Lane Smith found immediate success as an illustrator and the hilarity helpmate of Jon Sciezka when they published “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs” in 1989. They followed this with another fractured fairy tale, “The Frog Prince Continued” and a mash-up of familiar early stories, “The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales.” The two also collaborated on the popular comedic tween time-travel series starring the Time Warp Trio. All of these books were instantly successful and have remained so.
Smith has shown his own spoof-mastery in a number of picture books from his funny first-reader, “The Happy Hocky Family!” to his cliché-change-up, “The Big Elephant in the Room.” In more serious stories, he relates a young girl’s dreams for the future in “Madame President” and reveals the thoughtful, heart-rich feelings of a young child in “Grandpa Green.”
Now Smith unleashes his talents in his first novel, “Return to Augie Hobble” (Roaring Brook, ages 9 and up). The book’s nearly 300 pages allow Smith the text and illustrative freedom for true expression.
His hero, middle-schooler Augie Hobble, is a boy with a boring summer ahead. He’s working for his father at Fairy Tale Place, a beat-up theme park that hasn’t been improved by its renamed features – the playground is Lord of the Swings, the rail ride is Star Trak, and the diaper-changing station is Winnie the Poo’s.
Augie has other troubles. The tree house he’s creating with his best friend, Britt, falls apart and right after their structure tumbles, Britt takes off on vacation. The most popular girl at school becomes Cinderella at the theme park and Augie is tongue-tied around her. In addition, he’s being bullied.
Worst of all, Augie has to retake a Creative Arts class and is overwhelmed with too many ideas. His sketch books (and Smith’s novel) are peppered with fabulous project plans. Everything inspires Augie. His parents share a crossword puzzle that results in a cowboy’s lament titled “2 Across, 1 Down (Cross Words).” This ode is a love tragedy that ends in murder when Tex breaks Sal’s H-E-A-R-T and winds up with 527 years in a cell where she’ll, of course, be doing crossword puzzles.
But the book isn’t just a comedic romp. It goes tragically deep when Britt dies suddenly of a peanut allergy and Augie feels responsible. Guilt and grief eclipse all his other problems, which now include a mysterious red-hooded culprit and someone who seems to be scrawling in Augie’s sketchbook without his permission.
“Return to Augie Hobble” is an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink novel. The writing switches from witty humor to heartfelt seriousness and the illustrative styles change from cartoons to collages. Series of illustrations speed up the already fast-moving text into a story where adventure, mystery and ghost genres merge. There may (or may not be) werewolves, ghosts, clairvoyant predictions and UFOs. The ride Augie provides is way more thrilling than all of the amusements at Fairy Tale Place combined.