The Daily Heller: Lane Smith Sticks to a Natural Theme

Posted inThe Daily Heller

Artist/author Lane Smith has a stickler’s passion for wit and humor, which is evident in the art of the more than 50 books he has published in little more than 30 years. He is duly recognized for it, too, as the recipient of the Kate Greenaway Medal, two Caldecotts, five New York Times Best Illustrated Book selections, and lifetime achievements from the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art and the Society of Illustrators. Partnering with his wife, renowned book designer Molly Leach, Smith has become a legend in the children’s literature world whose art graces animated film, music albums and magazines.

His work with Jon Scieszka for The Stinky Cheese Man (which just celebrated its 30th anniversary) was a groundbreaking achievement for its story, art and the innovative typographic work by Leach, who has designed all of his books since. A 2002 Publishers Weekly article titled “A New Day for Design” proclaimed that “Leach opened the door in a lot of ways. When we saw The Stinky Cheese Man, designers said, ‘This is what we want to do, too!’—and that it worked and sold made that possible.”

Smith and Leach will be adding another column to their hallowed pantheon when Stickler Loves the World is published at the end of next month. I am happy to give a preview of Smith’s Stickler with this interview about how and why he is a stickler for books for the child in all of us.

Lane, you’ve given life to so many fantastical characters, most all with human traits. Where did Stickler come from? And why?
Thanks, Steve. Before we start, I don’t know if you recall but you interviewed me way back in … 1984? It was a golden (silver, maybe) age of illustration. I was new to New York, having followed several of my ArtCenter classmates (Matt Mahurin, Greg Spalenka, among others) from California. I was hands-down the least skilled of the bunch, but having you, Steven Heller, take an interest in my work gave me the confidence and vindication I needed to make a serious go of freelance illustration. So, a belated and sincere thanks for helping me launch what has been a great job for nearly 40 years.

OK, Stickler. I published a book in 2022 called A Gift for Nana. My mom, my best friend and biggest supporter, had recently died. She was, and still is, on my mind always and that story just poured out of me. It was about her. But because it was a children’s book I turned her into a rabbit. In it, Nana Rabbit’s grandson goes on a quest to find her a gift and along the way he gets gift suggestions from a volcano, the moon, a big fish and, in a weird forest, a weird stick creature: Stickler. Stickler suggests a gift of a stick to the little rabbit grandson. It was only one page in the book. But I wanted to know more about that creature so I wrote Stickler Loves the World

There is a quality to Stickler that I’ve seen in certain Polish posters. Am I wrong, or has that genre been influential?
Hmm … starting out I was influenced by European illustrators like Andre Francois and Americans like Sendak and Gorey, and I was looking at and absorbing everything, so I am sure Polish poster art figured into my diet, but I can’t say it had a direct influence on me in the way that William Steig did or the Provensens. I do know I loved Polish animation. And Czech and Russian animation. And I was most definitely influenced by Jan Svankmajer, Jiri Trnka, Jan Lenica, Starevich … those guys. Stickler could easily be a stop motion puppet from one of their films.

I like the idea of unconventional-looking characters who are lovable. The book begins in a scary, foggy forest. The fog clears and most of the scary shapes are revealed as perfectly normal explainable things, but Stickler remains an unexplainable odd-looking creature. You wonder, what’s up with this guy? Then you turn the page and realize Stickler’s not a monster but a goofball. And you see Stickler running around proclaiming its love of everything in its world.

As I read Stickler Loves the World, I am seduced to love it too. I think the most fascinating love interests from an artistic point of view are the rocks. What influenced you to select the “things” themselves?
During the pandemic I painted large oils on canvas. Some six-feet tall. I used cold wax and even mixed dirt into the paint. (I stole the dirt technique from Dubuffet, one of my favorite painters.) I got some pretty interesting textures. Some looked like the surface of stone or weathered walls. A lot of those techniques found their way into the Stickler illustrations. Especially that Rocks spread.

Story-wise, the idea for the “things” in the book came from my daily walks with our dog Jojo and our cat Lulu. Molly and I live in rural Connecticut. Every morning I walk the pets around and, I guess, being a visual person, I am amazed by all the weird stuff in nature. I say out loud, “Jojo, look at the bark on this tree! It is so strange and beautiful!” Or, “Lulu, the clouds today, look at the shapes. Lulu, can you imagine an alien from another planet seeing all of this for the first time?” To anyone listening in I would sound like a nut. And Lulu and Jojo are not moved by any of this. Still, I continue to do it. Just like Stickler in the book.

(OK, I admit even when I have no pets with me I still talk out loud to no one.)

It is hard to separate one spread as the most powerful, since they are each a tour de force, but I have an affinity for the “sun.” What are your favorites?
Thanks, Steve! I like that image too. Now that you have singled that one out, looking at it, it looks a little like an editorial illustration from back in the 1990s, doesn’t it? Actually, I’ve never thought about this before, but my books owe a lot to my years as a magazine illustrator. If you look at something like The Stinky Cheese Man, what Molly and I did there with my images and her type all comes from the world of magazines.

Besides the sunrise spread, I like the spread about the wind. I like the mood of the image and I like the way Molly’s type moves on the page, as if being blown around.

Another image I like is the one where Stickler is commenting on the “space alien’s” three eyes. I like the textures on that illustration. I like the tree leaves. That picture has a nice feel to me.

There is a visual difference in this book than in others; what drives the decision to create the look, feel and texture of your work?
With my last few books I was experimenting with different media: watercolor, pen and ink, pencils, etc. But I wanted to get back to the look of my earlier painterly books. I was feeling nostalgic, maybe. A Gift for Nana and Stickler Loves the World have a similar vibe to older oil-painted books I’ve illustrated like Halloween ABC or James and the Giant Peach or The True Story of the Three Little Pigs.

Your books are always typographically exciting to match the voice of your writing and personality of the speakers. Molly does such a splendid job. How do you two work together?
I have been lucky to work with Molly on nearly all of my books. Due to the textural experimentation I do on them, some books look different illustration-wise from the others, but typographically Molly is very consistent, so in spite of the illustration style, our books always end up looking like “our books.”

Our collaboration is a back-and-forth one. I make a book dummy. From that stage onward, she is telling me where she wants to put the type. Sometimes I adapt the art to fit her vision and sometimes she’ll make a little concession to me. We go back and forth until the book is done. Some of my books I like a lot and some I wish could have been better but ALL of them share a great design that sets them apart from most other kids’ books. That’s all Molly.

Your books are classified as being for children (and the parents who read to them). Did you purposely make this a book for both to enjoy?
With Stickler it just turned out that way. Most of the time I make books for kids who are like I was when I was young. Kids who like stuff that’s a little stylized and a little odd. Usually my books are not for a broad audience. This one turned out really joyful and optimistic and kids and grownups both seem to like it equally.

Personally, as I get older, I seem to lose or misplace my “love for the world” (except when I’m in Northern Connecticut, in the late spring and fall). Your book brings some of that back. Can you even explain how that magic is accomplished?
Molly and I keep an apartment in NYC, but like you, we enjoy the seasons of Northern Connecticut, where we spend the majority of our time. It is a continual source of inspiration.  

What’s next for you?
I mentioned Dubuffet before, and I have been playing around with a story that would work really well with Dubuffet-like abstract portraits of kids. I envision the spreads as full-bleed close-up faces on one page and nothing but Molly’s minimal type on the opposite page.