Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor By Jon Scieszka and Brian Biggs is the first in series of highly illustrated books, ideal for the 8-12 crowd, which encourage readers to explore how things work and get experimenting themselves.
Given our recent foray into tinkering, Frank Einstein is my new favourite scientist.
The brain child of Jon Scieszka, Frank loves to tinker, using old household appliances to create robots which one day come to life. There’s lots of real science, a good dose of silly science-fiction, adventure, and a whole lot of fun.
Although Jon Scieszka has sold over 11 million books, he’s not as well know over here in the UK as he is in his native US. But later this week he arrives on our shores ready to take Brits by storm 😉 I took his impending invasion as an opportunity to interview him; I hope you’ll enjoy what he had to say and be tempted to seek out Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor, which I highly recommend.
Zoe: Hi Jon, I’m honoured and delighted to have the opportunity to put some questions to you in advance of your UK tour. In the US you’re something of a superstar but perhaps it is fair to say that over here in the UK you’re not quite so well known. So to get us started, what are the three most important things we should know about you?
Zoe: Ha! I like what you’ve done there Jon 😉
I think I should also add:
Given your family background, Jon, did you ever consider becoming a professional wrestler? …I’m thinking here of your brothers, and how this along with going to an all boys’ school may have influenced your outlook on life…
Jon Scieszka: After growing up with 5 brothers, teaching elementary school for ten years, and raising a son and daughter, I pretty much am a professional wrestler. Also a pro golfer, chef, babysitter, racecar driver, garage cleaner, and dog poop picker-upper.
Zoe: You’re coming over to the UK in October to spread the word about the first book in a new series, Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor, a brilliant collision of fact, science and fun all about a kid who just loves to figure things out for himself, run experiments and make machines. What were the key points on your journey to seeing Frank Einstein released into kids’ hands around the world?
Jon Scieszka: I always loved science, studied in college to be a doctor, and ended up teaching science in elementary school. Having been a teacher, my writing is always about intriguing my readers to ask why. So I thought up FRANK EINSTEIN, kid inventor genius as a great way to introduce kids to all of Science, conveniently broken down into 6 illustrated books.
With an evil genius.
And an evil sidekick chimpanzee named Mr. Chimp.
Zoe: You strike me as a bit of a renaissance man: You love science and maths, but you also crazy for fairy tales, myths and legends. Where did this come from?
Jon Scieszka: I had a wonderfully supportive mom and dad, and a great education where I was always encouraged to study everything and anything that interested me. So I took both literature classes and comparative anatomy classes. I read comic books and Tristram Shandy. And I think it was my myth and religion studies that lead me to fairy tales and legends. Well, that and Bugs Bunny cartoons and Mad magazine and Rocky and Bullwinkle’s Fractured Fairy Tales
Zoe: Humour is incredibly important to you and your writing. Do you think there is such as thing as an American sense of humour which is different to a UK sense of humour (especially when it comes to kids)?
Jon Scieszka: There is something different about the US and UK senses of humor. But I’m not sure what that difference is. I am a huge fan of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, Hitchhiker’s Guide, Little Britain, Terry Pratchett, Eddie Izzard, Python, my older brother Roald Dahl, Wallace and Gromit, Steve Coogan, Simon Pegg, and some of Philip Ardagh’s work.
With kids I think the humor difference is often just a matter of vocabulary.
In the US, the fox’s line of dialogue in The Stinky Cheese Man story, “What is that funky smell?” gets huge laughs. Everywhere. I think because it sounds to the American ear, very much like another, very inappropriate f-word. But that line just doesn’t get the same laughs in the UK.
Zoe: I was racking my brains for a joke about noodles as I know you love them a lot and I came across this one – I’m not sure if it will make you smile or groan! – but would you share a favourite joke of yours?
Jon Scieszka: A recent favourite told to me by a second grader: What is brown and smells and sits in the woods? Winnie the Poo.
Zoe: [Groaning] …Something else which you’re passionate about is getting boys reading. In the UK boys typically do less well in reading tests and enjoy reading less than their female classmates – a situation which mirrors that in the US to some extent. You decided to try and do something about this by setting up Guys Read – please can you tell us a little about it?
Jon Scieszka: Boys not reading is a worldwide problem. In the US, boys have tested lower in reading in every age group for every one of the last 30 years that kids have been tested. But there has been no federal effort to address this.
I started Guys Read ten years ago first to just get people to realize that boys are having trouble, and second to try some practical solutions to get boys engaged in reading – like allowing them to read texts they enjoy, expanding the definition of reading to include humor, science fiction, graphic storytelling, non-fiction; and providing male role models for reading.
The website guysread.com collects texts that boys like to read, and suggests them to other guys.
Zoe: Are there any UK Field Offices? If someone wanted to start one, what would your advice be?
Jon Scieszka: We do have one very fine field office at the International School of Aberdeen. But there should absolutely be more UK branches. Go to the Start Your Own section of the website (http://www.guysread.com/program/) and get cracking, UK! It’s all there.
Zoe: As part of Guys Read you’ve edited and contributed to a series of themed short story books all targeted specifically at boys – their titles all make it clear that these are books for boys. I personally hate seeing books labelled as “for girls” as such titles seem to me to only pigeonhole what girls and young women can be and might like. Why is it ok to have books categorically labelled as “for boys” (or even “guys”)?
Jon Scieszka: The Guys Read Library of Great Reading is curated to give boys a reason to want to be readers. My experiences as a parent, a teacher, and a book writer have all shown me that the most effective way to inspire boys to be readers is to give them something they are interested in reading; and that in the most broad strokes, many boys are interested in types of reading that are different from what interests girls. These genre-themed short story collections aren’t meant to limit or exclude anyone. They are simply offered as a wide range of stories (written by great male and female authors) that boys can peruse … and hopefully find an author that inspires them to want to read more.
Zoe: Recently there was a lot of debate and even anger here in the UK about the gendered marketing of books, a debate sparked by the author Jonathan Emmett, who argues that the UK “picture book industry reflects girls’ tastes more than it does boys’ and that this bias is exacerbating the gender gap between boys’ and girls’ reading abilities.”
To what extent do you think the same could be said for the US market?
Jon Scieszka: I think Jonathan Emmett made a very thoughtful, considered, statistical, and careful presentation about the realities of children’s publishing. The statistics and challenges he mentions for the UK are very much the same in the US. Here elementary school teachers, librarians, children’s booksellers, and children’s book prize committee members are mostly women. It is not unreasonable to wonder if this gender inequality might influence what is produced and bought and awarded in children’s books.
And I think the anger this question provokes is more about gender inequality in the wider world at large than just about kids’ books.
Zoe: Ok, so that was a pretty hefty couple of questions I guess, so now a couple of easier ones to wind down with! What’s the last book you read?
Jon Scieszka: I just finished Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s Sam and Dave Dig a Hole, David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, and Edward Creasy’s Fifteen Decisive Battles of the Western World.
Zoe: Who would your dream dinner party guests be and why?
Jon Scieszka: I would invite Auguste Escoffier to cook, Baron Rothschild and Madame Clicquot for beverages, Ursula Nordstrom and Maurice Sendak for kids book thoughts, Napoleon for a dash of military history, comedian Hannibal Buress for long funny stories, and Bugs Bunny for surreal relief.
Zoe: Would you serve noodles or stinky cheese at the party or something else entirely?
Jon Scieszka: That will be up to Monsieur Escoffier.
Zoe: And if your dinner guests begged you to read an excerpt from one of the things you’re working on right now, what would you read them?
Jon Scieszka: I think I would distract them with a dramatic reading of one of my favourite books: Go, Dog.Go! I never read unfinished pieces of stories I am working on to anyone.
Zoe: Many thanks, Jon. Here’s wishing you an exciting and welcoming time this side of the pond.
You can see Jon at the following public events: