Lane Smith’s Madam President (Disney-Hyperion) concerns a girl who approaches every deed—from negotiating a dog/cat treaty to cleaning her room—as the sworn duty of the U.S. Commander in Chief. As the 2008 election approaches, Smith talks about this new picture book and his tongue-in-cheek John, Paul, George and Ben, on the childhood lives of the Founding Fathers.
Madam President jokes about contemporary U.S. politics, and John, Paul, George and Ben revises textbook history. Do you consider these books related by their American themes?
They are related in my mind, just because I love history. After I did John, Paul, George and BenI was looking for something else along the same lines. Madam President came about when I was at ALA in New Orleans in 2006, almost a year after Hurricane Katrina. Things were still a mess down there, and I got to thinking about a president and his responsibilities. It sounds heavy-handed to say, but I wondered how Jefferson or Washington would have handled the aftermath of a disaster like that. I started making some notes about a president’s responsibilities, and eventually it became more comical. That is, herroom is a disaster.
Madam President comes in a year when Americans nearly had a woman nominee on the Democratic ticket. Was Hillary Clinton’s campaign in your thoughts as you created this book?
Not at all, and in fact, I took it to my editor, Alessandra [Balzer], and she said, “We can tie this in with the 2008 election.” The marketing people were getting excited about the possibilities. But for me the book was not about campaigning or running for office, it was just about being president, in keeping with John, Paul, George and Ben. Now the book comes out in July, and it’s kind of nice that Hillary’s conceded—that’s conceded, not conceited—so she’ll still be around, but it won’t seem that we’re doing the crass thing of riding her coattails.
You mention conceitedness, and at certain moments, the girl in Madam President acts officious or false. She wipes away a crocodile tear, or she puts on a smile for a photo op with the Boy Scouts, then strides away saying, “As you were.” Are you suggesting to young readers that politicians can be insincere?
That’s funny, because when I was working at my drawing table I remember cracking myself up [with the Boy Scout moment]. Weston Woods, which is doing the animation for the library market, had to record that scene four or five times with the little girl doing the voiceover. I had to say, “Be dismissive!”, and she had a really hard time getting the tone right.
But I’ve known little kids like that who are just bossy, and they get into that imaginative zone at playtime. There may be people who read this book and think, “Oh my God, she’s delusional,” but I wanted to show someone playing it to the hilt and off in her own little world. I wasn’t necessarily making a statement about the detached, opportunistic politician, but maybe it’s there because that comes with the part.
Some (though not all) readers might expect a girl to question whether a woman could be elected president. Your heroine acts entitled to her role. Did you start from this idea of the girl being well-adapted to the office?
I thought it would be fun to do a book about a kid character who thinks she’s president. The idea to make the character female was just a whim. I would make this a girl but not make a big deal about gender—I didn’t want to go that route, didn’t want those kinds of lines in there. It could have been a boy, but I thought it would be cool to make her a girl.
And this is just the way kids are now. It’s great with Barack running, there is this new hope. I think children, unlike when I was a kid, feel like the world is before them. [Gender and race are] not that big of a barrier. Someone’s not going to say, “Oh, that’s nice, honey” [to a girl aspiring to a political office].
Plus in all the books I’ve done, and in my books with Jon Sciezska, we try never to be preachy about anything. It kind of kills the humor!
In your multimedia compositions, you appear to use sketches and precise cutouts of miniature flags, autumn leaves, or classroom décor. Your neutral backgrounds suggest retro wallpaper. Can you describe your collage technique?
Ten years ago everything was by hand, all my work was in oil paint, but the computer has been a fascinating way to free me up. When I used to do oil paintings and work with collage using found pieces of paper, I would compile them and glue them all down. Sometimes I would go too far and wreck the piece. But with the computer you can go nuts, back up, and find the perfect balance.
[Madam President] starts out with traditional pen and ink drawings of the characters. For the backgrounds, when you see clouds or trees, most of that’s painted in oil; I scan it into the computer and start building up additional surfaces. In the cabinet [a double-entendre about the President’s Cabinet and a toy chest], the pig looks handpainted in watercolor [but is digital]. For Mr. Potato Head I painted the texture by hand and scanned it in. And that’s a collaged photo of the bird, next to a soccer ball that is hand painted. It’s kind of all over the place.
I like that the book took on a midcentury furniture look, too. The crosshatched background is mostly tan pen and ink, kind of a nice rattan. Actually, my wife and I have been doing a lot of furniture shopping, and you look at so many swatches that it finds its way into the work. We just did our dining room in grass cloth!
You dedicate Madam President to your wife and official “Secretary of Design,” Molly Leach. How do you and she work together on book designs?
It’s a real collaborative back and forth. We work on the same property in two separate spaces in Connecticut, on an old sort of farm. I work in a turn-of-the-century one-room schoolhouse, and she works fifty yards away in an old carriage house. I finish some work, scan it, and email it to her—a few feet away—and she’ll drop type in and say things like, “Move your character a little to the left.” It’s kind of this back and forth all day, and eventually we’ll print it out. We have a big space where we can lay out all our prints and make pencil notes.
She comes up with ideas about fonts as soon as I start to map out the book dummy, and I always find that inspiring. About halfway through I start to lose a little steam, and she’ll work on a cover that will perk me up again. On the cover of Madam President, she saw that the I in “president” falls in the middle of the page, and she said, “Why don’t we raise that I up higher than the other letters,” with Katy aspiring to be president on her tippy toes. Unlike other covers, where almost everyone has the character in a Nixon pose (Duck for President was the first, and a bunch of others after that were similar), this one is more elegant and classy, almost like an invitation you receive for a White House dinner.
What’s next? Do you have a third American-themed book up your sleeve?
The next book is called The Big Elephant in the Room, and it’s about two characters who have a problem. It was pointed out to me that the two lead characters are donkeys, but it has nothing to do with politics!
Madam President by Lane Smith. Disney-Hyperion, $16.99,978-1-4231-0846-9 ages 4-8