Children’s book showcase: The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales

Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce the fifth book in my collection of inspiring children’s books. This time it’s going to be one of my personal childhood favourites – a book straight from the 90s!


The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales
Written by Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Lane Smith and designed by Molly Leach

Badge of greatness for the hilariously odd stories and extraordinarily entertaining design



“A long time ago, people used to tell magical stories of wonder and enchantment. Those stories were called Fairy Tales. Those stories are not in this book. The stories in this book are almost Fairy Tales. But not quite. The stories in this book are Fairly Stupid Tales.”

The memory of my dad reading this book to my 7-year-old sister and my 9-year-old self is one of the clearest childhood memories I have about books. The reading experience of this one was quite special for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it was written in English, so my parents simultaneously translated it to us. Secondly, the stories were so amusing and the design was so playful that I can still vividly picture us sitting on a bed looking at the graphic details and laughing at them together. This book has been incredibly dear to me ever since – so much so that it’s pretty much impossible to look at it objectively without walking down the memory lane!

The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales is a collection of parodies of popular children’s stories. The stories are tied together through some reappearing characters and the narrator Jack, who introduces the stories and deals with the rest of the cast. 

The stories in the book are extremely funny to begin with, but they would not make such a strong impact without the expressive illustrations AND the design. It’s typically said that it’s the combination of text and illustrations that either makes or breaks a children’s book. However, in this case the design plays a key role as well, bringing all the different elements together into an all-around amusing entity. In fact, the author of the book, Jon Scieszka, wrote an insightful article called “Design Matters”, which shows first hand what a difference Molly Leach’s designs made for The Stinky Cheese Man and some other books.

And what about the characters? Well, they exaggerated and very outspoken, both in text and images. There’s dissatisfied, nagging Little Red Hen and a truly crazy-looking Ugly Duckling, just to mention a few. Created by an acknowledged illustrator Lane Smith, the characters show a range of strong emotions from fearful to angry, disappointed, greedy and surprised. It’s very interesting to observe how Lane Smith has translated these feelings into the illustrations using a variety of techniques from painting to collage. And here’s a fun fact: Lane Smith and the book’s designer Molly Leach are actually a couple, who have collaborated on many of the books written by Jon Scieszka. Quite a super trio, I would say! When asked about their working process, Lane answered: “Jon writes a story, gives it to me, I work out the art, give it to Molly, she works out the type then we all get together and tweak stuff. Then we turn it in.” (Quote from www. blaine.org/sevenimpossiblethings)

I keep on finding myself drawn to books that are charmingly absurd. This is a realization that has led to some self-reflection: when I am working on my own story ideas (yep, I’ve got a couple!), I tend to be Very Serious about it. Naturally, I want to bring my stories to life in the best way possible, which often leads me to just thinking and doing research instead of actually creating anything. It feels my stories are in danger of becoming watered-down by my over-analytical approach. I should definitely try to keep the process more light-hearted and leave some space for absurdities. After all, I can relate to this thought of Lane Smith:

“I make the kinds of books that I liked as a kid. I don’t like ordinary, middle-of-the-road books. I like funny, odd books that excite and challenge a child. There are enough people doing nice books about manners and feelings and magical unicorns. I do not do those kinds of books.” Quote from www.lanesmithbooks.com

Recently…

It feels like the spring has flown by, and I haven’t really gotten around to sharing any of the things that I’ve drafted in my mind. So, here’s a list of some nice things that I’ve been wanting to tell about:

I spent a week and a half in Finland, visiting family and friends. During the vacation, I got to go for morning walks with my sister and my hairy nephew, who is the best dog in the world (I swear I’m not biased)! I also visited my grandma and ate her homemade blueberry pie, which is the tastiest thing ever (again, certainly not biased!). I caught up with friends, consumed tons of chocolate and laughed so much that I probably got a few new wrinkles of joy on my face. I went for lunch with my grandparents who live up North, read newspapers with them and admired the christmassy view outside their house – yup, it was -13℃ there!

While in Finland, I also discovered the work of illustrator Timo Mänttäri (above). The colour palettes in his postcards are my latest crush!

Illustration-wise, I got commissioned to draw another family portrait, which I really enjoyed creating! I would love to take on more personal portrait commissions, it’s been so nice to illustrate something a bit different like that for a change.Last week, we celebrated King’s Day, which is undoubtedly the best day of the year in the Netherlands. Our celebration contained more home-baked goodies than alcohol, as we spent the day strolling through the so called ‘free markets’, where people sell all kinds of things from self-made apple pie and pancakes to old clothes, books and whatnot. We also stuck with our annual King’s Day tradition by commissioning a young Dutch artist to make a portrait of us. This year our picture was painted by Roya Hes (see above), a very talented young painter who has a wonderful sense of colour!

And last but not least: I’ve been listening to a podcast called Creative Pep Talk a lot recently, so last Sunday I visited a bookshop to order the newly released Creative Pep Talk book. Can’t wait to read it!

That’s all for now, folks!

The fear of drawing people (and how to get over it)

Here’s a confession: I used to dread drawing people. Drawing animals was my thing, and the thought of human-like hands and faces made me cringe. Whenever I found myself in a situation where I needed to draw human characters, I would sneakily avoid the discomfort zone by drawing abstract figures that lacked faces and some other physical details. That worked quite well for fashion illustrations, but I knew that eventually I would have to take the bull by its horns.

After making a conscious decision to get over my insecurities, I asked myself where the fear of drawing  people was coming from. The answer was quite simple: my fears spurred merely from the lack of practice. I shied away from sketching people, because I had never properly trained myself in drawing them. That is why I always struggled with proportions and perspectives and would rarely be happy with my sketches. Of course, I never expected to be Da Vinci 2.0, but next to lacking the skills and knowledge of drawing human anatomy, I hadn’t developed my own unique style of drawing them either. I couldn’t draw people with realistic proportions and details, nor did I have my own style of drawing them…and that was more than enough to make me insecure.

Today things are very different. I draw human characters with zen-like joy and have left the fears behind me for good. Blimey, I have even been paid to draw custom portrait illustrations, which have become one of my favourite type of commissions!

Knowing that there might be other creatives out there trying to cope with their own insecurities, I decided to compile a small inspirational first aid kit on how to get started with overcoming your creative phobias. So here’s to you, fears: goodbye and good riddance!

Leave your comfort zone (comfortably)

Kindly force yourself to do the things you fear and challenge yourself to practice in a fun way. When I realized I desperately needed practice with drawing people, I decided to give a go at life drawing classes. However, as easels felt quite intimidating, I chose to approach the discomfort zone through my comfort zone and spent the first sessions drawing with my trusted ol’ pencil in my tiny sketchbook. It was a soft and comforting welcome to the fear zone.

Don’t worry about acing everything

Trying different styles and techniques is great practice, but you don’t have to become great at everything. Try water colour, inks, pencils and pens. Go for life drawing classes or try drawing manga. Experiment and don’t stress about creating only masterpieces. My life drawing sketches were never anatomically astonishing. However, I did my best even with the most challenging poses and dressed the naked models with colourful underwear to keep the process of practicing lighthearted and fun. Moral of the story: even if your sketches won’t end up hanging in a museum, each of them will help you improve.

Watch and learn

While avoiding comparing yourself to others, be open to learning from people around you – online and offline. Take part in drawing challenges (like #franuary initiated by Fran Meneses to practice animal drawing skills), watch tutorials, attend workshops, meet up with peers who can guide you or imitate styles and techniques you see on Instagram (Obvious side note: Imitating is good for practice, but copying is very, very uncool!). I created a private Pinterest board of inspiring examples of human characters drawn by other illustrators and used it as a base for experimenting with my own style. That was very helpful.

Give it your own twist & enough time

Next to studying human anatomy at life drawing classes, I spent plenty of time just doodling different kind of characters, playing around with their features. Would exaggerated proportions be my thing? Or funny noses and angular shapes? Perhaps cartoonish, boneless limbs? Sketch by sketch I got closer to the type of characters that what felt truly mine. Learning and developing a style that I now feel strong about took me years, so don’t worry about not reaching your goals over night – it’s a process.