The storyline is thus: A through Z inclusive, with poetry (of a most delightful sort), and some outstanding illustrations by the great Lane Smith. Done.
Well, not quite. Spooky ABC is, as one might conclude, an ABC book. And, as one might also conclude, it starts with A is for Apple. Except, this is a spooky apple, and it is the last thing you would want to find in your lunchbox:
Apple, sweet apple, what do you hide?
Wormy and squirmy, rotten inside.
Apple, sweet apple, so shiny and red, taste it, don’t waste it, come and be fed.
Delicious, malicious; one bite and you’re dead.
Think I’ll have banana.
An ABC book is the equivalent of Hamlet for illustrators. It’s a right of passage. A challenge to those possessed of a superior talent and the creative cajone’s capable not only of re-imagining the alphabet, but also surprising and entertaining an audience over 26 ‘acts.’ And to stretch this metaphor even further, Spooky ABC, like Hamlet, is a ghost story.
To B or not to B, that is the question.
Interestingly, Spooky ABC began its life as a series of illustrations by Lane Smith. There was no text, and the intention was to publish a wordless picture book. The publisher thought otherwise, and matched Smith’s
drawings with the award winning writer and poet, Eve Merriam. In several cases, poems the ‘more established’ Eve wrote superceded Smith’s finished drawings, so new illustrations were commissioned. Yeti was replaced by Yeast. Yeast? Really? Only an artist as quirky and imaginative as Lane Smith could make a poem about fermentation visually interesting. The book was published in 1987 as Halloween ABC. In 2002, it was revised and republished as Spooky ABC. Five of the omitted illustrations make a reappearance in this edition, including the drawing of the yeti, by far the best, and only illustration of a yeti I’ve ever seen.
Smith’s original illustration of a Vampire was replaced by Viper, which is a fine drawing of a snake, but it doesn’t have the visual impact of the vampire. The elongated bloodsucker, engulfed in a strange green fog, is brilliant. Also lost in the original edition, a fabulously gnarly Tree, replaced by Trap, which admittedly has a great illustration of a surly witch caught in a net, but the tree is spectacular, or spooktacular, as they say in the horror biz.
This is not to suggest that the illustrations in the original Halloween ABC are inferior. On the contrary, the addition of the five ‘missing’ illustrations only enhances what is already a gorgeous book, and the backstory, under the cheeky heading of ‘The Awful Truth Behind the Making of Spooky ABC,’ is simply delicious. I applaud the publisher for including this ‘special features’ section in the back of the revised edition.
Lane Smith is a super fabulous, stupidly creative, incredibly funny, and jealousy-inducing illustrator from Tulsa, Oklahoma. I may have mentioned him once or a thousand times in this blog, and you can read more about my slavering devotion in a previous post, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip. Just in case you didn’t know, Lane Smith is the artist responsible for The Stinky Cheese Man, and the True Story of the Three Little Pigs, but his distinctive style has graced many other books, magazines, and related publications. It’s usually quite difficult to find any information regarding an artist’s ‘process’ in my research, but happily I ran across this wonderful quote on the Penguin USA site about Smith’s unusual technique:
A lot of reviewers have misidentified my technique as airbrush or dyes or even egg tempera. I think this is because it almost looks as if it was sprayed with paint with little dots of color and texture visible. Actually, my work is rendered in oil paints. I paint on board, building up several thin glazes of the oil, sealing them between coats with an acrylic spray varnish. This not only dries the oil instantly, but also causes a chemical reaction between the oil and the acrylic. Normally, it would be a mistake to combine two opposites like this and in fact it was a mistake the first time I did it, but I liked the results. I’m a big fan of artists who play with surfaces. I love texture and grunge. The trick is to know when to stop. Sometimes I keep adding more and more layers until I’ve ruined the piece. Usually I stop when the painting starts to look interesting. Then I go in with a fine brush and add details, lights and darks, etc. It’s a laborious process, but it’s unpredictable and it keeps me interested and surprised. Of course, I’m influenced by other illustrators too, like N.C. Wyeth, Maurice Sendak, Arthur Rackham, Edward Lear, Gustav Dore and Tomi Ungerer. I hope I can follow the path these dark illustrators have walked, or at least use the sidewalk that runs alongside it.”
Mr Smith, none of those illustrators, as great as they are, ever painted such a lovely yeti. Or a stinky cheese man.
Eve Merriam (1916-1992), an award-winning poet and children’s author, published over 80 books in her lifetime. In 1971, she released the Inner City Mother Goose, a parody of violence, racism, and corruption in the US, which at one time was described as the most banned book in America. I was not surprised to discover the original Halloween ABC was also challenged and banned in a number of locations in the US. Let’s face it, the evangelicals and other spook-averse types have always had an uneasy relationship with Halloween, and books that have any sort of supernatural (or natural) content. Eve Merriam, on the other hand, reveled in the imaginative interplay of words, and the result is this delightful and macabre Halloween alphabet. With the addition of Lane Smith’s gorgeous illustrations, all of his illustrations, Spooky ABC is a Halloween treat. And that’s no trick.
Spooky ABC by Eve Merriam, illustrated by Lane Smith. Published by Simon & Schuster, 2002 Book design by Molly Leach
Latest publication: It’s a Book, written and illustrated by Lane Smith, Roaring Brook Press, 2010
More Lane Smith diversions you ask? Read this great interview from the Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast blog.