By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 3, 2008
Jon Scieszka, author of "The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales" and the "Time Warp Trio" series, will get the imprimatur of the Library of Congress today as the first National Ambassador for Young People's Literature.
"We think it's very important to have an evangelist for reading," said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. The library's Center for the Book has teamed up with the Children's Book Council, a publishing industry trade association, to create the national ambassador program.
The appointment comes at a time when declines in Americans' reading proficiency and time spent reading have been widely noted -- most recently in "To Read or Not to Read," a report issued by the National Endowment for the Arts. For many reasons, including economic competitiveness, it is "a matter of crucial national importance" that young people read, Billington said.
Funding for the program is to be provided by Cheerios, with additional support from children's books publishers. Scieszka will get a $50,000 stipend for a two-year term. He will promote children's books and reading in personal appearances around the country and through the media.
Scieszka (pronounced Shess-ka), who lives in Brooklyn, is widely known not only for his best-selling kids' books but for his concern with encouraging boys to read more. He runs a nonprofit literacy program called Guys Read ( http://www.guysread.com) and has edited an anthology called "Guys Write for Guys Read." He was unavailable for comment yesterday, but told The Washington Post last summer that his experience teaching second grade for many years showed him that boys are particularly at risk for falling behind in reading skills.
Parents and teachers, he said then, need to help boys "expand their notion of what reading is" by encouraging them to read "nonfiction, science fiction, graphic novels" or whatever it takes to interest them. "They want to read about wrestling and cars," he said, but the message they get is, "Oh, no, you have to read 'Little House on the Prairie.' "
In a Q&A supplied as part of the publicity for the national ambassador appointment, Robin Adelson, executive director of the Children's Book Council, explained how the collaboration came about.
The idea of some kind of children's book spokesman "had been circulating for many years," Adelson wrote, but "for it to work effectively, we had decided that the imprimatur of the Library of Congress was essential." So she got in touch with John Cole, director of the Center for the Book, which was established in 1977 as what Cole calls an "educational outreach office" to promote books, reading, libraries and literacy.
Cole forwarded the idea through channels. Billington was enthusiastic, but rejected the idea of calling the new spokesman a "children's laureate." The national ambassador, he said yesterday, is not the equivalent of the poet laureate, another literary ambassador selected by the librarian of Congress, because that program is specifically authorized by Congress.
Billington also noted the library's long engagement with young people and reading, mentioning in particular the National Digital Library Program and its American Memory Web site. "We're really in the education business," he said.
Scieszka's nomination for the new post, which Billington had to approve, came from a five-member committee of children's literature experts. Jewell Stoddard, who runs the children's section of Washington's Politics and Prose bookstore, was one of them. Scieszka was a good choice, she said, both because he's already "on a mission to promote reading among young boys" and because "he's a wonderful speaker and lots of fun."
Stoddard wasn't concerned that Scieszka would concentrate only on boys.
"Girls love his books, too," she said, "and I'm sure he'll speak for everybody."