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All hail the kid lit ambassador

The power may have gone to Jon Scieszka's head. Halfway through his two-year term as the first-ever national ambassador for children's literature, he wonders why his car has no flags flying from the antennas. Where is his motorcade?

"I want those flags they fly on limousines, and diplomatic plates,'' he said. "And I'd like to be exempt from taking off my shoes at airports.''

Scieszka, already a revered figure among millions of third- and fourth-graders, is the author of several classic picture books -- The Stinky Cheese Man, Math Curse, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, and the new Truck Town books featuring anthropomorphized backhoes, front-end loaders, and the like. The skewed genius behind the Time Warp Trio chapter book series, he has also now penned an autobiography with the self-deprecating title, Knucklehead ($12.99, Viking, ages 8 and up).

Somehow, he cleared his schedule to be in Miami on Saturday, where he'll meet his subjects at the Miami Book Fair International.

"My favorite part of being ambassador is attending all these book fairs where the whole point is just to celebrate great books,'' Scieszka said in a telephone interview last week from Washington, D.C., where he was wondering why he did not yet have an official portrait hanging in the National Gallery of Art.

I read Knucklehead this fall, but it was superfluous. I had given the book to my sixth-grader while we were on vacation and from the sheer volume of the guffaws it produced, I knew it was a winner. Still, in the car on the way home, Liam insisted on reading aloud the "funny parts,'' which were, it turns out, the entire book.

Knucklehead details Scieszka's Michigan childhood as the second-oldest child born to Louis and Shirley Scieszka (rhymes with Fresca.) His father was an elementary school principal who "used a lot of his principal skills to run a house with six boys.'' (Even the pets were male.) His longsuffering mother was a nurse. "She could tape us up when we ran through windows, fell out of trees, crashed our bikes, stuck a dart in Tom's leg or broke Gregg's collarbone.''

Early on -- in the wake of an incident in which his older brother blamed Jon for having broken the legs of the couch during a living room wrestling/karate match -- he learned a lesson that would guide his career from classroom teacher to children's author: "It's good to be the one telling the story.''

Though his family's reaction to his memoir has been mixed ("Some of the pickier ones said I got certain things wrong. I told them, 'Write your own book' ''), Scieszka says his core fan base has embraced Knucklehead with a gusto usually reversed for the release of the latest have-to-have-it video game.

"I've never had a reaction like this before. Ten- and 11-year-old boys who run to the front of the store to get their copy after I've read a bit from it,'' Scieszka said. "It's like they understand, 'He's as big a nut as I am!' ''

As the children's literature ambassador, a position created jointly by the Library of Congress and the Children's Book Council to raise awareness about the importance of young people's literature, Scieszka's spent most of the past preaching about how to capture precisely that crowd: the elusive adolescent boy reader.

As a former elementary school teacher, Scieszka had witnessed firsthand how boys grew disillusioned about reading somewhere between mastering the skill and graduating from fifth grade. He created a Web site, http://www.guysread.com/, as an outreach project to connect boys with books they actually want to read.

"Let them read funny books, let them read nonfiction, instead of lecturing them and testing them to death,'' Scieszka said. "Teachers have told me they are leaving teaching because they don't want to be test monitors. It's killing us, and it's killing reading.''

Scieszka's ambassador duties run through 2009, and provided he does follow the lead of his home city mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and attempt to extend his term limits, he'll have a say in choosing his successor.

"So I'm kind of like Santa Claus now, watching, taking notes about who's naughty and who's nice,'' he said.

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