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Publishers Weekly Children's Features

Summertime, and The Reading Is Easy
Shannon Maughan -- 5/25/98
Familiar faces run amok in the latest Time Warp Trio adventure

Things are not right in Hoboken. A 266-pound chicken gallops through the streets. Peter Rabbit pushes a wheelbarrow along the sidewalk. Dapper hippos George and Martha are being chased by a one-legged pirate. And the devil himself guards the door to the library. Is it some horrible nightmare? Not exactly. These and other outlandish scenarios can be found in the new Time Warp Trio adventure Summer Reading Is Killing Me (Viking, July) by Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Lane Smith.

In this latest installment of the popular Time Warp Trio early reader series, famous characters from children's literature run amok when J , one of the intrepid trio, absentmindedly puts his summer reading list in The Book, the trio's conduit for time travel. Before long, they are transported to the Hoboken setting of Daniel Pinkwater's The Hoboken Chicken Emergency. But the real emergency is in the library, where a crazed Teddy Bear plans to crush the good book characters and give all their starring roles to bad guys. J , Fred and Sam, with a little help from the Girl (an amalgam of such noted female narrators as Laura Ingalls, Anne of Green Gables and the girls from the Babysitters Club), save the day.

Scieszka said the idea for this inventive farce about book characters coming to life was partly inspired by his son Jake. "I think I can trace it back to Jake's response to a summer reading list from school," Scieszka recalled. "He asked me, 'What do we have to read for? It's summer.' For second- and third-grade boys, any reading is often torture for them," he said. Scieszka's experience as an elementary teacher has also given him insight into what beginning and reluctant readers, especially boys, want to read.

Scieszka hopes the novelty of seeing beloved characters in this milieu will be irresistible for young readers. Regina Hayes, his editor at Viking, loved the premise. "I thought it was so much fun, a wonderful idea," she said. "But I also told him we'd have to be careful about which books to pick."

Hayes's concerns were right on the mark. "When corporate counsel saw the original manuscript, they sent a devastating memo about potential lawsuits," she said. "He had to do substantial rewrites." The final version of Summer Reading Is Killing Me mentions characters from no fewer than 60 children's books, many of which are in the public domain. But according to Hayes, permission was needed for the use of a few major characters that are essential to Scieszka's plot: Charlotte, from E.B. White's Charlotte's Web; the Chicken from Pinkwater's The Hoboken Chicken Emergency; and the Horned King from Lloyd Alexander's The Book of Three. Pinkwater, Alexander and the E.B. White estate were all enthusiastic about the project and granted permission. (Pinkwater may be especially happy for the attention, as The Hoboken Chicken Emergency is currently out of print.)

Scieszka said he received warm personal responses as well. "I got a really nice letter from Lloyd Alexander, who said he was 'honored to see the Horned King appear in another tome.'" Hayes agreed that the permissions process was easier than expected. "Nobody has had even the slightest objection," she said. "The characters are portrayed in an affectionate way and I think most people will think it's fun to be included."

Scieszka wants kids to have fun, but would also like to see them explore some of the other books mentioned. "I used this to plug all my favorites," he admitted. The titles appear at the back of the book in the form of -- a Summer Reading List, complete with tongue-in-cheek study guide. "I know some kid will look up the books," he added. And that's definitely worth extra credit.
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