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September 9, 2010

Security Blanket: Lane Smith

This post is basically an appreciation, since I suspect not too many parents these days are unaware of the Lane Smith oeuvre. Even I, trying desperately before we had kids to remain as ignorant as possible about them, had heard about The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, illustrator Smith's and writer Jon Scieszka's groundbreaking deconstruction of classic fairy tales. I also knew Smith's work from another of his collaborations, this one with George Saunders: the irresistibly wonderful The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, the incredible art for which (see the example here) managed to attracted my wife's attention and interest years before children were in the picture.

So as we embarked on parenthood, we already had more than an inkling that we'd have a family favorite here. But adult appreciation is one thing; bedtime reading quite another. With our first round of Dash's board books, we quickly learned that tedium was a serious threat, first tows, and eventually even to Dash.

Like many parents before us, we turned to the classics to solve this problem—Seuss, Sendak, Silverstein. (They didn't all start with s, I'm certain, but those were the first three names that came to mind. And Smith does too! Freaky.) Before long, we turned to Lane Smith, too, especially since Dash also took to his smart, offbeat humor right away. (Genes or environment? You decide.) Frip was a little wordy for him back then, so we started with Stinky Cheese Man, as well as a Smith solo effort we like even more, if that's possible: Pinocchio, the Boy: Incognito in Collodi. He grounds his version of the classic in his usual wisecracking, modern sensibility, in this case via a little girl who notices all the strange things this poor boy is doing (trying to talk to a cricket, going to dance on a marionette stage). Yet the story still retains the charm and even the beauty of the original.

The super-clever humor would be enough to make an illustrator great, but there's a lot more to Smith as well. He's an imaginative master, both in the structures he devises to tell stories (a storyboard-style spread in the Pinocchio book to get the reader up to speed at the start, for instance) and in his amazingly atmospheric, one-of-a-kind art itself. (The word collage always comes to mind, and then immediately seems insufficient.) There's no question in my mind that familiarity with Smith's books has broadened Dash's view of the ways one can approach storytelling. Heck, they've certainly broadened mine.

We've since made our way through several more of his books, with his typically irreverent take on the history of the American Revolution, John, Paul, George, & Ben, a particular favorite of Dash's. (The title refers to Hancock, Revere, Washington, and Franklin, and Smith's angle is that the very characteristics that made each man a bit annoying as a child—Revere's penchant for yelling, say—ended up serving American history quite well.) And to this day, I'm never more pleased, or more eager to get started, at bedtime reading than when Dash chooses a Lane Smith book. Which, happily, he does quite often.

[Photos: Whitney Webster]

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