Out of literally hundreds of newly released picture books that I read in 2011, my favorite of the year was "Grandpa Green" by Lane Smith. Clearly it was a favorite for many because it received a Caldecott Honor, announced in January and presented in ceremony just last week. The kids and I are delighted that Lane Smith set aside some time to have a conversation with us about his latest achievement! Author and illustrator of many books, Mr. Smith is probably best known for "The Stinky Cheese Man" (also a Caldecott recipient) which he made with Jon Scieszka. Another family favorite is "The Happy Hocky Family" which the kiddos reviewed a couple years ago. Thanks so much to Mr. Smith for the fun conversation!
(Portrait provided by Gracie)
(Portrait provided by Gracie)
We'll start with a Bookie Woogie review of Grandpa Green:
Gracie (age 11): A little boy and a bunch of trees.
Dad: But what do you find if you look closer?
Isaac (age 13): The grandpa's life story.
Dad: And if you look even closer, what do you discover?
Gracie: Symbolism. I think the book is about time passing and about memories.
Isaac: It's a deep story. Very deep.
Gracie: And it's gorgeous. It has really amazing artwork.
Isaac: The art tells more of the story than the words do. The words alone might be boring without the pictures. But the art turns the story into something awesome.
Gracie: The book is about this nice old guy who keeps forgetting things. But he starts telling his life story through his garden.
Lily (age 9): He had a big life. The grandpa put his story into all the bushes that he carved.
Gracie: And the little boy gets to run through the garden and figure the story out.
Lily: He shows his life through leaves... A lovely life through leaves.
Isaac: That's why there is an elephant on the cover. Because an elephant never forgets.
Gracie: And the garden doesn't forget either.
Dad: How did the story make you feel?
Gracie: Like old people are freaking awesome.
Isaac: The art in "Grandpa Green" is very different than in Lane Smith's other books. I didn't even know this book was by the same dude at first. His older books look bold and solid with lots of shading. This book is more open and spaced out with lots of spots left white.
Gracie: (flipping through the book) I LOVE this picture. I love that tree.
Lily: It's the best climbing tree ever.
Gracie: No two trees in this book are alike.
Lily: Some are loose and hangy.
Gracie: But I love this tree. It's all old and you can see the roots sticking up out of the ground. It's so detailed. The branches are all twisty.
Lily: They go every-which-way.
Gracie: It makes me want to jump into the book and make a tree house. It's the perfect tree for a tree house! It's the world's best climbing tree, freaking-ever!
And now a Bookie Woogie conversation with Lane Smith:
Lane Smith: Well hey!
Gracie: Congratulations on winning your Caldecott Honor!
Lane Smith: Yeah, that was cool! They gave me one 20 years ago for "The Stinky Cheese Man," so I figure if they just give me one every 20 years I'll be happy.
Kids: Ha ha ha hee ha!
Gracie: Were you really excited when you got the phone call and found out you'd won?
Lane Smith: Actually when they called I wasn't there. I was outside playing with my two cats, Noodle and Pretzel.
Gracie: Noodle and Pretzel!
Lane Smith: Then I remembered it was announcement day, so I went into my office and found the voicemail saying that I'd won and had missed their call. So I had to call them back and admit that I wasn't waiting breathlessly by the phone.
Dad: And you attended the Caldecott award ceremony just last week, right?
Lane Smith: Yeah. This year it was held in Anaheim, and 35 years ago I used to work in Anaheim - I was a janitor at Disneyland.
Lane Smith: I used to walk around with my pan and broom and sweep up popcorn outside It's a Small World. I remember seeing those topiaries in front of the ride, studying how they were made and how they grew. Who would think that 35 years later I'd do a book called "Grandpa Green" about topiaries and that when they gave me the award, I'd be back in Disneyland Country picking it up. That was kind of fun.
Gracie: When you win a Caldecott, do they give you an actual medal? Or a certificate? Or do they just give you stickers on your book?
Lane Smith: You get a sticker on your book, which is very cool. But also, on award night the gold medal winner gets a big gold medal. Then the Honor winners get a shiny plaque with a silver sticker on it. But the plaque is pretty cool. And you also get free cake and free chicken and all kinds of good stuff. Ha ha...
Isaac: Where are you going to keep your plaque?
Lane Smith: The first plaque I won for "The Stinky Cheese Man" I gave to my mom. And the new one I got for "Grandpa Green" I gave to my wife Molly who does all the typography on my books with me. She has a separate office near mine, so I gave her the plaque.
Lily: How do you work on the books with your wife... Do you sit right next to each other, or do you send each other stuff?
Lane Smith: When we lived in New York City, we had our little desks side by side. But I think my music was driving her crazy. So when we bought a new house in Connecticut, she made sure I had a whole separate building to work in. Ha ha ha...
Dad: She likes it quiet?
Lane Smith: No... She doesn't like it quiet... She just doesn't like my music!
Kids: Ha ha ha hah...
Lane Smith: If I'm working on a book about sailors, I like to play old sea chanteys. And if I'm working on a book about the West, I like to play old cowboy music. It drives her a little nuts. But in her office she has a t.v. with the Food Network playing all day long, and that drives me crazy.
Dad: That might be good accompaniment for Stinky Cheese Man paintings.
Lane Smith: Right, programs about cheese and olives and bacon. Well, I now work in a 100 year old schoolhouse...
Isaac: That's pretty cool.
Lane Smith: And she works in another building a field away. Each day we email our work back and forth. Then at some point I call her up and say, "Hey, let's go to lunch." Ha ha... That's when we get together.
Isaac: When you were working on "Grandpa Green," did it feel different -- were you thinking it could win an award?
Lane Smith: No, I really didn't. You never know which books will catch on and which ones won't. You just have to keep on doing them. I got lucky with one. Woo hoo!
Dad: Hopefully with many more to come!
Lane Smith: It was a nice surprise to win an award. Those committees have 15 different judges that have to agree on your book. My work is always so weird, I just figure it's never going to win anything. I love the Caldecotts, and I love the books that get picked every year, but I just figure those aren't the kind of books that I do.
Gracie: We noticed that Grandpa Green is different from your other books. It is deeper and more serious.
Lane Smith: Yeah, it was more serious than my other goofy books. So I suppose it had that in it's favor.
Gracie: What inspired that change? Why did you decide to do a book like this?
Lane Smith: Hmmm, I don't really know where that came from. I'm getting older now... so maybe I was thinking more seriously about life. About one life. About putting a whole life into one book. How could I do that symbolically? Instead of literally showing a picture of a little boy and then a picture of a teenager and then a man, I thought it would be interesting to show it all through trees and plants. Visually it's more interesting.
Isaac: So the grandpa's life was the starting point for the book and not the trees?
Lane Smith: Well, it was probably a combination. From the visual standpoint, I've always wanted to do something with topiaries. And I've always wanted to try a book with one color throughout, so I wanted to keep the palette all green.
Gracie: We loved that.
Lane Smith: It was an interesting challenge. Because I also wanted to keep the boy in simple, uncolored outlines. But in order to achieve that, I could never put him in front of a bush or he would look like a white ghost. I always had to figure out a way to leave a white space open on the page for the boy so I could draw him in an outline.
Isaac: That's cool...
Dad: We'll look for that when we read it now!
Lily: If you could trim your own real hedge, what shape would you make it?
Lane Smith: When we moved to the country and got a big backyard, I always thought I was going to make a giant Stinky Cheese Man topiary. But I never got around to it.
Isaac: That would be awesome!
Gracie: Hee hee hee!
Isaac: Does the Stinky Cheese Man stalk you everywhere you go? Do you enjoy that he's still so popular, or does it start getting annoying that he always keeps coming up?
Lane Smith: You can't get away from stinky cheese... it stinks too bad. No, it's really an honor to have done a book that is over 20 years old, is still in print, and people still know about it. I'm happy.
Isaac: That's good.
Lane Smith: When you meet people for the first time, they'll say, "Well, what do you do." And - you probably get this, Aaron - you say, "I do kids books." And they'll say, "Do I know any of them? Name some!" And I'll start naming them... "Never heard of it. Never heard of it. Never heard of it." But if I say "Stinky Cheese Man," most of them will say, "Oh, I know that one!"
Gracie: That happens to Daddy with "The Hiccupotamus."
Dad: Ha ha, Oh, I wish...
Lane Smith: Yeah! Everyone knows that book, come on!
Dad: Yesterday when we were preparing for this interview, I gathered up all your books that we have in the house. The kids and I were about to go over "The Stinky Cheese Man" again, and my wife came over from the other side of the room. She knows about the book, but had never read it. She said, in sort of a challenge, "Okay, I'm going to listen to this one and see if it's worthy of all the hype it gets."
Gracie: She started cracking up when we were reading "The Stinky Cheese Man." My Mom was laughing her head off.
Lane Smith: Oh, that's good that it still holds up!
Dad: So she's a fan of that one now too.
Gracie: My Mom also says she has a great amount of respect for anyone who can think up something as awesome as "The Happy Hocky Family."
Lane Smith: Excellent! That's one of my favorites!
Gracie: We love "The Happy Hocky Family!"
Lane Smith: When I do a book signing, if there are 100 people in the line then maybe one out of that hundred will be a Happy Hocky fan. But it's always the weirdest person in the line. Which I like!
Dad: Ha ha ha --We're in good company then. That's definitely our "family favorite."
Gracie: We have 14 of your books, and we noticed that 7 of them you made with Jon Scieszka, and 7 you made by yourself. Half and Half. What is the best part about working on books with other authors, and what is the best part about working on books by yourself?
Lane Smith: When you read another author's manuscript for the first time, it's already a fully formed story. So you can already start thinking about what style and shapes and colors you'd use. It's fun to illustrate someone else's words... but you are interpreting their vision. When you write your own work, it's 100% yourself. The themes are more personal. And it's more exciting because you are the writer, the director, the set designer, the actor, the producer. That's the most rewarding. When I work with other writers, I like the ones that have the same sense of humor as I do. Jon definitely has that.
Gracie: Speaking of Jon Scieszka and collaborations... we thought of some other partnerships we know. For each pair, we want you to tell us which one is you and which one is Jon Scieszka.
Lane Smith: Okay...
Isaac: Rocky and Bullwinkle.
Lane Smith: Ah, ha ha! Jon would be Bullwinkle. I would be Rocky -- I think he was a little smarter than Bullwinkle even though he was shorter.
Gracie: Peanut Butter and Jelly.
Lane Smith: Oh, that's a good one. I would be peanut butter. I don't even think Jon likes peanut butter. But I have to have it every day. I would be peanut butter. And I would be smooth... Jif... peanut butter.
Dad: Absolutely! That's the only real peanut butter there is, right?
Lane Smith: You don't want that chunky Peter Pan! No way.
Gracie: Next one... Legolas and Gimli.
Lane Smith: Who???
Gracie: From Lord of the Rings?
Lane Smith: I never read those books! In highschool, all the nerdy guys were reading Lord of the Rings and I thought I was too cool for that. Of course they thought I was a nerd because I was reading Spiderman. I'll have to pass on that one...
Isaac: Calvin and Hobbes.
Lane Smith: That's a tough one too. I was always more of a Peanuts fan.
Gracie: Gasp -- I LOVE PEANUTS!!!
Lane Smith: Excellent! They were a big influence on my work.
Gracie: So I'm going to change the pair: Snoopy and Woodstock.
Lane Smith: Excellent. I want to be Snoopy. He had the best imagination, pretending to be the Red Barron... Jon can be Woodstock with the word balloon over his head full of "dit dit dit dit dit..."
Lily: Are you Lucy or Ricky?
Lane Smith: Ha ha! Lucy or Ricky? Is that what you asked? I would be Ricky Ricardo. But Jon wouldn't be Lucy, he'd be Fred Mertz.
Dad: And your reason.... Is it hairlines?
Lane Smith: Ha ha ha hah ha... No, he's the obnoxious neighbor coming over to bug me. Ha ha ha...
Gracie: Here's the last one...
Lily: Pooh and Tigger.
Lane Smith: Ha ha hah! I'm going to say I would be Tigger. And Jon would be Poo' - for obvious reasons.
Kids: HAH ha ha hah ha haaa ha haaa!
Dad: Well, thanks so much for talking with us! And again, congratulations on your win.
Gracie: You totally deserved it. I love your "Grandpa Green" book.
Lane Smith: Well thank-you. I'll be looking for all of your books when you kids start publishing your own. It was great talking with you guys. Hey, where are you guys calling from?
Dad: We're in Michigan.
Lane Smith: Excellent. That's the land of Scieszka.
Dad: Yep... He grew up here.
Gracie: I didn't know that.
Lane Smith: And Laurie Keller is there, right?
Dad: Yes. Not far from us. We run into her every once in a while.
Lane Smith: She does good work. The next time you see her, give her a doughnut from me.
Dad: We actually went to her house once and she served us doughnuts. It was the coolest thing ever.
Lane Smith: Ha! I think she has a doughnut factory hidden on her property.
Gracie: If we visit you, will you give us stinky cheese?
Lane Smith: Yeah, if you guys come visit me, I will personally give each of you a big chunk of stinky cheese and make sure you eat it.
Dad: Afterward we'll trim your hedges for you.
tree, by Gracie
Published, 2011: Roaring Brook Press
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