The Moral Of The Story Is: Great Kids' Books Don't Always Need Morals

Dec 7, 2018
Originally published on December 10, 2018 4:45 pm

As a teacher, father and children's book author, Jon Scieszka avoids books full of lessons. "Since the beginning of kids' books ... it was like: learn your alphabet, learn the colors, or learn morals, learn proper behavior," he says. But the author of the kids' classic The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales says books for small readers don't need big lessons.

Ahead of the holidays, All Things Considered is inviting writers to talk about the books they'll be gifting to friends and family this year. Here's what Scieszka has for the kids on his list:

Potato Pants!, by Laurie Keller

Dog Man: Lord of the Fleas, by Dav Pilkey

The Big Book Of The Blue, by Yuval Zommer

Go, Dog. Go!, by P.D. Eastman

For more reading recommendations, visit the NPR 2018 Book Concierge — more than 300 titles, hand-picked by NPR staff and book critics, including lots of books for kids.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF VINCE GUARALDI TRIO'S "SKATING")

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The holiday season is magical, right? No? You say, bah, humbug? Well, try this. Give a kid in your life just the right book - the story that transports, the pictures that enchant - and you will know that magic is real. Kids' book author Jon Scieszka believes. But big, beautiful picture books - that's really not his thing, as our co-host Audie Cornish found out.

JON SCIESZKA: I was more honestly the fan of, like, the crazy. So...

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: (Laughter).

SCIESZKA: ...Guys like Dr. Seuss, P.D. Eastman. Oh, the "Are Caps For Sale" (ph) - that's kind of got some sweet pictures. I don't know if I'd call them beautiful, a bunch of monkeys...

CORNISH: No.

SCIESZKA: ...Stealing hats.

(LAUGHTER)

SCIESZKA: That's my idea of a book. I think maybe because it was, like, my family of five or six boys all together. I guess five brothers - doing the math here in my head.

CORNISH: You mentioned P.D. Eastman. And I know this is a book you do think about, "Go, Dog. Go!" Tell us about that, why you think it's a holiday must.

SCIESZKA: Oh, that is just one of my favorites forever. I think this was one of those books that got me reading.

CORNISH: And it was published in 1961.

SCIESZKA: Yep. And it's so much fun. It's actually, like, I think a zen koan or, like, a meditation on just being present. So the first three pages, the entire text is dog, big dog, little dog. And that's exactly what it shows. It's so satisfying. I mean, there's a red dog on a blue tree, a blue dog on a red tree. It's just - that's what you see. It's so much fun. And then a giant party up in a tree - so you can't go wrong with something like that.

CORNISH: Ends with a party - and that's something you can start - basically, that's like babies and up, right?

SCIESZKA: Yeah. Yeah.

CORNISH: I want to talk to you now about some of the best books to your mind for 2018. And one of them is by Laurie Keller. It's called "Potato Pants!" And this is I guess in what is becoming a tradition between you and I of stories that involve vegetables wearing clothes. Tell us a little more about it.

SCIESZKA: Yeah, I don't know exactly how we started this. Oh, I know how we started it, with "Vegetables In Underwear."

CORNISH: Exactly.

SCIESZKA: (Laughter) But - now, I just love this book, too, again, mostly for the title, like, "Potato Pants!" And it's a potato and his eggplant nemesis who are struggling to find the perfect pair of pants at Lance Vance's Fancy Pants Store, by the way.

CORNISH: Is he fighting an eggplant? Where does this go?

SCIESZKA: No, he's, like, going to the pants store...

CORNISH: I'm living in the age of, like, post-Transformers.

SCIESZKA: Yeah.

CORNISH: So I'm like, do they do battle? What happens?

SCIESZKA: No. But, you know, you're nervous because it's a one-day-only potato pants sale. And then when the potato gets there, he sees an eggplant in there who he had a little run-in with the day before on eggplant pants day.

CORNISH: Oh, not on Black Friday? I like this.

SCIESZKA: (Laughter) Yeah.

CORNISH: Kind of like that there's (laughter) a consumer angle to it.

SCIESZKA: And it's kind of sweet, though, that it actually models how to get over a - maybe a misunderstanding with an eggplant if you've ever had that problem in your life.

CORNISH: Do you look for books with a lesson?

SCIESZKA: No. You know what? I try to avoid books with a lesson (laughter). And it is - it's a thing that happens in kids' books...

CORNISH: Yeah, definitely.

SCIESZKA: ...Since the beginning of kid books.

CORNISH: I thought they were all lessons frankly.

SCIESZKA: Yeah. You know what? They started that way. It was like, learn your alphabet; learn the colors; learn proper behavior. But you know what? Being a teacher and then having kids of my own, I just found, I don't know, sometimes you need "Go, Dog. Go!"

CORNISH: Along those lines is a book you're suggesting called "Dog Man: Lord Of The Fleas" by Dav Pilkey. Tell us a little bit about - this is part of a series - and what makes this particular book special.

SCIESZKA: Oh, Dav Pilkey is the absolute god of children's books for this age, like, just emerging readers. They're graphic novels. And they're funny. And they're fast. And they're weird. It's about a cop and a police dog who got hurt in an explosion. But the nurse realized she could save them both by sewing the dog's head on the cop's body, making Dog Man (laughter).

CORNISH: You made that sound a lot more cheerful than...

SCIESZKA: (Laughter) Yeah, I did...

CORNISH: I thought you were going to end with saying, and it's an FX series, and it's...

SCIESZKA: (Laughter) Yeah, exactly.

CORNISH: ...Pretty dark.

SCIESZKA: Yeah, exactly.

CORNISH: We are in the Hanukkah season. We're heading into Christmas. This is the time of year where people will be doing some gift swapping. And sometimes the person who gives the books is, like, the boring aunt.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Not anyone I know, obviously.

SCIESZKA: No, you're telling me this for a friend, right (laughter)?

CORNISH: Yeah, exactly, for a friend. So how can you make this kind of exciting for kids to say - I mean, maybe not the real little ones, but the ones who are basically expecting a video game?

SCIESZKA: You know what? I think it's finding out what that kid is interested in. So for instance, like, this guy Yuval Zommer, who did "The Big Book of the Blue," has also done "Big Book Of Bugs" and "Big Book Of Beasts." If you find, like, that bug kid, get him the bug book. Or if you find a beast kid, get him the beast book. Or that kid who loves nonfiction - I think that's another great thing that's kind of overlooked where people always think, oh, let's get a nice story. Like, how about let's get a book about the whole ocean? (Laughter) That could be, like, something that ocean kid, that information kid will love.

CORNISH: Well, Jon Scieszka, thank you so much.

SCIESZKA: Oh, always my pleasure.

CORNISH: Jon Scieszka - his kids' books include the classic "The Stinky Cheese Man." For every reader on your gift-giving list, head over to our Book Concierge. You'll find it at npr.org/bestbooks.

(SOUNDBITE OF VINCE GUARALDI TRIO'S "SKATING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.