Here we have one of the most imaginative, idiosyncratic artist-writer in children’s literature, working at top form and heading in opposite directions. Lane Smith has, if anything, cranked up his usual intensity a notch in Glasses — Who Needs ‘Em?, his wildest, most relentlessly funny book to date.
Lane Smith has worked up the children’s-book equivalent of an exceedingly aggressive stand-up comic’s routine. Glasses — Who Needs ‘Em? begins with a rush of words — ”Okay this was the situation: My doctor said I needed glasses I told him, ‘No way’…” —and the pace just gets faster and faster from there. It’s the rambling, rattled monologue of a little boy who desperately does not want to get his first pair of glasses. ”No way,” he insists. ”I’m worried about looking like a dork.”
As he has done in earlier books such as The Big Pets (1991) and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs (1989), Smith takes a situation that’s both funny and potentially a little scary for children, and applies the intricately loony exaggeration of his art to it. He manages simultaneously to defuse the scariness and increase the surrealistic intensity of the experience of being fitted for a pair of specs.
Thus in Glasses, a consultation between our nameless young hero and his white-coated, beady-eyed optometrist quickly takes a turn for the wacky. After pointing out to the boy that “Your mom wears glasses” and ”Your dad wears glasses,” the doctor then starts gibbering, ”Why, even entire planets wear glasses!” — and sure enough, there’s a drawing of the moon wearing frames shaped like moon craters. Pretty soon, the increasingly nutty doctor is insisting that ”Giant dinosaurs wear glasses…and little worms and tall giraffes… and short fuzzy bunnies” — each the subject of a full-page, hilarious Smith drawing. Pretty soon we’re onto portraits of potatoes wearing many tiny pairs of glasses on their various, lumpy little eyes.
The point of Glasses — Who Needs ‘Em? is that lots of us — maybe most of us? — need ’em; Smith wants to make his readers acknowledge the fear, embarrassment, and perhaps even anger that a child might feel about receiving his or her first pair. At the same time, Smith is far too creative and obstreperous a children’s-book author to produce a banal little feel-good tract.
In the tradition of Maurice Sendak but in his own cartoonish style, Smith burrows into childhood fears and emerges with gleefully crazy pictures that tap into kids’ unconscious — dark-hued, fuzzy-around-the-edges images that have the look of vivid dreams. As someone who’s worn ’em since he was 8, Glasses made me feel…like an 8-year-old again, and pretty glad to have glasses. As the doctor says, ”It’s amazing what one misses without one’s glasses, hmmm?” A