Lane Smith and Bob Shea, Comical Collaborating Picture Book Creators

“Why are people so anxious for kids to move on from picture books?” asks Bob Shea, picture book author and illustrator. “When my son was in Kindergarten, there was a little girl in his class who was particularly impressed with me. Not because I can stay up late watching all the TV I want eating candy until I pass out (which I can totally do) but because I write picture books. She used to come to all my events in town and sit right in the front. It was very sweet.

“She was in Ryan’s first grade class, too. When a new book of mine came out, I had him bring her a copy. The next time I saw her mom she said, ‘Oh, thank you for the book! Of course Penelope (not her real name) doesn’t read picture books anymore. She reads chapter books, but thank you just the same. We’ll burn it in front of her so that she knows that world holds nothing for her now and it’s best to forget childhood ever happened.’

“Most of that is true.”

“People are quick to abandon picture books and dismiss them as ‘babyish’. This is simply not true. A well done picture book, (like every one of mine) should make your head explode with possibilities and inspiration.” – Bob Shea

Unlike Penelope and her mother, Shea has never grown out of his love for picture books and his own mother’s influence. “The older I get the more I appreciate my mother. She never forced anything on me; she just made things available. She subscribed to a service that brought new picture books to our mailbox every month. Lots and lots of Dr. Seuss, but I was a pretty huge fan of the Berenstain Bears. I remember reading Inside Outside Upside Down (Random House, 1969) by Stan and Jan Berenstain to my mother and being showered with praise. I’ve been chasing the praise dragon ever since, but it’s somehow not the same.”

The praise may not be the same today as it was from his mother, but Shea’s efforts have cultivated a dedicated fan base and some pretty flattering recognition.  Shea started out at Comedy Central then began creating characters and animations for PBS Kids and Nick Jr. before moving into the picture books space. Today, he has written and/or illustrated more than a dozen books, including a couple with two-time Caldecott Honoree Lane Smith.

“There was a turning point when I saw The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (Viking Press, 1992) by Jon Scieszka and some Lane Smith person. It was the first time I saw a kids’ book that was both funny and beautifully illustrated and designed. Around the same time, I was designing corporate newsletters for the local hospital. So you know, I didn’t want to bail on that sweet gig for something as foolhardy as happiness. It seemed to make sense at the time. Shortly after I permitted myself to give writing a go. I met Lane Smith and he casually set me up with a career.”

“Picture books are the launch pad to a lifelong love of reading. I think (and this should be regulated at the federal level) only people who like good stories should read them. Share them with kids. Always have them around. Buy multiple copies of my titles for family, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances. Demand them at the library and local bookstore. Or, just the first and second thing.” – Bob Shea

“Dude, you are hilarious!” Lane Smith interjects.

“Lane, where did you come from?” asks Shea.

“Bob, I’ve been here the whole time! I didn’t want to interrupt. Besides, you said everything I would’ve said. Except maybe the part about the Berenstain Bears. Don’t get me wrong. I like them too, but I was always more of a Munro Leaf kinda guy. In fact, the Happy Hocky Family (Puffin Books, 1996) books are a direct homage to Mun’s ‘Can be Fun’ books. In those books I wanted to do something as playful as he did, and Molly pushed it even further with her take on retro 1940s/1950s primer design.”

Smith, a multiple recipient of The New York Times Best Illustrated Book award and twice a Caldecott Honoree, is quick to give credit to his wife, Molly Leach, a book designer extraordinaire. “Molly designs all of my books, including Kid Sheriff. She always brings much more to them than I could ever envision in my little brain.”

Smith and Shea (and Molly Leach) have collaborated on Big Plans (Hyperion Press, 2008) and the newly released Kid Sheriff and the Terrible Toads (Roaring Brook Press, 2014). Both feature very, very secure kids as leads and not-soon-to-be forgotten illustrations.

“My favorite characters are overly confident and incompetent. Put them in any situation and there’s a chance for humor,” says Shea. “We’ve actually worked on the story for a long time. Lane and his wife, Molly, both have a great ear for the story so they would give me notes on what was and wasn’t working. They were always spot on. By the time the story was ready to go, it was really tight. Then Lane took the manuscript and created the artwork. It’s a joy for me, sometimes I forget he’s Lane Smith. He’s just my friend Lane. Then he sends me a sample and I think, ‘Oh, yeah, THAT Lane Smith.’”

In addition to their most recent collaborative work, Shea and Smith have new books coming out soon. “If it were up to me, Lane and I would work together exclusively. Unfortunately, he has his own ideas. I just finished the first in a series of early readers called Ballet Cat (Disney-Hyperion, 2015) about, get this, a cat who loves ballet.” “And I have a middle grade novel coming out early next year,” adds Smith. “It’s called Return to Augie Hobble (Roaring Brook Press, 2015). It’s funny and dark and somewhat autobiographical. It also has a lot of pictures.”

Both Smith and Shea welcome readers to contact them through their websites. “Or,” adds Smith, “You can reach me by leaving a message with Bob at his home phone number. I know he works hard during the day so it’s probably best to call after midnight when you’re sure to catch him.”

Our Take on eBooks

“Sometimes I wish I were a smart person,” confesses Bob Shea. “The specter of eBooks doesn’t frighten me, but I also spend my summers playing the fiddle and dancing instead of storing food for the winter. What’s more, I laugh at the folly of those who do. I’m just kidding. I can’t play the fiddle.

“Things evolve. I don’t think the eBook evolution will leave printed picture books behind. My relationship with books as a kid can’t be reproduced digitally. Books are physical, visceral things. There’s a spontaneity and immediacy that a digital device can’t match even with a retina display. (The laptop I’m using has one and it’s plenty sweet!) I can’t chew a screen, scribble on a screen, or drop a screen to the floor and have it flop to my favorite page.

“Books are perfect. Don’t get me wrong. If I saw a guy reading a physical newspaper, I’d lead a chanting crowd to derisively mock him until he cried; but actual picture books make a lot more sense than a ‘newspaper.’

“Oh man, where was I? Oh, right, eBooks. You know, I write stories. Whether the story is on the printed page or beamed into our heads by our inevitable digital overloads as a reward for obedient kowtowing is of little concern. I’ll probably be living underground in the sewers then anyway, my dance troupe and I planning an uprising.

“The difference to me is form. An eBook lacks the texture and physicality of a printed book. You lose timing of the page turn and the warmth of the page. As far as what gets me excited in picture books, simply the amount of talent out there right now. It also scares me to death. Guys like Greg Pizzoli and Zach Ohora and my nemesis Jon Klassen are eating my lunch. At least it’s fun to watch.”

“I’m a fan of books in any format,” says Lane Smith. “It’s all good. But personally? I can’t read eBooks. I’ve tried. I have lots downloaded onto my iPad, but I always end up buying the real book. Maybe it’s a generational thing. I’m old.”

Karen Cushman