To adults that don’t normally wander through the shelves of children’s literature the notion of the autobiography for kids is a pretty odd beast. You write a book about yourself, sure. But why would you make the primary audience for that book people who think that boogers and farts are the height of wit and sophistication? Fact of the matter is an autobiography written with a child audience in mind needs a hook. Your life, particularly your life as a kid, has to have had something interesting about it. Many of us probably look back on those years only to sigh and determine that absolutely nuthin’ interesting went on back then that would sufficiently engage a ten-year-old. Not Jon Scieszka. You want a hook? Try five brothers. Five brothers and Catholic school. Five brothers and Catholic school and a mess of stories involving bodily functions and super cool (and not so cool) toys. Mr. Scieszka proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that when it comes to recounting your youth, there’s nothing like a plethora of XX chromosomes to keep the readers reading.
He was born the second Scieszka, after Jim, before Tom, Gregg, Brian, or Jeff. You want to know where the author of books like The Stinky Cheese Man gets his ideas? This book provides the answer. Using bite sized chapters rarely more than two to three pages in length we get a firsthand account of what it’s like to grow up as a child of the fifties and sixties alongside five other bros where being a guy takes up all of your time. The book is written in such a way that readers are almost encouraged to flip back and forth through it to get all the good stuff, but in the order they prefer. So if you happened to skip Chapter 13 about Gregg’s broken collarbone and you get to Chapter 19 which references the incident in passing, never fear. It’s easy to take Knucklehead as it comes to you. There are thirty-eight chapters in total and each one’s a heckuva lot of fun.
Read enough of these authorial auto-bios and after a while you start seeing similarities. That section about peeing on the heater in the bedroom? Well that’s mighty similar to the peeing on the heater section in Chris Crutcher’s book King of the Mild Frontier. Not because one was cribbed from the other or anything. It just seems that peeing on heaters is one of those universal things boys like to do, and it sure does make for great reading. As I read Scieszka’s book I also started flashing back to some talks I’ve heard fellow author Eoin Colfer give about his own years with a big family, and the disgusting hijinks he and his siblings engaged in. When the candid and the funny are one and the same, you’ve got the makings of a hit on your hands.
Actually, maybe I shouldn’t use the word “candid”. Since the subtitle of this book says that it involves “tall tales and mostly true stories” then the readers should have some fun trying to figure out where Jon exaggerates. It’s tough. A lot of these are so weird you can’t help but think they’re true. That story about how Jon would faux call the Bad Boys’ Home while brother sitting? Sounds about right. The one about breaking Gregg’s collarbone? Jon has the photographic proof right there (and even a picture where Gregg looks like he’s a “third-grade pro football player”). No, I think my doubting Thomas nature came into play more along the lines of the chapter called “Car Trip” which involves brothers, a cat, and an unfortunate pecan nut log in a vomit-fest that certainly strains at the tensile threats of my credulity. And maybe the dry cleaning bag incident. I mean it’s just too cool.
The design of this book is groovy, keen, awesome, neato no question. From the faux ads on the back to the sheer overwhelming swath of photographs, graphs, x-rays, pictures, and clip art peppered throughout, this puppy’s a visual humdinger. The kind of thing that makes you scratch your head and say, “I wonder if he would have gotten this much cool art design help if he wasn’t our National Ambassador of Children’s Literature?” Which is an uncharitable thought, perhaps, so you’d have to banish it from your brain forthwith and just enjoy the pictures instead. It’s clear that Mr. Scieszka, creator of the Guys Read movement that encourages boys to read, knows how to make an autobiography that reluctant readers will dig. Everything about this book is tailor made for the kid who thinks that they don’t like books. The chapters are very short and the text continually broken up by the visuals.
In New York anyway the go-to autobiography assigned by teachers over and over again is Jerry Spinelli’s Knots in My Yo-Yo String. Now at long last it looks as if Jerry will finally see a challenger to his throne. I’ve heard Mr. Scieszka present one or two of the chapters of this book live and since he has a tendency to go off-script (particularly when he’s discussing his own life) there are things he has mentioned live that didn’t quite make it into Knucklehead. That’s okay. I don’t think anyone’s going to accuse the man of not including enough information. As a reluctant reader pick and the kind of autobiography kids are going to fight to read first, this book is definitely a must-add title for any library’s shelves. Good clean stuff. Without the “clean” part so much.
On shelves October 2nd.
Notes on the Cover: In a word? Awesome? In two words? Way awesome. Man, isn’t that the kind of cover every boy would love to get on his autobiography? I was particularly taken with the drawn-in bow tie under the photograph of little Scieszka’s face. Also, there’s a possibility that this is a colorized black and white photo. If it is, the colorization job on this is amazing. If it wasn’t, then I’m sure the Art Designer bent over backwards to make the flesh tones on the kid’s face look natural and not horribly faded (as all photos from that time period are wont to do). In any case, I’m back to my first point, which I believe was “Awesome”. That just about sums it up.
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