When Jon Scieszka was shopping The Stinky Cheese and Other Fairly Stupid Tales in the late ’80s, most editors didn’t get it. The stories were “too sophisticated.” The humor was too “dark” and “mean,” according to his many rejection letters. One, he paraphrases, said something to the effect of “Please don’t send us anything again.”
“Publishing was stuffy” then, he said, and a lot of kids’ books were “a little moralistic.’ But after 10 years of teaching second grade, the now-bestselling author knew a lot about kids—what they love, how they think, and what makes them laugh. “They’re funny and they want something funny,” he said. When Scieszka’s wife Jeri Hansen introduced him to illustrator Lane Smith, he knew he’d met a kindred spirit who understood kids the way he did. And when Viking editor Regina Hayes saw the pair’s first collaboration, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, they finally made an editor laugh.
“Jon and Lane and Molly created a book that was fresh and original in text, art, and design,” Hayes said.
She bought the book and its success opened the door for The Stinky Cheese Man to reach readers. Now celebrating the 30th anniversary of its publication, Scieszka, Smith, and book designer Molly Leach (married to Smith since 1996) are looking back on the book’s runaway (pun intended) success, which includes a Caldecott Honor, translation into 12 languages, and well over four million copies sold.
A collection of twisted fairy tales, the book is narrated by Jack from “Jack and the Beanstalk,” who continually breaks the fourth wall with his cheeky comments. Each tale upends a classic story, sidestepping happy endings and allegories in favor of humor. The eponymous stinky cheese man isn’t chased like the gingerbread man—people run away from him. The ugly duckling grows up to be an ugly duck.
“I think up until that point in time you had earnest books and you had funny books. But I don’t recall “parody,” Smith said. “Kids had to get that in Mad magazine or from Tex Avery or Jay Ward cartoons. I think Stinky was something different for a kids’ book. We broke all the rules.”
The book pushed boundaries, in part, Scieszka said, because he, Smith, and Leach brought their interests to the table and worked together in the same room to create the book, bouncing ideas off each other. Scieszka had a master’s degree in fiction writing and a penchant for surrealist literature, comics, and anime. While his own influences include Borges, Kafka, and comics, Smith has an encyclopedic knowledge of high art, but also of cartoons and anime. “Lane thinks like an animator,” Scieszka said. Leach came from the world of magazines, so she didn’t think like a typical book designer. The three brainstormed each page together, hanging the pages on a wall and reacting. “Stinky wouldn’t be the way it is if we hadn’t been in the same room together,” Scieszka added. Discussion often started with “Wouldn’t it be funny if….” Leach introduced the idea of different characters speaking in different typefaces. “I don’t know if that happened before us,” she said. Throughout the process they didn’t know exactly where they were going but they knew it was going to be good, Scieszka said.
The book was embraced immediately by teachers, librarians, booksellers and especially kids. Print run after print run sold out, even before the book won a 1993 Caldecott Honor. For Scieszka, the accolades were less important than what he believed the book was doing—catching kids at the time when they are “entering into the very difficult thing that reading is” and helping them see that it could be fun. “Second grade is the time that determines whether or not a kid become a reader,” he said.
If his books help turn that switch on, it’s everything he could hope for. As the Library of Congress’s first National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, he’s a strong believer that kids should read whatever appeals to them, whatever gets them reading. This belief inspired him to found Guys Read, an initiative that motivates boys to read, and his Guys Write for Guys Read anthologies, the Astronuts, Time Warp Trio, Spaceheadz, and Frank Einstein series, and his Trucktown books which have been made into a long-running TV series.
There have been echoes of The Stinky Cheese Man’s irreverent humor in numerous bestselling books in the decades since it came out. “I don’t know if we had anything to do with the current slew of funny/fanciful books,” Smith said. “But I think we might be kindred souls with some current authors and illustrators. Bears eating hat-stealing rabbits! Goodness! There are so many hilarious folks out there, like Laurie Keller and Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen and Jory John and Bob Shea. I wouldn’t presume to say we influenced any of them but I sure like their stuff.”
When asked about the staying power of The Stinky Cheese Man 30 years later, Leach replied, “Kids like to say the word “stinky.” Hayes said, “It holds up astonishingly well. Reading it to my grandchildren has given me a new appreciation for the many levels of the humor. As they got older, they caught more and more of it, from “The Princess and the Bowling Ball” (an early favorite) to the rather sophisticated spoofs of bookmaking. It really is a picture book for all ages.”
Children and children’s literature have changed a lot since the ’90s. “Kids are a lot more visual and visually literate these days,” Scieszka said. “They respond to the power of design and know how to read the signals.” But they’re still as smart and funny as ever. “They want to play around, and playing around is how we learn.” When they have just learned how a story is constructed—and even how a book is put together—seeing those conventions turned on their heads is empowering and reinforces learning. During a school visit, Scieszka recalled, he was describing how he changes elements of familiar stories to turn the story on its head. A particularly astute third grader commented, “So you take other people’s stuff and mess it up.”
“I’m just thrilled to be still messing up other people’s stuff 30 years later,” he said. In his upcoming release The Real Dada Mother Goose: A Treasury of Complete Nonsense he does just that, with a collection of playfully reimagined classic nursery rhymes based on the Blanche Fisher Wright’s 1916 collection.
In honor of The Stinky Cheese Man’s 30th anniversary, Scieszka is conducting a raffle for teachers with one “cheddar-level winner who will receive an in-person author visit, an autographed class set of the book, an extra copy for the school library, plus two copies of The Real Dada Mother Goose and “stinky swag,” including signed “squeeze cheese wedges.” For “Swiss-level” winners, there are virtual visits and autographed books and swag as well.
He’s also got plans for celebrating the anniversary with indie booksellers, who have been so supportive of all of his books. Signed copies of both The Stinky Cheese Man and The Real Dada Mother Goose along with bookmarks, signed squeeze cheese wedges, and signed posters of Scieszka with a pile of cheese wedges will soon be on their way to 25 bookstores that helped make The Stinky Cheese Man and the many books that followed it a success.
After all these years, Leach says, “We’re just glad that it still holds up.”