Children’s book author/illustrator Brian Lies has created thirty children’s books, including his New York Times bestselling bat books (Bats at the Beach, Bats at the Library, Bats at the Ballgame and Bats in the Band. His most recent illustrated books are Gator Dad (HMH 2016), a middle grade novel, Malcolm Under the Stars (by W.H. Beck, HMH, 2015), More (text by I.C. Springman, HMH 2012) and Malcolm at Midnight (by W.H. Beck, HMH 2012).
Brian’s books have been nominated for numerous state awards and have won several, including the Bill Martin, Jr. Award (Kansas), and have been translated into eight languages. He has also won many awards for his political illustrations in newspapers and magazines. His work has been featured on The Martha Stewart Show, named as a top ten book of the year by Time/CNN, and read aloud on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday by Scott Simon and Daniel Pinkwater.
Brian nearly stopped reading in the third grade, but was encouraged by his local librarians and rebounded, becoming an avid, lifelong reader. A 1985 graduate of Brown University with a degree in British and American Literature, he feels very strongly about the importance of getting young people to read. Brian spends part of the school year traveling throughout the United States to work with students and encourage them in their goals. He lives with his family in Duxbury, Massachusetts. Please visit his website to get to know him more.
- Tell us a little about how you started writing children’s books.
I first had the idea of becoming a children’s book author and illustrator during a 5th grade project in which we created our own picture books. It was a terrific project, plus author/illustrator Harry Devlin visited our school. I’d never thought that creating books was an actual job before. But I wasn’t the best writer or artist in my class, so I didn’t think I’d be able to do it. After a number of twists and turns, which included time at art school after my undergraduate work and a few years as an editorial illustrator, I switched over to what I’d really wanted to do all along.
- What is your writing / illustration process?
I seem to swing wildly between words and pictures — at certain times I’m working on only words and sketches, and when I’m on deadline I do nothing but paint all day. The important thing is getting yourself to your work place every day, to treat the work seriously. People joke about being able to create books in their pajamas, but unless that creates a good vibe for you to work, I’m not sure that’s the best way to take your career seriously!
- You have the advantage of both writing and illustrating your books. Please tell us a little about your illustration techniques.
I paint in a very traditional method with acrylics. I begin by transferring my sketch to a thick piece of Strathmore paper, then create a semi-transparent underpainting, using mixes such as Raw Umber and Burnt Sienna, or Ultramarine Blue and Permanent Sap Green. This serves several purposes: it seals the paper so that it doesn’t suck all of the moisture out of the acrylic paint, it helps me to set up the lights and darks of the piece (I rough in the shadows in the underpainting stage), and it gives me time to make choices about how I’m going to approach the painting.
Once I’ve completed the underpainting, I’m usually eager to get going on the final painting, but I’ve found that things go much more smoothly if I do a mini version of the painting first — a color study. I’ll raise the contrast of the sketch on the computer so the lines are clear, then print out a small copy and mount that to thicker stock. I do a very loose version of the final piece, trying out color mixes. This is going to be blue? Well, which blue? Doing a color study allows some play and experimentation, and once I’ve got the colors figured out, it’s off to the final piece.
I usually paint in the darkest darks in the picture and give myself a hint of what the brightest parts will be, so I have a range of bright/dark in mind. Then I complete the picture, usually working from background elements to foreground, all in acrylics. I’ll use transparent glazes at times to unify colors. Some areas, when I’m done, will have seven or eight layers of paint.
- You have the advantage of both writing and illustrating your books, along with illustrating books written by other authors. Do you have a preference, or do you enjoy both?
I enjoy illustrating others’ work when the story is strong — I get to be one of the first readers, and work hard to try to make my illustrations fit the story and help move it forward. But there’s nothing like creating a book from scratch — your idea, your words, your images. You have so much more leeway on trying to get everything right. If you’re illustrating someone else’s text and you feel there’s something not quite right in it, you can’t do anything about it.
- You studied drawing and painting at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Do you find it advantageous to attain a degree or certification in the field of the arts you wish to make a career?
I have an undergraduate degree from Brown University in British and American Literature, and that’s opened some doors for me over time, especially at the beginning when I was working to get established. And there are some great programs out there in writing and illustration. However, what’s most important is what you get out of a program, not the piece of paper you receive at the end. I didn’t receive a certificate or degree for my art school work because going for a paper would have meant duplication or taking courses I felt were tangential to what I was trying to learn, but at the end of my time at the Museum School, I was getting editorial illustrations published regularly.
- Where do you find the inspiration for your delightful characters? For example, what made you decide on gators for Gator Dad? And how did your bat friends come to you?
I think most of my characters are extensions of parts of my personality — isn’t that true for most writers? It’s a hard question to answer, because a lot of the time, my characters are just there. I did alligators for Gator Dad because the first inspirational sketch I did for the project was a little gator sitting on a wall and a big gator with his arm around it. I experimented with other critters (bunnies, etc.) but thought that some dads (the kind I think really need that book) might scoff at reading “another bunny book.” In the end, I felt the gators were right — some dads are kind of scaly on the outside, but soft on the inside. (Illustration from Gator Dad is copyrighted material)
- Some agents and publishing houses write in their query information they do not accept, or strongly suggest not submitting, rhyming stories. This is unfortunate, as you prove there can be well-written rhymes in your Bat series. Can you provide any insight in reference to this disinclination? Do you have advice for authors who wish to publish rhyming stories?
I think the main reason that publishers publicly discourage rhyming texts is that many beginning children’s writers 1) believe children’s books have to rhyme like Dr. Seuss, and 2) really aren’t any good at rhyming. It’s no good simply making up a word when you can’t find something to rhyme (“I couldn’t locate our old vacuum / and so I grabbed my friend the Hakuum!”). And there are certain things you absolutely have to do if you’re going to rhyme: the meter has to be perfect. Not close, perfect. You can’t throw in lots of filler words (“just” is a biggie) to add syllables, because the language stops sounding like the only language that you could have used in a situation, and sounds like you threw it in “because.” And it’s important to pay attention to every word in the sentence, not just the rhyming word. Internal rhymes, alliteration and assonance, occasional breaks to the metrical pattern (as in a chorus) all help to make the language readable and flowing and not some horrible sing-songy thing. (www.rhymezone.com is a great online resource)
- Do you have any advice for hopeful authors and illustrators who are starting out in their career?
The most important thing is to show up for work every day. Write something daily. Draw something daily. Discover your weaknesses, and set yourself assignments to overcome those weaknesses. Focus less on getting published, and more on craft. But learn the business (because it is a business) of the publishing world.
- You have made guest appearances in a variety of schools and gatherings to read your works. Which works do you find you like to read aloud the most? Why?
My favorites to read aloud are Bats at the Beach and Bats at the Library, partially because I think the language works the best in those two, but also because they feel more universal to me than my bat books about baseball and playing music.
- An author needs a community to support and encourage them in their dreams. Who have you found along your journey?
I’ve been happy to be a part of SCBWI, both attending and presenting at conferences around the US. SCBWI folks are almost universally generous with their time and thoughts, and help to decrease the sense of isolation that often comes with this mostly-solitary venture. I’ve also been involved in a critique group for over fifteen years, and they’re both dear friends and terrific critiquers for new things I’m working on. But I’ve also met some generous folks (“biggies” in the industry) who have surprised me by their generosity with advice and ideas. The children’s book world may be unique in having a very small number of divas compared to any other field.
- Tell us something fun about yourself.
Number one on my bucket list is being able to, someday, get up in front of a group and play music — or better yet, experience playing music with other people. I don’t put in the time to practice, though, so I’m not very good at anything. Yet I keep collecting instruments, perhaps hoping that something will take! My last acquisition was a drum kit, and I’m currently in discussion over a set of bagpipes. . .
- Can you provide a sneak peek of any current projects?
I’ve just recently finished the illustrations for two books: the first is a surprising departure for me. It’s called The Rough Patch (Greenwillow Books, spring 2018), about a character who finds himself dealing with grief, and the “anger” part of loss. In his sorrow, he destroys something that was very important to him, and the story is about how — and if —he finds his way back out of that sorrow. Ultimately I believe it’s a book about hope. I didn’t set out to write a story about loss — sometimes a story arrives, and demands to be told.
The next one is a fun piece of fluff: a story called Got to Get to Bear’s!, about a chipmunk named Izzy who’s been summoned by a note from Bear (and Bear never asks for anything), but finds herself stymied by a blizzard in her attempt to get to Bear’s house. Helped out by a growing cadre of friends who are also out in the storm, Izzy makes her way to discover what Bear needs. This one’s Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Fall 2018.
- Have you ever won the Lottery?
Yes, I feel like I’ve won the Lottery several times over. First, I get to sit in a room and put words and pictures on paper, which is what I loved to do as a kid. And I married well! The only real “entry” type prize I’ve won was when I was a kid, and my older sister and I filled in the blanks on a slip of paper while waiting for our mother to get through the grocery line. We tucked it into the slot in a box. A few weeks later, there was a phone call during dinner — we’d won a month’s free diaper service. Our parents weren’t amused.