Lane Smith on It's a Book
Q: Some people are interpreting It's a Book as anti-technology, but is it that cut-and-dry? Don’t you use computers as part of your artistic process?
Yes, I think technology is wonderful. I work in Photoshop and love my iPod and iPhone and any number of gadgets, but at the same time you can’t beat running your finger along a shelf of books, picking out a title, holding it in your hands, then sitting under the shade of a tree, just you and a book.
Q: How did the notion for It's a Book come to you? How did the characters first appear to you in your imagination?
Today’s kids are so smart and tech savvy. I see the little guys on their laptops and I’m blown away. I’m sure in the future everything will be digital and kids will rarely encounter a traditional book. I thought this conflict would make a funny premise for a picture book. I originally envisioned the lead character as a goofy-looking kid, but I thought that might be perceived as making fun of kids so I took a cue from Aesop and made the characters animals.
Q: You’ve always embraced a certain wise-cracking humor in your work that, along the way, has sometimes been seen as controversial. For example, when The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales was published in 1992 there was some scuttlebutt that the words “stinky” and “stupid” shouldn’t be used in the book (which has since gone on to sell over one million copies and win a Caldecott Honor). IT’S A BOOK has a last line that some are now seeing as controversial. Are you surprised by the level of discussion and debate the book is attracting?
I guess I don’t make books for everyone’s taste. My very first book Halloween ABC was on some banned-book lists. I’m still not sure why. Perhaps because Halloween is perceived as supernatural. When I did The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs folks didn’t like that Jon Scieszka and I had the wolf eat the pigs (as he did in the original tale). In John, Paul, George & Ben there were those who thought it was sacrilege to portray founding fathers like Ben Franklin as mischievous boys. Are you kidding? Have they read Poor Richard’s Almanac? I illustrated an edition of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach while I was the conceptual designer of the movie. That book is always being banned somewhere.
Getting back to your question about the last line of It’s a Book. The mouse calls the jackass a jackass. My thinking was A. it’s funny and B. it is the proper name for a male donkey. But “jackass” in a kid’s book? I admit it. I am wholly unoriginal. You’ll find “jackass” in many children’s books before mine. In William Steig’s beloved Shrek when the eponymous ogre refers to his donkey as a “jabbering jackass.” Then you’ve got it in a number of Aesop fables, it’s in Pinocchio (both the Collodi and Disney versions) and what about bible stories? Okay, maybe I should stay away from that one.
Q: When it comes to handling “adult” humor, do you think we underestimate young readers?
It depends on the child really. But I will say on a general note that grown-ups are always underestimating kids. They think lots of things are too scary for them. Grown ups hated Where the Wild Things Are when it was first published.
Q: So how did you first get into illustrating children’s books? When did you know you wanted to make this a central part of your artistic career?
I always wanted to do kids books. My first job was as an illustrator for magazines: Time, Sesame Street, Sports Illustrated, Esquire, Newsweek, The New York Times, Martha Stewart, etc. But between magazine assignments I was putting
together my first kid’s book.
Q: What was the first book, or children’s book illustration, that made an impression on you as a child? How did you discover it?
The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron. I found it in my school library.
Q: You’ve had the chance to illustrate the works of some of your heroes,
including Dr. Seuss, Roald Dahl, and more. What is it about their works that
“speaks” to you?
The humor, the singular vision, the surrealism . . .
Q: You were born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but as you grew up you divided your time between Tulsa and Corona, California. Now you live in New York City. How did those different locations influence your creative self? Is there something viscerally that you “learned” from each location as an artist?
The landscape between California and Oklahoma definitely affected me and my work. Those lonely stretches of desert and highway, broken up by the occasional little twister or surreal roadside attraction. When I first came to New York I was inspired by all the textures: the peeling paint, the weathered signs on buildings. Now I spend most of my time in rural Connecticut and I am inspired every day by the trees, animals, bugs, the seasons.
Q: With all of your own writing and illustrating, do you have time to read other young readers books? If so, who are your favorite authors?
I look at everything that’s out there. I’m a big fan of so many: Patrick McDonnell, Bob Shea, Laurie Keller, Peter Sís, Kevin Henkes, Doreen Cronin, too many to list . . . But truly, my real inspiration comes from older books by Ruth Krauss, Maurice Sendak, William Steig, Barbara Cooney, Charles Schulz, Remy Charlip, the Provensens, Florence Parry Heide, Edward Gorey, Judith Viorst, etc.
Q: Is there anything else you want to add?
Check out It’s a Book. No wires required. Hee hee.