Scieszka in tank
Cover illustration
See permission.
The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.
Knucklehead: Tall Tales & Mostly True Stories about Growing Up Scieszka

by Jon Scieszka

“I learned to read by reading very strange books in school. They were brightly colored stories about a weird alien family. Nothing like my family of wrestling, tree-climbing, bike-smashing brothers.” Fortunately, those youthful disappointments didn’t put Jon Scieszka off of books, and he has now chronicled the experiences of that very same band of brothers in this inviting autobiography, where kids who share his suspicion of strange, orderly families will find themselves right at home. 

The book signals its style to the reader even before it’s opened—its cover, period design, and size echo young Jon’s beloved war comics, with the back cover mimicking their multiple-ad jackets (the “ad” blurbs are quotes from chapters), cluing audiences in to both the retrospective flavor and the playfulness. Inside the book, brief chapters of two or three pages of text in friendly print size, illustrated with photographs of people (family pictures abound) or relevant realia (saint cards, baseball cards, the Cub Scout pledge, and reproductions of period logos), each offer an anecdote about life in the obstreperous Scieszka household. Since this was a household of six children, all boys (Mrs. Scieszka was the only female in the house), life there resembled something between a constant romp and a ferocious military zone. 

Some autobiographies of children’s authors and illustrators devote attention to the subject’s burgeoning talent. Knucklehead, however, isn’t the portrait of the artist as a young man but the portrait of a jokester as a young man—the only writing he does is to amp up his list of swear words in response to a nun’s disciplinary instruction, and his most important realization comes when he repeats a joke to the open classroom and discovers the power of laughter. This is a power with which Scieszka fans are already well aware, and they’ll find much to guffaw about in these compact snapshots of life among the Scieszka Six. Highlights in the episodic account include bathroom stream-crossing “sword fights” (the inevitable result of sending boys to the toilet together), ugly suits that get handed down from brother to brother (photographic evidence provided), and boyish love for sweet nuns at his Catholic school (“Every boy in fourth grade would have married her in a second . . . if she hadn’t already been married to You-Know-Who”) and fear of stern ones (“What’s so funny, Mr. Scieszka?”). 

It won’t surprise Scieszka fans that this is ultimately a paean to the kind of boisterous boyhood that some adults fear is in abatement, the sort recently advocated in Conn Iggulden’s Dangerous Book for Boys and similar titles. And since the focus is Scieszka’s own childhood, there’s a touch of nostalgia to the portrait, which might effectively bring in parents, especially dads, and encourage them to read aloud, co-read, and share tales of their own but-don’t-do-what-I-did hijinx. Yet there’s plenty here for contemporary kid enjoyment, and the brotherhood is ultimately pretty nonthreatening, like a pack of mischievous puppies romping their way through youth, complete with puddles and damage to property but still irresistibly cute. An autobiography for those who prefer to read riddle books and Captain Underpants (it’s worth noting that flap copy declares Scieszka’s main mission to be “Reach the Reluctant Reader”), this will be a lifesaver for reports; Scieszka’s even given it an index, albeit a loony and somewhat biased one (the author himself is indexed under half a dozen superlative phrases), and cannily sized it just past that crucial 100-page mark. Pretty clever for a knucklehead.

Deborah Stevenson, Editor

Scieszka in tank

Illustration by Gabriel Hardman from Knucklehead:  Tall Tales & Mostly True Stories about Growing Up Sieszka ©2008. Used by permission of Vikiing Children's Books.

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This page was last updated on November 1, 2008.