Lane Smith on Disneyland, George Saunders, and His First Middle Grade Novel

Lane Smith on Disneyland, George Saunders, and His First Middle Grade Novel

If you have or know children, then you know Lane Smith. From his hilarious It’s a Book to the iconic illustrations of James and the Giant Peach and The Stinky Cheese Man, Smith has been making children smile with his unique style for quite some time. His first venture into the world of middle school books is no different. In a story Smith himself calls “everything-but-the-kitchen-sink,” Return to Augie Hobble explores one boy’s struggle to finish a creative summer project, hold down a job at a failing amusement park, and possibly even hunt down a werewolf. Here, we chat with Smith about his own time working at Disneyland, the influence of his friend George Saunders, and what it was like to write for middle schoolers.

Bookish: Augie’s teacher Mr. Tindall has a quote from Albert Einstein in his email signature that reads, “Creativity is contagious, pass it on.” If this is true, who did you catch creativity from? Has anyone caught it from you?

Lane Smith: Good question! I must’ve gotten creativity from my mom because she was always doing art projects, but in a typical housewife of the 1960s fashion. She was making these sort of Joseph Cornell-like shadow boxes, or she was always doing decoupage, or paint-by-number paintings. So I must’ve gotten it from her.

And I don’t know if I’ve passed it on to anyone else. But hopefully I’ve influenced a few little stinkers out there in elementary school.

Bookish: This is your first novel and in it you tackle some heavy topics such as bullying and grief. What was the most intimidating aspect of beginning this book?

LS: I eased into it. I’ve always had in the back of my mind that I’d like to try something longer. I was taking a break from books, and I was truly getting a little bored with just sitting around the patio, reading, and working on paintings for myself that no one ever saw. So I started sketching and writing little notes, and it grew and grew. When I was up to 50 or 60 pages I showed it to my wife, Molly, saying, “Oh, I accidently started writing this thing.” If I thought about, I probably would’ve been terribly intimidated, but as it was there was really no stress or anxiety at all.

Plus, I don’t read a lot of YA and middle grade, so I didn’t have any preconceived notions of what it should be and that’s probably why it’s such an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink kind of book. I was just having fun and throwing everything in there I could. I was on a learning curve, but it was fun.

Bookish: This book is a mix of writing, diary entries, cartoons, photographs, etc. When you first sat down to create it, what came first?

LS: I had the concept first. I’ve always been a big fan of Flowers for Algernon, and I think I had in my head the moment where Charlie’s voice changes. I wanted to do a book that featured handwriting. In the book, we think something is happening to Augie and his handwriting changes.

But I didn’t want the whole book to be handwritten, so I thought maybe he could have a sketchbook that occasionally appears. Once I introduced that element, I knew he needed a reason to write in the sketchbook, so then the creative arts assignment found its way in. It was really sort of a plot device more than anything else. But unlike a lot of my picture books where the visuals come first, this book started with the text and the pictures came later.

It was also unusual because in every other book I’ve ever illustrated, I illustrated dramatic points in the story, but in this one everything is generated by Augie. There were some nice scenes I was dying to illustrate like the one with Cowboy Roy when they’re traveling across the desert, but at that point Augie’s depressed and it just seemed unnatural for him to start taking pictures or whip out his sketchbook. That was difficult for me.

Bookish: You’ve said that you write and make the kind of books you liked as a kid. What books were those?

LS: I leaned towards things like those compilations by Charles Schulz. We all think of good ol’ Charlie Brown, but they were kind of dark and melancholy. I was attracted to that. Or I’d go to the library and get books with film stills from James Whales’ Bride of Frankenstein or Buster Keaton. I didn’t own many kids’ books when I was younger, I got most of my books when I was old enough to beg my mom to take me to the library.

Bookish: Some artists have one consistent style that they work in, but your style is very diverse. When creating a book like this that employs so many different techniques, how did you decide what style to use for each individual piece?

LS: I get impatient after I finish a book. I’ll do something like It’s a Book, which is a bit graphic and almost cartoon-y, and follow it up with something like Grandpa Green that’s more lush. I’m my own art director, giving myself assignments based on what style best suits the story.

With Augie, since he was taking photos, I knew those images had to be more realistically rendered than his artwork. And then with his artwork, it had to have the look of a kid his age, which is 12 or 13. So I looked back at my drawings from that time and they were maybe not quite as good as Augie’s. I didn’t want to make them look too much like a kid’s drawings cause that’s just too stick figure-y and who wants to see that?

There’s also a collage, the wolf wall. I’ve done collages in the past and I always get a kick out of them. I love doing stuff like that, and, actually, what no one’s noticed about that spread is that I snuck in the cover of The True Story of the Three Little Pigs.

Bookish: I spotted another nod to your old work in one of Augie’s stories about Cinderella.

LS: There’s a link that goes beyond that, too. When Jon Scieszka and I first started working together, Molly and I would visit him and his wife at a cabin they owned in New Jersey. And not too far down the road was a place called Fairy Tale Forest. It was one of these roadside attractions that was on its last leg. It definitely was one of the kernels in my brain when writing Augie.

Bookish: This book is also partially inspired by your family’s road trips on Route 66. What’s the attraction that you enjoyed the most from those trips?

LS: As a kid, you look forward to those. But, thinking back, none of them were that good. I remember there was one called The Thing. Starting about 1,000 miles back you’d start seeing billboards for it: 900 Miles to The Thing, 600 Miles to The Thing. My brother Shane and I would beg our parents to stop. And you get there and it’s nothing! It was like a mummy, maybe, someone dug up. Then you’re forced to look at a new billboard for the next 100 miles: You Just Missed The Thing!, 50 Miles Back to The Thing.

What I really remember is how we’d drive straight through the night, and Shane and I would sleep in the back seat. So I’d wake up and sometimes the sun would be rising, and I’d look into the distance and see these little dust devils, and everything looked brown and sepia. Those are memories that ingrained themselves in me. Those expansive environments colored in earth tones played in my brain and they’re featured a lot in my art.

Bookish: Augie’s father owns the amusement park Fairy Tale Place, and since Augie works there he gets to go behind the scenes whenever he pleases, just like you were able to when working at Disneyland. Do Augie’s experiences working at the park reflect your own?

LS: Oh yeah. Everything from the outfit he’s wearing (based on my custodial uniform at Disneyland) to those lines from the guests. I’d be sweeping and some guests would come up to me and say, “Can’t go home until the paperwork’s done.” I’d have to laugh like that’s the first time I’d ever heard it, but I’d heard it 10 other times that day. The other one was, “How’s business picking up?”

Then there was one line from a real guest that I put in the book and my editor made me take it out. I once overheard someone going up to Snow White and saying, “Do you ever wake up feeling Sleepy and Grumpy?” My editor thought it was probably a little blue.

Bookish: Augie procrastinates, like many of us, with cat videos on YouTube. Do you have any favorites?

LS: I love the guy who does the animation Simon’s Cat. He’s nailed their idiosyncrasies down perfectly.

Bookish: For his summer project, Augie needs to create a great project to pass his Creative Arts class. But his ideas aren’t big enough or good enough. What do you do when you’re stuck on an idea you like but it isn’t big enough yet to turn into something?

LS: That’s a good question. For me, it’s all about quantity. Even to this day, when I want to show my editor a book dummy, I rarely show him one idea. I show him four or five, thinking he’s got to like one of them. And they’re all pretty good but… It’s weird because I do have a lot of confidence in my work, but I also have no confidence in myself. I used to do a lot of magazine work for the New York Times, Esquire, and Newsweek, and it was thing. I’d turn in 15 roughs for an editorial painting. But I’d always shoot myself in the foot because inevitably the editor would say, “Well, I like the background in this one. And I like the way you drew the lead guy in this one. And I like the one over here.” But come next time, I’d do the same thing again.

I’m like Augie: I never think it’s enough. A lot of times when I turn in a book dummy, the editors and art directors say “Is this the finished book?” because I overdo it. I color everything in, I have Molly design the typography. I could say it’s the worth ethic drummed into me, but really I think it’s just that I panic and overdo it every time.

But I think it’s healthy and you should never be too confident. Occasionally in this business, you’ll meet other creators who are very confident and kind of prima donna-ish and arrogant. I think it’s good to doubt yourself. You read about people like Laurence Olivier who would throw up before his performances, even after he was considered the greatest actor in the world. Maybe I’m rationalizing, but I think it’s healthy.

Bookish: George Saunders’ work also deals with theme parks. Were you at all inspired by Civilwarland in Bad Decline, or is Augie based solely on your own experiences?

LS: I love George Saunders and we did a book together about eight years ago: The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip. He wrote, I illustrated. A couple of months ago MGM optioned it and they’re turning it into an animated film. So, I was definitely aware of George’s work. I’m a huge fan; I love his stuff. But he’s like a genius, the smartest guy I ever met. He does this thing where the theme park becomes a metaphor for life in a microcosm. In my case, Augie is more literal. It’s not symbolic for anything other than he’s got a crappy job at a theme park. I’m sure he’s influenced me in some way, though.

Lane Smith’s 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.

Kelly Gallucci
Far too busy rereading the Harry Potter series, Kelly finds that her greatest literary sin is that she neglected to read classics like The Shining and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. In between overseeing the editorial content for Bookish, holding interviews with authors like Isaac Marion and Lauren Beukes, and creating book recommendations for Kanye West—Kelly’s trying to catch up on the books she missed out on. She just finished The Great Gatsby and might be in love with Fitzg. Kelly received her B.A. in English Writing from Marist College and her M.A. in Screenwriting from National University of Ireland, Galway.


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