The hero of Bob Shea and Lane Smith’s latest picture book, Kid Sheriff and the Terrible Toads (Roaring Book), rides (very slowly) into a town plagued by a trio of terrible criminals who kiss cattle, insult the chili, and make off with all the merch in the mercantile. They’re no match for the Kid, however, who uses his vast knowledge of dinosaur facts to outwit them and save the day. Bookshelf spoke to the pardners about their second picture book collaboration (after Big Plans in 2008) from their homes in the wilds of Connecticut.
What’s your process? Does Bob send Lane a manuscript and ask, ‘What do you think?’
Bob: Lane, do you want to take this one?
Lane: Why do I have to take the first one?
Bob: Well, because this one is a little different.
Lane: Oh, all right. Actually, even when we’re not working on a book, we’re pretty close, and whatever we’re working on, we send to each other. We share a sensibility. But ever since we did Big Plans, we’ve wanted to collaborate again and I’ve always been a big fan of westerns. Now I wouldn’t have done this with just anyone, but I asked Bob, ‘Why don’t you write a western so I can draw cacti, and cowboys, and stagecoaches, and ten-gallon hats?’
Bob: And the nice thing was, he kept it really open, which allowed me to add the dinosaurs.
Lane: What’s a western without dinosaurs?Bob: When we started this my son, Ryan, was about seven and he was really into dinosaurs. And when I say ‘really into’ what I mean is obsessed. I’d be like, ‘Ryan, here comes the bus. Do you have your shoes on?’ and his response would be, ‘Do you want to hear the sound a velociraptor makes?’ So I said to Lane, ‘Okay. We’ll do the Wild West, but we’ll add dinosaurs.’
Lane: And I was onboard with that so long as it wasn’t dinosaurs wearing hats.
Bob: And that made it funny and quirky but not really about dinosaurs. It’s really a story about crime.
Because what the world needs is more picture books about crime?
Bob and Lane: That’s right.
So then you wrote the manuscript and sent it to Lane?
Bob: The way this worked is, I would write drafts and then Lane and Molly [Leach, Lane’s wife and the book’s designer] would take a look at them. It was a really smooth collaboration, although it took a couple of drafts to find the proper rhythm and the right ending. But we were working on other things the whole time. We were actually pretty casual about the whole thing but by the time the manuscript was done, it was very tight.
Lane: And at that point, I said, ‘Let me do some sketches of Sheriff Ryan in his white suit.’
In his white suit, riding a tortoise....
Bob: That was actually the one word they made me change. I had him riding a turtle because every seven-year-old kid out there has a turtle, but Lane was like, ‘I think in the desert, it would be a tortoise.’ I had to pretend to be outraged and offended but in the end I changed it.
Lane: Well, you know there would be one librarian out there who would not be able to resist pointing out that turtles are amphibious and tortoises are land-based.
|Click for a larger version|
So you were insisting on verisimilitude?
Bob: My point exactly! I said, ‘You realize that this whole book doesn’t make any sense, right?’
Lane: To have a tortoise is really groundbreaking. It gave it a little gravitas. Plus, tortoise is a funny word.
Bob, do you read the story aloud to Ryan [his 10-year-old son] as you go? Because with all the Wild West lingo in this one, I think a lot of parents will love reading it aloud. Is that something you work on?
Bob: Not really, because I generally don’t like to put Ryan on the spot by making him listen to whatever I’m working on. You don’t know if the reaction you’re getting is based on him thinking, ‘I need to please my father.’
Lane: ‘Yeah, Dad, that was funny. Can I have a bike now?’
Bob: I want him to find his own books he loves. I do read him stuff but just not in a focus group kind of way.
Lane: Well, I read it aloud constantly. It’s like an actor’s exercise. ‘Can you handle a shooting iron? Nope. Ride a horse? Nope. Know any rope tricks? Nope.’ I’ve heard [Roaring Brook publisher] Simon [Boughton] read it aloud, too.
Bob: (mimicking Boughton’s British accent) ‘Owdy, stranger. ’Ello, ’ello, ’ello. Chim, Chim, Cher-ee, Mary Poppins, and all that. Bloody hell, I’ve got to get this western thing down pat. It’s all gone pear-shaped.’
(The ensuing back-and-forth of Lane trying to outdo Bob’s imitation of Boughton, and Bob’s explanation of what is meant by “pear-shaped,” has been edited out.)
Bob, surely Ryan likes that you named Kid Sheriff after him?
Bob: He does like that. He’s very excited about that. But he’s a little jaded now. He thinks it’s normal to have all these great books dedicated to him. I hear from his teachers, ‘He’s very proud of you. He talks about you a lot,’ which is good to know because around the house he doesn’t really acknowledge that. I think he would rather I be a professional skateboarder. He was reading about Tony Hawk and he was looking all starry-eyed and he said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if Tony Hawk was your dad?’ To which I said, ‘I bet he’s got some pretty nice sons.’
So, Lane, do you have the western thing out of your system now? You did Cowboy and Octopus, too [written by Jon Scieszka].
Lane: Well, that one didn’t allow me to stretch and do all the classic western themes because Jon wanted all the characters in the same pose on every page. His idea was that they were cutouts, which is kind of a nightmare for an illustrator. I took the brunt for that decision. ‘Looks like Lane got a little lazy with this one.’ And there was The Good, The Bad and the Goofy, one of the Time Warp Trio books, which had a western theme, so I think I’m good now. I did think about having a scene with some six-gun shooters, but I thought better of it.
A western with no guns is probably groundbreaking, too.
Lane: Yeah. Can’t have guns. In the first Happy Hocky Family book I had the dad smoking a pipe. It seemed like the perfect 1950s accessory but by the time I did the next one, I censored myself and took the pipe away.
Bob: We could have had Sheriff Ryan chewing candy tobacco.
Lane: They would have gotten on us about all that sugar.
Speaking of food, a question for both of you. Dry Gulch is described as a “cumin-scented” town. What would that be like?
Bob: Indian food.
Will your audience know what cumin is?
Bob: What we’re trying to do is expose them to world cuisine. They’ll Google it.
Lane: They’ll laugh even if they don’t get it. Same like the jokes on Rocky and Bullwinkle and Monty Python that went over my head when I was a kid. I would go around repeating lines from Monty Python but, really, I had no idea what I was saying.
How about touring? Are you two taking this show on the road?
Lane: We’re going to Austin in a couple of weeks to the Texas Book Festival. That’s the perfect locale to read a western tale.
Bob: And the publisher is doing a big contest with the grand prize being that one store will win Bob and Lane for a day. [See contest details below.]
Lane: I think we’ll do landscaping the whole day. Or painting. Light plumbing work. But we’re not licensed to do any electrical.
Bob: And I don’t do windows. Also, both of us live in communities that have great bookstores so we’ll probably do something at each of those stores – R.J. Julia and The Hickory Stick.
Do you live near each other in Connecticut?
Lane: No, we live pretty much as far away from one another as possible and still both be Nutmeggers. They designed the state so you can only get out of it, not around it: I-95 across the south and I-91 to go north. If you want to visit one of your fellow Nutmeggers, it’s tough.
Bob: Bloody hell!
Kid Sheriff and the Terrible Toads by Bob Shea, illustrated by Lane Smith. Roaring Brook, Oct. ISBN 978-1-59643-975-7
Contest info: Stores that display a Kid Sheriff-themed display for at least seven days between October 7 and November 10, 2014 are eligible to win a store appearance and school visit from Bob Shea and Lane Smith. Stores must incorporate copies of the book in the display and convey an Old West theme incorporating one of the following items: a tortoise, a dinosaur, or a sheriff’s badge. In addition to the grand prize, two runners-up will receive five signed copies of Kid Sheriff. Visit mackidsbooks.com for complete details.