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Author Works To Prevent Reading's 'Death Spiral'

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 24, 2008

He's got a serious new title: the very first officially declared U.S. National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. But author Jon Scieszka is on a mission to get schools and parents to lighten up when it comes to selecting books for children.

It's time, he said, for reading to be fun again.

Scieszka was picked recently by Librarian of Congress James H. Billington to fill the newly created role, designed to raise the profiles of reading and good books for young people. He is traveling the country, talking to adults about how to get children to read more, especially those who find reading a chore.

Legions of children know him from his award-winning books, including "The Stinky Cheese Man," and his GuysRead.com Web site, which promotes books for boys. He also has Trucktown, a new series for preschool and kindergarten students, who wouldn't be at all surprised by his unorthodox views about reading, although some adults might.

The way he sees it, parents and teachers should:

¿ Give children freedom to choose what they want to read rather than what adults think they should read.

¿ Expand the definition of reading to more than novels. "Nonfiction, graphic novels, comic books, magazines, online, audio books -- I think all that works. It all helps turn kids into readers."

¿ Stop demonizing other media. "Don't make computers and TV and movies the bad guy. Those things aren't going to go away. I think we did ourselves a disservice in the past of saying TV is bad, reading is good. It's not that cut and dried."

Scieszka calls himself "a fan of stupid reading."

"I've been a big champion of stuff like 'Captain Underpants' and 'Junie B. Jones,' " he said. "It horrifies some parents and teachers because it is not grammatical and there are misspellings, but that is fun reading."

And fun, he said, is the ticket to getting youngsters to read, especially those children for whom reading is hard.

Books that appeal to a child's interests can avoid what he calls "the death spiral," which goes like this: "It's where kids aren't reading and then are worse at reading because they aren't reading, and then they read less because it is hard and they get worse, and then they see themselves as non-readers, and it's such a shame."

Scieszka was born in 1954 in Flint, Mich., and received a bachelor's degree in writing from Albion College and a master's of fine arts from Columbia University. He spent several years teaching first through eighth grade, spending the most time in second grade, where many children learn to read. That experience, he said, helped him realize how hard it is for many children to learn to read.

Reading, he said, is not an elective in life, but a necessity.

"Why do we care if people are reading?" he said. "Can't we watch YouTube forever? The answer is no. Because your brain will turn to mush."

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