The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Brian Lies
I'm so honored to have the acclaimed children’s book author/illustrator Brian Lies join me for an interview! I will try hard not to 'fang girl' through the interview.
Brian was born in Princeton, NJ in 1963, and graduated from Brown University with a degree in British and American Literature. He attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (SMFA) for two and a half years, and then went on to create Op/Ed page illustrations for many magazines and newspapers, including the Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, and Chicago Tribune.
He illustrated his first children's book with Houghton Mifflin Company in 1989 and has since created more than two dozen books. He’s the author/illustrator of 2019 Caldecott Honor-winning picture book The Rough Patch, Got to Get to Bear’s (2018), Gator Dad (2016), and his New York Times-bestselling bat book series, Bats at the Beach (2006), Bats at the Library (2008), Bats at the Ballgame (2010) and Bats in the Band (2014). He also illustrated the middle-grade novels Malcolm Under the Stars (2015) and Malcolm at Midnight (2012) (by W.H. Beck) and a number of other picture books.
Brian nearly stopped reading in the third grade, but was encouraged by his local librarians and rebounded, becoming an avid, lifelong reader. Partially because of his own experiences, as well as current brain studies which show the importance of reading in social and emotional growth in young people, Brian feels very strongly about the importance of getting them to read. Brian spends a portion of the school year traveling throughout the United States to work with students and encourage them in their goals. He lives in Duxbury, Massachusetts with his wife and daughter and two cats.
His newest picture book, Little Bat in Night School, released June 29th.
Welcome Brian, thank-you so much for stopping by to talk about your newest book, writing, and illustrating.
Tell us a little about yourself. (Such as - where/when do you illustrate and/or write? How long have you been illustrating and writing? What is your favorite type of book to illustrate and/or write? Do you plan to continue being both an illustrator and an author/illustrator? )
I’m lucky to be a full-time author and illustrator, and the longest I’ve been employed by someone else was probably six months, when I worked for the art department of a Navy subcontractor after I graduated from college and before I went to art school. I’ve been making stories as long as I can remember—though I wouldn’t say I was a natural, or “most likely to become an author.” But I’ve always enjoyed making things, and stories feel like one of the most magical things you can create.
I’ve always created animal stories—as a boy, I was influenced by books like Beverly Cleary’s The Mouse and the Motorcycle. Though sometimes animal characters are seen as “younger” or “less serious” than human characters, they can engage any reader, no matter what that reader’s ethnicity is, or gender. I feel like they’re more universal to our ability to imprint or relate than a human character might be.
I’m at an age where a few of our friends are starting to take early retirement, and that’s just not something I’ve ever thought about much. I made pictures and stories before it was my daily job, and if I were ever in a position where I didn’t need to keep working. . . I’d still be making pictures and stories. I think very few children’s book authors and/or illustrators ever “retire” in a traditional sort of sense. There’s always something new to say, a new way of approaching the idea of “story” to discover.
That's a very interesting point about animal main characters. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
Few people outside of close friends know that I’m an instrument hoarder. I desperately wish that I were good enough at a musical instrument to be able to play it in front of people and not embarrass myself—but I’m not. Usually, when people say that, they are actually pretty good—and listeners murmur, “oh, he was being modest.” For me, the murmurs would be awkward polite noises, followed by everyone discovering that they needed to refresh their drink. In our house right now are: a digital piano, banjo, electric and acoustic guitar, antique mandolin, antique saxophone, bagpipe chanters (2), penny whistle, flutes (2, I’m selling them for my mother), three recorders and a couple of harmonicas. Oh, and my childhood violin. And I’m sure I could think of one or two more I’ve forgotten. Oh, yeah—a drum kit.
You don't have to be great at something to enjoy doing it. That does sound like a great collection. What inspired you to write & illustrate the Bat series and particularly Little Bat in Night School?
I created four other bat books, all with Little Bat tucked into many of the pictures, as a kind of “Easter egg,” waiting to be discovered on the third or fourth read. He’s been a living, breathing character to me since Bats at the Beach, and I wanted to spend a little more time in his world—but thought that, rather than have him be an extra in the illustrations, I’d like to see him as a main character. I thought up a number of situations he might find himself in, and two of them will become picture books. First, he’s off to school.
As an author/illustrator, I visit dozens of schools around the country every school year and have found things I love about today’s schools . . . and things I wish were different. So Little Bat’s night school experience echoes some of those things I’d like to see more of—time during which students are given free time to do whatever they want (great for imagination and SEL—social and emotional learning, which is the rage now. . . but just happens if you give young people time and space and a freedom from proscribed play). The idea that I expound in my school visits that practice makes better, not perfect. And the opportunity for critters from a variety of species to mix with each other, which is going to get them to realize that “that opossum is just like me,” rather than different.
Unstructured play is so very important. What’s something you want your readers to know about Little Bat in Night School?
The school that Little Bat attends is a bit like their own schools.
I do like the cubbies and the alphabet hanging. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or your favorite book as a child?
There were so many good books when I was growing up: I loved From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Kronigsburg, My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George, the Edward Eager magic books, Jane Langton’s Concord, MA-based mysteries (The Diamond in the Window, etc.).
For illustrators, I loved Harry Devlin (who did the “Cranberry books” like Cranberry Christmas—though my faves were The Knobby Boys to the Rescue and The Wonderful Treehouse). I loved Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever, and Arnold Lobel’s illustrations for Miss Suzy, by Miriam Young.
What a great list; you've listed some of my favorite books. What was the toughest aspect of writing and/or illustrating Little Bat in Night School?
The toughest aspect of this book was winnowing a whole school day down to 32 pages. For a little bat’s first night at school, there was so much activity and discovery that I was tempting to show, so many emotional experiences that had to be omitted due to space limitations.
That's never an easy task. Which comes first for you, the text or the image for a picture book? Do you find it harder to write or illustrate?
There’s no set “rule” for how I approach a picture book—I’d say story comes first, sometimes with a character or a situation, and I begin to set it down both in words and pictures. I end up with lots of scribbles on yellow legal pads, and sketches in sketchbooks or loose pieces of paper, and then comes the real work—taking all of that material and trying to wrestle it into a clear and concise story where both the words and pictures are essential in telling that story.
Both writing and illustrating have their difficulties—how do I say this? How do I show this? But illustrating a story takes infinitely more time than writing it does. You could write that a character gets soaked down to her pinfeathers, but to show that, I have to paint a scene in which everything looks wet, the light is just right, and there’s a feel, whether the character is overjoyed or dismayed, that has to be captured in an image.
Many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in Little Bat in Night School? Could you share any few with us? What is your favorite Spread?
Text and Image © Brian Lies, 2021.
I think my favorite spread may be where Little Bat and his new opossum friend Ophelia are having fun making stubby little clay statues, and Little Bat looks over to see that a ferret is completing a magnificent equestrian statue of a sword-wielding octopus. I’m disheartened by the self-criticism I see from students in schools about their own art-making abilities—it’s very common for one student to be a little more advanced than the rest, and the entire class assigns that student the “class artist” label, rather than acknowledging that people learn things at different paces, and that one person’s skill doesn’t mean another person is deficient. So this spread addresses that—Little Bat cries that he “stinks at art!” but the ferret who’s made the equestrian statue says, “Aw, don’t feel bad—I’ve been doing this a lot longer than you. And practice makes better.”
The ferret is actually a little bit of a fond memory for me—during show-and-tell, it announces that “I like cephalopods!” A few years back, a young boy kept eagerly interrupting my school presentation with a raised hand, asking if I’d ever put octopuses, squids, etc. in my books. If I’d ever done a book about cephalopods. “I like cephalopods!” he announced another time. It was clear that he was on the autism or Asperger’s spectrum, and just wanted to make a connection with a school visitor—and so I did a demonstration drawing for that class of an octopus doing something. I’ve remembered that ever since, and slipped him into this book as a ferret.
I'd say he definitely made an impression on you. And I hope he gets to see your inclusion of a cephalopod! Who or what is your greatest source of inspiration?
That’s a tough question to answer, because inspiration for particular stories come from so many different places. The shape of a frost pattern in a window. An odd mash-up of two disparate things, like a fish and a dictionary. Something I overheard in the grocery store. Perhaps the real source of inspiration for me is something more intangible: curiosity. People will tell an author or illustrator that they’re “so talented,” but creating a shareable story so often feels like hard work. If I have any kind of true gift, apart from always getting the first parking space in a lot, it’s probably that I’m relentlessly curious about all kinds of things. . . and those can lead to story.
Now that's a gift to treasure! Do you have any advice for beginning illustrators or author/illustrators?
I think the best advice I could give is to never stop trying to learn new things, or to improve your craft. If you’re an illustrator, try to figure out the things that you avoid drawing or painting, and then determine why you avoid them. Because you can’t draw them? Then learn! So a weakness becomes a strength. But if it’s that you don’t enjoy drawing them, then you’ve learned something about your personal style.
If you’re an illustrator, I strongly encourage you to work at creating your own stories, rather than illustrating those written by someone else. That’ll make you a much better fit for the stories—they’ll be subjects you’re truly passionate about, so you may invest more of your heart and energy into them. You’ll be able to edit both the words and the pictures as you go through the book-making process (you usually can’t change the author’s words if you’re just the illustrator). I find that, as I work, the pictures beg for text changes, and the text begs me to alter something in the images. As I listen and respond, the book gets tighter and stronger, and you don’t get that in the same way illustrating someone else’s text.
With both writing and illustration, frequent practice is really key. If you do something every day, it gets easier, and you get better. Being creative is kind of like being a runner, where if you take time off, you get a little out of shape and have to work to get back to where you were when you stopped. Daily practice is ideal.
And of course it’s important to be a reader—to see how other people are telling stories, to learn how readers are responding to those stories, and to feel part of the creative community.
Wow, I feel like I've just had a mini-master class? How have you been staying, or trying to stay, creative over this past year? Anything in particular that you’ve found to be helpful?
I had just finished Little Bat in Night School when the pandemic struck—turned final illustrations in on March 2nd, then two days later was out on the road with school visits in NJ, NY and PA, and only came home on March 13th—with my last three schools that week getting their “we’re closing for two weeks” announcements while I was visiting. We had no idea then what we were in for.
Luckily, I had a second Little Bat book to create—Little Bat / Up All Day (coming out spring 2022), and so I could dive into that and shut the world out. I think the pandemic has been a lot easier for those of us who have always worked from home. I secured yet another book to illustrate, Wombat Said Come In (by Carmen Agra Deedy, Peachtree Publishing, fall 2022), and was able to dive into that once I finished up the second Little Bat book. And another story bubbled up out of nowhere, so I worked up the story and a sketch dummy for that, and it’s out on sub now.
This makes it seem like I cruised through the last year, but it was a lot harder than that—I couldn’t find the focus to read anything for three or four months and getting into daily practice of creating was very difficult. I think it was the “fight or flight” part of the reptilian brain, which believed that looking away from the torrent of bad news, protocols for gathering food, etc. threatened one’s survival. But I’m very grateful to have had the book projects to work on, because I was ultimately able to distract myself from some of the horror of the last year.
I can't wait for these books! Little Bat is so adorable and I can't wait for another adventure. And wombats are so fun, too! Which leads me to my last question. What is your favorite animal? Or one that you are enamored with. Why?
Most people assume I’m crazy about bats. I like them, and think they’re fascinating animals, but they’re not my favorite. My favorite’s the armadillo—any critter that can roll itself into a protective ball is OK with me! And I feel sympathy for them, too—armadillos apparently have a pathetic Achilles heel instinct. I’ve read they have a startle reflex that causes them to leap upward from all fours, and that’s why so many of them become roadkill: it’s their reflex that causes them to strike the underside of cars/trucks that might otherwise just pass over them. Really makes me feel sorry for them.
Thank you, Brian for stopping by and sharing with us. It was truly wonderful to chat with you.
Be sure to come back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on Little Bat In Night School.
To find out more about Brian Lies, or get in touch with him: