After Lane Smith finished work on Grandpa Green, for which he won a 2012 Caldecott Honor, he planned to hang out on the patio and catch up on his reading. “That lasted about a week,” he admits. Instead, he started scribbling notes for a story that had been percolating for years, one that was not going to fit within the constraints of a 32-page picture book.
“The seed of this idea was a script I wrote about 15 years ago for a short film that was going to be set at an amusement part in New Jersey and star [fellow illustrator] Vladimir Radunsky,” he said. “But I only wrote about 20 pages of script.”
Because he was supposed to be taking a break, he kept the revived amusement park project a secret from his wife and collaborator, book designer Molly Leach. Finally, she noticed he was in his office more often than on the patio and asked what he was up to. “I told her I had written about 60 pages of a novel and she said, ‘WHAAAAAT?’ ”
Now Smith’s revived idea has grown into his first novel-length work for young readers, Return to Augie Hobble (Roaring Brook, May 2015). The setting is no longer New Jersey – it’s New Mexico, where Augie works at Fairy Tale Place, his family’s dilapidated amusement park located along Route 66. It’s a landscape familiar to Smith since childhood. Born in Tulsa, he moved to California at a young age, but his family returned each summer to visit relatives, stopping at different points along the 1,500-mile trip. Sure the Grand Canyon and the Painted Desert are along the route, but uniquely Southwestern attractions like the Cadillac Ranch, the Wigwam Motel, or the leaning water tower in Groom, Tex., exerted an equally strong pull on the Smiths’ vacation itinerary.
“It was nothing to drive 40 miles out of our way in order to see a really big ball of twine,” Smith said.
The hero of his novel, Augie, lives at a “cheesy roadside attraction” like the ones the Smith family sought out. A talented artist who has somehow managed to fail his Creative Arts class, Augie has to redo his final project to earn a passing grade, so his sketchbook is his constant companion. In it, he records – in text, comic strips, fake Polaroids (drawn by Smith), and black-and-white drawings – his thoughts about the loss of his best friend, the indifference of the girl he has a crush on, his torment by bullies, and... the possibly paranormal events that have him convinced he’s turning into a werewolf.
“There’s a recognizably Lane Smith sense of humor about it, a lot of laugh-out-loud moments,” said Roaring Brook publisher Simon Boughton, who published Smith’s last three picture books, and the forthcoming Kid Sheriff and the Terrible Toads. “But the story also addresses some serious life-and-death concerns, and what it takes to grow up and deal with your peers.”
Boughton says it’s not an illustrated novel or a graphic novel – its closest literary cousin may be The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. “It’s an apt comparison not because of the subject matter but because a lot of the storytelling exists in a play between words and images.”
So now that he’s almost finished with his first novel (there is some artwork to complete), has Smith penciled in another break on the patio? Probably not. “This book doesn’t end on a cliffhanger; it works as just one book,” he said. “But it can continue and I would love to do another one.”