Transcript from an interview with Lane Smith

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Lane Smith. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Lane Smith

The true story behind the three little pigs

My wife Molly Leech, who designs all the books and does the typography, was working for a magazine at the time and, coincidentally, her coworker was Jon Scieszka's wife. And since I had the Halloween book out, Geri, Jon's wife said, "You know, you should meet my husband because he wrote this story The True Story of the Three Little Pigs and he's been rejected by every publisher out there. And maybe you could illustrate it."

I said, "I don't wanna do that."

But I met him, and I liked him, and I read the story, and I said, "Okay. I'll do up a book dummy."

I did a book dummy, and I did a couple of paintings, and I said, "I'll get this published."

Then I took it around and I got rejected by four or five more publishers — until finally we ended up at a publisher, Viking, that took a chance on it. We actually owe everything to our wives for getting us together. But even then, you know, that was 1989. That was pretty unusual for the time, this satirical children's book. There had been funny books and gentle, humorous books but that was kind of parody and satire. They were very tentative about it and put out a few thousand copies and they sold out. It was strictly word of mouth from teachers and librarians.

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Goofiness with a touch of class

My wife and I, the way we work is it's pretty collaborative. For instance, with the new book John, Paul, George and Ben, we wanted to capture an eighteenth-century feel, so together we looked at broadsides and old chap books and primers and eighteenth-century fonts, and figured out how the relationship between the words and the pictures are — and the borders. Borders were very important back then to separate text from illustration and it's a real back-and-forth thing. But it's all in service of the jokes, really. The page turns to make the jokes work. I'm really going for the laughs with that stuff.

Molly tends to be a little more classy. If left to our own devices Jon and I, or myself, would do everything in kinda comic book type and balloon type and she always goes for elegant fonts and things. So, I think that kind of counterbalances the goofiness with this kinda classy, elegant approach.

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Having fun with the founding fathers

It is funny, because I love those guys, John Hancock, George Washington, Paul Revere, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson — the Founding Fathers. I love them, and I've always read biographies of them. And when I go to a museum I always go to the American wing first.

Unfortunately I'm one of the Stinky Cheese guys and so what I'm best at is kind of poking fun at things. There was a review that I read that I like. I don't usually read my reviews, except for all of them, but this one said, "Mr. Smith is not making fun of history. He's having fun with history," which I couldn't have said better myself and I'll have to slip her some Franklins for that.

I started with true anecdotes, like Paul Revere really was a bell ringer in the Old North Church. Then I read later that that was the same church where they suspended the "two if by sea, one if by land, two if by sea" lanterns, and I thought that was kind of interesting. Then I would think he was also famous for being the most famous screamer in history. You know, "The redcoats are coming!" So, I think maybe he talked loud because he rang those bells, and they took a toll on him, and he couldn't hear himself think. In my mind, it all kind of makes sense.

In the back of the book, we have "ye old true or false question" that we've labeled "taken liberties," which was my editor Alessandra Balzer's idea, because I originally was just gonna put "fun facts," because I wanted to straighten things out and let everyone know that it's okay to have fun with history, but there are some facts and there is a lot of fun. She suggested we make it into a true-or-false section, which I love that idea, because it's immediately just one more opportunity to make even more jokes - and get more facts in there. That's kinda nice 'cause they can read the whole story. They can have a few laughs. There's some big underwear in there. There are some powdered wigs. At the end, they can figure out, "Oh, yeah. He just made that up for a joke, but that was true, and George Washington didn't have wooden teeth," and, you know, this and that.

The origin of these stories, Parson Weems, the guy who wrote the famous George-Washington-and-the-cherry-tree story, made that whole thing up, too. As I say in the book, he wanted to teach a lesson in honesty. I think that's ironic, because, you know, it was a big, fat lie.

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About Jon Scieszka

What do I like about Jon Scieszka's work? He has a funny name, he's funny-looking, and he writes funny. So, we have three things going for us.

He comes from a similar background that I do as far as growing up with Robert Benchley and S.J. Perlman and Monty Python and Rocky and Bullwinkle, so we just have this language that we spoke. We didn't even have to speak it. You know, he would send me a story, and I would laugh, and I would give him a drawing, and he would laugh, and we'd put it together.

Also, he's great because at the time I met him, he was still teaching third grade. We would go into the classroom, and we'd have this great, little focus group. You would read lines like, "Your old granny can sit on a pin," or, "dead as a doornail," and you'd see what gets the laugh.

The thing with kids' books is it's easy to work — you know, comedians that work blue, where they could just throw in a curse word anywhere. Kids' books — you have to kinda temper that because anyone could put in a passing-gas joke, or whatever, but your arsenal, you have to be selective about that. Jon's pretty good about that. He'll put maybe one belch and that's it. So, I've learned from the master. Otherwise, all the Founding Fathers would be wearing big underwear.

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Hooray for Diffendoofer Day!

Hooray for Diffendoofer Day was the last book that Dr. Seuss was working on when he passed away, and went in a drawer for a number of years, but his longtime editor Janet Schulman kept thinking about it and coming back to it. She called me about it and asked if I would do it. I said no, because I'm a big Dr. Seuss fan, and I just didn't think I could live up to that. She would call back again, and then she said, "We talked to Jack Prelutsky, and he's willing to work on it."

I think what worked for me was when I asked if we could incorporate all of Seuss's original drawings and notations in addition to the book that we would create, just being a fan and an opportunity to see any of his early sketches. We come back to that collage issue, because I was doing a drawing and trying to do it in my own style, but incorporate little bits of Seussian visual flourishes. I collaged, I think, Horton's head on one of the characters or something and it suddenly made sense, and it worked in a way that, I hope, was a tribute to him, but my own concoction. That's how I saw that book. People who see it will say it's a hybrid, really, of Seuss and my own stuff, it was an excuse to go to La Jolla and go through his stuff. You know, knock on the door of the widow Seuss — Geisel — and I was able to stay there and have lunch and look at his artwork and look at the view he looked out on as he created all these great books.

That was a real rare, fantastic experience. I think Seuss was probably a big influence on myself and Jon Scieszka. You can talk about Green Eggs and Ham or The Cat in the Hat. I mean it all goes back to that. That guy was the most subversive of all.

Another guy that kids love — there are these people like Sendak and Seuss that sometimes parents might think the stuff's a little edgy, but the kids are always the first ones to just love that stuff and get it.

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On the edge

Does it faze me when a parent might take offense at something? Actually, it does, and I have a little bit of a thin skin about that. My family all lives in Oklahoma, and it's a more conservative area. I know some of my relatives, when I did Halloween A, B, C, thought that was maybe not such a great thing to do. And the fact that Stinky Cheese Man is a fairly stupid tale — "stupid" in the title — that's a kind of a bad word there.

I do have this dilemma. I like edgy things. I'm attracted to them, but I wish I could do just kind of a sweet thing. I start out sometimes doing sweet things, but they just come off kind of goofy. Then when someone who looks like my Aunt Velma or Aunt Pauline or something says, "No. We didn't think that was right," I say, "I know. I'm sorry." So it does affect you but you just soldier on and I guess you have to do what you have to do. I've never had a kid say that ever. I've never had a kid take offense at anything.

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From the studio to the spotlight

That's the irony of it all. Because I was an illustrator I was attracted to art, because I've always been kind of the quiet kid in the back of class. You'll have the class clown, and you'll have the sports kid, and there's always the weird kid, like me, who's in the back, sketching. I was always the type of kid that would be quiet the whole term — for instance, in sixth grade. Then the last day of school, I brought my guitar in and played everyone a song, and the teacher was like, "Why didn't you do that in the beginning of the year?"

"Well, I was too embarrassed."

In college, the last day, I would show them a comic book I'd illustrated, and they're like, "Idiot!"

I'm always kind of the quiet guy and so illustration was a perfect fit because you can work at home. You can make your own hours. You can paint or draw whatever you want and then it goes out there and people don't know who you are or what you look like. It's fantastic. The only problem is if you do a book like Stinky Cheese Man, then suddenly it's a big hit and everyone wants you to come to their school, or come to their bookstore. That just foiled all my plans, 'cause now, suddenly I'm doing the thing I hate the most, which is standing in front of people talking about myself and my artwork. So, it's kind of strange.

The only saving grace is I love meeting the kids and seeing their artwork. I usually try to turn it around, like, "Show me what you've done," or, "Maybe we can collaborate on a little sketch here." And that's fun. You kind of revert in your mind to being a fourth grader again and doing the Narrative Corpse thing where someone starts a drawing and you finish it. And that stuff's kinda fun. That is the irony of it all. But I'm enjoying this.

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"Oh, magic hour, when a child first knows she can read printed words!" — A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1943