New take on old tales is wickedly funny

"Scieszka and Smith" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, so it may be a while before this team becomes as familiar as Laurel and Hardy, or even Martin and Lewis.

But when it comes to comic genius, it's tough to top Jon Scieszka (Shay-ska) and Lane Smith. They first burst onto the scene with "The True Story of the Three Little Pigs," an American Library Association Notable Book and a hard act to follow.


Then they put together "The Time Warp Trio" series for ages 7-11. Now they're back with another picture book that appeals to all ages, especially those old enough to remember Rocky, Bullwinkle and one of that cartoon show's regular features, Fractured Fairy Tales. The book is "The Stinky Cheese Man And Other Fairly Stupid Tales" (Viking, $16, ages 5 and up).

Even wackier than "Three Little Pigs," it features Jack the Narrator, from Jack and the Beanstalk fame. He grabs readers and yanks them right into the book, starting with the front endpaper, the title page and the dedication, which is upside down.


"I know. I know," Jack says. "The page is upside down. I meant to do that. Who ever looks at that dedication stuff anyhow?"

The first story ends abruptly when "Chicken Licken," who runs around telling everyone the sky is falling, is crushed by the table of contents. Then there's "Little Red Running Shorts," a girl who walks off the page in disgust, along with the wolf, after Jack tells the whole story in his long-winded introduction.

"Wait. You can't do this," Jack calls after them. "Your story is supposed to be three pages long. What do I do when we turn the page?"

The page is blank. Then, in sneaks Little Red Hen, who just blabs and blabs about how she planted and watered and harvested the wheat and now she wants to tell her story, but where's that lazy narrator, that lazy illustrator, that lazy author?

Just in time, the Giant from the Beanstalk steps into the next page, squashing the type.

Needless to say, the sight gags are pretty integral to this book.

There's a crazy rendition of "The Princess and the Pea," in which the prince sticks a bowling ball under the 100 mattresses so the girl of his dreams won't be able to sleep, thus passing muster with the prince's picky parents. In "The Tortoise and the Hair," the Rabbit says to the Tortoise: "I could probably grow hair faster than you run." And so one stray lock from the hare's head grows and grows, winding its way along the race course in front of the tortoise and winning by a hair.

The tale of "The Stinky Cheese Man" will be frowned upon by dairy rights activists, and the book will draw disapproval ratings from uptight adults. Everyone else can indulge. It's wickedly funny.


* Mr. Smith has ventured out on his own with a couple of solo successes: "The Big Pets," and "Glasses: Who needs 'em?" both published by Viking. "Glasses" ($13.95, ages 5 and up) is a must gift for anyone who gets the news that he or she must get glasses.

It opens with the eye doctor telling the protagonist he needs glasses. "Young man, if you're worried about looking a little different . . ." the doctor begins.

"I'm worried about looking like a dork," comes the reply.

The doctor proceeds to run down a list of people, creatures, planets and machines that wear glasses -- all looking perfectly natural in Smith's wild, beady-eyed style. The laughs come fast and furious, and the punch line is too good to give way.

* Here's a wonderful children's book author you can meet for yourself: Karla Kuskin. Her poetry is full of life -- it bounces, hops, whispers and shouts. Her books include "Something Sleeping in the Hall," "Near the Window Tree," "Dogs and Dragons, Trees and Dreams" and "Soap Soup and Other Verses."

She has also won awards for her prose, including "The Philharmonic Gets Dressed," "The Dallas Titans Get Ready for Bed," and "Jerusalem, Shining Still."


On Thursday, Nov. 5, at Johns Hopkins University, Kuskin will speak about the challenge of entrancing children with words in this visual age -- and she should know, she turns words into magic.

The reception, talk and book signing will begin at 5:30 p.m. at the Glass Pavilion on campus. Tickets are $30 per person, and the event benefits the scholarship fund for Downtown Baltimore Child Care. Kuskin's books will be on sale for the book signing, and proceeds will go to DBCC, a non-profit agency. For more information, call Sheilah Davidson at (410) 669-1010.