Jon Scieszka + Lemony Snicket Ponder ‘Who Done it?’ for 826NYC [Interview]

Photos: (Getty)

Photos: (Getty)

Odds are Jon Scieszka made your childhood a lot more interesting with books like “The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales.” Welp, he’s back at it again with an awesome new book!

He’s edited the YA mystery anthology “Who Done It?” which has contributions from Lemony Snicket, Dave Eggers and about 80 other YA writers. Proceeds go to Dave’s teen literacy foundation, 826NYC.

826 uses a made-up character known as Herman Mildew to help students with their reading and writing skills, and he’s killed off at the beginning of “Who Done It?” After that, all the authors have to provide an alibi to prove they weren’t the ones who committed the crime, and the end of the book reveals who’s behind the literary murder. We won’t give away the ending, but we will share our interviews with Jon and Lemony. Jon tells us all about 826, teen literacy and “Who Done It?” and Lemony talks about bags of dirt, following your passions and the importance of not running off cliffs. Yes, really.

+ Jon Scieszka Interview

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ACT: Why did you decide to make an anthology benefiting the teen literacy nonprofit 826?

JON: I’ve been on the 826 board here in Brooklyn for the last, geez, six or seven years. We’re always looking for money, because we’re a total nonprofit. We just run with volunteers. Any way we can earn more money helps us reach more kids. So I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to connect a lot of YA writers with this great outfit.

ACT: What are some of the unique things 826 does to help teen literacy?

JON: 826 is probably the best at really tapping into kids’ talent to be writers and illustrators and just creators in general. I’ve never seen an organization that’s better at turning every penny into something that works for the kids. It’s free tutoring for kids who drop in, or there are school trips. There are all these great projects where kids make their own books, their own film, their own radio shows. It’s a great way to help kids with grammar and spelling.

ACT: How can people benefit 826? (Besides buying the book, of course!)

JON: Well, buying the book, for sure. But donating any time or money. There are 826s across the country. We have eight different chapters, and we’re always looking for volunteers to help, even if it’s just an hour a week. Or just go to 826NYC and give cash. That’s always good.

Or just raise awareness of what 826 is doing. Facebook and Twitter are great ideas.

ACT: Why did you decide to make the book a mystery? How did you get so many top YA authors on board?

JON: It seemed the perfect thing was to make a project that mimicked what kids do at 826. As a writer myself, I know lots of writers and illustrators get asked to help different charities. It’s a big undertaking. I don’t want to take up too much of their time. But I thought, “Everyone can write an alibi. You learn how to do that in first grade, making up an excuse.” People just came out of the woodwork and said, “Oh, I can tell you why I didn’t do it.”

We started with a bunch of people I knew, because I’ve been writing books for 20, 25 years now. And Dave Eggers started this whole thing [826], so he was a pretty easy ask. And Daniel Ehrenhaft, our editor here at Soho [the company that published “Who Done It?”], knows a ton of people, too. I think we were going to ask 20, 30 people, and then we kept asking.

ACT: What’s your favorite story in the book?

JON: [laughs] My favorite story? That’s a tough one. I could probably give you a couple. One of my favorites was the Lisa Brown/Adele Griffin piece because it’s illustrated and you can see the little clues all across the two pages. And then Mo Willems’ was pretty good.

ACT: You were the very first U.S. Ambassador of Children’s Literature. Can you tell us about what that entailed?

JON: It was a position that the Library of Congress and the Children’s Book Counsel had been thinking about doing. They called me to ask and at first I thought it was someone prank calling me because I’d never heard of such a thing. They were like, “No, no, you’ll be the first one.” So I said, “Wow, geez, that’s an honor, but are you sure you didn’t mean to call someone more serious?” They said, “No, we want someone who’s kind of crazy and having fun with it.” And it turned out to be an amazing, fun, crazy job. My job was to go around and tell people all the cool things going on in children’s books.

ACT: What’s your writing or editing process? Do you write at night or day? Do you have to write in a coffee shop or home? We’re just curious about how you get it done!

JON: That’s a great question. You know, I was just complaining and moaning the other day about how the Internet killed my process, which was to hide out and do a whole day of writing. But now I kind of compulsively answer 20 emails. I have to block out a chunk of the day. My kids are older and out of the house; I used to have to hide out from them. Now I have to hide out from my own distractions. I’ll just start in the morning and write. Or late at night is another good time, and just block out a couple hours to really concentrate on writing.

ACT: Any advice for aspiring writers out there?

JON: Yeah. I think the best advice that someone gave me is just to sit down and write. It’s amazing how many times I hear, “I have a great idea for a story.” They tell me a little bit of it, and I say, “That’s great. What have you got so far?” “Well, I haven’t written anything down.” It’s like, “You haven’t done the hardest part.” That’s making yourself sit down and write.

+ Lemony Snicket Interview

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ACT: Why was it important for you to get involved in this book?

LEMONY: 826 is a noble institution, and clearing one’s name of murder is a noble activity. Clearly this anthology was mandatory for the health of civilization.

ACT: For 826 NYC’s Lemony Snicket story contest in 2006, you offered the winner “11 pounds of chocolate, a Venus flytrap, 600 tiny glass bottles, and a large sack of dirt from Winnipeg.” What can you offer our MTV Act readers for getting more into reading and writing?

LEMONY: Reading is the best way to learn the secrets of the world. Writing is the best way to add some secrets of your own. If neither of these things appeal to you, then another bag of dirt is unlikely to change your mind.

ACT: What career advice do you have for kids who want to follow their passions? What’s the best advice you’ve received about your life or career?

LEMONY: If you are following your passions, make sure they’re not running off a cliff. Passions can do that. As for advice, the best advice I’ve heard was not advice that was meant for me. I was eavesdropping on the advice-giver. To eavesdrop you need a good excuse ready, in case you are caught, and a notebook in which to write everything down you hear. That’s advice that has served me well.

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