'Stinky Cheese' creators are at it again

November 23, 1995|By Cecelia Goodnow | Cecelia Goodnow,SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER

Here's the True Story of the Two Little Anarchists, as told by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith.

Like all good subversives, they have a harmless-sounding cover -- in this case, paired as writer and illustrator of children's books.

But you can't judge an author by his cover.

Hip and irreverent -- with the skewed humor of "The Simpsons" or "Rocky and Bullwinkle" -- Mr. Smith and Mr. Scieszka have tweaked the children's book field with their own fractured fairy tales.

Their breakthrough book, "The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs, as Told by A. Wolf," has sold 785,000 copies since 1989 and become a modern-day classic. The story, which casts the wolf as a misunderstood victim of a scandal-hungry media, often is used in classrooms to teach point of view.

Their next hit, "The Stinky Cheese Man," was perhaps the first Caldecott Honor book to become a cult favorite with college students, who savor the satire in such tales as "Little Red Running Shorts," "Jack's Bean Problem" and "Cinderumplestiltskin."

The other day, mulling the meaning of it all, Mr. Scieszka (pronounced CHESS-ka) gave a contented laugh as he spoke by phone from his Brooklyn brownstone.

"Maybe it'll get people off this prune-faced, PC kind of kick," he said. "There are so many dreary kids' books out there. We're doing our part to be anarchists."

Now their publisher, Viking Children's Books, is catching the bug. Intrigued by the duo's growing popularity with Generation X, Viking has launched an ad campaign that's almost unprecedented in the staid world of children's books. The campaign is built around Mr. Scieszka's and Mr. Smith's newest picture book, "Math Curse," which already has reached No. 1 on the Publisher's Weekly list of children's best sellers.

Viking's strategy is to burrow deeper into the lucrative young-adult market by advertising "Math Curse" in conjunction with "The Stinky Cheese Man," which was shown in market research to have high name recognition among 18- to 30-year-olds. The two books are being displayed together in some stores.

The campaign's most radical element is a raucous, 15-second "Stinky Cheese" commercial that will air through Dec. 19 on CBS' "Late Show With David Letterman" and NBC's "Friends" and "Late Night With Conan O'Brien." The mayhem-filled commercial, which reportedly is costing $500,000 to $1 million, is a big gamble for an industry that rarely addresses the buying public, preferring to boost sales through newspaper reviews, word of mouth and trade journals.

Mr. Scieszka and Mr. Smith seem a bit removed from the marketing madness, content to find an audience after repeated rejections from publishers who found their work too sophisticated for young readers.

"I think what happened to us was a complete fluke and we just tapped some nerve with kids and adults," said Mr. Smith, 36, who previously worked as a commercial artist, doing covers for the Atlantic Monthly, Time, Esquire and other publications.

Even now, not everyone loves their brand of humor. The New York Times criticized them and other writers for introducing young children to the "cheeky, wink-wink sensibility of their baby-boom parents." Quoted in the article was Steven Reddicliffe, then editor of Parenting magazine, who called their genre "the Letterman-ization of the entire culture."

Ann Waldron, children's book reviewer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, hated "The Stinky Cheese Man" so much she didn't review it.

But teachers and librarians generally are the pair's biggest fans. Caldecott winners, after all, are chosen by the American Library Association.

"Sometimes I think they may overreach just a little on sophistication," said Sam Sebesta, a semi-retired education professor and children's book aficionado at the University of Washington.

But Mr. Sebesta is reluctant to find fault. What's important, he said, is the sense of power children get from books that fearlessly play hob with classic tales.

The pair's new book, "Math Curse," tells of a girl who grows comically obsessed when her teacher, Mrs. Fibonacci, says, "You know, you can think of almost everything as a math problem." (It's a typical inside joke; Leonardo Fibonacci was one of the leading mathematicians of the Middle Ages.)

Soon the girl's head spins with possibilities. How many yards in a neighborhood? How many feet in my shoes? Does tunafish plus tunafish equal fournafish?'

As always, Mr. Scieszka's wordplay reaches bizarre heights when paired with Mr. Smith's finger-in-the-socket illustrations.

"Kids are more sophisticated now and more visually aware," said Mr. Smith, who is probably the only person in the world to describe his hard-edged visual style as "child-like."

His style was influenced heavily, he said, by summer trips along Route 66, home of cement teepee hotels and signs that blared, "Baby Rattlers 300 Miles! Baby Rattlers 200 Miles!"

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