Sunday, February 23, 2014

This "Knucklehead" is a Common Core King

If you know children’s books, then you already know that Jon Scieszka is a genius when it comes to writing for kids. I witnessed yet another demonstration of that genius the other day when I introduced a couple of 4th grade classes to Scieszka’s book, “Knucklehead: Tall Tales and Almost True Stories of Growing Up Scieszka” (Viking, $12.99, ages 8-12), and brought down the house. For those unfamiliar with the many charms of “Knucklehead,” this book trailer will help you understand why it is now a cult hit in my library, and likely in many other libraries around the country.

Here’s how I gathered the most recent evidence of Scieszka’s genius – and why I believe that “Knucklehead” should be required reading, at least for 4th graders, in the Common Core unit on memoirs. My library just happens to be at the crossroads of both public elementary schools in our city, with the K-2 elementary school on one side of our library parking lot, and the grades 3-5 elementary school on the other side. As you can imagine, we do a lot of school programs, which is a great and easy field trip for the students and the teachers, and wonderful for us because the kids usually get to check out books, thus upping our circulation stats. Plus it's just fun to have the kids come over and talk about books with them.

We have a particularly close bond with the 4th grade teachers, and the 4th grade classes regularly come to my library for programs connected to whatever they’re studying in language arts at the moment. This year, the new Common Core curriculum is part of the equation, so instead of doing the usual “autobiographies and biographies” unit, my program last week was focused on “memoirs.” (With permission from the teachers, I did expand the program just a bit to include a quick look at biographies, book-talking such diverse books as “Nelson Mandela” by Kadir Nelson, “What to Do About Alice?” by Barbara Kerley, and “John Smith Escapes Again” by Rosalyn Schanzer.) 

For the main session on “memoirs.” I had pulled out some of my favorites for kids this age. Among my choices:  “Boy” by Roald Dahl; “Bad Boy” by Walter Dean Myers; “Knots in My Yo-Yo String” by Jerry Spinelli; “How Angel Peterson Got His Name” by Gary Paulsen; "To Dance" by Siena Cherson Siegel;" "The Wall" by Peter Sis, and “Smile” by Raina Telgemeier.  And, when I’m doing a program like this, I always try to pick out particularly entertaining and/or outrageous sections of these books to read so I can capture and keep the interest of my young listeners.

For example, for “Boy,” I had earmarked the section where Dahl recounts a story his classmate told him about a particular kind of licorice being composed of rat parts, and for “Angel Peterson,” I read from the introduction, where Paulsen talks about the time he had the crazy idea of sealing himself into a wooden barrel and launching himself off a small waterfall. Only a happy bit of fate kept him from dying.

 The kids enjoyed those stories, but they also were starting to grow a bit restless. That’s when I launched my piece de resistance, and played the audio version – read by Scieszka himself – of the first few chapters of “Knucklehead.” Just the name Jon Scieszka is enough to attract the interest of most young readers, who are huge fans of “The Stinky Cheese Man,” “The Time Warp Trio” series, and other Scieszka books. So, when the kids heard his voice, their attention was immediately caught, and they listened closely as he talked about the wild and crazy (and sometimes very inappropriate) things he did with his five brothers. As Scieszka read from “Knucklehead,” the kids were totally rapt when they weren’t erupting into laughter. Not surprisingly, they especially loved the story in which Scieszka and his older brothers decide to try to “put out” the portable heater in their basement room by peeing on it.
The Scieszka Brothers

When I finished the program, I was swarmed by kids who wanted to check out a copy of “Knucklehead.” Every kid I talked with said they couldn't wait to find out what else happens in the book, since they only had listened to the first three chapters. One girl came up to me and with an expression that was part-thrilled, part-thunder-struck, said: "I can't believe what Jon Scieszka and his brothers did!" Because I’ve done this program for previous 4th grade classes, I knew that “Knucklehead” would be an instant best-seller, and so I had stocked up with multiple copies. Still, there weren’t quite enough to go around, so I’m heading out soon to Politics &Prose, our local indie bookstore, to purchase some more copies.

There's a good reason by Scieszka was chosen as the first National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. He's a guy who just understands kids, especially reluctant readers, and especially boys. Just check out his Guys Read website, or his Guys Listen website. And then there's the awesome new genre-bending -- and mind-bending -- new children's book that Jon has written with Mac Barnett, "Battle Bunny" (Simon & Schuster, $14.99, ages 5-8).  Illustrated by Matthew Myers, "Battle Bunny" is a guaranteed hit with young readers, who will delight in Scieszka and Barnett's subversive humor, as you can readily see in this book trailer.

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