Login  |  Register          Free Newsletter Subscription
Email
Print
Reprint
Learn RSS

A Collaborative Effort

Two children

By Leonard S. Marcus -- Publishers Weekly, 7/16/2001

Jon Scieszka, Lane Smith and Molly Leach

Growing up as the second of six brothers, Jon Scieszka learned early on about collaboration -- and getting along. The Scieszkas lived in Flint, Mich., where Jon's father was a school principal and his mother was a nurse. He and his older brother, Jim, teamed up to build go-carts, play toy soldiers, and hurl dirt clods at the neighbors. In their busy household, it was often the two elder brothers' job to baby-sit the little "knuckleheads."

Jon liked to read as a child. Inspired by one of his favorite authors, Dr. Seuss, he also wrote poems and stories, and sometimes imagined himself an author. At school, science classes held special interest for him, and for a time Jon thought about becoming a doctor. He never forgot his dream of a writing career, however, and when, following college, he moved to New York City in 1978, he did so with the goal of becoming a fiction writer for adults and possibly also a college English professor.

In New York, Scieszka enrolled in writing classes at Columbia University. About a year later, he got married. To make money, Scieszka painted apartments and then took a job as a teacher in a Manhattan school. He found that he loved to teach. He enjoyed his second-graders' sense of fun and admired their eagerness to try new things. Then, after three years of teaching, and of having no luck at publishing his adult short stories, Scieszka decided to try something new. Taking a year's leave of absence from his job, he worked at home on a new batch of stories this time, stories for children.

The first several publishers to whom he sent these new stories turned them down. Then Scieszka's wife, Jeri Hansen, who was an art director at Sportmagazine, introduced him to an illustrator she recently had met at work.

Lane Smith, an Oklahoma-born artist with a busy freelance career, had been hired by Sportto do an illustration showing a name-brand sneaker taking a bite out of a rival company's shoe. Scieszka, who disliked the "fuzzy-bunny pastel picture-book world" of most of the new children's books he saw, was fascinated by Smith's sly, shadowy illustrations, which he found "so funny and weird." Their first outing together, a trip to the Bronx Zoo, went awkwardly, with Smith trying repeatedly to start up a "serious" conversation and Scieszka responding with knock-knock jokes.

"I thought, 'What's with this guy?' " Smith recalls. They both may have been a bit nervous. They soon realized, however, that they had a similar sense of humor and a great many interests in common. As children they had both loved Crockett Johnson's The Carrot Seedas well as Dr. Seuss books, Madmagazine and Warner Brothers cartoons like the one in which Bugs Bunny comes along with a giant eraser and rubs out one of the other characters. Soon they began to talk about collaborating on a book.

It had been Jeri Hansen's friend and fellow art director at Sport, Molly Leach, who hired Smith for the sneaker assignment; not long after they met, Smith and Leach began to go out together. Now the two couples saw each other often.

Although Smith worked primarily for magazines, he had already illustrated three picture books Halloween ABC (1987) by Eve Merriam, his own Flying Jake(1989) and the then still-unpublished Glasses Who Needs 'Em?(1991) and was eager to do more. Now, when Smith showed his artwork to publishers, he brought along Scieszka's stories. As had happened before, the first editors to whom Smith showed the stories failed to see the humor in them. Finally, however, an editor at Viking, Regina Hayes, laughed out loud as she read through the stories, and said she wanted to publish one of them, with illustrations by Smith. The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs!(1989) proved to be very popular.

It was so popular, in fact, that the two friends were soon being invited to speak at schools all around the country. Scieszka enjoyed putting on these shows for schoolchildren. Smith, however, who was used to the privacy of his studio, felt shy at first about performing for an audience.

The main problem the pair faced was that it took just a few minutes to read their one and only collaborative picture book aloud. Smith made easel drawings for the children, which filled up some time. They both answered questions. Even so, it was clear they needed more material.

In desperation, Scieszka dusted off a folder of fairy-tale parodies he had written over the past few years and filed away under unpublishable. "See, kids," he'd say as he began to read from the folder, "not everything a writer does works out!" He had written one of the stories, "The Stinky Cheese Man," to amuse himself after having read the classic tale on which it was based "The Gingerbread Boy" so often to his daughter at bedtime that he could no longer bear to hear the original version.

The youngest schoolchildren he and Smith met were not used to such odd stories, and often were unsure when Scieszka had finished his reading. Because of this, he began to make a point, when the time came, of announcing in a big voice, "The End." The children found this joke and much else about his "fairy stupid tales" hilarious, so much so that he and Smith began to talk about making a book out of them.

He made a list of the tales he could readily imagine illustrating. "With 'The Really Ugly Duckling' and 'The Stinky Cheese Man,' " he recalls, "I thought, 'Oh, that's funny. That's great.' But when I first read 'Cinderrumpelstiltskin,' I told myself, 'I'll get to that one later.' "

As they tried to imagine "The Stinky Cheese Man" as a book, Scieszka and Smith became intrigued with the idea of poking fun not only at fairy tales but also at books in general. "I knew that second-graders would get a kick out of a book that broke lots of rules," Scieszka says, "because they're a group that has just found out that there arerules such as where the title page belongs." Scieszka made lists of all the book-related pranks he could think of. He and Smith traded ideas, often over a game of ping-pong at the artist's studio.

What if the table of contents was a big mess, and did not appear, as expected, at the start of the book? What if a page was left completely blank and the text of another page printed upside down? What if characters from one story wandered, as though lost, from one story to another? These and other ideas later found their way into the design and illustration of The Stinky Cheese Man.

With the text in nearly finished form, Smith made his first sketches. Scieszka, who could not quite visualize the "little man of cheese" or any of his other characters, was eager to see how Smith would depict them. Of this stage of the work, Scieszka recalls: "I never considered saying to Lane, 'Could you make the fox's tail a little bushier?' That kind of thing just drives illustrators crazy! I knew my job at that point was to cheer Lane on." As work progressed, Scieszka visited Smith's studio nearly every day.

For most children's books, the basic design work the choice of type, for example, and often the choice of the cover image is done by a member of the publisher's staff. But Scieszka and Smith knew that The Stinky Cheese Man would be funny only if every bit of the design helped to advance their goal of making a storybook in which nothing happened as expected. Because The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs! had been a bestseller more than 250,000 copies were sold in the first year Viking agreed to let the pair choose their own designer for The Stinky Cheese Man. They chose Molly Leach.

Leach, whose studio was one flight up in the same loft building as Smith's, now became a full member of the team. "My job," Leach says, "was to be the problem-solver. Lane or Jon would have some funny idea. I had to make it fit within the book as a whole."

Together, Smith and Leach made a book dummy and, after discussing it with Scieszka, presented their work to Hayes. Hayes, while delighted overall, zeroed in on certain problems in the design, including some that she knew would add greatly to the cost of printing. For the scene where the Stinky Cheese Man is melting in the oven, for example, Smith and Leach had torn off the upper corner of the page as a way of suggesting that the paper itself had melted from the heat. Hayes saw the humor in the idea but said it would "cost a million dollars" to reproduce the torn-paper "special effect" in a picture book. As an alternative, Leach hand-lettered the type at the top of the page, making it appear to droop downward as though wilting from the heat of the oven.

Leach liked bold, headline-sized type like that often used for magazines. She thought that unusually big, dramatic type best communicated the fun of stories in which things continually went haywire. And she wanted each page to feel as if it were ready to burst at the margins. Hayes liked Leach's idea but persuaded her to leave somespace around the text for the reader's eye to rest.

After offering her comments, Hayes gave the collaborators her blessing. The next time she met with them was to see Smith's finished art laid out in Leach's completed design.

Meanwhile, The Stinky Cheese Mancontinued to change. Hayes had urged Smith, Leach and Scieszka to keep to a 56-page limit (nearly twice as long as a standard 32-page picture book). One day, after thinking the book was nearly done, the three collaborators suddenly realized that they had way too much material that The Stinky Cheese Manhad become much too long a book. "That," Smith recalls, "is when the realcollaboration began."

At Leach's suggestion, Smith redid some paintings to make more space for Scieszka's words; Scieszka shortened "Jack's Bean Problem" to leave more room for the illustration of the giant's shoe.

Now Scieszka made another list, this time grouping the stories according to the reason each was funny. "The Tortoise and the Hair," for instance, was humorous because it had no real ending. The Little Red Hen's story was funny because none of the other characters mentioned in it ever actually showed up. Thinking about the manuscript in this way helped the team eliminate stories that repeated the same joke.

From first sketches to final layouts and paintings, the illustrations and design of The Stinky Cheese Man came together in about two months of intensive effort. Viking published The Stinky Cheese Man, on schedule, in the fall of 1992. The book proved to be extraordinarily popular, even more so than The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs! Second-graders, the readers Scieszka originally had in mind, reveled in it, in part because it made them feel a bit grown up. Eighth-graders also liked it, and so did many readers of the grades in between. Adults bought copies of the book for their own amusement, too.

Reviewers praised The Stinky Cheese Man as not only an entertaining book but also an original one in spirit and design. Teachers and librarians agreed. Much to the surprise of Scieszka, Smith and Leach, who knew how strange their book was, in 1993 The Stinky Cheese Manwas awarded a Caldecott Honor the second-highest illustration prize (after the Caldecott Medal) that can be given to an American picture book.

Not everyone "got" The Stinky Cheese Man. As one of the book's many gags, the dedication page was printed upside down. Scieszka says, "We still receive letters about this from people complaining that there is something wrong with their copy."

Designers do not ordinarily receive equal credit alongside the author and illustrator of a book. In The Stinky Cheese Man, Molly Leach's name appears only once in the fine print on the copyright page. Leach says she has never been bothered by this, and is pleased that her contribution to the book was given an unusual amount of attention by critics. According to Scieszka: "People leafing through The Stinky Cheese Manwould see that something different was going on and realize that a good part of that 'something' was Molly's design." Other picture books began to have explosions of bold type placed at odd angles or in wavy lines. Writers and illustrators began to imitate Scieszka and Smith as well.

What made The Stinky Cheese Manspecial to so many people? Scieszka says: "People would call our book 'wacky,' 'zany,' 'anything-goes' kind of fun. When I look back, though, I think, 'Not really.' It was actually very carefully planned. Doing humor is like ditch-digging! You do it over and over again until you get to the bottom of the thing."

"We were just happy," adds Smith, "they let us get away with it!"

Alice and Martin Provensen

Alice Provensen is reluctant, at first, to say just how she and her late husband, Martin Provensen, went about making picture books together for more than 40 years. "That, of course, is the question that everybody asks," she says. "It was all very personal."

The Provensens illustrated more than 40 books in all, 19 of which they also coauthored or co-edited. In none of the warmly witty, meticulously crafted books they created together is it ever obvious who did what. That is exactly as the Provensens wanted it.

When Martin and Alice met in Los Angeles in 1943, Alice was working as an animator at the Walter Lantz Studio, creator of the "Woody Woodpecker" cartoons. As an animator, Alice was a member of a team of artists who produced the thousands of drawings needed to make an image appear to move on the screen. World War II was on, and Martin, who had had a job in the story department at the rival Disney Studios before the war, was now in the navy. He and Alice met when the navy assigned him to the Lantz Studio to help in the creation of war-related instructional films.

The Provensens' animation experience taught them the advantages of making art collaboratively. "If you weren't satisfied with a drawing and didn't know what to do next," Alice says, "the other person could help you along. Of course, it had to be the right person, one who understood what you were trying for."

In 1944, Alice and Martin married and came east, to Washington, D.C., where the couple both had war-related jobs. After peace was declared, in August 1945, they moved to New York, where an artist friend, Gustaf Tenggren, helped them find their first assignments as book illustrators. From then on, the Provensens always worked as a team.

In some ways, Alice and Martin had led parallel lives in the years before they met. Both were born in Chicago to parents who encouraged their interest in art. As children, both had read a great deal and delighted in the traveling "air circuses" daredevil flying exhibitions performed out in the countryside that were a popular Midwestern form of entertainment in the early days of commercial aviation. Both were largely self-trained artists by the time they met in Los Angeles.

In 1950, the Provensens bought an abandoned farm north of New York City, and set up their studio in a converted barn a few steps from their house. The couple worked at large drawing tables placed back-to-back in the barn. Privacy rarely became a concern. "Once in a while one of us may have had an idea we were just developing that we didn't want the other person to see just yet." When that happened, Alice recalls, "We would string a curtain up between our desks. But we did that only occasionally."

The Provensens had illustrated more than 30 books, most of them for children, when they decided to make a picture book inspired by their shared lifelong fascination with flight. At first the couple knew only that they wanted to tell a true story from aviation history. After doing some research, they found themselves drawn to the bold exploits of a French inventor and aviation pioneer named Louis Blériot. It was Blériot who in 1909 had become the first person to fly solo across the English Channel an amazing feat for the time. Compared with the Wright brothers' history-making (but far shorter) flight of six years earlier, Blériot's glorious achievement was little known to Americans. The Provensens liked the thought that they would be telling a story new to many of their readers.

The couple found very little about Blériot in American libraries, and this made them even more curious about their subject. A friend sent research materials from France. But the Provensens did find other help and inspiration from a source close to home.

In the late 1950s, to Alice and Martin's delight, an antique airplane museum and flying school called the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome had opened in a town not far from their farm. Alice and Martin enjoyed attending the weekend air shows put on by the owner and staff. By the time the couple had begun work on The Glorious Flight, Martin was also taking flying lessons there.

The manuscript came first. "We wanted the text to have a sort of oddball quality," she says. "We tried to tell the story 'with a French accent.' " Occasional changes in standard word order ("Out of the clouds, right over their heads, soars a great white airship"), and the use of a few French words ("aeronaut," "café") helped to create this playful impression.

They then designed the format and prepared a dummy to show to their editor at The Viking Press, Linda Zuckerman. Martin drew the dummy in the cartoon style he had used at the Disney Studios, years earlier, to sketch out the general outlines of an animation story. He had fun as he worked, writing in extra bits of amusing dialogue, in French, over the heads of Blériot and his companions: "Tiens!" ("Hold on!") and "Mauvais chance..." ("Bad luck...'). The Provensens later decided not to keep these additional French words, or the design element of cartoon-balloon-style dialogue.

Linda Zuckerman looked over the dummy and told the artists to go ahead, trusting that Alice and Martin would know what to do next. They proceeded to make dozens and dozens of sketches, which they posted on their studio walls as they searched for the right illustration style for their text. As they continued to experiment, they consulted the sketchbooks they had kept, years earlier, while traveling in France.

The art for The Glorious Flightchanged dramatically from the wiry slapstick drawings of Martin's original dummy to the more formal but still quite droll finished paintings that he and Alice produced together. Nonetheless, Alice recalls this part of the work as having gone very smoothly. "We were confident," she says. "When you have a story and a dummy that's that strong, you know what to do."

Once they had agreed on a style for the art, Alice and Martin informally divided up some of the tasks that lay ahead. Martin painted most of the portraits of Blériot. Alice did most of the hand-lettering for the book jacket and title page, and for the old-fashioned contest poster that inspired Blériot to build his plane.

"We both worked on most of the drawings and paintings," Alice recalls, "sometimes with one of us doing the background and the other doing the costumes and figures."

As always, the Provensens took their time. They completed The Glorious Flightin about one year. Alice's studio copy of The Glorious Flightbears an inscription, written in French, that translates as: "For the Provensens Alice and Martin with my sincere good wishes, Louis Blériot."

"That," says Alice, "was Martin's work, of course."

When Martin Provensen died of a heart attack in 1987, at the age of 70, Alice was unsure whether she would ever be able to work again. A period of terrible uncertainty followed, during which Zuckerman urged her to try. Alice's love of research finally came to her aid. She immersed herself in work on a large picture book about the presidents of the United States, called The Buck Stops Here(1990). Alice took the title from the sign that President Harry S. Truman kept on his desk in the Oval Office, as a statement of his sense of ultimate responsibility as the nation's leader. In her own way, Alice, too, was taking complete charge of matters. After Martin died, she had considered selling Maple Hill Farm. When The Buck Stops Hereproved to be a critical and commercial success, Alice changed her mind and built an addition to a house that, Alice says, "already seemed too big."

Perhaps one reason for the success of the Provensens' collaboration was that their likes and dislikes so often complemented one another. Martin, for instance, never enjoyed speaking in public, while Alice has generally felt quite comfortable before an audience. Alice has never been eager to have her voice recorded, whereas Martin felt fine about being taped. When the couple won the Caldecott Medal in 1984 for The Glorious Flight, it was Alice who delivered their acceptance speech at the award ceremony attended by hundreds of librarians and publishers. And it was Martin whose voice was heard on the tape-recorded version of the speech that was given as a keepsake to those present. "So it all worked out very well," says Alice.

Alice cannot recall how she and Martin went about writing their speech. The question seems unimportant to her. "You see," she says at last, "we were a true collaboration. Martin and I really were one artist."

Email
Print
Reprint
Learn RSS

Talkback

We would love your feedback!

Post a comment

» VIEW ALL TALKBACK THREADS

Related Content

Related Content

 

By This Author

PW PARTNERS




 
Advertisement

More Content

  • Blogs
  • Podcasts
  • Photos

Blogs


Sorry, no blogs are active for this topic.

» VIEW ALL BLOGS RSS

Photos

Advertisements






NEWSLETTERS

Click on a title below to learn more.

PW Daily
Religion BookLine
Children's Bookshelf
PW Comics Week
©2008 Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Use of this Web site is subject to its Terms of Use | Privacy Policy
Please visit these other Reed Business sites