When the picture book The True Story of the Three Little Pigs (Viking), which offers the wolf’s version of the familiar nursery story, hit shelves in 1989, pretty much everything about it broke the mold – the way it sounded, the way it looked, and even the collaboration between its creators, author Jon Scieszka and illustrator Lane Smith.
“I love telling the story to kids, and adults, too, when they think there is some magical secret to getting published,” Scieszka says about looking back on how True Story came to be. “I was painting apartments and working on my M.F.A. at Columbia,” he recalls, “and I was sending out short, funny fiction for adults to magazines like Esquire and the New Yorker. Of course, nobody wanted it.” He then landed a job teaching elementary school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “Because a pre-med undergrad degree and a writing M.F.A. are the perfect qualifications for a first grade assistant!” he jokes. He taught at the school for 10 years and it was in a second-grade classroom there, he says, that “I found my true audience. Second graders will completely suspend disbelief. I could tell them a Kafka story and they would say ‘Wow! That could really happen!’ The light bulb finally went off and I knew it was all about the storytelling.”
Scieszka took a year off from teaching “just to write stuff,” he says. “There’s never a good time to do something like that, but my wife had a real job – as art director for two magazines – and we would be OK.” A friend let him use some empty office space in a law firm, and Scieszka commuted every day, knocking out the bulk of what would eventually become True Story and a later book, The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales. But nobody nibbled when he began looking for a publisher. “I got rejected everywhere,” he notes. “Some letters offered encouragement and others said, ‘Please don’t send to us again.’ I was getting depressed.” The main criticism of those early submissions, Scieszka says, was “too sophisticated.”
Back at home, Scieszka’s wife had a bit of news that proved serendipitous. “She said, ‘My assistant, Molly Leach, is dating this guy and he’s kind of funny and he’s doing some illustrations – and he loves children’s books.’ I thought, ‘oh great...’ ” Scieszka says. “But I went ahead and sent him a bunch of stuff and he just cracked up.” As True Story fans well know, that guy was illustrator Lane Smith. “Molly told me that her art director said, ‘My husband is a teacher but really wants to get into kids’ books and he has a manuscript,’ ” Smith recalls. “I thought, ‘Oh great. Everyone thinks they can write a children’s book.’ ”
Before long the two couples got together. “We hung out a little bit, and I thought, he’s a likeable fella and he’d probably be pretty easy to work with,” says Smith. “I liked him and I liked the [True Story] story.” As Scieszka remembers it, “We were a perfect match, in terms of our sensibilities and humor.”
But rather than sending out the work cold again, Smith had a different strategy. He had just begun his book career and had already had a couple of titles published. He suggested putting True Story into dummy form so that he could take it around to publishers and they could see it in person. But the stream of rejections continued. “I took it to my publisher, Macmillan, and they turned it down,” he says. “Then, I think Harper was next, and they passed. And then others passed. Some editors liked it but were a little confused and not sure if there was a market for it. Back at that time, children’s books were either serious, earnest books, or really funny books. But the sense of parody and irony that is rampant now didn’t really exist then.”
Scieszka says, “Together, we got exactly the same criticism as I had gotten on my own: ‘too dark, too sophisticated,’ ‘there’s nothing like it out there.’ We just wanted to make the coolest, funniest book we could.”
Just when things were looking bleak, Smith brought the dummy to an appointment with Regina Hayes, then publisher of children’s books at Viking. “She sat at her desk and read it and she was the first one to laugh out loud,” Smith says. “I thought, ‘We have a live one here!’ I just about fell out of my chair when she said, ‘Yes, I think we can publish this book.’ This was pre-cell phone, so I ran down to the lobby and called Jon from a pay phone.” Hayes’s quick decision was a bold one in Scieszka’s view. “It was gutsy of her. She read it right there and said, ‘It’s kind of funny and it goes together.’ I’m sure she was terrified.”
Recalling that first connection with Hayes reminds Smith of a related anecdote. “Another cool thing to come out of that meeting was that James Marshall [one of Hayes’s authors] saw the True Story dummy in Regina’s office. He called me and said, ‘I saw your wonderful dummy.’ Then the James Marshall asked if I would like to go to lunch!” Smith and Marshall made a date and “he welcomed me to the field,” Smith says. “He saw something unique in the art and gave me a few pointers. It was a sweet gesture.”
Once True Story was officially under contract, and Hayes asked for a few small changes in the dummy, Scieszka says that he, Smith, and Molly Leach worked on the design together. “That’s why it looks so distinctive,” he notes. “With the three of us in a room there was lots of give and take. We didn’t know that most authors didn’t speak with illustrators.” He praises Hayes for “protecting” him and Smith as the book went through lots of the business and marketing processes. “I understand that publishing is both art and commerce,” he says. “But it takes vigilance to fight the fight and put the artistic project over the easy sales. Every little detail that Lane put in, the little gags on each page, we fought for that. We made every bit of it the funniest that we could from the introduction to the author’s note. It’s worth reminding people that in 1989 humor was seen as the second cousin to real literature. Now there’s a new generation of funny guys – like Mac Barnett, Jon Klassen, Oliver Jeffers, Adam Rex – doing great stuff.”
On the art side, Smith notes, “Jon and I were tickled with what they let us get away with. It was Molly’s first entrée into this world and she did the cover. We wanted a crazy upside-down page inside. I wanted the cover to look like an old newspaper, so Molly had to order press type to put on my oil paintings. At the time, you would go into a store or library and True Story didn’t really look like the other books, because it looked like a magazine. The art directors kind of yelled at her, “Molly, this isn’t a magazine!’ ”
Though in Hayes they had an editor championing their project, Smith says, “I’m not sure whose decision it was, but Viking put the book out very tentatively. They weren’t convinced of anything and did a small [print] run that immediately sold out. It was all word-of-mouth from teachers, librarians and booksellers. They didn’t run ads or do a publicity push. Finally by the fourth or fifth printing the runs were more like 50,000.”
Reaction to the book as its popularity grew was overwhelmingly positive. “That’s the great thing I remember,” Scieszka says. “Every person we met was so effusive about how funny the book was. Librarians and teachers instantly latched onto it and told us they were using it in their lessons to teach about unreliable narrators, point-of-view, and all kinds of things.”
Smith recalls one of the duo’s first conference appearances after the book was published. “It was an ALA or BEA and I remember being shocked that the line went all the way through the convention center,” he says. “It was like Beatlemania! It was crazy!” There was some backlash, too, however. “We received some not-nice letters about the wolf eating the pigs,” Smith adds.
As the book’s 25th birthday approached, Smith designed a new jacket intended to be used for the anniversary edition, which was released last month. “It was a big silver cover that looked like collage and abstract art and incorporated the original cover,” he says. “But they didn’t want to use it. In some ways, things have gotten more conservative.” Smith's silver jacket concept was not completely lost, though, as Viking has produced a version of the design as a celebratory poster that was autographed by both author and illustrator as an exclusive gift mailed to key accounts. For the anniversary edition of the book, the publisher used the original 1989 jacket and added a small cover burst of the poster graphic. Other anniversary marketing has included a True Story dress-up activity/event kit and an eight-copy floor display.
In the 25 years since True Story’s release, Scieszka and Smith collaborated on several additional books, including The Time Warp Trio series (Viking 1991–1999), The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (Viking, 1992), Math Curse (Viking, 1995), Squids Will Be Squids (Viking, 1998) and Seen Art? (Viking, 2005). They have also each continued very successful solo careers, publishing numerous books apiece. In 2008, Scieszka embarked on a two-year stint as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, named by the Librarian of Congress.
Though their busy individual careers mean they don’t often work as a team anymore, both Scieszka and Smith still look very fondly on their inaugural collaboration. “We got a little spoiled right out the gate,” Smith says of producing a surprise bestseller on their first try. These days, he says, he’s fine not having so much of the hoopla. “I like to stay home, Jon likes to get in front of a podium somewhere,” Smith notes. “He was practicing for that ambassadorship even back then.”
One of the most gratifying things for author and illustrator so many years later is realizing the lasting influence their work has had. “We hear from new illustrators or authors about how this book impressed upon them they could do something different,” Smith says. “If you were eight or nine back then, I think this book made an impression on you. This is one of the first books that subverted a kids’ tale for kids. It struck a chord, I guess. I’m happy that it’s part of so many people’s memories. It makes you feel very old, but you are touched.”
For Scieszka and Smith, the passing of 25 years has been a badge of honor, but also a reminder of, well, the passing of time. “In some ways it doesn’t seem that long ago. And in some ways it feels like ages ago,” says Smith. “We were punk kids trying to sell that thing! I feel like I’m kind of just getting started and that the best is yet to come in the next 50 years. No, wait, I won’t be alive then.” Scieszka says that kids never fail to remind him of the passing of time, either. “A couple of months ago during a school visit, a girl asked when my first book was published,” he recalls. “I told her The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, in 1989. She said, ‘Wow, back in the 1900s?!”
And 25 years on, True Story has sold more than two million copies. “We owe it all to indies, teachers, and librarians getting the word out,” says Smith. “And this was when there were no cell phones or Twitter. They just had cans with strings on them.”