Jon Scieszka

Knucklehead

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Knucklehead Summary

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Jon Scieszka, the award-winning author of The True Story of the Three Little Pigs and the Time Warp Trio series, brings his trademark zany sense of humor to his memoir, Knucklehead (2008). Knucklehead answers readers’ “mysterious and difficult question” about where Scieszka gets his ideas: from his childhood. Growing up in a family of six boys, Scieszka’s youthful adventures involved everything from supplementing the family Nativity scene with a Davy Crockett figure and plastic army men, to setting things on fire, throwing dirt clods, and performing gross feats with bodily fluids.

Passionate about the importance of reading, Scieszka started the nonprofit literacy program “Guys Read” to get boys, especially reluctant readers, interested in books. Scieszka also served as the first-ever National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, becoming a nationwide advocate for literacy. Knucklehead is designed to appeal to middle-grade readers. The book’s cover looks like one of the retro war comics Scieszka loved. It features young Scieszka driving a military tank amid lots of explosions as missile-dropping fighter planes fly overhead. The brief, two- or three-page chapters are abundantly illustrated with family photos, report cards, advertisements, clip art, x-rays, comic-book onomatopoeia, and a wealth of other ephemera.

Scieszka was born in 1954 in Flint, Michigan. The second oldest of six boys, he notes that even the family dogs, cats, and fish were male. Scieszka’s mom, Shirley, was a nurse which “came in very handy” when the brothers needed to be patched up. She taught Scieszka how to read, cook, and use appropriate terminology for anatomical functions: to say, “urinate” instead of “pee” and “pass gas” instead of “fart.” Scieszka remembers that his mother was a “wild joke-teller.” Scieszka’s father, Louis, was an elementary school principal, which he says also came in handy since running their small home was like managing a school with kids in six different grades. Louis was a “quiet joker” and more subtle than Scieszka’s mother. Louis would leave Dr. Seuss books around the house for the brothers to find and enjoy. Scieszka credits his father for inspiring him and his brother, Brian, to become teachers.

As the second oldest after Jim, Scieszka enjoyed some advantages over his little brothers. He received more food and more attention. Nevertheless, being older had some disadvantages, too. Scieszka had to sign up for more extracurricular “improvement” activities like piano lessons, French, and bowling.

From first through ninth grade, Scieszka attended Catholic schools. Some of the nuns, like Sister Helen Jude, were nice, but most were no-nonsense, like the nun they called Sister Chopper. Since the nuns were all God’s wives, Scieszka and his classmates knew there was no point in arguing with them because “they were always right.” At school, the nuns taught literacy using the Dick and Jane readers. Scieszka never got into Dick and Jane’s “weird alien family.” He preferred Dr. Seuss, Golden Book Encyclopedias, MAD magazine, and war comics like G.I. Combat. He and his brothers also loved the television shows The Three Stooges and Combat.

Scieszka and his brothers grew up in a small, newer neighborhood where houses were still being built. This provided many construction sites and empty lots for them to play in. They made up games like Slaughter Ball, Jam Pile, and Swing Jump. During one of these games, Scieszka discovered that it only takes seven pounds of pressure to break a collarbone. His unfortunate brother Geoff was the victim of this discovery. The boys played in sewer pipes and enjoyed a good game of war since there were plenty of ditches in the construction zone to use as trenches and lots of dirt clods for bombs. During the summers, the family vacationed at their grandfather’s lakeside cottage in Michigan where Scieszka discovered two formative books: My Side of the Mountain and The Swiss Family Robinson, which made him excited about wilderness survival.

Louis affectionately called his sons “Knuckleheads,” because of all the scrapes they got into (like placing an army man in the toaster). Scieszka has fond memories of playing with fire. With Wild Uncle Al, the boys made a mortar out of a metal pipe, firecrackers, and a rock. Scieszka also lit dry cleaning bags on fire to create melting plastic bombs to drop on his plastic army vehicles. Scieszka labels both incidents with a “Knucklehead Warning” advising readers not to try them at home. Scieszka reminisces about the time he and Jim urinated on their space heater to try to extinguish it like a campfire. They quickly realized this was a bad idea when the heater gave off a strong odor of “fried urine.” They discovered that crossing urine streams was like sword fighting, though it was not so much fun for the shorter kids. Scieszka also shares a now-legendary family memory, the “group-puke horror,” which occurred on the family road trip to Florida, and involved a Stuckey’s Pecan Log Roll, the pet cat, and lots of barf.

In tenth grade, Scieszka followed his older brother, Jim, and left home to attend Culver Military Academy. Culver was a good school, plus it had guns and a cavalry; Jim came back boasting about how strong he was, so Scieszka thought it sounded like a good idea. Scieszka says Culver was “the place where I learned to think for myself,” and where he learned “to really truly read, to write, to learn how to learn.”

Knucklehead concludes with a “Not Your Usual Index” and a few short paragraphs about Scieszka’s life after Culver.