Roots: Lane Smith
Author and illustrator
Vital stats: Born in Tulsa; grew up in California; graduated from Art Center College of Design; has written or illustrated two Caldecott Honor books: wrote this year’s “Grandpa Green” and illustrated “The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales,” co-written with Jon Scieszka; illustrated one version of “James and the Giant Peach” and served as art director for the 1996 film.
Now: 53; lives and works in Connecticut; preparing for the release of “Abe Lincoln’s Dream” in October; by his own admission, “I’m still constantly getting ideas. Most of them are bad ideas, but I’m still hoping some of them work out.”
How did writing and illustrating become a career?
Well, I went to college in California at ... Art Center College of Design, where a lot of other illustrators have graduated from. When I got out of school, I went to New York and started doing magazine work — Time and Rolling Stone and things like that — and doing album covers and stuff. I always wanted to get into kids’ books, so at night, it was like homework. I was building a portfolio. When I got it ready, I took it to a publisher, and I sold my first book. I thought kids’ books would be like a side project, but after a few years, it sort of took off, and now that’s all I do. The last two or three years, I’ve been on a tear, like two or three a year. I used to be a little more leisurely. Maybe I’m afraid books are going to disappear.
Why kids’ books?
Probably the freedom. When you make a kids’ book, it’s like you’re a film producer. You write it, direct it. You just have total control. And also, I’ve always been in this perpetual state of arrested development. I still feel like I’m a kid, even though I’m 53. I’ve always thought it would be a great venue to work in, and it has been.
What inspires your work?
I think because I consider myself an illustrator first, most of my ideas for books come from a visual source — it might be the changing of the season or colors or something. It’s hard to say where it comes from. A lot of mornings, I find crumpled napkins next to my bed with ideas I’ve scribbled down in the middle of the night. It’s like, “Let’s see, two monsters wearing hats in a jungle? What is this?”
How have your Oklahoma summers guided your career?
All our relatives were in the Sapulpa area, so we spent a lot of summers there. It’s weird — all my childhood memories are from Oklahoma, even though I grew up in California. But those summers definitely did influence me. Just getting to Oklahoma, we’d follow the old Route 66 trajectory, so I know all that stuff, just those long desert vistas and all the Route 66–type attractions. You’d see the road signs for all that stuff: “500 miles to the baby rattlers,” then “300 miles” and then you’d get there and pay your dollar to see the baby rattlers, and then there’d be a bucket of baby rattles. I think that influenced my sense of humor. Also, a lot of my illustrations have some lonely element to them, like one character, and I know that’s from those wide expanses.
All my relatives were cowboys. They wore cowboy hats, and they drove tractors and had ranches. That was kind of mythic for a kid to go back and hang out with cowboys. I remember my Uncle Leo had a ranch with chickens and stuff. And so one of my recent books was called “Grandpa Green,” and it was definitely influenced by Uncle Leo and all that. Now, the books I read and the movies I watch and the things I do all have that Oklahoma feel to it. Something about that just got into my brain. I’ll watch “The Grapes of Wrath” and I’ll listen to Woody Guthrie. It drives my wife crazy. She’ll say, “I got the new Rob Zombie CD,” and I’ll be like, “But I was going to listen to Woody Guthrie.”
What do you miss about Oklahoma?
I think just the general vibe there. I kind of equate it with Mayberry because whenever we’d go back there, it would mean hearing some music and going fishing and riding on the tractor and all that kind of romanticized version of the place. It’s right out of a storybook or a movie. And that downtown stretch of Main Street in Sapulpa is always kind of black and white to me. Whenever I’m there, I take pictures, but I take them in black and white. There’s the town square and a tumbleweed in the street and everyone drives pickups. It’s completely alien to what you would see in New York.
What’s coming up for you?
I did a book about a year and a half ago called “It’s a Book.” It’s still selling really well. It’s about a monkey and a donkey, and the donkey’s on his computer and the monkey’s on his book. They go back and forth, “Can you blog on it? Can you put pictures on it?” “No, it’s a book.” It goes on, and finally, the monkey says, “No, it’s a book, jackass.” I got so many letters from like Kansas and Oklahoma, and I’m like, “No, my grandfather was a Baptist preacher! That word is in the Bible.” People are touchy now.
I’ve got a book I just finished that will come out in October, and it’s called “Abe Lincoln’s Dream.” It’s about a little girl who’s on a White House tour, and she gets separated from the tour and bumps into Abe Lincoln’s ghost. He’s sort of perplexed about this dream he’d had the night before. That’s kind of a true story because the night before he was killed, he had a dream about being on a boat and sort of wondered what it meant for America after the Civil War. She takes him on a tour of the United States, and he sort of realizes that everything’s going to be OK, so at the end, he sails away on a boat.
Editor’s note: Interview edited for length.