka said. “I see it as a great opportunity to grab the attention of everyone else.”
Scieszka’s actual schedule is still being planned, though two big events will be cornerstones this year: Children’s Book Week in May, and the National Book Festival in September. Cole plans to reach out to the Centers for the Book in all 50 states, and work with them to develop projects and spread the word about the new national ambassador. The position is partially funded by Cheerios, and Scieszka will receive a $50,000 stipend for the two years.
Since Cole and Adelson knew that whichever author or illustrator was chosen would be busy with his or her career, their aim is to join up Scieszka’s appearances as ambassador with his publishers’ own marketing and touring efforts. “His publishers have been very gracious,” Adelson said. “We want them to see this as a perk.” Scieszka will already be on the road for a good deal of January, to support the launch of his new Trucktown program for S&S; “we’re going to blend it into the travel I’m already doing,” he said.
Cole sees the position as both an opportunity to raise the visibility of young people’s literature, and to recognize the “wonderful talent” of children’s book creators in this country. “I’ve been almost a lifelong employee of the Library of Congress,” he said, “and I’m glad to see the Library as an institution paying more attention to younger readers."
And Adelson believes that it’s vitally important for the ambassador to reach not just readers but non-readers. “When you see kids excited about books, there’s no greater feeling,” she said. “Books are magical, and so many kids don’t know that. Our goal is to get Jon’s voice heard by as many kids as possible.”