Illustrator Lane Smith talks about his work -- ''The Big Pets'' continues the artist's tradition of inventive techniques for a unique look

In the New York apartment of author and illustrator Lane Smith, unlikely objects are framed in gilded, ornate borders: a fishing hook, a packet of cactus seeds, an antique wooden Etch-A-Sketch. But the real star of the place is a large, well-fed cat named A.J., who looks remarkably like the feline on the cover of Smith’s latest book, The Big Pets. So where did Smith get his idea for the dream-like world of Pets?

”Well, you saw the cat,” Smith says with a laugh. ”I think that he may have been the catalyst for the book, but at the same time I remember as a kid, I always loved nighttime….” Pets is his fourth children’s book, following 1987’s critically acclaimed Halloween ABC (with text written by veteran kids’ author Eve Merriam), 1988’s wordless Flying Jake, and 1989’s best-selling The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs (text by Jon Scieszka). Pigs put an appealing spin on the classic huff-and-puff tale by telling it from the wolf’s point of view.

Smith, 32, often employs inventive methods to give his pictures their distinctive look. He isn’t averse to using his fingers (readers can actually see his fingerprints in the illustration of a bat’s wing for Halloween ABC) or throwing in strange material — snakeskin, leaves, torn bits from comic books, ”whatever works.”

In addition to continuing his work for such magazines as Esquire and Rolling Stone, Smith is reuniting with Scieszka for Viking’s new Time Warp Trio series about time-traveling kids (due out next month), writing another children’s book (Glasses, Who Needs Them?), and making short animated films (for adults) that he promises will be — his word — ”demented.”