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.”
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© Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.