Lane Smith explains the origins of his darkly funny picture books
His latest, 'There is a Tribe of Kids,' is out now
Lane Smith burst onto the picture book scene nearly 30 years ago with The True Story of the Three Little Pigs — written by Jon Scieszka and illustrated in Smith’s quirky, somewhat bizarre style. Years before books like Wicked introduced us to the villain’s point of view, Smith and Scieszka gave the Big Bad Wolf a platform from which to speak his mind. In 1992, they followed with more fairy tale satire, The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, letting kids in on the joke.
Smith’s latest book, There Is A Tribe of Kids, is lighter than those first two, but still retains his playful style — a style that granted him the honor of being the only person other than Dr. Seuss to illustrate a Dr. Seuss book (Hooray for Diffendoofer Day!), and of being tasked with reimagining the characters of Roald Dahl’s James and The Giant Peach for the 1996 Disney film, and rereleases of the book that followed.
Smith chatted with EW from his studio — an old one-room schoolhouse in Connecticut — about his earliest influences, the power of kids’ minds, and what surprising things he found visiting Dahl’s writing hut.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What made you start playing with text and making your books look so different?
LANE SMITH: It’s funny, because when I go into a bookstore now, it’s almost like we’re in this new golden age. All the books are really cool and inventive and stylized. But 30 years ago, when I started, they were a lot more conservative, and I remember all my teachers in school always saying, “Your illustration work looks too European! You’re never going to get any work over here in the U.S.” I always just thought I’d be kind of a cult artist. There’d be six people looking at my stuff.
I think working with my wife, Molly [Leach], as the designer of the books [helped]. Her background was in magazines — she worked for Sports Illustrated and Business Week — so when she did The Stinky Cheese Man, she designed it like a magazine, which was very unconventional back then. And that was also pre-computer, so she did all that giant type and small type and type that was stretching and bending — she had to figure out how to do it all by hand!
They’re very dark, Stinky Cheese Man and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs. Why do you think people were drawn to these weird, kind of sinister picture books?
When I was a kid, I liked dark stuff. I liked scary stories, and certainly those original Grimm’s Fairy Tales were pretty grim. Also, when I started out, there was something in the air: I was doing a lot of editorial illustration, and my stuff was kind of dark and stylized, and that was the time of new wave and punk music, Tim Burton was just getting started doing movies. It was just kind of this renaissance of weird stuff. Edward Gory was popular, and Ralph Steadman, all of these [people]. There was something in the air with the music and the fashion — everything was coming together then, probably as a reaction to the decade that preceded it, which was real boring and conservative.
It also was appropriate for The True Story of the Three Little Pigs and Stinky Cheese Man since they were parodies of fairy tales. One way to go would have been to have done them real cartoony and lighthearted, but I was such a fan of the original fairy tales, I thought the parody would work better if I made the color palate dark, like fairy tales.
How do you find the limit when drawing creepy stuff for kids? Stinky Cheese Man’s face still freaks me out — it feels like it’s from my nightmares — but somehow I loved that book anyway.
[Laughs] And he falls apart at the end of that story, in the river! I never make stuff too scary, and then I also never make anything sexual in any way. I’m happy with just fun darkness, like the movies I grew up with when I was a kid, like the original Frankenstein, and Dracula. That stuff was like fairy tales as well. I guess I seem to know where to stop. I like to keep it stylized and weird and funny looking, but yeah, my stuff never gets too bloody or anything.
Where do you look for inspiration? Do you have books you go back to? A museum?
Not really. I am always going to museums and reading and going to movies. I have a place in the city, and we also have a place here in the country, so I’m out in nature a lot. It comes from anywhere. But in my case, since I consider myself a visual person first and foremost before being a wordsmith or anything, it’s usually something visual, like I’ll see some weird leaf, or bark on a tree, and I’ll think, “Oh! That’s a cool texture.” And I’ll go back and try to recreate it and paint it, and that will lead to some thought… that’s usually how my ideas happen.
There’s a famous story of Dr. Seuss who said he was drawing an elephant, and also on another piece of paper he had drawn a tree, and he went to get a sandwich or something, and he left the window open and the breeze from the window blew the elephant into the tree… And he thought, “Oh! How did an elephant get in that tree?” And then he created Horton Hatches the Egg. But I don’t believe it! I think he just made that up to tell an interviewer like you.
I think most people, at least most of my friends, are like me, where you just go to the office every day, and you might have a little kernel of an idea, but really it’s kind of hammering it out, and writing stuff, drawing it, re-writing it, re-drawing it, and then little connections start to happen. It’s really just building something from nothing, and working every day until you finally get it right. [Laughs]
That’s so funny — only Lane Smith could call Dr. Seuss a liar!
Hey, you said that, I didn’t!
Well on that note, having been the only artist who’s not Dr. Seuss to illustrate one of his books, and then to do Roald Dahl, what was it like to bring characters by these legends to life? How do you put your own spin on it?
Yeah, both of those tasks were daunting. I remember the Seuss job in particular, I turned it down a couple of times because I just had no idea how to do it, or if I even should be doing it. But with the Seuss book, Diffendoofer Day, I was experimenting with paint, and I came up with this idea to collage elements of his art into my art, so it was not just me trying to copy his style. It was more of a combination of the two of us.
The Roald Dahl thing was a little different because I was commissioned by Henry Selick, the director, to work on the movie. Then Roald Dahl’s widow, Lissie Dahl, who I’d worked with on the film, said, “Well, why don’t you re-illustrate the original novel?” Which was an even bigger thrill, because you’re just working directly with Roald Dahl’s original words. That was a little tricky because they wanted it to look a little bit like the film, but because Disney owned the film characters, I had to make them different.
You spent some time at Roald Dahl’s house for research. What kinds of things did you find there?
When I went to Roald Dahl’s house, his widow, Lissie Dahl, was like, “Oh, stay as long as you want! You can sleep in the guest house, and here’s all of Roald’s filing cabinets, feel free to go through and look at whatever you want!” Molly and I did stay at Gipsy House — that was the name of his house — for two or three days. It was kind of amazing. I remember at one point there was an ashtray, and Molly was going to dump the ashtray or something, and the widow said, “Oh, no no! Those are still Roald’s cigarette butts in there!” [Laughs]
Yeah! And he worked in a tiny little hut, and he would sit in this chair, apparently, and cover himself with this shawl because it would get cold out there, and he would put this board on his lap. On top of the board, he would put a yellow legal pad, and that’s where he wrote all his stories in longhand.
And I remember being inside that hut and telling Lissie, I said, “I love this yellow patina on the wall — it looks like it was applied with a sponge.” I said, “Oh, the color is so beautiful!” And she said, “That. Is. Nicotine.” He would sit there and write and smoke and he wouldn’t crack a window! [Laughs]
But yeah, I just imagine him sitting on that little chair, with his little board on his lap, writing all these classics.