Jory John is the author of children’s books including the Terrible Two series, co-written with Mac Barnett, and Goodnight Already!, illustrated by Benji Davies, both of which earned E.B. White Read-Aloud Honors. Lane Smith is the Caldecott Honor-winning creator of Grandpa Green, and the illustrator of picture books including Jon Scieszka’s The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs. In 2016, John and Smith teamed up for the bestselling picture book comedy Penguin Problems, about a disgruntled penguin who lists the many frustrations of life as an aquatic bird. This fall, the author and the illustrator reunite for a companion book, Giraffe Problems, in which a giraffe named Edward laments about the awkwardness of his long neck. We asked John and Smith to interview each other about their new collaboration and their creative influences.
Jory John: Lane, I always thought we should do a conversation like this. I remember, as we were road-tripping up Highway 101 to Santa Rosa, a couple years ago, to do an event at the Charles Schulz Museum, I was thinking, “We should really record a conversation for PW.” And then we didn’t. Granted, we were busy trying to stay on the road amid a torrential downpour. I guess better late than never, huh? Any fond remembrances from our road trip together?
Lane Smith: I remember you were a very good driver. I also recall how right it felt to be at the Schulz Museum with a book [Penguin Problems] that was clearly influenced by Peanuts. Your use of quiet moments and reflection surrounded by terrific one-liners was very Peanuts-y. I even got into the act with the first image of the book, a kind of homage to Snoopy on his doghouse: a penguin sleeping on a mound of snow.
John: Yes, I loved that! And we truly bonded over Peanuts. I’d been a fan of Charles Schulz since I could read, or probably before. In fact, there’s a photo of me hugging a Snoopy doll when I was a few days old. That’s legitimate fandom, pal. What was it about that particular comic strip that appealed to you so much? How does it play into your work?
Smith: Most of the writers and illustrators I have met over the years are solitary types. And most loved Peanuts growing up. I think the melancholy and aloneness in Peanuts must have appealed to my kid self in some way. I also connected with that very American trait of powering through the obstacles of life with humor. Jory, you have that in your books. Cyrus the turtle in Giraffe Problems has an epic double page Linus-like monologue. I love that monologue as well as the walrus’s in Penguin Problems. Both are funny and touching and, on a technical note, introduce a different rhythm to the text. You have these funny zippy lines and one-word sentences, then along comes this extended, philosophical thing. Nice.
John: Firstly, thank you. That’s some very high praise. Secondly, I love the phrase “powering through the obstacles of life with humor.” Thirdly, I really like unexpectedly changing up the rhythm of a picture book, almost like the “middle eight” of a song, where you might have a new melody. Fourthly, until you mentioned it just now, I’d somehow forgotten about Linus’s extended monologues, but I remember loving them. One of my favorite things about them is that there didn’t seem to be a huge impulse to go for the joke. He just talks for a while and you can almost sit back and let it wash over you. Everybody else is just silent.
Speaking of which, when we were emailing, early on, there were a few conversations about the role of silence in picture books. Why is silence important to you and what do you think it accomplishes?
Smith: Well, I always wish for more pages to work with. I would add lots more silent moments if I could. Beats and pauses are so important to the comedy, aren’t they? You suggested that the turtle Cyrus should have a silent “beat” after his monologue. I gave him a full page of silence. It works! No one can really explain why. It just does. It’s like a period at the end of a sentence.
Jory, I like that your stories do not have the traditional tidy ending. Where does that come from?
John: I prefer writing stories that don’t resolve in any huge way. Like life. Maybe something small has shifted—in the case of Penguin Problems, the penguin has had a moment or two where he is willing to consider that things might be OK after all, that his problems might not be so severe, that he might be overreacting a bit... but then he immediately reverts back to his old habits of complaining at the first sign of discomfort.
In the case of Giraffe Problems, it’s a bit neater of an ending than in Penguin Problems, but nothing major has changed, other than the characters’ outlook and mood on that particular day. They’ll still have their highs and their lows going forward, like all of us. So that’s usually where I’m coming from.
Hey, Lane, not to pander for compliments, but can you tell me why the manuscripts for Penguin Problems and Giraffe Problems appealed to you? When we first started emailing, back in 2014, I remember you mentioning that you’d been looking for something more deadpan than zany for a long time.
Smith: That is true. Some folks think of me as a “zany” illustrator because some of my early books illustrated texts that were Wacky with a capital W. For those, I fell back on my love of Tex Avery with outlandish facial expressions and exaggerated poses. But really, my preference of comedy has always been for the understated, like in the work of Buster Keaton, Schulz, Edward Gorey. You can see this in my Hocky Family books and It’s a Book. When I received the manuscripts of Penguin Problems and later Giraffe Problems they were gifts. Truly. The tone was perfect.
John: I’m going to print out that last paragraph and frame it. When I realized that I would be working with you—a true legend! sorry to embarrass you in print! but you are!—I truly couldn’t believe it. I was fully ready for you to take the text and do your thing with it, and maybe I’d get the occasional update on how it was all going. That would’ve been completely OK, of course. But it was the opposite. I felt like a full partner throughout the artistic process. In one email, you wrote, “If I am missing any of your intentions in the characters’ acting or beats in the gags, please let me know.”
So, why did you choose to include me so much, instead of just going off and drawing and then presenting everything, fully formed? I was so impressed and flattered that you sent me the art as you were making it, for both Penguin Problems and Giraffe Problems, letting me in on the process. Do you think that leads to better results with the final product?
Smith: I’ve always found it nuts not letting the illustrator and author speak to one another. I am not interested in taking what you’ve written and completely reinterpreting it. I want to honor your intentions with both of us on the same page. If I am not 100% sure about something, I am going to ask you directly. I appreciate that we have an editor who lets us do that. To anyone reading this it will sound crazy but a lot of times the author and illustrator don’t have the back-and-forth that we enjoy. One of the many reasons Maria Modugno is a great editor is because she has the confidence to let us do our work. A less confident editor would try to referee the process and I’ve always found this to be a hindrance. Inspiration and sparks of ideas get lost in translation and ultimately, everyone ends up with a book that’s not as good as it should be.
Jory, I have already heard from folks who love this book for read-aloud presentations. And it’s true, your dialogue is perfect for the Future Actor. When you are writing your books, I picture you walking around your house acting and talking like a giraffe or a turtle. Is this an accurate guess?
John: You nailed it. I love to get up and walk around and say the words out loud and see how they sound. Sometimes, I’ll actually speak into a voice recorder and play it back and transcribe my speeches. I really try to focus on the rhythm of a piece, along with the message. I think that’s so important, especially knowing that people are going to be reading these words out loud to children. I want them to mean something and be fun to say out loud and be funny. So yeah, I’d better say them out loud, first, and make sure they work! What a job, huh? My cats serve as a great early audience.
Lane, can you talk about your artistic process a little bit? For instance, I remember when we were doing an event at ALA in Orlando together, you mentioned to the crowd that you’d used an actual blow dryer to create some of the art for Penguin Problems. How did you get started with blow dryers, what do they add to the art, and what other unexpected tools do you use?
Smith: Ha ha. Yes. I use oil paints sprayed with a water-based varnish to create textures manipulated with a blow dryer. For Giraffe Problems I also used gesso textures with the oil paint massaged into the gesso crevices with toilet paper! Paper towels were too rough and brushes too brushy. What thrilling information for the PW readers!
John: Well, I think it’s thrilling! I mean, this is the first I’ve heard of your toilet-paper technique and I think artists who read this are certainly taking note.
Lane, the timing and the beats were really important in both of our books and I remember that we worked closely—or as close as you can get on two opposite coasts—to figure out the page breaks, the beats, the silent pages, the pacing, the font size, how to position the text for maximum comedic effect, and more. I guess this was more of a statement than a question. Thoughts?
Smith: Yes, that’s where designer Molly Leach comes in with different fonts for the characters. And wasn’t it cool that Maria suggested a vertical gatefold? That page-turn/fold-out highlighting giraffe Edward’s loooooooong neck works like a cut in a film. Giraffe Problems was a cohesive collaboration of all involved.
John: Speaking of collaboration, Lane, it’s been smooth sailing for us. Even though we’ve now done two books about problems, I’ve never really heard you complain too often. Why is that? Don’t you have problems like everybody else?
Smith: I never hear you complain either, Jory. I think I know why. We both feel blessed to work in this field, don’t we? Writing and illustrating for kids. Who could beat that? When I was a kid, I loved being sent to my room. I loved lying on the shag carpeting, Partridge Family 45s spinning on the turntable, and a Charlie Brown or Dr. Seuss book in hand. Now, every day is like being sent to my room. And I haven’t even done anything remotely naughty for years.
John: Agreed on all counts, except, of course, for the Partridge Family 45s. I think I would put on my Phil Collins cassette tapes, instead. Same books, though.
Not to end this by gushing, but I remember when I first saw a completed draft of Penguin Problems. It was everything I could’ve hoped for and more. And I had the exact same feeling, more recently, with Giraffe Problems. I was laughing out loud and even tearing up a bit as I looked it over for the very first time. It made my decade. I was thinking about sending you an e-mail where I just wrote “I LOVE IT SO MUCH!” over and over again in all caps, but I decided to be a bit more restrained in my response, instead, and later tell you in a conversation for PW.
Smith: Yes, that might have been embarrassing. At least you chose to say it here where no one will ever see it. Thanks, Jory. I TOO FEEL REALLY GOOD ABOUT THIS BOOK. And you know what? For once, I feel really good about our necks.
John: [Gazing off into the distance, like our characters in Giraffe Problems] So do I, Lane. Yes, for once, so do I.
Giraffe Problems by Jory John, illus. by Lane Smith. Random House, $17.99 Sept. 25 ISBN 978-1-5247-7203-1