When trying to write the kind of story you want to tell, and the kind of story kids want to hear, all sorts of pesky things can get in the way; rules of society, parents’ ideas of a “proper” story, censorship nazis, the list goes on and on.
During the SCBWI Summer conference, John Scieszka (pronounced chess-kah), talked about this problem in his keynote address entitled The Importance of Being Subversive in Writing for Kids: Not Every Book Should Put You to Sleep. He said there are a lot of people between you and your audience; You have to get creative to sneak your ideas past them.
He told about how in his book, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, he told the tale from the wolf’s point of view. Nothing could be more subversive. He got to mess with everything – that’s what was so fun. My kids loved this book when they were little. Maybe that’s where they got the idea for the stories they told me whenever they got into trouble. It wasn’t me, Mom. Aliens used mind control and took over my body to make me spread peanut butter all over the television. I wouldn’t do something like that!
Just in case you haven’t read this book, here’s a quick summary:
“You may think you know the story of the Three Little Pigs. But you don’t know the whole story until you’ve heard A. Wolf’s side of the story. Mr. Wolf huffs, and he puffs, and he has a very bad sneezing cold. He also needs a cup of sugar to make a birthday cake for his dear, sweet granny’s birthday. Read and learn. Then decide for yourself–Big Bad Wolf . . . or media frame-up?” (Plot summary from author’s website.)
It may seem like just a funny story, (which it is) but I also think it plants the seeds of critical thinking and realizing there are two sides to every situation. Also, just because someone tells us we should believe them, doesn’t mean they are telling the truth. Scieszka manages to pull all of this off without beating kids over the head with a sickly sweet moral story. Fascinating.
During his talk, he also told about how The Stinky Cheese Man (a collection of subversive stories) received a monumental amount of rejections. One of the harsher rejections asked him to “please don’t send us anything ever again”. Ouch. Another suggested that “this isn’t really a great story to put kids to sleep.” He said he didn’t want to put kids to sleep.
The first National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature (who won a Caldecott medal for that monumentally rejected book) told us this:
“You’re born being subversive. It gets beat out of you.”
Our duty is to stir kids up.
He says that you can get kids excited about reading by giving them the kinds of stories they want to read. One way he did this, besides writing a few subversive books himself, was to establish GUYS READ, a web-based literacy program for boys meant to address the declining interest in reading by boys. His GUYS READ website has a list of many books approved by boys themselves.
So the next time you find yourself censoring a crazy idea or trashing a storyline because no parent will buy it, think of Jon Scieszka and be subversive. Our kids need you to stir them up and get them excited about reading.