AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:
Here's a story you might know. Once upon a time, there was a little old woman and a little old man who lived together in a little old house. They were lonely, so the little old lady decided to make a man out of stinky cheese.
JON SCIESZKA: I'm Jon Scieszka, author of "The Stinky Cheese Man," 30 years ago, apparently.
LANE SMITH: And I'm Lane Smith, illustrator of "The Stinky Cheese Man" from, I guess, 30 years ago, they tell me.
RASCOE: It's the title story in their 1992 children's book, "The Stinky Cheese Man And Other Fairly Stupid Tales." Some of the others in this award-winning collection - "The Princess And The Bowling Ball," "The Really Ugly Duckling," and - maybe you've heard of her - "Cinderumpelstiltskin." Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith have worked together for decades. For our series, Picture This, they revisit "The Stinky Cheese Man" and how their partnership began.
SCIESZKA: I met Lane through my wife, who was an art director at Sport magazine. And I was off trying to sell children's books - manuscripts - not having much luck. And she said, oh, you should meet this guy who just did some art for the magazine.
SMITH: And the reason I did art for the magazine was because my wife - she was my girlfriend at the time - Molly Leach was working with Jon's wife, Jeri, at that same magazine.
SCIESZKA: I ended up teaching elementary school for a whole stretch of about 10 years. But when I first met Lane, I had already been teaching for maybe five or six years. All of my stuff came out of teaching kids, and I just had soaked myself in children's literature and read all - everything I could get my hands on. And I read it with groups of kids. And then I was bringing all of my, you know, favorite literary devices and books that I love - metafiction and stuff like "Tristram Shandy" that just were books about books. And then, when I met Lane, it was like he was bringing this wealth of experience from the art world - I don't know, just bringing pure art, and it seemed like such a good match.
SMITH: It's funny because we've done so many books since then - together and apart. And when I look back at "The Stinky Cheese Man," I think, the artwork in that and the design definitely doesn't look like a kid's book. It looks like it came out of magazines and, you know, exactly the stuff we were doing at the time. It was like stuff I was doing for Rolling Stone or whatever. And I think there must have been some of that appeal, too, yeah, yeah.
SCIESZKA: And that was exactly what I was looking to do in writing it. 'Cause in my classroom, I would be reading just some terrible, like, leveled readers. And my second graders would go, Mr. Scieszka, why are we even reading this? And it's just this group of kids who, like - you have to hold their interest when you're reading to them. You can't explain why it's a good book or how it's going to make you a better person. So I was just, like, unconsciously, I think, testing out stuff, like, telling my second graders, like - hey, have you ever heard this story about a guy who woke up one morning and he was a bug? And they're like, no, really? I went, yeah, really. Franz Kafka, it happened to him, I'm pretty sure. And they were all just completely taken with it.
SMITH: I thought that was Eric Carle who did the one with the bug.
SCIESZKA: (Laughter) Yeah, that was later, Eric Carle, when he got a little darker.
SMITH: It seems like there were two schools back then. There were the earnest books - and we love those - and there were the funny books. But what you did, which was interesting, was you brought parody to it. And up until then, if there was parody - like, if Tex Avery did parody in a cartoon, it was almost more aimed at the adults. And you weren't winking at the adults. You were writing parody for kids that - every kid had read "The Gingerbread Man." So then when you say "The Stinky Cheese Man," they get the joke.
SCIESZKA: Yeah. To set it up a little bit, too, the evolution was - the first book Lane and I published was "The True Story Of The Three Pigs." And it just took one fairy tale, and it changed the narrator. And I thought, oh my God, this is, like, my favorite - it's like Vladimir Nabokov. He's a total unreliable narrator. And then it just - it roared, and people just loved it. I had all these other fairy tales I had kind of deconstructed and messed up. And then I thought, why don't we just collect all of these in a book? And it'll be a great investigation of what a book is. We can destruct - deconstruct every piece of what a book is, starting with the cover or the end papers, the title page, and then we can get rid of the narrator. We can get rid of plot. We can get rid of the action. And really, I just made it my mission to mess with every element of storytelling.
So that's what it is. It's an entire collection, kind of hosted by Jack, the narrator. And he takes you through a bunch of fairy tales, our favorite being "The Gingerbread Man." That got changed just a little bit - only one element. The parents didn't make the little man out of gingerbread. They made him out of terrible smelling cheese.
SMITH: I mean, that was the thing. You had all these great stories, and then once you had that spine, we could hang these things off of it any way. So Jon would come over to my studio, and we had a big bulletin board up - not unlike a production storyboard for a film - and we would just arrange stuff and rearrange stuff and say, well, how about if we started with this one, and then we put this one at the end and maybe this character could walk out of that story and go into this? And it just - it was one of those serendipitous things that just - I think one day we looked at the big board, and it all worked. And it was - it had a beginning, a middle and an end and a lot of messing up in between.
SCIESZKA: That's the other piece we love to tell people, too, 'cause everyone, of course, says, like, oh man, what were you guys smoking when you put that together? I was like, well, it's kind of hard work, actually. We had to put in a lot of days where everything has to make sense. And the other benefit was to be in the room with Lane and Molly. And it's just essential to us. It's the give-and-take of both arts telling the story. Like, it's not just adding pictures on later. It was Lane and I sitting down. And then Molly was so essential with the design, 'cause I remember, like, Lane and I would just - we would crack each other up 'cause we think we're just the funniest people on the planet. And then we'd come in and show Molly what we decided, like, ooh, ooh, let's have all the words run off the page. She went, well, that's all right, but - you know what would be better? What if they got smaller? What if they got smaller and bigger? And we were like, yeah, OK. Yeah, that's way better, actually (laughter).
SMITH: And also, you have to remember this was pre-digital. So it was a lot harder to make those changes and nudge things because you'd have to do everything by hand. And there was a lot of collage elements. I think the one constant in all my work is texture. With, for instance, "Stinky Cheese Man," what I did was I used thin coats of oil paint, and then I would spray him with a water-based varnish. And I would get out a hairdryer and blow it, and it would dry it instantly. And the paint would bead up because these things would react to each other. But I would just build up layer and layer of oil, and I would blow dry him and spray him, and I'd move the paints around with my fingers.
SCIESZKA: Yeah. I think the short answer for Lane's technique is it's illegal now, because you had a spray booth for a while in your studio, right?
SMITH: I did have a spray - that's probably why I'm seeing a neurologist now because...
SCIESZKA: Like, he would go in a room.
SMITH: I'm like, Doc, I've been very dizzy lately.
SMITH: Jon and I both like animation, too. And with the picture book, you have the unique ability to turn the page, and it's almost a form of animation. So if you keep all the background elements basically the same, and then you flip the page - for instance, in "The Really Ugly Duckling" - and one character just gets bigger and uglier. It's almost like animation if you flip back and forth, back and forth. It's like a flipbook.
SCIESZKA: Well, and that's the stuff that gets such a great laugh. I think someone sitting in an office would read the really ugly duckling grew up to a really ugly duck, and it just lands hard in text. But you turn that page, and you see the big duck that Lane paints is exactly the same. He's just bigger. Like, the saliva hanging off his beak, the pimples on his belly just got larger. And kids point that out to me. They go, like, yeah, yeah.
SMITH: I could tell you my favorite line, which is, do you think it's Chester? - which is from the story "Cinderumpelstiltskin," where Rumpelstiltskin is trying to get Cinderella to, you know, guess his name. And he's - I don't know why it just cracks me up every time I hear it. It's like - and he just asks her, do you think it's Chester?
SCIESZKA: Chester. Yeah, it's right here. So you want to try to guess my name? - said the clever little man. Cinderella looked at him. No, not really. Come on. Do you think it's Chester? (Laughter) I don't even remember that line. That's amazing.
SMITH: Oh, really? See, Molly will say that at least once a month. We'll be somewhere, and I'll say, hey, look at this - and, you know, something in the supermarket - she'll say, do you think it's Chester (laughter)?
SCIESZKA: It's funny. Deep funny, too. It's like - it's - these are stories that have been around for hundreds of years. They're so deep, and you just tweak them a little bit for this new audience. And they're just - and they can crack you up.
SMITH: Sometimes I'll get a email to my website where people say something - a book I've done has offended them in some way. And, why did you write this? And I'll say, I didn't write it for your kid, you know? It's - I just wrote it for like-minded people who will find it funny. There is no message.
SCIESZKA: Yeah, I think that's absolutely, like, always been another common ground of, like, we don't want to tell kids what to think. Like, you read it. See what you think. See what comes out of it.
SMITH: But that's the moral right there. That's it.
SCIESZKA: (Laughter) Yeah, I guess that's...
SMITH: You know, what do you think?
SCIESZKA: Yeah, what do you think? Use your own head.
SMITH: Exactly. I vote for no moral. What do you say, Jon?
SCIESZKA: Absolutely. That was exactly going to be my answer. There's actually not a moral.
RASCOE: That was Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith talking about their Caldecott Honor book, "The Stinky Cheese Man." Our series, Picture This, was produced by Samantha Balaban and edited by Melissa Gray.
(SOUNDBITE OF TOTORRO'S "OSAO SAN")
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