Talking to Lane Smith on the phone is pretty much the way you imagine it would be. "Hold on a minute," he says, and you hear a commotion. A door opens, there's a brief conversation, Smith laughs, signs for a package and thanks the delivery guy.
"Tomorrow's my birthday," he explains. "Oh, it's from my mom. Maybe there's some canned goods!...
"Now, where were we?"
We were talking about how Smith's mom used to send him packages at college, boxes of canned goods and pajamas that made his roommates chuckle. And we were talking about his latest creation, a salute to old-fashioned print and paper titled, "It's a Book."
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Smith, 51, the best-selling author and illustrator of such children's books as "The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales," "The Happy Hocky Family" and "John, Paul, George & Ben," will bring his new work and his sardonic sense of humor to Wichita next week.
True to Smith's style, the new picture book is clever and cheeky. And it's already raised ire from some who question whether the book — especially a punchline at the end — is appropriate for kids.
The book features two main characters: a monkey who's trying to read, and a blogging, surfing, modern-age donkey who keeps interrupting him.
"How do you scroll down?" the donkey asks.
"I don't," answers the monkey. "I turn the page."
"Does it need a password?" asks the donkey.
"No," says the monkey. "It's a book."
The donkey is relentless.
"Can it text?"
But here's the deal: Smith doesn't call the donkey a donkey. He calls him a jackass.
And after the monkey spends the entire volume trying to explain the concept of a book, a mouse (a real one, not the computer kind) peeks out from beneath the monkey's porkpie hat and says, "It's a book, jackass."
Smith briefly considered the repercussions of that final gag. But "I thought it was hilarious," he says. "So I wanted to do it.
"And my publisher said, 'Well, it's a Lane Smith book.' So that was reassuring. At least there's been some precedent in my work."
If you listen closely, you can almost hear the giggle.
This is Lane Smith, after all, the guy who cast the Founding Fathers as mischievous kids and claims that "The Three Little Pigs" is the ultimate story of spin control. (Who says that wolf was big and bad? The press, that's who!)
Smith grew up near Tulsa, Okla., the grandson of a Baptist preacher. He remembers catching sunfish with his friend Brian and trying to cook them in his sister's Easy Bake Oven.
At art school in California, "I had this childlike sense about everything I did," he says. "Whenever we were supposed to do some heavy illustration on the bleak economy or murder, I'd do it with teddy bears or something."
Teachers and mentors called his style "European." Smith just found it a little strange, the artistic version of punk rock or Monty Python.
When he rediscovered the work of Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak and William Steig, he knew he wanted to create children's books — but not the sweet, cute, traditional kind. Most publishers didn't know what to make of "Stinky Cheese Man," a parody of traditional fairy tales and Smith's first collaboration with author Jon Scieszka, so they rejected it.
Viking opted for "a tentative run, just a few thousand copies," and the books quickly sold out. "It was strictly word-of-mouth from teachers and librarians," he said.
Since then Smith has been called edgy, sarcastic and subversive, descriptions he graciously accepts.
"I wish I could do just kind of a sweet thing. And I start out sometimes doing sweet things, but they just come off kind of goofy," he said. "Then when someone who looks like my Aunt Velma or Aunt Pauline says, 'Ooh, we didn't think that was right,' I say, 'I know, I'm sorry.' "
Smith addressed the latest controversy on his blog, writing, "I'd be remiss if I didn't briefly touch upon the jackass in children's literature."
He shares excerpts from William Steig's "Shrek," Walt Disney's "Pinocchio" and a 19th century Aesop's fable, "An Ass, an Ape and a Mole," all of which feature the questionable word.
"It's a real word. It's the name of a male donkey, and it's been used a number of times in books before," he said.
"If you think your kid's going to run around calling people jackasses, I guess yeah, you have to be careful about that," he said. "But I would say, give it to the same kids who liked my previous books — and their parents."
OK, but... back up. Lane Smith has a blog? That seems incongruous, given the anti-technology theme of "It's a Book."
"I suppose the natural inclination would be that I'm laying down some big message here," he said. "But I just thought it was funny.
"I'm a book guy and a computer guy. ... I would love to eventually design something for the iPad that would be really innovative, something that's not really a movie and not a book, but in between. It's got huge possibilities."
Smith loves his iPhone and iPod. He works in Photoshop. He's more impressed than annoyed when he sees young children on cell phones and laptops. He's not slamming technology, he says. He just doesn't want kids to miss out.
"I love books. I love lining them up on my shelf and looking at them and turning pages and feeling the heavyweight stock," he said. "They're still my favorite thing."