Author & Illustrator Brian Lies
Welcome to Picture Book Spotlight! I couldn't be more thrilled to have such a wonderful author, artist, and human being as our first Author Spotlight. Today, we have NY Times-bestselling Author & Illustrator Brian Lies. His most recent books include THE ROUGH PATCH (one of four 2019 Caldecott Honor Books), and GOT TO GET TO BEAR'S! Without further ado, let's dive right into Brian's interview.
Hardest question first: You’re a new addition to the crayon box...what color would you be and why?
Yikes, that is hard! I think I’d want to be a gray similar to the gray of one of our cats, who looks like different colors depending on what light is shining on him.
What’s something you absolutely must have in your refrigerator or pantry?
I’ve got to have a few favorite hot sauces (Matouk’s Calypso—terrific!), pickles and kimchi in the fridge.
Name three things you can’t do your job without.
Yellow legal pads, Dixon Ticonderoga #2 pencils. . . and a whole lot of patience.
What do you most love about working as a picture book creator?
I’ve always loved language and art, and a picture book is a wonderful blend of the two. So it’s great to be able to spend my time wrestling with words and pictures, trying to get the combination right and tell a story in the best way I can.
Describe a productive, yet quintessentially average day at work for you. Give us the play by play.
My days change a lot, depending on whether I’m heading out to a school visit, working on the text for a story, or painting the final illustrations for a book. With the latter, I’ll wake up, have breakfast and head to the studio to paint. I’ll paint until around noon, take a break for lunch, and head back to the studio. I’ll paint until it’s time to make dinner, or take a break late afternoon to do some yard work or get some exercise. After dinner, it’s back to the studio, and I’ll paint until 10:00 or so. It’s repetitive, but there’s nothing quite like the somewhat obsessive state of being in the heart of the illustrations of a book—tackling light and shadows, seeing how the piece you’re working on is developing, thinking about which piece you’re going to work on next.
What challenges are routinely part of the fabric of your work life?
The biggest challenge I find in being an author/illustrator is definitely having faith in story ideas—is this one good enough to invest precious time in? Will anyone want to read it? I’ve also recently realized that I’m a deeply collaborative person—I work out many of my ideas by talking about them—and yet this is a very solitary occupation. Once I know that a story concept is good enough to publish, I feel much more comfortable in being by myself and working on it. But that "Vacuum of Deciding" is difficult.
How did you get started in picture books and as an artist in general?
I’ve liked making things and drawing on paper for as long as I can remember, but never really believed I’d be good enough to get a book published. I thought about life as a fine art artist for a while, and that seemed wonderful, but it also seemed out of reach. So while I did mainstream academics in school, I always had a “pressure release” side track of art classes. When I was at Brown University (thinking I was going to be a clinical psychologist), I cross-registered for some classes at RISD, and started doing illustrations and then political cartoons for the Brown Daily Herald. At some point it dawned on me that political cartooning encompassed several of my big interests—but I was unable to get a job as a political cartoonist out of college. “We like your ideas, but your drawing isn’t strong enough.”
So I put myself through two and a half years of art school at the Boston Museum School, and started getting editorial illustrations published in the Christian Science Monitor, whose offices were close to the school, and the Boston Globe. I was an editorial illustrator for several years until my childhood dream of writing and illustrating children’s books rose up again (see your question about growth mindset, below). I was getting published every week, so my mental block of “never being good enough to get published” was clearly false. I worked to switch over to children’s books, and have never looked back.
What animals come easier to you as an artist, and (more importantly) what is your spirit animal?
It’s perhaps more interesting to mention animals that come less easily to me. Horses are tough—all of those knobby bits in their legs have to be right—and I’m not particularly comfortable with drawing dogs, because I didn’t grow up with them. And generally, I think I’d rather paint fur than feathers.
Spirit animal? Hmmm… I feel an affinity with foxes, so maybe that’s it. But I’ve always loved armadillos. I think their ability to curl up is pretty cool. Armadillos also have a flaw: when you startle them, they jump. Their startle reaction is apparently a big factor in armadillo road-kill incidents—if they just stayed put, the car would pass over them. Something about that fatal flaw makes me feel empathy for them—many of us humans can’t help our instinctive reactions, either.
On a good day I can doodle a half-way decent stick man, so someone like you is super human to me. What advice would you give a “words only” author to be a better storyteller in picture books?
I’d suggest that even “words only” authors get a template for a 32-page picture book, and lay their text out within that template—along with scribbles to suggest what illustration they think might be on the accompanying pages. Seeing a manuscript laid out like that is really helpful in terms of knowing if you’ve got enough or too much material, and in helping understand pacing. Do I have LOTS of movement, followed by LOTS of talking, for instance? It also really opens up possibilities for using page turns well. It’s useful to think of page turns as another kind of punctuation in a picture book manuscript beyond commas, periods, question marks, etc.
What advice do you have for illustrators starting out today in the kid lit industry? Any must have resources they need by their side?
I think I’d give my advice to young kidlit illustrators in any period of time, not just today. I think it’s a good idea to draw all the time—the more you do, especially early on, the more tools you have in your toolkit and the sooner you’ll arrive at your own personal style. I’d also recommend that young illustrators not follow trends too strongly, because trends change. If you’ve become too identified with one trend, you might find yourself adrift when public attention shifts elsewhere. Be flexible. Experiment. Always try to grow. And draw the way you draw.
In one of your tweets recently about school visits, you mentioned growth mindset. Can you unpack that concept a little and what you are hoping to accomplish with your school visits?
I’m the product of an author/illustrator’s visit to a school—when Harry Devlin (some may know his wife Wende’s and his “Cranberry books”) came to my school, that was the first time that it really dawned on me that normal people could be real authors. I always believed that “innate talent” was one of the big factors in creative endeavors, and so I didn’t think that I could ever be a real author—I wasn’t the best writer OR artist in my classes. Though there are people who may learn something faster, or have a certain natural “genius,” anyone who’s determined can push their skills forward. And so much of how far we get is really determination and practice. So when I’m visiting schools today, one of my main goals is to get students thinking about their brain development—they can train their brains to get better at whatever tasks they decide to tackle. I’m not necessarily trying to create hundreds of future authors in a school day—but if I can get a number of students to ease up on the pressure they’re putting on themselves to be “perfect,” and get them to think that perhaps they can achieve a personal goal with time and practice, then that’s a day well-spent!
Tell us about an unforgettable moment (whether good or bad) that you experienced at a school visit.
Ha! On the negative side, there’s the occasional child who throws up in the middle of a presentation, or who gives you whooping cough (that happened a few years back).
But the good things far outweigh the bad—when a teacher tells me that a student who didn’t create any kind of a disturbance during one of my presentations has never sat still that long—“we didn’t even know he could do that!” Or when a student jumps out of the class line on the way out to say, “You’re like a kid in a big body!” or to confide, “When I get home today, I’m going to write a story!"
Describe your process in terms of the relationship between words and images. What comes first and how does that relationship evolve over the life of each project?
Different stories come to me in different ways. Some begin with a suite of pictures (MORE started out that way), and some begin with words only. But the majority of stories I’ve done to date have come to me as a bunch of sketches and sentences. I’ll write something and an image will come to me, so I scribble it out, or I’ll sketch and words come to me, which usually go down as marginal notes on the sketch. I’ll generate a bunch of material, and then start pulling it together so it more or less looks like a story.
What is your relationship like with your agent and editors in regards to a new project? At what stage of development do you allow yourself to share or pitch an idea?
In my early days, when nobody had ever seen my work, I felt it was important to present my book proposals in an almost complete form—“finished” text, and very detailed, polished drawings. However, releasing work at a rougher stage can be good, because it allows more of a chance to shape it into the best story it can be without having to jettison too many false starts or shake yourself out of fossilized “but THIS is how it should go!” thinking.
It’s still difficult for me to let work leave in a rough state, but I’m learning to trust that people I work with will be able to imagine what the rough drawings can turn into. I have a fantastic agent, Erin Murphy of Erin Murphy Literary Agency, and have been blessed to work with some of the best editors out there—why would I not trust them??
When you look at the body of your work, what’s a unifying message that you hope comes through all of your projects?
I’ve never really thought about a unifying message, because each project has seemed so different from the others. But looking across the books I’ve done, I think you could say that one recurring theme is how a variety of different critters can all get along with each other. Perhaps friendship, loyalty, kindness? “Be good to each other."
Your blog interview about Bear’s gender in GOT TO GET TO BEARS! really stuck with me. Particularly with your own process of inquiry into the subtext of the message you may be sending young readers. Are you perceptive to these subtle messages in your work throughout the process, or does it wake you up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night all at once? Since this book, is there anything you are doing differently in terms of your characters and gender as a result?
With Got to Get to Bear’s!, my realization that there could be a negative message hiding in the story came as an unwanted thunderbolt. For those who haven’t read the book, a chipmunk named Izzy gets a note from her friend Bear, which says simply, “Come at once.” This is meant to misdirect the reader—Bear is being demanding, so is there something slightly threatening about Bear? It turns out that Bear’s reason for being cryptic is a loving one.
When I first wrote the story, Bear was a “he.” My thunderbolt was that you could read the story as Izzy (she) dropping everything to cater to the whim of Bear (he), something I didn’t want to say. I wanted it to be a story about how much one will do for a good friend, and that possible reading got in the way.
My editor and I discussed my concern, and decided that an easy fix was to change Bear to a “she.” Now the story is just a story of caring and friendship, without that potential negative insinuation. I’ve always been conscious of gender and equality (my mother was a member of League of Women Voters and a 1960s feminist, so I grew up in a household where chores and responsibilities weren’t divided by gender). But I’m sure this experience with Bear’s gender is going to become another “metric” I apply to every text I write in the future. We need to be aware of what we’re saying on the surface, and of any unwanted messages that might lurk below.
The Rough Patch (no joke) made me cry real tears in the middle of the library. It’s a literal miracle I didn’t jet home right then and there and snuggle my corgis. Even on a first read it was evident fox was going through the stages of grief, and I was struck how raw and honest that was. I think sometimes people think of picture books as fluffy and safe, but this book was anything but. Did that feel risky to you? How did the idea for this book come about? And was there anything wildly different about earlier versions that you care to share?
Writing and illustrating The Rough Patch definitely felt risky. I was concerned that one or two parts of the story might come off as manipulative or maudlin. Though I felt it was important to have several devastating occurrences happen “on stage” in the illustrations—having them happen off the page meant I’d have to hope the reader believed that they were hard for the main character, a fox named Evan—I did have qualms about whether it might be too strong for a picture book. One thing that has amazed me is that in my school visits this year, students almost universally choose The Rough Patch for me to read when I give them several choices. Though I’ve long believed that we adults underestimate children’s emotional lives, this has shown me how much more we need to trust them with hard things. They’re growing up into a difficult world, and we need to let them develop tools to handle situations that are going to arise. If we make things too safe today, they won’t be capable of handling tomorrow.
The idea for The Rough Patch came about as I was weeding my vegetable garden, and wondering what would grow in my garden pathways if I were to transplant the weeds into rows and pretend to care for them. Would I get carrots? Peas? Maybe reverse psychology was the way to get my garden to produce what I really wanted from it. That morphed into a story of hope after loss.
And it’s surprising how little changed in The Rough Patch from its very earliest iteration through to the finished book. Evan, the main character, was originally a human. But I switched him to a fox after considering that young children weren’t likely to gravitate to a book that had what looked like a grandfather on the cover, and the drawings of Evan as a bear and a rhino simply didn’t work. There was some tension in having Evan own a dog, because some people are bothered by the idea of an anthropomorphic animal having a pet (yet—Mickey and Pluto, anyone?). I did my best to keep the distinction between owner and pet clear, giving the dog neither a gender or a name, and making sure it always appears in the illustrations as a “real dog.” But making Evan’s loss about something other than a dog—a partner? A “fox friend”?—seemed disturbing to me, and having his pet be something like a goldfish would mean that his grief wouldn’t be terribly deep. So it had to be a dog. I’ve heard of a few readers who haven’t been able to get past the idea that “natural enemies” could be in this kind of owner/pet relationship, but this is fantasy, animals standing in as avatars for humans.
Without showing all your cards, what can you tell us about something you are in the middle of? Any hints, teasers? Particular concepts, themes, or characters that you’re enjoying spending time with?
I don’t like talking too much about projects I’m working on. Kids know how easily their enthusiasm for something they’re doing collapses when a fellow student looks over and says, “That’s stupid!” or “That’s ugly!” I’ve got several middle grade books that I’d like to be able to spend some time on, and perhaps a dozen picture book ideas in various stages of development. But readers can expect more anthropomorphic animals, and perhaps some stories rendered in materials that aren’t traditional for children’s books.
What do you think of the state of kid lit at this moment in history?
There are SO many great and innovative books being written now! And the new urgency in creating diverse books with protagonists from many different cultures is fantastic—children who have never seen themselves represented in the literature they’re reading will feel more connected, and all readers should find themselves learning more about other cultures and discovering that we’re far more alike than we are different. In the current divisive public discourse, this can only be a good thing for us as a country.
What is something upcoming you are excited about or would like to promote?
Without being TOO self-promoting, I’d just encourage your readers to check out THE ROUGH PATCH and GOT TO GET TO BEAR’S!, and see what they think!
Thank you so much for your time and insight, Brian! And CONGRATS on the Caldecott Honor achievement! I am over the moon for you, and I truly look forward to any and all future work you do.
And thank YOU, kid lit fam for stopping by! Tune in Monday, February 4th for an Agent Spotlight on Colleen Oefelein with The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency. Want automated email updates for all spotlight interviews? Subscribe here. Need a picture book recommendation? Read Brian Gehrlein's Favorite Picture Books in 2018.
About Brian Lies
Brian Lies is the award-winning author / illustrator of many books for children, including the NY Times-bestselling bat series (BATS AT THE BEACH, etc.). His most recent books are THE ROUGH PATCH (Greenwillow Books) and GOT TO GET TO BEAR’S! (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Brian lives with his family in Southeastern Massachusetts, and when he’s not working on books or visiting schools, he’s most likely reading, cooking or working in his vegetable garden. Brian's Website, Brian's Blog, Brian on Twitter, Brian's Literary Agency, Brian on Goodreads
Other Interviews Featuring Brian Lies
Writers' Rumpus, Think Act Be Podcast, Miss Marple's Musings, Mile High Reading
Brian Gehrlein is an educator and youth services librarian living in Kansas City with his wife, Katherine, and son, Peter. He is currently querying picture books and actively seeking literary representation. He thanks you for reading this post. Even this sentence. And this one. Hey, are you still reading this?