A Life Illustrated

by Molly Evans


I cracked the book’s spine and turned its surprisingly crisp pages, inhaling the damp attic smell that wafted up to my nostrils. My mom’s voice echoed in my ears. I recalled her high-pitched squeal animating three little pigs, and her silly, grumbly growl of a big, bad wolf defending himself.

In this 1989 classic tale by Jon Scieszka, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, A. Wolf tells his side of the well-known story—he travels to the three pigs’ houses just to ask for a cup of sugar and accidentally blows their houses down. It’s a disaster caused by a nasty cold, not pure maliciousness.

Back then, my mom’s strange voice manipulation was enough to make me hold still as she read. But, the somewhat frightening, mostly enchanting images guiding me through the story were what made me pluck the book from its shelf nearly every night before bed.

Revisiting this book on the brink of turning 21, graduating college, and entering true adulthood, I realized that a man the same age as my dad, born in the same city as me, illustrated not only this story but also many favorites of my childhood.

However, I learned from Lane Smith himself that my affinity for this “true story” wasn’t shared by many children—or publishers, for that matter—when he and Scieszka were fighting to make the book more than 25 years ago.

“Both Jon and I liked Three Pigs a lot, but we both thought it would appeal to a real cult base,” Smith told me. “I guess it has such a special place in my heart because it was a breakout, unexpected thing.”

Since Three Pigs sold millions of copies, Smith’s entire career has been a “breakout, unexpected thing” because he never planned to illustrate children’s books. Although it’s hard to say where and when Smith settled into his illustrative niche, Route 66 in the 1960s is a good starting point.

Smith attributes his “bizarre sense of design” to summers spent traveling during the ‘60s and ‘70s to his native Tulsa via the famous freeway. His father’s job took the family to Corona, California, when Smith was 3.

Reflecting on his regular summer road trips back east, Smith has said, “Once you’ve seen a 100-foot cement buffalo on top of a donut-stand in the middle of nowhere, you’re never the same.”

More recently, he said it was the sense of isolation that he loved.

“We would drive that old route from California to Oklahoma, and a lot of times, we’d drive through the night, and you’d wake up in the morning, and you’d be in the desert or New Mexico or someplace, and you’d see little dust devils in the distance,” Smith said.

A rural region just an hour southeast from smog-ridden, sun-bleached Los Angeles, Corona rests in the foothills of California. Smith said most of his friends and their parents were from Oklahoma. “That was after the Dust Bowl, but still it seemed like that was the Promised Land where people would go to find work.”

His family appreciated California as their temporary home, but they didn’t subscribe to the West Coast way of life.

“I always considered myself an Okie,” Smith said. “My dad, he’d be playing Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. Then we’d be watching Alan Ladd movies, John Wayne movies. I never was like ‘surfer guy listening to The Beach Boys.’ ”

Smith and his family visited Tulsa and Sapulpa every year on vacation and moved back in 1977.

“You don’t really realize it until you’re away from it for a while, when you’re in some place like California where everybody’s kind of a no one—blond, you know. You come back to Oklahoma, and you’re like, ‘Wow, there are real characters out here! This is great!’ ”

In fact, Smith pulls a name from a hat of relatives—like Dub, Cubby, Uncle Baldy, Velma, Fat, Dewey, Darla, Tom, and Jerry—anytime he needs a character. Last October, Smith had a children’s book come out that he illustrated for writer Bob Shea titled Kid Sheriff and the Terrible Toads, in which he channels his memories of and affinity for Oklahoma and Western culture.

“That kind of goes back to me and my brother Shane when we were kids dressing up as cowboys and playing in my grandma’s backyard in Sapulpa,” Smith said. “That stuff always finds itself in there. My mom’s name is Mildred, and my dad’s name is Corky. It’s got a real sense of place.”

Although Oklahoma contributes to Smith’s illustrative influences, California isn’t obsolete. As a young man, Smith was a janitor—rather, a “custodial host”—at the mecca for made-up things: Disneyland in Southern California. He was paying his way through Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design, after his favorite high school art teacher, Daniel Baughman, suggested the route.

So it seemed his life was sprinkled with enough whimsy to make a career out of it.

Despite his varied interests in film, animation, and magazines, Smith concentrated on children’s literature for the next 25 years. In addition to designing for his friend Jon Scieszka and Roald Dahl and Dr. Seuss, Smith has written and illustrated his own children’s books, including Abe Lincoln’s Dream in 2012 and Grandpa Green, which was a 2012 Caldecott Honor Book. Currently, Smith lives with his wife and collaborator, Molly Leach, in Connecticut with several projects in the works.

Before the unanticipated success of Smith and Scieszka’s The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, and before they even met, Smith was freelancing for New York’s top magazines, getting steady work, facing regular rejection, and securing one out of every three illustrations he submitted to The New York Times, Time magazine, and Rolling Stone, among others.

Smith attributes his illustrative style to his background in magazines, classifying it as “European,” but even as a child, I knew there was more—something intangible—to those images.

Scieszka’s The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, and Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach were all books I might have passed up if Smith’s designs hadn’t fed my insatiable imagination.

Several of his covers and designs from that time in his career have a signature aesthetic and appeal. The images of an infuriated wolf, a curious young boy, and a mischievous wheel of cheese were recognizable to me. However, they possessed a haunting whimsicality that opened the books themselves.

Almost two decades after picking up The True Story of the Three Little Pigs for the first time, I can appreciate the story in a deeper way—for its visual rhetoric, conversational wit, and simple moral: There are at least two sides to every story.

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 6, Issue 1, January 1, 2015.