Illustrator Spotlight: Lane Smith
Hello and welcome to Picture Book Spotlight!
Thank you to all who joined us for the fabulous Agent Spotlight with Amy Stern and who participated in her giveaway contest. She had so many life-giving insights for querying authors and illustrators. I'm still blown away by her generous giveaway of a full picture book manuscript critique. Speaking of which...many congratulations to Monica Acker!
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Today, I get to share an interview that made me physically nervous to conduct (because of all the fan-girling). As a child of the 90s, I grew up laughing to this author-illustrator's books and collaborations--some of which should be quite familiar indeed. Familiar and iconic.
Inspired by his well known collaborations with Jon Scieszka, I performed my own telling of The Three Little Pigs in the 6th grade, and went on to win the school storytelling contest. A definite and formative moment in my life that reinforced a desire to entertain and to tell my own stories.
Without any more fan-girling and author-illustrator crushing...here's Lane Smith.
What’s something you absolutely must have in the refrigerator or pantry?
Cat food and dog food. If not, Jojo and Lulu would kill me.
Name three things you can’t do your job without.
Paper, Pencil, quiet.
Where do you feel most inspired and why?
I suppose a person can find inspiration anywhere. I am most inspired in the country: the light, the colors, the natural shape of things.
You’ve been at this for a minute or two. Or thirty years. And you don’t seem to be letting up anytime soon. My wife and I just had our first child (a son) and I’m really looking forward to introducing him to your work someday. As a 2014 Society of Illustrators Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, what does it mean to you to have multiple generations enjoying your work, and to have achieved such success in kid lit?
I’m just happy I still get to do it. It’s a great way to spend your days. Here’s the deal. I love what I do. I love to write stories and create illustrations. I get the most joy out of experimenting, whether moving words around in a sentence until it feels right or trying different textures with paint through varnishes, sandpapers, etc. And there are very nice people out there who pay me for it. Then as a bonus there are people out there who like to read and see what I do. How great is that? Okay, there are also people who don’t like what I do or want to quibble about things on social media or appear outraged or whatever. But why in the world should I care? This in no way diminishes the fact that I get to spend my days sitting quietly at a desk making up little stories. It’s a truly wonderful life for someone who has always valued aloneness.
Side-note about the naysayers: I do not however put professional critics and editors and art directors in the above-mentioned category. I value when a truly gifted critic takes issue with in my work. I mean if Leonard Marcus or Phil Nel or Anita Silvey or Roger Sutton thinks I’ve made a misstep I may not agree but I will stop and analyze why they feel this way and sometimes a perceptive critic may open my eyes to something in my own work I didn’t see.
Walk us through an average day for you.
I get up. I read the NY Times while having coffee with my wife. I feed the cat and dog. I walk over to my studio and work until sunset. If I’m writing I keep it quiet. If I’m painting I play music. I have lots of playlists.
What can you tell us about your studio space?
It’s under renovation and has been for a year. It was an old tobacco barn. It’s driving me crazy that I don’t currently have a proper workspace.
Talk to us about the difference between creating and writing your own books vs. illustrating only. Which one brings you the most joy?
Writing my own books is the most rewarding by far. As I get older that’s the only thing that brings pure satisfaction. When I list favorite books I’ve worked on, most are ones I’ve written. A Perfect Day is my best book. Hocky Family books; Grandpa Green; There Is a Tribe of Kids; It’s a Book; John, Paul, George & Ben. Favorites that I didn’t write include: The Stinky Cheese Man, James and the Giant Peach, A House That Once Was, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip.
Your FAQs on your website are fun! Love the dry tone in your writing. Definitely something I echo in a lot of my work. I noticed that you mention not doing school visits (twice, in fact). Was there a time that you used to do school visits, or have you always not done them?
I used to do them with Jon Scieszka. I love meeting my readers and I love hanging out with kids but I am a shy person and always have been and have never gotten used to being in front of crowds.
I respect you for staying off of social media. I think our culture spends far too much time online (he said on an online blog). Why do you choose to withhold participation, and how can you encourage us to spend more time in reality land?
I have always loved talking to my nerdy friends about books and movies and art. I have always made lists of my favorite records and favorite silent movies and favorite books. I have always shot and edited short movies and have always taken odd abstract photos. You would think I would be the perfect candidate for oversharing on Instagram and Twitter but no, it brings out the worst in people. I’d rather talk to people face to face or have people over to share movies and paintings with.
A book that stood out to me over the past year was A House That Once Was by Julie Fogliano. It’s a little haunting and nostalgic for a time when kids actually played outside and explored abandoned houses. It was nice to see kids being kids--without a helicopter parent hovering overhead in the story. This book was beautiful in both words and images. Talk to us about working on this book. What went through your head when you first read the manuscript?
Julie and I go way back. In the 90s she worked at Books of Wonder, a bookshop in NYC. My studio was right above it. Twenty years later I suggested she write something for us to work on and she mentioned one of an abandoned house based on a true story with her kids. The finished story was like a day right out of my childhood. I loved it. All of her books are pretty darn perfect. They always feel timeless and classic.
I really like your collaborations with Jory John. He seems to have a similar mischievous humor as you. Giraffe Problems and Penguin Problems are both hilarious. Can we expect more projects highlighting the hysterical problems of animals?
None planned. But I’m sure Jory and I will do something together soon. He’s a great guy and fun to work with.
I love the overall message of It’s a Book. No matter how much technology changes, books are books. Forever, amen. I’m sure you’re used to getting pushback from people who don’t share your sense of humor. Did you have to fight for that last line ("It's a book, Jackass") in the book or did you get support the entire way through?
I’m sure there were discussions about it but I wasn’t involved. It was a funny line and my editor, Simon Boughton, supported me all the way. The line was a little cheeky, yes, but it wasn’t that earth shattering. And how many languages is it in now? 30? 31?
Your style, voice, and humor consistently show independence of thought and are an example of playful risk-taking in kid lit. If it’s not fun for the writer and creator, why would we think anyone else would enjoy it? I always get the sense that you laugh a lot at your own stuff. This is encouraging to me as I start out my career. In your website FAQs, I love your response to the question:
“Some of your books are weird. Are they appropriate for my child?”
“I do not know your child. But I will say I do not subscribe to the notion that every book is for every child. I make the kinds of books that I liked as a kid. I don’t like ordinary, middle-of-the-road books. I like funny, odd books that excite and challenge a child. There are enough people doing nice books about manners and feelings and magical unicorns. I do not do those kinds of books.”
How can you encourage authors just starting out who are concerned they have to alter their voice in order to find success?
Don’t alter your voice.
I haven’t had a chance to read your first middle grade novel, Return to Augie Hobble, but it’s on my list to read. Are you developing any other middle grade stories?
Yes. I am working on two currently.
What are some children’s books that have come out recently that you’ve enjoyed?
Lovely Beasts by Kate Gardner, Heidi Smith. Good concept with beautiful illustrations.
When’s My Birthday? Julie Fogliano and Christian Robinson. An instant classic.
Louisiana’s Way Home by Kate DiCamillo. Genius. Well, everything she does is genius.
Do you have any other plans for history inspired picture books (similar to John, Paul, George, & Ben and Abe Lincoln's Dream)?
No. But you never know. John, Paul, George & Ben and Abe Lincoln’s Dream were both fun projects. I liked interpreting the style of their eras: 18th and 19th centuries respectively.
What is something upcoming that you would like to celebrate or promote?
Tomorrow Most Likely written by Dave Eggers, illustrated by me. Chronicle. April 2.
Thank you so much for stopping by, Lane! Looking forward to any and all future projects you put out.
And thank YOU for stopping by, kid lit fam! Keep telling stories and tell them in a way that YOU want to tell them. Don't alter your voice. Ever!
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About Lane Smith
Lane Smith has written and illustrated a bunch of stuff including Grandpa Green which was a 2012 Caldecott Honor book and It’s a Book which has been translated into over twenty five languages. Other works include the national bestsellers Madam President and John, Paul, George & Ben. His titles with Jon Scieszka include the Caldecott Honor winner The Stinky Cheese Man; The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs; Math Curse; and Science Verse among others. He has also illustrated Hooray for Diffendoofer Day! by Dr. Seuss and Jack Prelutsky; The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip by George Saunders; Kid Sheriff and the Terrible Toads by Bob Shea; and James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl. In 1996 Lane served as Conceptual Designer on the Disney film version of James and the Giant Peach as well.
His books have been New York Times Best Illustrated Books on four occasions. In 2012 The Eric Carle Museum named him an Honor Artist for “lifelong innovation in the field of children's books.” In 2014 he received the Society of Illustrators Lifetime Achievement award.
Lane and book designer Molly Leach live in rural Connecticut.
He is represented by Steven Malk of Writers House (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Lane's Website, Lane on Amazon, Lane on Goodreads, Lane's Agency
Other Interviews Featuring Lane Smith
Art of the Picture Book, Video Interview on Reading Rockets, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, Entertainment Weekly
Brian Gehrlein is an educator and youth services librarian living in Kansas City with his wife, Katherine, and son, Peter. He is represented by Melissa Richeson of Apokedak Literary Agency. He thanks you for reading this post. He thanks you for reading this sentence. He thanks you for being the type of person that was born with a sense of humor. Unlike Steve. I do not thank Steve for anything. He is the actual worst. THE WORST. I mean what even gives him the right? What even GIVES HIM THE RIGHT?! So glad you're not like Steve. Keep being the opposite of that guy. In all that you do. BE THE OPPOSITE OF STEVE. Steve, if you are reading this so help me...just. JUST STOP. STOP BEING YOU. NOBODY LIKES YOU, STEVE! NOBODY!