Let 'Em Play!

Almost 20 years ago, Jon Scieszka (rhymes with "Fresca") introduced children to the unreliable narrator in The True Story of the Three Pigs by A. Wolf. If you recall, the wolf was framed -- he didn't kill those pigs, it was an accident! Scieszka brought satire, irony, and smelly cheese to a whole generation in books like The Time Warp Trio series and Squids Will Be Squids.

If that wasn't enough, in January of this year, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington appointed Scieszka the first National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. The position was created to "raise national awareness of the importance of young people's literature as it relates to lifelong literacy, education, and the development and betterment of the lives of young people." A heavy charge, but as his latest work for kids shows, Scieszka's sly approach to "young people's literature" carries exactly the right message: it's play time.

Mr. Scieszka was an elementary school teacher for years before becoming a wildly successful children's book author. To say that he "got" kids is an understatement. A few years back when studies were being published that boys' reading scores were not only behind girls but dropping, he began the Guys Read campaign (www.guysread.com), challenging parents, teachers, and librarians to provide high-interest books for boys. His view, which was backed up by research, was that if we wanted to get boys to read more, we had to stop being so rigid. Reading comics is reading. Reading Sports Illustrated is reading. Poring over David MacCaulay's schematics of the intricacies of building pyramids is just as legitimate for independent reading assignments as 20 pages of Little House on the Prairie.

On the surface, Scieszka's newest venture looks like many other contemporary picture books. It is a full-color, 32-page book with cartoony-looking trucks reminiscent of a Pixar film. To the untutored eye, it's nothing special. Indeed, the first book out of the gate looks entirely more commercial than his many previous inventive partnerships with the acclaimed artist Lane Smith. Not one but three picture book artists -- David Shannon (No, David), Loren Long (Little Engine That Could), and David Gordon (Three Little Rigs) -- collaborated to create a cohesive design for the series.

The creative process was, it seems, out of the ordinary. Scieszka brought the ambitious and preschool-friendly Trucktown to the table. Then, each artist created his own idea of what the trucks should look like, and the team picked parts from each to create a visual vocabulary. These components were manipulated digitally to create the 50 books planned for the series. The result is remarkable. In the first title -- Smash! Crash! -- the trucks' animated visages barrel across double-page spreads. Visible paint strokes fill in the foreground as the tiny details of the setting -- piles of junk, the texture of the road, and signage of the environment -- focus the view. Even the text (set in a unique typeface puckishly named "Truck King") seems to be zooming.

What seems like just another book about trucks is actually a subversive call-to-arms. Scieska is taking on parents, teachers, and others in the educational establishment who are pressuring younger and younger children (four- and five-year-olds) into academic subjects. Throughout the United States, kindergartners who are not developmentally ready are forced into a beginning reading and math curriculum -- even though there is no evidence that learning these skills at an early age will produce academic success later on. What we do know is that children are losing time to play.

Creative play -- pretend play, dramatic play, playground play, playing with blocks -- fosters development of children's learning of language. Play supports the development of children's cognitive, linguistic, and socio-emotional skills. A clinical report published in October 2006 by the American Academy of Pediatrics stated that too little time for unstructured play was increasing stress in parents and children. Many parents and policy makers believe that early academics will lead to later success when actually the opposite is true.

Does a child enter the first grade knowing all of their letters? Colors? Counting to 100? Great! But even better is the ability to concentrate, to pay attention, and to consider the needs of others. These are the skills children learn in interactive play.

That is what Trucktown is -- a glorious place of age-appropriate creative play. The endpapers introduce the cast of characters, and children can identify their favorites from among an archetypal array. Have you met the twin fire trucks and their sweet baby sister, the EMS vehicle? There's angry and overbearing Big Rig, or Monster Truck Max, rendered slightly off-kilter with appealingly googly eyes. The illustrations work to resist stereotypes -- Gabriella is an unexpectedly pink garbage truck. Introduced in the first volume are the kid-like Jack Truck and Dump Truck Dan: best friends who, yes, like to smash and crash.

While each truck's grillwork displays a complex palette of emotions and expressions, Scieszka's words provide the perfect mix of action, suspense, and repetition, as Jack Truck and Dump Truck Dan meet up with the other denizens of Trucktown they are shadowed by a mysterious voice shouting, "Hey, You Two. I Want You." Jack and Dan step on the gas. "Uh-oh." "Got to go."

Scieska not only understands child development, he also is an insightful writer who does not simplify the world that children experience. In this first book, he introduces each character in the complicated dance of play. How does one child join a group already engaged? What if one wants to smash and crash and the others are pretending to be pirates? These negotiations are part of the learning process that all children need to master in order to be successful in society.

Play is children's work. They aren't just playing; they are processing their world and gaining skills that will serve them for their entire lives. Jon Scieszka's Trucktown is sending a strong message. Let 'em play!

July 23: Jessica Mitford died on this day in 1996.

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