"People don't give kids credit for how smart they are. And we don't give them enough ways to show how smart they are."
-- Jon Scieszka1
Jon Scieszka's first book, The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs! offered a whole new version of what a picture book could be. Coupled with Lane Smith's signature style of illustrations, it proved that retellings of fairy tales, even mockeries of classic stories, could sell. In fact, they could sell quite well.
Years later, in 1996, Scieszka and Smith would collaborate again on a picture book: The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales . Where their first book played with a single story: The Three Little Pigs, Stinky Cheese Man poked fun at a whole array of fairy tales. The Ugly Duckling, Rumplestiltskin, The Princess and the Pea, The Gingerbread Man, and more all get spoofed.
What's more, Scieszka and Smith even demolish what it means to be a book. The characters break the fourth wall and interact between pages and stories, the table of contents appears later in the book and falls apart (to The Little Red Hen's dismay), stories continue into infinity, and the art all helps to add to this disjointed, confusing effect.
These aren't fairy tales retold to teach a moral, they are fairy tales retold to be mocked. All the usual conventions of fairy tales and of picture books are torn down and made fun of.
As one might expect, kids love this. The sheer ridiculousness of the stories and illustrations, and of the book itself, sends kids into giggle fits. But it is particularly effective for children because they are so used to hearing all of the stories that are lampooned. Parents tend to enjoy the book even more, finding the surrealism engaging and usually laughing just as hard at the jokes made. And the illustrations are well worth the 1993 Caldecott Honor they received, which adults enjoy as well.
The recommended age range, 4-8, is a little controversial. Of course, it is perhaps unsurprising that a teacher who introduced Kafka to his students when they were eight-years-old2 would be accused of marketing books to too young an audience. It is true that the strongest advocates for Stinky Cheese Man tend to be adults, but it also true that the people who claim that the jokes will go over the heads of four- to eight-year-olds tend to underestimate the intelligence of the age group. Kids of that age are used to books that give them exactly what they expect and don't bother to test them in any way. That is precisely what makes it so surprising and fun to have a book that is challenging, and different.
Jon Scieszka was a favourite authour of mine far before I could spell his name, and coupled with Lane Smith's illustrations, it's really hard to go wrong. I'd definitely recommend The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales to anyone with a smart-alec kid, or any parent who wants, if I may be pretentious for just a moment, a post-modernist interpretation of fairy tales in picture book form. Or who still laughs at stinky cheese jokes. Either way.
"Quit reading. Turn the page. If you read this last sentence, it won't tell you anything."
-- The introduction of The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales
1, 2 Jon Scieszka – Penguin Book Authors – Penguin books (http://www.penguin.ca/nf/Author/AuthorPage/0,,1000029154,00.html)