Why is Smiley Bone the star of this first Bone picture book?
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.
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.
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.
At what point did you realize kids could be an audience for Bone?
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.
So the librarians are the heroes of this story. And your editors at Scholastic.
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 O.K. 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.”
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