We interviewed Lane Smith, award-winning children's book illustrator and author. In 2017 Smith was awarded the Kate Greenaway Medal for There Was a Tribe of Kids and is a four-time winner of the annual New York Times Best Illustrated Book. Smith also received the 2014 Society of Illustrators Lifetime Achievement Award and The Eric Carle Museum named him an Honor Artist for "lifelong innovation in the field of children's picture book." Smith's Grandpa Green was awarded a 2012 Caldecott Honor Award. He has illustrated picture books by other authors as well as writing and illustrationg his own books. Smith lives and works in Connecticut.
You have said that you empathize with the quiet student in the back of the classroom. Were you that child? Did creating art provide a voice for you?
Yes, I was that student. Always in the back of the room observing and doodling. I was a late bloomer and forever afraid to speak up. In sixth grade, on the last day of school, I brought my guitar to class and played a song. My teacher said, “Why didn’t you do that on the first day?” Of course, the answer was, if I had bombed I would have never lived it down. On the last day, there was no pressure. And I killed it with my rendition of Venus. So take that Last Day of School Anxiety! I was also the guy who never raised his hand to answer a teacher’s question until everyone else answered incorrectly. Then I’d meekly raise mine and state, “I’m fairly certain a newborn kangaroo is called a joey.” Just kind of a shy kid and a late bloomer in all things.
Even now at age 58, I feel like I am just getting started in children’s books. I am doing the best writing and illustrating of my 30-year career right now. It took me a while to figure it all out.
Cover and interior pages from It's a Book, Lane Smith
On many of your books, you have worked with your wife, graphic designer Molly Leach on the book layout and design. Can you describe how that collaboration has contributed to your success?
Half of any success my books have had goes to her. It is a true collaboration, but she is so modest the only credit she ever takes is a tiny “Designed by” on the copyright page even though we all appeal to her to take a bigger credit.
When we do a book, it starts with an idea I have. Sometimes with something visual or maybe a story idea. Sometimes just a line of text. I’ll work up a book dummy and from that moment on I am constantly running stuff by her. As we get into the actual book she picks the font (always something better than I would have imagined), she designs the cover, the flaps, we talk about endpapers, etc. And while I am making the art I am sending her spreads. She might move the type from where I thought it would look best to the other side of the page and I’ll adjust my art accordingly. Sometimes I’ll say I want to make such and such image really big and she’ll work around my image. It’s very much a back and forth kind of thing. Like when we play ping pong. Except in ping pong, there is no collaboration. It is very one-sided. I always crush it.
You have used a wide variety of illustration media and techniques in your work. Do you have a favorite?
Not really. I like them all. They all employ different techniques. I guess the one commonality is that they all involve a lot of experimentation. And they all have a lot of texture. And for the most part, I like to keep it simple. Sometimes an editor will suggest I put a bunch of stuff in an illustration but for me, that’s just not as evocative as a single figure in an environment.
Where did your idea for A Tribe of Kids come from?
Sometimes how these things work is you have a bunch of ideas coming together in your brain at once. In the case of Tribe I wanted to do a book of collective nouns but I didn’t want it to be merely a list. An idea of a journey began to come together. A herd of goats is called a tribe and infant goats are called kids so I thought what if there was a lost boy, a kid, and he was trying to get back to his family, his tribe. Though never stated I did not see this as a present-day story. I saw it as a tale of survival and the very first kids. We never know if the little boy is lost from his family or if he started out a kind of solitary child on a quest to find his place. He goes through different tribes, herds, flocks, and families of animals until he finds a group of humans; kids living in this Eden-like setting wearing leafy garb and living in a big treehouse like something out of The Magic Flute. Or as some folks have said, The Jolly Green Giant. Ouch!
Visually, the book was very much influenced by British illustration: Brian Wildsmith and Raymond Briggs to name a couple . . . so I was very pleased that in London, at my Kate Greenaway Medal acceptance speech, I was able to properly acknowledge that Brit influence.
What inspires you lately — either for writing or illustration?
Nature. Animals. I lived in New York City for around 25 years. Starting around 2001 Molly and I found ourselves spending most of our time in the country. We have a little house surrounded by fox and bears and chipmunks and squirrels. Slowly my work has transitioned from imagery of buildings and cement to trees and animals. A couple of books back I made A Perfect Day about a bear and a birdfeeder. It’s my favorite book of mine. And it’s all true.
Is there a good (or bad) piece of advice you were given early in your career that was helpful to you?
I can’t think of any bad advice. But I have had many folks offering good advice and encouragement throughout my life.
Some who stand out are:
My high school art teacher, Dan Baughman at Corona High School in California. He was the first person to enlighten me about a possible career in illustration! Who knew? He even helped me put together a portfolio to submit to Art Center College of Design who then accepted me.
My agent, Steven Malk, is another. During the nineties and most of the 2000s I was at a publisher who was very supportive but wasn’t really interested in me as a writer/illustrator. During this period most of my work was illustrating for other writers. I was introduced to Steven by Jon Scieszka. I sent Steve a book I was working on. I didn’t have much faith in it because, again, I was that guy in the back of the classroom. The book was John, Paul, George & Ben. I remember Steve emailing the next day with a very thoughtful and enthusiastic letter saying he could make a deal for that book that week. I was shocked. It is no understatement to say that my career and life changed right there. I had written a few things before but all very low on the radar. From 2006 on I not only continued to collaborate with other writers but I started writing my own stuff with a renewed dedication. Without Steve I never would have written Grandpa Green, It’s a Book, A Perfect Day, There Is a Tribe of Kids, Madam President…
Finally, Molly Leach for her daily encouragement and advice. Molly keeps it real and gives me an upturned eyebrow when it’s not.
For someone aspiring to be a picture book illustrator today, how would you say your profession has changed from when you were just starting out in this field?
I think this is the best time ever for kid’s books. When I started in 1987 it was a real struggle to do anything stylized, satirical or “out there.” Now, it’s kind of a given that books not be too sugary and have a nice design and look. The majority of books I see today have real style and sophistication. Today’s young reading audience are the recipients of this early visual education. I am envious. When I was a kid, Seuss and Sendak were the exceptions, they had a high visibility, but most of what you saw, frankly, was Dick and Jane type stuff. You really had to seek out the unusual books.
Can you share with our readers any current projects you’re working on?
Molly and I did a book with an amazing text by Julie Fogliano. It’s out now: A House That Once Was. We also collaborated with Jory John on the sequel to Penguin Problems, titled Giraffe Problems. That’ll be out this fall. And we are wrapping up a book with Dave Eggers that will be out next year. It’s called Tomorrow Most Likely. And I continue to write and also paint large-scale oil paintings in my spare time. Since I am a late bloomer, these big canvases will probably be not-so-bad when I am in my nineties.
What is a favorite book from your childhood and do you still own a copy?
You know, I really didn’t own that many books when I was a kid. I had Dr. Seuss books and Big Little Books. I still have all of those. I checked books out from the library and read comic books. It was a different time when I was a kid. You didn’t see kid’s books everywhere like you do now.
My true education in the history of children’s books came as an adult when I discovered Ruth Krauss and Sendak and the Provensens and Leonard Weisgard and Gorey and Charlip, etc.
I wish, when I was a kid, I would have seen Swimmy by Leo Lionni. I know it would have been inspiring to me. As the years go on that book just elevates itself in my admiration. Not only is the art amazing and textural and restrained but the writing is some of the best picture book writing ever. It won a Caldecott Honor. It should have won the gold.