Friday, January 10, 2014

Go, Ambassadors, Go!

Left to right: John Scieszka ("the first ambassador"),
newly-named ambassador Kate DiCamillo,
and past ambassador Katherine Paterson
If there’s one thing you can count on when you see “Stinky Cheese Man” author Jon Scieszka, it’s a good laugh. And Scieszka delivered that and more for the dozens of people who piled into Washington D.C.’s Politics & Prose Bookstore yesterday to celebrate the inauguration of Newbery Medalist Kate DiCamillo as the fourth National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.

​Kate, dressed in jeans and with her trademark wildish blonde hair, was there, of course. So was Katherine Paterson, the second children’s author to hold the ambassador’s post.  which was created in 2008 by the Library of Congress and the Children’s Book Council. Walter Dean Myers, the third ambassador, couldn’t make it, but,of course, Jon was there; he is, as he pointedly noted (with his trademark humorous, sly smile), “the first ambassador.”
​True enough, and it’s always wonderful to see the way Jon can work the crowd, which at Thursday’s packed event was composed of equal amounts of kids and grown-ups. Each of the ambassadors got to say a few words, and although all of them seemed a bit surprised by the fact that they had to “make a brief speech,” all of them handled the assignment with aplomb.
​Jon began by reading from the hilarious new book “Battle Bunny,” which he co-wrote with Mac Barnett. The book, which features pages on which it looks like a child scribbled and created his own story, is incredibly creative and quite subversive. (Kids can try doing this on their own with a template created by Jon and Mac).
​From reading about Battle Bunny’s fight for dominance over a pastoral landscape, Jon turned to reminiscing about his days as “the first ambassador,” with all its attendant – and often hyped, by Jon of course -- powers.
​“I’ve handed over (to Kate) the keys to the ambassadorial limousine and helicopter. But the jetpack? I’m keeping it!” Jon said.
​The best thing, Jon argued, is the fact that, as ambassador, “you get to do whatever you want.” He then turned to Kate and said: “What do you think about that?”
​“That’s alarming,” Kate replied.
​For Kate, the request that she become the new national ambassador was both a shock and an invitation. In talking about how it feels to take on the job, Kate alluded to her latest children’s novel, “Flora & Ulysses,” which stars a squirrel that is sucked up by a vacuum cleaner and miraculously emerges with super-hero powers.
​“Basically, I feel like I have been vacuumed up and turned into something much more interesting that I actually am,” Kate said. Then she jokingly added: “Every time I get intimidated about the job, I think to myself, ‘Well, Jon did it!’”
​And Jon – as is his wont – talked about the fun things that come with being the ambassador, including the time that another children’s author, David Shannon, talked a couple of hundred kindergarten students into bowing when Jon – the ambassador! – walked into the room.
​Jon also coyly refused to deny a rumor that, as ambassador, he was sometimes carried around when he visited classrooms in schools. So, when a kid asked Kate why she wanted to be the new ambassador, she was ready.
​“I want to be the ambassador because in a strange, but important way, stories changed my life. That’s the serious answer. The non-serious answer is that I would like to be carried around the room like Jon Scieszka!”
​When another child asked the ambassadors to pick their favorite books, Kate answered: “Oh, I can’t pick a favorite. I love them all.” She then compared her books to children and said that one child would be crushed if she, as a parent, loved another one more.
​Predictably, Jon had no such qualms when choosing his favorites among the books he has authored. “I would say either ‘The Stinky Cheese Man’ or ‘Battle Bunny’ or ‘The True Story of the Three Pigs.’ The rest of them can just cry their eyes out,” he laughed.
​Finally, the ambassadors were asked which authors or books have inspired them. Katherine, 81, responded that “you can tell my age immediately when I say that it was ‘The Secret Garden’ (written by Frances Hodgson Burnett) and ‘The Yearling’ (by Marjorie Rawlings).” In fact, Katherine said that she re-read “The Yearling” years later “and I realized how much echoes I recognized in my own writing.’
​For Kate, a self-described late bloomer, the books that have inspired her include Katherine’s Newbery Medal-winning “Bridge to Terebithia” and “The Watsons Go to Biringham 1963” by Christopher Paul Curtis.
​“Those books opened up something inside of me and I thought, ‘I want to do that,’” Kate said.
​As usual, Jon had the last word(s). “Well, as a child, I was very into zen philosophy,” he deadpanned. “And I loved ‘Go, Dog, Go’ (by P.D. Eastman). Remember the way the yellow dog goes up and the blue dog goes down. Very zen! You can’t argue with it. But my very favorite part was when they had a giant party up in a tree. That’s just so cool!”

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