One-Minute Book Reviews

February 7, 2009

Jon Scieszka Courts Preteen Boys in ‘Knucklehead,’ a Memoir of Growing Up With Five Brothers in Michigan during the Baby Boom

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One of the country’s most popular children’s authors remembers his childhood

Knucklehead: Tall Tales and Mostly True Stories of Growing up Scieszka. Viking Juvenile, 106 pp., $19.99. Publisher’s suggested age range: 9–12. See further discussion of ages below.

By Janice Harayda

Jon Scieszka first captured the hearts of preteen boys when he launched his popular “Time Warp Trio” series about three time-traveling male friends whose escapades had wacky titles like Your Mother Was a Neanderthal. Scieszka has since become a supernova in children’s literature: He’s won awards for picture books, seen the “Time Warp Trio” tales made into a television series, and been named the first national ambassador for young people’s literature by the Library of Congress.

Now he returns to writing for preteen boys in a memoir as fresh and entertaining as his early books for them. The mixed-media cover of Knucklehead resembles that of a graphic novel about World War II: Young Jon emerges with a grin from the hatch of an armored tank – a pint-sized John Wayne in a bow tie – as bombers drop their payload overhead. But Knucklehead is actually an illustrated memoir with 38 breezy chapters, most with just a page or two of text, about growing up Catholic with five brothers in Flint, Michigan, during the baby boom. It teems with photos of the Scieszka family and memorabilia of the era: a Wiffle Ball logo, MAD magazine cover, image from a Dick-and-Jane reader.

Scieszka focuses on the zanier aspects of growing up with five brothers: the matching outfits, the torments inflicted on nuns, the backyard games with ominous names like Slaughter Ball. A photo of a report card shows that he would have started fourth-grade in 1963, but if the death of JFK made an impression on him, he doesn’t say so. And on the evidence of this book, the Elvis and the Beatles never made it north of Toledo, and the annual Michigan-Ohio State game completely escaped the notice of six sports-loving boys living in Flint.

Like many boys of their day, Jon and his brothers reveled in militarism: They played with toy soldiers, shot frogs with BB guns, and made Revell fighter planes from kits. But behind all of their war games lay a glowing love of family that pervades this book. One anecdote involves a family car trip with a cat that ate a Stuckey’s Pecan Log Roll with disastrous results. And the incident allows Scieszka to express the closest Knucklehead has to a theme: “Stick with your brothers. Stick up for your brothers. And if you ever drop a pecan nut log in a car with your five brothers and the cat … you will probably stick to your brothers.”

Best line: Scieszka tweaks Dick-and-Jane readers: “When I read the Dick and Jane stories, I thought they were afraid they might forget each other’s names Because they always said each other’s names. A lot.

“So if Jane didn’t see the dog, Dick would say, ‘Look Jane. Look. There is the dog next to Sally, Jane. The dog is also next to Mother, Jane. The dog is next to Father, Jane. Ha, ha, ha. That is funny, Jane.’

“Did I mention that Dick and Jane also had a terrible sense of humor?”

You don’t quite believe that Scieszka thought all of that in the second grade or so, but the comment is funny and perceptive.

Worst line: “Here are me, Brian, Tom, Jim and Gregg outside our house in flint Michigan.” Scieszka is identifying the brothers in order in a picture, but that “Here are me …” is hard on the ear.

Recommendation? A great family read-aloud book. The publisher recommends Knucklehead for ages 9-12, but many 7- and 8-year-olds will enjoy it, too. And the book has high intergenerational appeal, because the pictures of boomer memorabilia may inspire grandparents and others to tell stories of their own childhoods. All the war imagery is historically appropriate and relatively mild in context (in part because the book doesn’t show all the Revell model planes that had swastikas on their wings).

Watch the book trailer for Knucklehead on Scieszka’s blog.

Published: October 2008

Furthermore: Scieszka (pronounced SHEH-ska) collaborated with the gifted artist Lane Smith on the “Time Warp Trio” series and picture books that include The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs! and The Stinky Cheese Man. For more on the “Time Warp Trip series,” see the One-Minute Book Reviews post “Beach Books for Ages 7 and Up.”

One-Minute Book Reviews reviews books for children or teenagers every Saturday. To avoid missing these reviews, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

© Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 23, 2007

Beach Books for Ages 7 and Up

Reconsidering three popular series — The Baby-sitters Club/Little Sister, The Adventures of Mary-Kate & Ashley and The Time Warp Trio

By Janice Harayda

After finishing all those worthy titles on school reading lists, many children need their own equivalent of beach books, or light summer fare that reminds them that reading is fun. That’s especially true of 7-to-9-year-olds, who may still require a lot of help finding books they can read and enjoy on their own. Here are a few alternatives to the popular series about Junie B. Jones, a heroine some people might define as a bully — loud, rude, full of herself and, in at least one book, physically violent.

The Baby-sitters Club/Little Sister series is a spin-off of Ann M. Martin’s juggernaut, “The Baby-sitters Club,” which dominated the preteen market for much of the 1990s. In its day “The Baby-sitters Club” was, as John Lennon might have said, “bigger than Jesus” among girls roughly ages 9–11. The “Little Sister” novels are aimed at a younger group and involve Karen Brewer, a 7-year-old second grader and the sibling of club founder Kristy. Karen is the anti-Junie. As sweet as a box of S’mores, she loves her teacher, her stepfather, her pen pal and, apparently, just about everybody else. Nobody pretends that these or other Baby-sitters books are art. But they have the virtue – getting rarer every day in children’s books – of grabbing girls’ attention while dealing with characters who are actually nice to each other. Some children might even learn a few things the one I read, Baby-Sitters Little Sister #89, Karen’s Unicorn (Scholastic, 1997), illustrated by Susan Tang. In this book Karen develops a fascination with unicorns that allows Martin to introduce a bit of lore about the mythical creatures. Did you know that if you want to drink from a stream in the books “and a unicorn comes along and puts its horn into the stream, then the water will be safe to drink”? I didn’t.

The New Adventures of Mary-Kate & Ashley is an easy detective series in which the famous sisters solve cases, styling themselves as the “Trenchcoat Twins.” I watched only a few episodes of the Olsens’ old sitcom, Two of Kind. But on the shows I saw, Mary-Kate and Ashley were often as rude or mean as Junie. So I wouldn’t have picked up this series if a children’s librarian hadn’t suggested it as an alternative to the “Little Sister” books. I read The New Adventures of Mary-Kate & Ashley: The Case of the Sundae Surprise (Harper Entertainment, 2003), by Melinda Metz, and found that here the girls mostly avoided the bickering they did on their TV show. Mary-Kate and Ashley work cheerfully together to find the thief who stole their secret recipe for Creamy Orange Choco Chunk ice cream, which they had planned to enter in an invent-a-new-flavor contest. And the thief turns out to be harmless, so the twins never face real danger. The book has ten pages of ads at the back for Mary-Kate and Ashley products, including dolls and videogames.

The Time Warp Trio involves three time-traveling preteen boys who quickly became so popular after their introduction in the 1990s that they earned their own show on the Discovery Channel. I’ve read only the earliest pre-TV novels, which have a witty text by Jon Scieszka and whimsical black-and-white illustrations and Lane Smith. These books included The Not-So-Jolly Roger (Viking, 1991), in which the boys join the ship of the pirate Blackbeard, and Your Mother Was a Neanderthal (Viking, 1993) in which they travel to the Stone Age. And they were terrific and far above the Baby-sitters and Mary-Kate and Ashley books. (The newer, post-TV books have a different design and may involve other changes.) These novels also appeal to many children beyond the second or third grade.

Some of these series may be hard to find in stores, but libraries and online sources usually have at least a few titles in each. And because they’re available in inexpensive paperback editions, there’s no need to worry about sunscreen streaks on the pages.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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