Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Lane Smith

h1 August 25th, 2008 by jules

This is Lane Smith with his wife and book designer extraordinnaire, Molly Leach. We told him this would be one of our breakfast interviews, but we didn’t expect him to attempt to take a chunk out of his own face. But that’s the thing with Lane: You never know what to expect. After gently talking him into lowering the fork and having something else for breakfast, he’s considering either oatmeal or Cheerios, fresh OJ, and one small cup of decaf, adding that it’s a boring breakfast. For the record, we don’t think it’s boring, but we’ll just pretend he didn’t say decaf, which is the devil’s blend. But, hey…to each his own.

Here are 7-Imp’s Seven Reasons Why We’re Super-Nerdy Excited That Lane Smith is Here Today For a Chat:

1). He has a Bachelor of Awesome. See below.

2). He is one of the most inventive, most unpredictable (in the good way), most entertaining, and most imaginative contemporary illustrators whose work displays a tremendous respect for children and possesses a sharp, irreverent, wisecracking humor. Cases in point (just some of many): 1991’s Glasses (Who Needs ‘Em?); 1995’s Math Curse, written by Jon Scieszka; 2001’s Baloney (Henry P.), received and decoded by Scieszka; and 2004’s Science Verse, also by Scieszka — all published by Viking.

3). He has done the illustrations for—or written and illustrated—some of our favorite picture books. And these are books that are similarly adored by countless teachers and librarians (public and school), on account of they are WICKED FUNNY and great story-time reads. His books also have a slew, to be precise, of awards and honors attached to them (including a 1993 Caldecott Honor for The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales), and you can usually hear children squealing loudly over any book he’s created or helped create. Cases in point (again, just some of many): The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs (published by Viking in 1989; written by A. Wolf, as told to Jon Scieszka); John, Paul, George & Ben (published by Hyperion Books for Children, 2006); last year’s Cowboy and Octopus with Scieszka (published by Viking); and, as already mentioned, the only and only, the screamingly funny, and the groundbreaking The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (published by Viking in 1992; written by Scieszka), the very book that made so many of us fall in love with and/or want to study children’s literature.

4). He and his wife Molly Leach make such a great team. Her groundbreaking, visionary book design skillz are the perfect match for his off-beat illustrations. Together they’ve totally changed the rules in the world of children’s book publishing.

5). His studio is in an old one-room schoolhouse! (Sorry to keep doing this to you, but — see below.)

6). He was also the Conceptual Designer for the 1996 film version of Roald Dahl’s classic James and the Giant Peach.

7). His two newest picture books: Madam President, which he wrote and illustrated, and Big Plans, written by Bob Shea (both published by Hyperion).

Big Plans is about a young boy, clearly in a punitive time-out in the corner of the classroom, who is plotting his future while staring at a world map on the wall. And his future involves many big things (with his mynah bird sidekick), including ordering around “BIG SHOTS, BIGWIGS, and MUCKETY-MUCKS,” as he’s all dressed for success; catching the game-winning pass in the big football game; becoming mayor, then President of the United States; flying to the moon (“As soon as we’re safely on the ship, I will summon my remaining strength to tell that hat and bird, ‘I got big plans, BIG PLANS, I say'”); and much more. Wrote School Library Journal, “Smith’s vivacious illustrations make this a book to pore over as there are new details to notice with each reading.”

Not to be outdone by what Kirkus Reviews calls “the poster boy for unbridled ambition,” there is Lane’s Madam President, the tale of a little girl who imagines what her day would be like if she were the country’s leader — and it involves much more than just some kickin’ pants suits. She’s got funerals to attend (in her case, her frog’s); stuff to veto (the school’s performance of Little House on the Prairie: The Musical and the cafeteria lunches, to name a couple); handle press conferences gracefully (“I know you are, but what am I?”); keep the peace; and even clean her own room. The best part of the book, other than Lane’s wonderfully manic illustrations? Publishers Weekly put it well: “Refreshingly, Katy skips the hand-wringing and never questions whether a girl could become commander-in-chief — instead, she behaves as if she is president already, fulfilling official duties at home and in school.”

There’s lots more from Lane about Madam President at this Publishers Weekly interview from July.

And, well, there are lots more reasons it’s fun to have Lane here, but let’s get to the interview already. Let’s get the basics from Lane as we set the table for our breakfast:

* * * * * * *

7-Imp: Lane, we asked Adam Rex and Jon Scieszka in previous interviews how they got to be so awesome (see here and here, respectively). We only reserve that question for the Truly Awesome, and here you are. So, how’d you get to be so awesome?

Lane: Again, it’s boring. I took the usual route: Awesome School. Got a BA (Bachelor of Awesome). Four year program. Actually, what most people don’t know is I flunked out first year and had to go to Awesome Summer School (A.S.S.). You’d think it would be a major bummer but you know what? . . . It was awesome.

7-Imp: Can you list your books-to-date?

Lane: {Ed. Note: Lane actually took the time to answer this, bless his big heart. As true Southerners, even though one of us is displaced, Eisha and I are required to say “bless his big heart.” Instead of having a big, honkin’ long list in the middle of the interview here, I’ll put it at the bottom of the interview, for those who want the Complete Lane Smith Experience.}

A book dummy sketch from John, Paul, George & Ben

7-Imp: What is your usual medium, or -– if you use a variety -– your preferred one?

Lane: Each piece is usually a variety; collage. Whether by hand or digital. I like to mix it up. I work in oils, pen-and-ink, I collage in actual photo bits or gum wrappers. I like the end result to be textural and grungy. Printers are always trying to correct the specks and splatters in my artwork – they assume they are the result of printing error.

7-Imp: When you collaborate with Jon, do you work in tandem throughout the book’s creation, or is a more traditional arrangement, in that Jon gives you text and then you have at it?

Lane: We don’t work in tandem. But we do ride a tandem bike. We pretty much agree on creative stuff but are in constant disagreement over who gets to ride in front.

My wife, Molly, is looking over my shoulder and has just read the above answer. I can tell by the look on her face that that was a really silly response. Okay, here’s how we really work: Jon writes a story, gives it to me, I work out the art, give it to Molly, she works out the type then we all get together and tweak stuff. Then we turn it in. Then we take a spin on our tandem bike. (Not really.)

7-Imp: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Lane: In the rural, northwest corner of Connecticut.

Lane in front of his studio with Pretzel, his Secret Service Cat

Pretzel, in close-up, protecting Lane…or at least thinking about it

7-Imp: Can you briefly tell us about your road to publication?

Lane: A magazine illustrator (Rolling Stone, Time, NY Times, Ms., Sesame Street, etc.), I wanted to do books. I painted Halloween images at night after my editorial assignments were finished. I eventually had enough paintings for a book and took them around to publishers. One bit (Macmillan), and those paintings became my first children’s book, Halloween ABC. The publisher felt like the art needed text, so they called in veteran author Eve Merriam to add spooky poems. The book turned out great. Not so great, there was a strike that year at the printing plant, and our Halloween book came out in November. {Ed. Note: The book was redesigned by Molly Leach and rereleased by Simon & Schuster in 2002 as Spooky ABC, pictured here.}

7-Imp: Can you please point us to your web site and/or blog?


7-Imp: If you do school visits, tell us what they’re like.

Lane: They’re like us, only smaller. They often get sick and give you their germs. They’re sweet. They’re naughty. They’re funny. Sometimes they’re in the third grade, sometimes second or first. (Can you tell that Molly has left the room?)

7-Imp: If you teach illustration, by chance, tell us how that influences your work as an illustrator.

Lane: I don’t teach. I would be a horrible teacher. I have a hard time criticizing others’ work.

7-Imp: Any new titles/projects you might be working on now that you can tell us about?

Florence Parry HeideLane: I am working on a book with my idol, Florence Parry Heide {pictured here}. It’s about a princess who floats. It’s called Rescuing the Princess. I wrote to Florence nearly twenty years ago to tell her how much I loved the Treehorn books that she did with Edward Gorey. It’s taken us all this time to finally collaborate. Better late than never. It will be out in 2009.

I also wrote and illustrated a book called, The Big Elephant in the Room. It comes out Spring 2009.

* * *

Mmm. Coffee.Okay, the table’s set, and we’re ready to sit down and talk more specifics over coffee with Lane — this time it’ll be six questions over breakfast. And, because we love his books so much, we’re even going to have some decaf with him.

And we’d like to extend hugely huge thanks to him for taking the time to stop by, especially since he tolerated Jules’ questionnaire for illustrators (which is set up in a very template-esque way that makes it a bit easier for us to format and post these interviews, thus giving us time to do even more Q & As with illustrators) — but with a couple questions thrown in that are specific to his career. In other words, Jules thanks him for being a good sport about the weird format.

For the record, we’d love to chat with Molly, too, and maybe we can talk Lane into passing the questions on to her.

1. 7-Imp: What exactly is your process when you are illustrating a book? You can start wherever you’d like when answering: getting initial ideas, starting to illustrate, or even what it’s like under deadline, etc. Do you outline a great deal of the book before you illustrate or just let your muse lead you on and see where you end up? Can you also address what the design/illustrating process with Molly is like for books on which you collaborate?

Lane: If it’s a book I’ve written, the initial idea usually comes from a sketch.

I then create a story around the sketch. I write and rewrite constantly. I’m a visual person, so the writing is much harder than the art. When I feel like it’s in pretty good shape, I show it to a few close friends: Molly, my agent Steve Malk, my pal Bob Shea, the UPS guy. They usually have lots of comments. If they’re good, I steal them.

Next I do a book dummy. I do lots and lots of sketches, looking for the tone and style of the book. I then experiment with color and technique. Some books are in pencil, some oil, some pen-and-ink. Most are a hodgepodge of all. When I have the dummy together I show it again to friends and family. They have more good ideas. I steal them.

I then show it to the editor. He or she usually has ideas, too. I steal them.

Then I just plow ahead and do the book. I can’t stop until it’s finished. I work everyday. I e-mail Molly art as I am working on it, and she designs the typography around it and e-mails it back to me. Sometimes I adjust the art to fit with her type. Sometimes she adjusts the type. We go back and forth this way until the book is done.

I then show it to my Mom. She says stuff like, “Give Madam President a big flowery hat, kids will adore that.” Or “Make that Big Plans kid more lovable. You want grandparents to buy it, don’t you?” “Why does Stinky have to be made of cheese? Gingerbread is better.” She has lots of ideas. I don’t steal them.

2. 7-Imp: Describe your studio or usual work space for us.

Lane: I work in a turn-of-the-century one-room schoolhouse. I am surrounded by books, globes, a big chalkboard, cursive type all around the walls.

Pretzel, protecting Lane's desk

3. 7-Imp: As book lovers, it interests us: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?

The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet; thanks to Sam Riddleburger for the imageLane: The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner. The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron. Dr. Seuss, Charles Schulz, Maurice Sendak.

4. 7-Imp: If you could have three (living) illustrators or author/illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?

Lane: See, you got me with that “living” clause. I think I’ve already met most of my favorite living authors: Sendak, George Saunders, Remy Charlip, Florence Parry Heide. Oh, I suppose it would be great to have dinner with David and Amy Sedaris. Oh and David McCullough. And Doris Kearns Goodwin.

But back to those dead authors, there’s a thought! Imagine all in one room: Flannery O’Connor, Dr. Seuss, Italo Calvino, Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, Ruth Krauss, Thomas Jefferson.

Of course, they’d be dead. The conversation, you know, might be minimal.

5. 7-Imp: What is currently in rotation on your iPod or loaded in your CD player? Do you listen to music while you create books?

Lane: When I illustrate, I listen to a bunch of stuff: Tom Waits, Nina Simone, Tex Ritter, Neko Case, early Staple Singers, Johnny Cash, Fats Waller, Nicole Atkins, The Effin Gs, Bob & Ray

6. 7-Imp: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Lane: If I told, then they’d know.

The Pivot Questionnaire

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Lane: “Waffles.”

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Lane: “Probe.”

7-Imp: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Lane: “James Lipton.”

7-Imp: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Lane: Drawing and painting.

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Lane: A little switch just below the hairline. Also the Clapper™.

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you love?

Lane: Birds.

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you hate?

Lane: Birds hitting my window.

7-Imp: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Lane: I can’t do anything else.

7-Imp: What profession would you not like to do?

Lane: Politics. Or food service.

7-Imp: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Lane: “We’ve been waiting for you. Scieszka is here. Hit by a truck (big pink truck with a bow on top). Shea is here. Head injury. Slipped on some new socks. Saunders is here. Mauled by angry Gappers. Come on in. Make me some new stories. I’m sick of trucks, socks and Gappers.”

* * * * * * *

Lane’s response to the books-to-date question:

Written and illustrated by me:

With Jon Scieszka:

* * * * * * *

All photos of Lane and Molly; Lane’s studio; and his fierce cat, Pretzel, are courtesy of Lane Smith. All rights reserved and all that (we assume).

Spreads from BIG PLANS: Copyright © 2008 Bob Shea. Illustration © 2008 by Lane Smith. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Hyperion Books for Children. All rights reserved.

Spreads from MADAM PRESIDENT: Copyright © 2008 Lane Smith. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Hyperion Books for Children. All rights reserved.

Book dummy sketch from Lane Smith’s web site. Posted with permission of illustrator. All rights reserved.

43 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Lane Smith”

  1. Nice piece to wake up to.

    (And Lane, ask Florence Heide about how I discovered her and got her to her first editor!)

    Love the studio. Is it close to the house?


    Your big fan,


  2. You guys are so amazing – this is awesome.

    I love his studio and want to know if it is close to his house also.

    I just read “Mushroom Planet” to my son – would you believe the library did not have a copy?! Shameful! I still have to find an illustrated copy though, that’s the one I remember and it was so much better.

    Did I mention how much I love Lane Smith? LOVE HIM!

  3. When I heard Jon Scieszka speak years ago, he just gushed about Lane Smith, and I thought it was so sweet. Now hearing from both of them, I honestly wonder how they get any work done. So much insanity! So little time!

    I have a great admiration for people who surround themselves with what they want — fun people, a fun workspace, a Mom they can ignore, and an attack cat. This was great fun to read. Thanks!

  4. Okay, I’ve got to be honest: That first picture is worrying me a lot. Someone’s going to get hurt!

    Great interview, though. Thanks to all involved.

  5. Holy James Lipton! (which I’m totally gonna yell next time I’m mad), thanks to you all for enjoying the interview. Lane made it very fun to do. You should have seen the emails between me and Eisha — o! the fan-girl cyber-squeals — when we figured out he’d be stopping by for an interview.

    Kelly, but how could I resist opening the interview with that wonderfully bizarre photo? I understand your worry, but eventually he ate his Cheerios, I’m sure, and not his cheek.

    Appropos to nothing having to do with his books or illustrating, I think Lane has excellent taste in music. Neko, Nicole, Tom, Johnny Cash. I not only would like to be a fly on the wall of his kickin’ studio to see him illustrating something, but I’d want the CD player to be on, too.

  6. Man, I’ve got to get myself a one-room schoolhouse! Talk about the perfect place for inspiration.

    Thanks for another fantastic interview. And just in case you didn’t know it, you can hear Lane speak over at Just One More Book, where he was this morning’s interview. (Gret minds think alike, eh?) Here’s the link.
    Lane Smith Interview

  7. What a fabulous interview! And, hmm, my folks live in NW CT…I may have to do a little sleuthing and try to find that one-room schoolhouse…

  8. Wow, greatness.

  9. Oh excellent! See what great things you miss when you don’t check out Just One More Book daily, as I should have done this morning. And, according to them, it’s Lane’s birthday. So, we’ll have cake after our breakfast.

    Thanks, Tricia, for that link…

  10. Oh man — I LOVE Lane Smith’s work. My nephews raced headlong through childhood clutching 3 Little Pigs and Stinky Cheese Man et al. to their tiny hearts. And the Gappers — well, there was a time in my life when I was quite obnoxious about it. (They say you’re supposed to give gifts that suit the recipients uniquely; I decided unilaterally that anyone to whom I wanted to give a gift, child tthrough adult, would find Gappers eminently suitable. Never heard any complaints.)

    Thanks so much for the interview!

  11. Is it wrong that I covet his studio and kinda wish I could live there?

    Great interview, as always.

  12. P.S. The L.A. times had a Word Play column yesterday about Jon Scieszka. You can just see from that (and the 7-Imp interviews with each of them) what an… interesting experience it would be to see them working together.

  13. “Probe” — what a perfect least favorite word. That really made me laugh. Also the fact that he doesn’t listen to his mother.

  14. You guys do the best interviews. I’ve been thinking about going back to school, the question was, for what? Now I know I must go back and major in Awesome.

  15. Another great interview, 7-imp! What a coincidence and lucky that our interviews complement each other so nicely.

    Thanks for getting such great photos to make us feel like we’re hanging out with Lane through your site.

    Uh oh! Is it a race to get to Molly, now?

  16. Another awesome interview! (unlike Alvina who is not married to Mark, I can’t say that *you do the best interviews*, but if I wasn’t married to Mark then….well, you know….)

  17. Good interview! I happen to know for a fact that Lane Smith doesn’t turn off with the Clapper. We’ve applauded for him before, and he’s still remained very much animated.

    I stumbled across Madam President recently and had the same response as PW: Thank you for just having the girl go through the day handling the challenges of commander-in-chief without her girlness being a hand-wringing factor. The handwringing factor is quite mouldy by now.

    Lane Smith, if you’re reading this, if you had a super-power, what would it be? We already know Mo Willems is secretly AquaMo (scroll down).

  18. Thanks again, everyone. Alvina, your comment made me laugh; I wonder if I would even qualify for a Bachelor of Awesome. Like, I wouldn’t have enough prerequisites, methinks. But you would.

    Alkelda, maybe we should insert that superpower question into Pivot, or would that be blasphemy to Bernard himself? (Or, according to that link, either Proust or Lipton could be peeved.)

    Andrea and Mark and anyone else who’s reading: Just One More Book is, hands down, THE very best picture-book-resource blog. It is a pipin’ hot plate of picture book awesomeness on a daily basis (can you tell I’m reading a John Green book right now?)…

  19. I think inserting the superpower question into Pivot would be a good idea– not blasphemy at all. Things evolve!

  20. YAY LANE SMITH! Super-creative, funny, totally rad guy! Keep the good books coming!

  21. Ummm…Andrea and Mark, you guys do the best interviews, too…

  22. […] Lane Smith (interviewed August 25), pictured here with Molly Leach, on how he got to be so awesome: “I took the usual route: […]

  23. […] folks whom I’ve previously interviewed or otherwise featured here at the blog. That includes Lane Smith, Sean Qualls, David Ezra Stein, Adam Rex, Matthew Cordell, Steve Jenkins, and more. Heaven help me, […]

  24. […] He showered me in praise and encouragement, which meant a lot to me. The books he’s created with Lane Smith are still faves of mine. Jon even saw Meno in its early stages and loved it. He deserves all the […]

  25. My favorite book was “Madam President”!

  26. […] Lane Smith diversions you ask? Read this great interview from the Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast […]

  27. […] you missed last week’s column, I weighed in on Lane Smith’s newest picture book release, Grandpa Green. I only might have said that this is only one of the […]

  28. […] Silver Medal winners, Kadir Nelson and Lane Smith, have previously visited 7-Imp — here and here, […]

  29. […] Lane Smith, Ian Falconer, {J.} Otto Seibold — and it would have to be […]

  30. […] in as a surprise for readers (not pictured in this post)—I’ll point out the smart thing Lane Smith said about this book. (It’s not like we chatted about it, but he provides a back-of-the-book […]

  31. […] better artists understood and embraced that vital, rebellious spirit of the Krauss-Sendak books: Lane Smith, Laurie Keller, Kevin […]

  32. […] other than the very funny sequel to Lulu and the Brontosaurus, which is called Lulu Walks the Dogs. Lane Smith will also share some artwork from the […]

  33. […] rest of the Q&A is here — and it includes Lane Smith’s wonderful illustration of Fleischman from the new Lulu book. (Next week here at 7-Imp, I’ll […]

  34. […] morning, I follow up here at 7-Imp with some art and sketches from the great Lane Smith, who illustrated both Lulu books. At the Q&A, here’s what Judith had to say about Lane: […]

  35. […] More on design by Jon Sciezska w/ Molly Leach and Lane Smith: “Design Matters” (The Horn Book Magazine March/April 1998). And do check out: 7 Impossible Things…” 7 Questions over Breakfast w/ Lane Smith” […]

  36. […] Lane Smith, Daniel Pinkwater, and Oliver […]

  37. […] One of my favorite picture books of 2016 thus far is Lane Smith’s There Is a Tribe of Kids (Roaring Brook, May 2016). I’ve got a review of it over at BookPage. […]

  38. […] Lane Smith and Jon Scieszka really inspired me with The Stinky Cheese Man, which is still so hilarious to me. […]

  39. […] lucky enough to meet. (So I can leave out Jon Klassen, Laurie Keller, Loren Long, Carson Ellis, Lane Smith, Jillian Tamaki, Ted and Betsy Lewin, among many others.) But even still, this is crazy hard to […]

  40. […] 2017), Marie-Louise Gay’s Short Stories for Little Monsters (Groundwood, March 2017), and Lane Smith’s A Perfect Day (Roaring Brook, March 2017). I’m following up with art from each book today, […]

  41. […] going to love this,” she said. It was The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip by George Saunders and Lane Smith. And she was right. I had goose bumps up and down my spine as I read it for the first time. I read […]

  42. […] And what about the characters? Well, they exaggerated and very outspoken, both in text and images. There’s a red hen who is constantly unsatisfied and nagging and a truly crazy-looking ugly duckling, just to mention a few. Created by an acknowledged illustrator Lane Smith, the characters show a range of strong emotions from fearful to angry, disappointed, greedy and surprised. It’s very interesting to observe how Lane Smith has translated these feelings into the illustrations using a variety of techniques from painting to collage. And here’s a fun fact: Lane Smith and the book’s designer Molly Leach are actually a couple, who have collaborated on many of the books written by Jon Scieszka. Quite a super trio, I would say! When asked about their working process, Lane answered: “Jon writes a story, gives it to me, I work out the art, give it to Molly, she works out the type then we all get together and tweak stuff. Then we turn it in.” (Quote from http://www. […]

  43. […] and Richard Scarry, and later, she became excited about Edward Gorey, Barry Moser, Jon Scieszka/Lane Smith, or the Brothers […]

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