• Dec 112014

Jon, Frank, Klink and Klank

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Sparky meets Jon Scieszka

Read on for your free Teaching Guide for ‘Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor’…

Magician? Anarchist? There’s something about Mr Jon Scieszka that can’t avoid twisting the traditional idea of a children’s book into something altogether more entertaining. This is a man who has taken a book of fairy tales and turned it into a book of ‘fairly stupid tales’ (The Stinky Cheese Man and other Fairly Stupid Tales), explored the idea of what might happen if a child set to a silly picture book with a pen to improve it (in the clever Battle Bunny, written with Mac Barnett), written a parody follow-up to the Frog Prince (The Frog Prince, Continued) and taken the three little pigs and retold their story from the wolf’s hard-done-by point of view (The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs). Here’s a taster…

Jon Scieszka is a writer with a love of the mash-up and a man who continues to inspire us with his irreverent creativity. And so, when a copy of his latest book: Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor (the first in a Science-themed series about a young genius) came through our door, we had to review it. Any book that arrives through our door complete with a spanner-shaped pen is has got to be interesting (not sure that’s standard practice though!). In fact — here’s a competition… If you read this, like the Teaching Guide and post / tweet work you’ve done with your class on ‘Frank Einstein’, we’ll send the spanner pen to the best. Some student somewhere can have it to irritate their teacher with.

Jon, Frank, Klink and Klank

Scieszka has worked closely with illustrator Brian Biggs to come up with a planned series that deals with different aspects of Science throughout action-packed and very witty stories. No child will read ‘Frank Einstein’ and come away without questions. This why the Teaching Guide prepared by Abrams & Chronicle is so useful — the cross-curricular opportunities are massive.

You can download a copy of the Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor Teacher’s Guide here.

We requested an interview and the good folks at Abrams & Chronicle obliged. And so, this is what happened when Sparky met Scieszka.

This is the tale of Jon, Frank, Klink and Klank…

Jon, Frank, Klink and Klank

SparkyHi Jon… If people aren’t familiar with your work, we’d say you were a children’s writer who was ever-so-slightly-leftfield, ever-so-slightly-anarchic, not afraid of twisting things around in your stories and who wants his readers to laugh as they read. Is any of that fair?

JonAll perfectly true.

SparkyThe leftfield / anarchic comment above was hinting at the sort of things you do with ‘The Stinky Cheese Man and other Fairly Stupid Tales’ — the Little Red Hen announcing the title page and wrecking the blurb on the back cover, the upside-down dedication page, the fake ending and so on. This is the sort of unique stuff we love most about your work and we can imagine you amused by it as you plan it all out. Do you do this sort of thing because you know it’s what’ll make your readers laugh or are you doing the things that make you laugh? Or both?!

JonAbsolutely both. I’ve always been amused by humor and parody and meta-fiction. Even as a kid. When I started teaching kids, I was happy to discover that we shared this amusement and fascination with twisting things.

SparkyYou founded Guys Read (a non-profit organisation) to help “boys become self-motivated, lifelong readers”. Inspiring boys to read (and stay readers) is something we have to work at daily as teachers. How can we get boys reading and staying reading? Is it just a case of providing them with material that clicks with them or is there more to it than that?

JonLetting boys read for pleasure and letting them read things they enjoy is a huge step in the right direction. Showing boys positive male role models for reading is another great way to inspire boy readers.

SparkySpeaking of teaching, you haven’t always been a full-time writer. You taught for 10 years. What made you leave the greatest profession on Earth?!

JonAs a writer for kids, I still consider myself a teacher… without the early hours, questionable lunches, over-looooong faculty meetings, and the requirement to wear pants while you are working.

SparkyIn Austin Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist, he talks about a family tree of ideas and it’s something that really chimed with us. It’s fascinating to find out what music our favourite authors listen to when they write or which children’s books inspire an artist. We’re inspired by you and we’d like to be inspired by those who inspire you. So… Which authors / artists / musicians / creative people of any type inspire you to do what you do?

JonI’ve always been inspired by the oldest stories I could find – fairy tales, folk tales, fables, Icelandic eddas, myths, and legends. I figure if they’ve survived this long, there is something deeply right about them. I never listen to any music when I write because I need to hear the rhythm of the words. But I am, probably not surprisingly, a fan of almost any kind of cover of a song, or mash-up of a couple songs… because that’s exactly what I do with the stories I tell.

SparkyThat’s a fascinating answer and gives a real insight into why your books are what they are. Your latest book, Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor is about a kid-genius scientist, his incredible invention and bid to thwart his arch nemesis’ (T. Edison!) evil doomsday plan. It’s an action-packed story, full of jokes and, interestingly, it’s peppered all the way through with real science. What made you include the factual stuff? Often a story about a kid inventor will be totally make-believe.

JonOh the science is much more than just included. The science drives the story. I studied science all through college, and have always loved it, loved learning about how the world works, the names of things, the reasons for things. And I know there are millions of kids who are just as curious.

I’ve planned FRANK to be a 6 book series, covering all of Science, from small to large: Matter, Energy, Human Body, Interconnected Life, Earth, and the Universe(s). Each book will have 1 very fun Frank invention connected to the topic, lots of action, and lots of jokes.

SparkyYour publishers have put together a great Teachers’ Guide for using ‘Frank Einstein’ in the classroom, which folks can download here. Should we see it as a teaching tool or just enjoy it as a cracking story?

JonTeachers know that a cracking good story is one of the best teaching tools. Interested, questioning readers are learning readers. And I am packing these FRANK stories with all kinds of fun science and historical and literary references so teachers can lead their readers to all kinds of fun learning.

SparkyProbably one of the things that struck us straight away with ‘Frank Einstein’ was the fact that it’s written in the present tense. It gives the book a really interesting feel – the reader is in the middle of the action as it happens:

The Earth revolves. Time passes. Frank feels flattened. Like he has been stomped by a giant shoe.”

Was there a particular reason you wrote it this way?

JonI wanted exactly that urgency that you are there, this is happening right now.

SparkyWe’re conscious this feels a bit like “things that are quirky about Jon Scieszka’s work and we’d like to ask him about”, but here goes… You like playing with fonts and typography in your books (the robots speak in different techno fonts in ‘Einstein’, Jack’s repetitive story in ‘Stinky Cheese Man’ that gets smaller and smaller and smaller). You certainly make your typesetter work!

Actually we’re not even sure what to ask you about this. We just love your style. Any font-based comments you’d like to make?!

JonThe design and illustration of my books are integral parts of the storytelling. They aren’t chosen just for random goofiness. The robots speak in different, mechanical-looking fonts to give the visual version of how they sound. In the Really Ugly Duckling, the type grows up the same way the duckling grows up.

There are also 2 distinct illustration styles for all the FRANK books – one is for the story illustrations, the other is for the information-driven diagrams. The illustrator, Brian Biggs worked hard to distinguish those. And I think he did an amazing job.

Brian Biggs

SparkyCompletely agree — we learned sign language, the structure of matter and how sunsets are formed from Mr Biggs’ illustrations in this book… Oh, and how to make a robot out of a trash can, vegetable strainer and Casio keyboard (the AL-100R, if you want to be specific).

There’s a lovely quote about ‘Frank Einstein’ from Tom Angleberger, author of ‘Origami Yoda’ on the back cover:
“Dear Frank Einstein, please invent time machine. Send your books back in time to me in 1978. Also a levitating skateboard – Tommy.”

Supposing Frank does get round to it, which book(s) / objects would you like him to take back to an eleven year-old you?

JonI would like some kind of flying suit that I could use to zip around the sky … and maybe use out in space too. A couple of really smart robots would come in handy too.

SparkyAs someone who has been there and done it in the classroom, as well as successfully inspiring young people today, what advice would you give anyone new to teaching who wants to keep their spark?

JonListen to your kids. They will keep you beyond sparky. I am always and ever amazed by kids’ curiosity and passion.

SparkyThanks for your time, Jon. You’re a busy man and we really appreciate it.

JonMy pleasure. I always have time for teachers.

If you’re new to the world of Mr Scieszka and like his style, check out his back catalogue.

FURTHER READING:
Jon Scieszka’s website is here.
You can find Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor on Amazon here
The second book in the series, Frank Einstein and the Electro-Finger is here.

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