Why a Picture Book Now for Young Kids? Let’s Just Say He Could Feel It in His Bones

Posted August 6, 2018 3:08 p.m. EDT

Jeff Smith is the creator of Bone, the series often credited with kicking off the boom in graphic novels for children when it was published beginning in 2005. Now Smith has a picture book set in the world of Bone, “Smiley’s Dream Book,” aimed at kids ages 2 to 6 — who may be the series’ future readers. I talked to Smith about where the Bone characters came from, how Bone ended up as a series for children, and what the transition from comics to picture books was like for him. These are edited excerpts from our conversation.

Q: I’ve always wondered why you made characters that are bones, instead of, say, animals.

A: When I was a kid I adored Peanuts. I knew Snoopy was created by a human, Charles M. Schulz. And back then Walt Disney was still on TV every Sunday night, introducing his new movie, and if it was a cartoon I couldn’t wait to see Dumbo or Donald Duck. So when I was 5 years old I knew these guys had made these characters up, and I wanted to make up my own. I came up with this little guy shaking his fist, and I kept drawing him, because I wanted to know: What does he look like when he’s smiling, or walking? I wanted him to do all the things Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck could do. But I forgot that those characters were animals. I just saw them as shapes. So I thought my character looked like a cartoon dog bone.

Q: Why did you make a Bone picture book now?

A: I just didn’t want to do a sequel to Bone. It’s published for kids in nine volumes, but it’s really a 1,400-page novel with a beginning, middle and end, and I got to the end. So that book is done. It’s exactly what I wanted it to be. But I love those characters and I did still want to draw them. Scholastic came up with the idea of doing a children’s picture book with the Bones, and I thought, that’s perfect.

Q: Was it hard to make a picture book set in the Bone world?

A: It took me a while to get the hang of the difference between comics and picture books. I made a picture book a while ago called “Little Mouse Gets Ready,” about a mouse trying to get dressed, for Françoise Mouly, the publisher of Toon Books. The whole story appeared in my head like magic: being a kid and learning to dress, putting on the underwear, struggling with buttons and buttonholes, and the payoff at the end. It took less than two weeks to write, draw and ink that entire book. That’s never happened before and was actually pretty fun.

But “Smiley’s Dream Book” was harder. It was quite a few tries with my editors at Scholastic saying, “This is not a picture book, you just wrote a comic book.” The thing with a picture book is you don’t want to overload the pages with a lot of text. You want the idea to be very simple, but have a point. Finally, I got it. I will say that the kind of stories I wrote for the Bone characters when I was 9 are the kinds I’m doing now as picture books. And I still like to keep elements of comics in there, like they speak in word balloons.

Q: A lot of picture books are doing that now — no doubt thanks to the way books like Bone helped make adults see that comics are OK for kids.

A: Wonderful. That’s good news. I mean I learned to read from comics. I’m not a teacher, I’m not a librarian, but I was a kid, and I learned to read from comics. Peanuts specifically. So I can say without doubt that when a kid is looking at a graphic novel, he or she is reading.

Q: Are there more Bone picture books coming?

A: Yes, in fact I have the second picture book in the can, I just finished it a few weeks ago. It will have all three Bones in it, as kids. They’re all dressed like “The Little Rascals.” Apparently wherever they grew up, they still dress like it’s the 1930s.

Q: Why is Smiley Bone the star of this first Bone picture book?

A: I think it was Smiley’s choice. He’s the one who’s better solo than the others. Fone Bone and Phoney need each other to tell a story. They’re a yin and a yang. Smiley’s sort of the third wheel. He doesn’t really need anybody. And I wanted this story to be about a flying dream. He’s the freest spirit, so for him to have a dream about flying seemed more natural.

Q: You seem naturally attuned to how children think, and obviously kids love your books, yet you didn’t originally write Bone as a children’s book.

A: Bone started as comic books, which back then were sold only in hobby shops. There were no children reading them. It was meant to be for cartoon heads, people like me who grew up loving Bugs Bunny, Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes. Then I discovered the underground comics of the ‘60s and ‘70s — R. Crumb, Justin Green, rebellious comics, against the man. And in the ‘80s a new generation came up who were no longer rebelling against anything, they were telling stories with their own characters, not superheroes, just, say, life in Los Angeles, the Hernandez Brothers. I wanted to appeal to that audience. Q: At what point did you realize kids could be an audience for Bone?

A: Well I never put in anything that was inappropriate for kids, I just wasn’t really thinking about kids. I was thinking about what would be in a newspaper comic. Swear words were common in underground comics but I chose not to do that, because there aren’t swear words in Peanuts or Doonesbury. I mean, if Garry Trudeau can write a masterpiece like Doonesbury without swear words, I can write without swear words.

I was collecting Bone once a year into paperbacks, and my wife and I were self-publishing them. I didn’t know it, but from 1996 on it was becoming a staple in libraries, and kids were asking for them. We’d been unable to get reviewed or into the big retailers, because we were self-published and we were comics. Two strikes against us. But we got a call from a distributor saying librarians are demanding these books. Shortly after that we got a call from Scholastic. They wanted to launch a graphic novel imprint for kids with Bone.

Q: So the librarians are the heroes of this story. And your editors at Scholastic.

A: That’s right. My wife and I showed up to sign the paperwork and the publisher, Jean Feiwel, asked us to come 15 minutes early. I had a bad feeling about that. She sat down and lifted the pile of the nine Bone books, sat them on the table, and there were probably a hundred Post-it notes sticking out. I can see the word “beer” on one — there’s a scene where some characters drink beer at the tavern. Jean said, “The Book Clubs are nervous about a few things, starting with some of the characters drinking beer.” I stopped her right there and I said, “Jean, I’m so excited to do this. But I’m not going to make any changes. The book is finished. It’s already in 20 languages around the world. I didn’t say it was a children’s book. It was teachers and librarians and parents all over the world. They’re OK with it. I’m done.”

So Jean set the stack back on the floor and said, “the Book Fairs are just going to have to catch up.”