Thursday, January 13, 2011

Skippyjon Jones and the Audience Participation

I'm delighted but baffled by the success of the Skippyjon Jones books. The rollicking plots and language seem to barely sit still on the pages. I speak both English and Spanish yet I still need to read the books several times to get a handle on reading them aloud to my kids. I could be wrong but I imagine that this is the case for most people the first time they read one of these stories. I searched your blog for your thoughts on it but I'm just not quite satisfied. Why do you think people are attracted to the writing in the Skippyjon Jones books? Thank you for taking the time to read this message.
THIS is a case for the COMMENTS! Readers, chip in.

34 comments:

Jennifer said...

I adore Skippyjon Jones, and love reading it aloud. There's so much to love about it -- the illustrations that add details and depth to the story (faves: when he looks in the mirror and sees his reflection as a chihuahua; and Mama Junebug Jones making lunch with kittens on the table), the inventive names (e.g., Skippyjon himself and Mama Junebug, Mr. Fluffernutter, Mr. Cocopugs, plus Jilly Boo Jones and all the Chimichangos).

But the question asks about the language. I don't think I can speak for anyone but myself, but what I love about the language in Skippyjon Jones is the way it blends Spanish, English, and Spanish-accented English. It is just plain fun to put on my "very best Spansh accent" and read lines like "Then all the Chimichangos went crazy loco," and "The dude just wants his beans back." Not to mention, "I am a CHIHUAHUA," and "aaaAAHHChOO-Pichu!"

david elzey said...

as a bookseller i once watched a hispanic woman attempt to read a skippyjohn book to her child (at the child's insistence). she had to stop and reread a few of the pages and half way through convinced her fidgety son to pick another book.

in private she told me she felt like her mouth was being forced to adopt read in a stereotypical voice "you know, like the frito bandito." she said she found the experience insulting.

i do not understand the popularity of these books, and i can't quite shake off the feeling that they might be borderline racist. i also found that kids who liked skippyjohn were also likely to enjoy junie b. jones books, another series that drives (and many others) crazy for its use of langauge.

Alicia Padrón said...

I actually think the rollicking plots and language
is the exact reason why the books are succesful. That and the illustrations of course.

The character is SO imaginative, bouncy and alive just as the text itself. I also speak English and Spanish and I find the books hilarious and understand why a kid likes them.

These are one of those really great books that are truly targeted to the kid reading it. Both in text and art. No doubt about that.

Sheri said...

My son and I love Skippyjon Jones. The attraction- Fun! It is fun to read them even if they are a bit challenging sometimes. We giggle as we work our way through the zany language. We take turns using silly accents. Judy Schachner gives us a story we get to interact with. Skippyjon likes to pretend and how exciting we get to pretend too!

Anonymous said...

I really didn't get these books until I heard the author reading one on CD. She really does make it come alive. And yet I still find them difficult to read and frankly confusing for children. Not really a fan.

Jennifer said...

David Elzey brings up an interesting point. The first time I read Skippyjon Jones, I wondered about it. I noticed that the author didn't have an obviously Spanish surname. I wondered if the author was a Spanish-speaker, and if not was it okay for her to write using this "Spanish accent"? (Aside: linguists tell us that "accents" are a fallacy, and that it is more accurate to talk about dialects -- but that is a separate topic.) I don't know if I ever came up with an answer to my own question. But to me, it's important to note the context and tone. A word like "racism" implies that one group of people puts itself above another. I note that there is no taunting in the book, no disparagement. The book shows a child (in the guise of a Siamese cat) using his vivid imagination, and its tone suggests to me joyful exploration rather than exploitation or disparagement.

nw said...

I find them really offensive. I don't understand their popularity.

AE said...

I think what wows me the most is that this book has everything in it. It is language driven, story driven, character driven, art driven and idea driven. And it is completely original, something children and adults can identify with, fun to read, and heartfelt.

This book rests forever on my art table as my inspiration and aspiration. Unfortunately, achieving this level of greatness will most likely lead to my expiration.

Ishta Mercurio said...

Have you heard the CD of Judy Schachner reading any of the books? She does it really well. I too struggled with my first reading, and did fine with subsequent readings. But when I heard her reading it on the CD, I thought, "THIS is a performance; this is what this book is all about."

And I like the imaginative playfulness of the books. They really see life through a child's eyes. And I enjoy the linguistic jokes that my kids might not be quite old enough to get, too. I think they're very clever.

Amber, Storytime Librarian said...

Schachner is writing for kids, and kids are flat out tickled by the silly sounding word combinations in Skippyjon.

Liesl said...

I have only one big requirement for picture books I read to my kids over and over: That it not make me want to blow my brains out.

Skippyjon passes the test. There are a lot of suicidal pb's out there, despite their political/social/racial/grammatical correctness.

Anonymous said...

My daughter (and I!) LOVE these books -- she had the first one memorized at 21/2 -- there was nothing cuter than hearing her recite, "Bangito! Crashito! Popito! Skippito!" in her little baby voice. Skippito is just so bad, and yet so irresistible -- one other commenter used the word "rollicking" and I think that hits it on the head. It's just plain FUN.
Some advice: listen to Judy Schachner read it on CD -- it will make ALL the difference. The rhythm and playfulness of the language comes alive (and you'll see how it's meant to be read!) I give this book often as a gift, but always with the CD, and I tell parents to let the author do the first read-aloud.

Bran Flakes said...

Haven't read Skippyjon, but I adore Junie B. Jones. If David Elzey is correct in comparing them I would probably enjoy Skippyjon as well.

There is something so playful and free and imaginative about Junie B. Jones that it just draws you in. As well as having the voice and character of a little girl down pat...

I think I'm going to have to go check out Skippyjon...

And as everyone has mentioned already - welcome back EA. We missed you :).

Anonymous said...

My copy came with a CD of Judy reading the story herself. It's wonderful. As Ursula Le Guin once wrote - most children enjoy the sound of language and trying out new words. I think this book is a good example of using fun words.

As a mixed Mexican/American family, we don't find the books racist. But then, we try not to manufacture insult where none exists.

mb said...

I like them well enough and my kid enjoyed them when she was that age. One thing that always bothered me, though -- how come the three good little (boring) kitties) are girls, and the adventuresome, wild one is a boy?

Val said...

My son brought these home from the library. When I tried to read them silently ("in my head") I couldn't do it. As soon as I read them aloud, the language just rolled off my tongue and I easily fell into the rhythm of the book. He loves the books and I find the infectious rhythm enjoyable too.

I struggle with whether the books are politically correct (I don't think they are racist--surely it's OK to celebrate another person's lanugage? I didn't feel the the author was making fun with her made-up and real Spanish words), but in general I struggle with political correctness. When my boy's a little older, I'll bring that issue up to him but for now, we use the books to encourage a love of reading and story.

Doret said...

I don't get Skippyjon Jones. For a while I kept trying to read one and get it because customers love these books.

But I've stopped trying and embraced the "It's not required that I love every popular book" mantra for SkippyJon Jones

When people ask about them I simply smile and say they're very popular.

I also don't get the Llama Llama picture books

Dianne White said...

David, I have to say that I'm with you. I'm bilingual and have taught Spanish-speaking bilingual students for many years, but I just can't enjoy these books, though I know many kids (Spanish-speaking and not) who LOVE them!

I can appreciate that others find the books to be a fun, rollicking read, but I can't read these aloud without feeling like there's a subtle element of poking fun at the way some people speak English.

I know others don't feel this way about the books and that's fine with me and I am confident the author meant no offense by her playful use of language. It's just not a book I will read aloud to students, but they can certainly check out the books at our school library, where they're hugely popular.

Anonymous said...

Personally I think Skippyjon books are too long, too hard to read aloud, and very possibly racist.

But whatever, as a bookseller who sees kids who adore the creature, I realize that my opinion is not what matters here.

Jerry Lewis' Wax Teeth said...

I'm with Neal Pollack on this one:
http://www.nealpollack.com/archives/2009/04/skippyjon_racis.html

I am biracial (half Asian and half white) and if I came across a book that forced the reader to speak in a forced "Asian" accent and added "ching" and "ling" onto the ends of words to make them sound "Asian" I would be horrified.

AE said...

To my mind, Llama Llama is best appreciated by the very young... like two and three year olds because of repetition of sounds and sentences. Also, the reference to Mama is something that those listeners identify with.

Very young children don't have to get a meaning or story out of something. That is why they like Nursery Rhymes. ;) (Not on the level that adults do.)

They chant them, and if we are lucky, they clap their hands with glee!

christine tripp said...

As an Illustrator it's the hilarious art that captures me first with any book and no doubt that is what attracts children to the books too.
I love funny. Funny art, funny writing and SJ is funny.
I love, love, LOVE JBJ as well although Junie B is a chapter book and more for the child who is already reading.
(as an adult I have every one of them in my library:)
I do see the points made by some about the book having a racist undertone and it may even be wrong to use a stereotypical Mexican accent while reading out loud to your child (or for a librarian to do so during story time)
I'm hoping some of the authors here with a hispanic or Latino background might comment on that aspect of the book.

Eilonwy said...

Any time we approach another culture, we open the door for racism. I think people could read the Skippyjon Jones books with the intent of demeaning the sounds of Spanish or they could read them with the intent of playfully celebrating them. The author cannot do a lot to control that. But by making the character who lives in that world of entangled cultural references exciting, inventive, and energetic, I think she does what she can to demonstrate her own intent. Skippyjon Jones doesn't much care to be one thing or another--not English or Spanish, a cat or a dog--he likes to be it all.

Many of the kids who love these books grew up watching Dora and Diego on television and learned how to toss the occasional Spanish word into a short sentence. They don't find the mix of English and Spanish necessarily disconcerting.

The books may not be perfect, but twenty-years ago we would have been hard-pressed to find mainstream picture books that included English and Spanish as a matter of course (rather than as pedagogical materials). We wouldn't have seen Scholastic placing them in their book club flyers to be made available across the country. I see them as a sign of progress--even if we haven't really arrived yet. And I would at the same time encourage people who think the books dance to close to racism to write other books that take us further on the journey. Having choices in that Scholastic flyer (and on the book store shelves) would be even better.

Min said...

I completely agree! I just don't "get it." I don't think the story is nearly as funny or as smart as it's promoted to be, yet people obviously think it's brilliant!

Then again, the illustrations in Fancy Nancy are brilliant to me, and worth buying every book that comes out. So detailed! And wouldn't you know it...my friend the other day said, "I can't stand those Fancy Nancy books. Their illustrations are so tacky."

So there you have it.

Anonymous said...

I love the Skippyjon Jones books and as a Hispanic American I've never had a problem with them. However, my sister who has a racist mother-in-law sees racism in everything, especially Skippyjon Jones. She actually got really upset when I brought these books home from the library to read to my nephew while he was visiting. He, on the other hand, enjoyed the playfulness of the story and the language.

Even after she told me how she felt about them, I read them again and again and tried to see how it was making fun of our 'race'. I think that if the author had a Spanish surname or even a Spanish first name, people would not pull the racism card when looking at this book. And still to this day, I don't see any racism in the book. I really just see a playful use of language, something which has been done plenty of times before.

Alicia Padrón said...

I already commented but I just wanted to add that I honestly don't see the racism people are talking about in these books.

There is nothing offensive about them. They are just fun books for kids. I think people are getting to uptight and spend a lot of time trying to see the "political correctness" in things nowadays. It's a kid's book and it's a really funny, creative and fun one.

I was born in Venezuela, all my family is from Spain. I speak both English and Spanish, and I am very familiar with both cultures and my opinion is people might be a tad over reacting here.

Just my two cents..

AE said...

Me too, Alicia.

I am a "White as Anglican Snow Person", and if you wrote a book using "White as Anglican Snow Person" dialect (or some of my Southern family roots dialect) I'd be delighted if you could make it funny and poignant.

There are no low blows here that I see.

Kara Parlin said...

I love the Skippyjon stories and illustrations. But I honestly feel like I have marbles in my mouth whenever I read them aloud to my son. It's not so much the switch from English to Spanish words, but the flow from one word into the next gets my tongue tangled.

Ken Henson said...

My daughter brought this book to my attention because she wanted to read it to me. For context, she was about four yrs. old. She had a delightful time figuring out how to read it aloud in her own manner. I'm sure Schachner does a great job reading it, but don't underestimate a child's intelligence and curiosity!

Anna said...

I am a second grade teacher in San Antonio, Texas. Even as an Anglo American, the first time I read this book I was surprised by how stereotypical and borderline racist it sounded. However, my personal children as well as my students LOVE to hear the book read to them and laugh at practically every page. I have to remind myself that at such a young age, these children are not thinking about racism and stereotypes. As long as parents and teachers do their part to embrace all culture and pass that on to the children, Skippyjon will not traumatize children. College professors, on the other hand, may be the ones traumatized.

Anonymous said...

Skippyjon Jones has some of the best use of vocabulary for 3rd Grade that I have ever come across. The students love to hear the stories, while learning vocabulary, how to infer, predicting and digging deeper with background knowledge!

Nicole Fitzgerald said...

I must add to all of the comments that mention racism... I mean really? Skippyjon Jones books don't teach our children racism. They have not a a clue at their innocent young age what racism is. The only way they would is if in fact it was being taught in the home.

My children are taught to respect others who are "quote" different in skin color, language, etc. My children don't see color. I've taught them that everyone is unique, has feelings, and to always treat others the way we want to be treated.

My children love Skippyjon Jones at the ages of 9 and 4 and still today my 12 year old loves listening to me read to my 6 year old. Skippyjon Jones book bring so much to our home and routine that I'd like to say thank you for bringing so much love into our lives. These books have brought cheer to our day and put down my sleepy babes happy at night.

Shame on those who feel this way... It is those who have a personal hang up about racism. Don't ruin it for the little people who love the stories and for the parents who enjoy acting the story out just to see their children's delight while doing so.

My 6 year olds favorite quote, "You don't need a SPACE SUIT!" "You need a SPICE SUIT!!!"

david elzey said...

"shame" on people who are concerned about the possibility that a book for children might reinforce negative stereotypes? shame on adults for caring about how culture might affect "little people?"

i tell you what. let's create a series of books about, oh, let's say a chimp named step-to who speaks in a cute sort of ebonics, would that be alright?

i think what bothers me most is that there seems to be this attitude that exists that says you cannot criticize books for children because, somehow, it over-analyzes the innocence of the childhood experience. or there's the argument that just because a book might be problematic (or offensive) to some people doesn't mean it isn't perfect for others.

but in the end reactions to this book are like most american attitudes about discussions of race in this country: basically, if we don't talk about it, maybe it will go away. it's not a "hang up" to call out possible racism when it rears its head, any more than it is a contradiction to teach your children to respect difference in people while at the same time insisting they don't "see" color; indeed, if they don't see it, and aren't taught about those differences, how can they respect them?

so please, go ahead and have a good laugh at the possibility that you might be laughing at the very stereotypes of people you claim to be respecting.

Anonymous said...

I've just started reading this to my son who is not yet 18mo and he is a bit too little for it. I don't have a problem with the silly accents but its the fact that the main plot line seems to revolve around rice and beans and the chimichangos get all excited cause they can have their burritos - could that be MORE stereotyped. I was raised jewish and I would be horrified to find a book that encouraged kids to put on bad jewish accents, mixed oy vey in every other sentence and where the characters had to fight to get their money back. This is a cute book but it encourages stereotypes.