Author and illustrator of the NY Times bestselling bat series, Brian Lies gave an inspiring presentation at the 2014 Plum Creek Literary Festival earlier this month. In sharing his path to publication, he talked about letting kids know it’s okay to make mistakes and informing them that authors/illustrators have to work hard at their craft to make a publishable book. I’ll have a guest post on these latter subject, but for now let me share highlights about his life.
Lies grew up as an ordinary kid in a really rural town in New Jersey. He and his friends ripped down hills on bikes with no helmets and with bare feet and they wandered through cornfields. In the winter, they sled the trails. Lies dubbed it a “Tom Sawyer” experience.
He told of a neighborhood girl who acted as the ringleader of games. She knew how to play all the different types of tag. She also taught them with her fists how to pick who went first. :-) Lies had a crush on her and still recalls to this day how she was inventive, but one day she stopped coming to play. She even refused all invitations. His last memory is of sounds. A car picked her up and boys came to date her. She had become a boy crazy person and Lies felt sad. He remembered not wanting to lose the spirit of play, but wanting to grow up and keep the magic alive.
To Lies growing up, authors and illustrators were from another world. There were none of them in his parents’ circles and so he thought that books were mystically handed down.
His older sister influenced his desire to write. She always wanted to be one and is now a reporter in Tokyo. Initially, throughout his childhood, Lies competed against her but then decided that he actually enjoyed the process of writing stories.
The problem is that as a kid, Lies thought he couldn’t do anything and this discouraged him. He thought adults came the way they were.
In fifth grade in the United States, student are assigned to write and illustrate a book. Lies looked forward to the project and totally ripped off BC. He wrote about a dinosaur who lived in an apartment.
A wonderful thing about this project was that the students had an author visit. The author who came was Harry Devlin. He was impressed with the student creations. As for Lies, he sat transfixed but quiet throughout Devlin’s presentation. He found Devlin’s work amazing! He also wanted to be an author like Devlin. And why not? After all, Lies loved to write and draw.
Except…. Lies believed that he couldn’t draw. So as quickly as he began to dream, he also stopped. “The moment of dreaming is so fragile. I didn’t have faith in my artwork and so I drew for myself.”
His mom was a teacher and his dad was a chemist. The television wasn’t on at mealtimes. The kids read books. Although different books influenced him, his favorite was Richard Scarry’s Best Word book. By matching its pictures to words, Lies learned to read. He can still recall the day when “those little black marks gave up their secrets”.. Lies also credits Richard Scarry for all the details that he puts into books. Actually, the book not only taught him to read, but Lies even wrote an essay on it that got him into college.
In college, Lies drew for the school paper. Others in his class were doing daring things such as archeology digs and Broadway projects while he just worked in a hometown grocery store. And so Lies decided to become a political cartoonist. He sent out 140 hand-made portfolios and received 141 rejections. (One company rejected him twice!)
Lies learned from this experience. He realized failure isn’t everything. “Failure is only permanent if you let it keep you down. I reread the rejections. It said not now. That doesn’t mean never. They just didn’t like my art.” So Lies enrolled in art school and learned traditional art.”
Classmates would slam him in critiques, but Lies persevered. After winning a $2000 painting prize, Lies applied for a job at Christian Science Monitor who assigned him his first freelance illustrations. He did a couple thousand with many overnight deadlines.
At some point, Lies started thinking again about books. While he still didn’t believe in himself as an artist, this time he could tell himself that he was getting published all the time. So, he started working on an alphabet book. And had some miracles. For example, one day the lady ahead of him in line at a gift store asked, “Did I hear you say that you’re an illustrator?” And I said, “Yes, I am.” She said, “Have you ever done any children’s work?” And I said, “Well, I’m working on a picture book right now.” And she said, “I’d really like to see your portfolio. I’m the Art Director at Houghton Mifflin Company in Boston.” Even weirder is Lies had intended to send his alphabet book to her on speculation. He contacted her and one day got a message on his answering machine telling Lies that she had a book that he could design.
Much more information exists online about Brian Lies through interviews. Before I switch over to a discussion of his writing background, I’ll share the five tidbits from my research.
- Lies grew up surrounded by old farmland which was slowly giving way to housing developments. He spent a lot of time building dams and forts in the woods across the street with his best friend, inventing things, and writing with his older sister.
- At various times during his childhood, the family had newts, gerbils, and rabbits as pets.
- One of the tricks his mom taught him was to go into the library and, at random, choose a bookshelf then read the title of every single book on that shelf. As a young person, standing back and looking at an enormous room full of books overwhelmed him. But when he boiled it down to one shelf, it became doable.
- Going back through my school reports, he has discovered an awful lot of comments saying, “Brian could do very well in this subject if he only applied himself.” Lies considers himself a curious kid who asked a lot of questions—and who probably talked too much.
- During high school, he painted with oil paints and made stained glass windows. He even sold some of these projects!
As part of his presentation at Plum Creek Literacy Festival, author and illustrator of the NY Times bestselling bat series, Brian Lies talked about how he came up with ideas for his books and the process for creating them. I’ll review the first two books in the bat series tomorrow. Save the date: October 17! Below I’ll share highlights of the origins of the series.
The whole bat thing…. got sparked by his daughter. The family lives near a beach. His daughter who by now was in second grade was having a tough start getting ready for school. The bus was about to arrive. She still wasn’t ready. Lies went upstairs, found her at the top grinning, and she showed him a frosted window: “Look dad, it’s a bat with sea foam wings.” If one looked at the shape with imagination eyes, Lies said, one could actually make out the shape of sort of a happy bat with its wings stretched wide and playing in the ocean. He got her on the school bus and, as he was going back up to my office, he saw the ice pattern again and thought, “That sounds like a story.” This moment sparked the idea for Bats at the Beach.
Lies writes everything longhand on yellow lined refills. He uses the same materials everyday so that the materials don’t stand but the writing does. He filled six pads for Bats at the Beach. Most of it was junk. Even at the time Lies realized this, but he needed to generate material. After filling out his pads, Lies typed up the best material.
Rhyme isn’t how he intended to tell the bat stories, but the words came out that way and they started beating to a drum. Lies decided he couldn’t control it but he could shape it. The attitude in the industry is not to do rhyme. This is because everyone thinks they will the next Dr. Seuss. The result is a lot of bad rhyme. Lies didn’t want to add to it and so he worked hard on every word.
When Lies sketches, he doesn’t start out worrying about if it’s drawn well. Instead he just wants to figure out where everything will get placed. From start to finish, his process is to create sketchbooks of the image, then draw a thumbnail composition, next tighten up the artwork, and finally create one last final drawing which he transfers to good paper to color. Then he figures out the bright and dark areas, the angles for those colors, and everything else that comes in between. It takes him twelve to fourteen hours, or about four months, to create art for a book.
As for Bats in the Library, there were two influences. First, a local librarian said, “I probably should tell you that we once had a bat in our library.” Second, at presentations, boys often tell Lies that they don’t read. He finds that sad, because so much of who he is comes from books.
The idea of bats in the library instantly clicked with him but, when he started writing it, the story was really didactic. It was saying, “You should love libraries because you can find all these different things there” and felt leaden and dull. Then, Lies had a little bit of an epiphany. His father had died shortly before Bats at the Beach came out, and Lies remembered that his very favorite library building in the world was in the town where his dad grew up in Riverside, Illinois. Lies hadn’t been to that library in 27 years, but I had a memory of dark wood and beams stretching across the ceiling, stained glass windows, and deep red, leather chairs. He thought, “I’ve got to go back there. I have to see whether this building is as cool as I remember it. And, if it is, I think that’s the key into my story.”
Then Lies had one of what he referred to as several really freaky occurrences. He had not been to the library in 27 years but, as he was walking up to the front steps to the building, a mother and her little girl bounced out of the library door and staring him straight in the face was Bats at the Beach. This helped Lies feel as if he was on the right path.
Lies headed inside and instantly the library itself almost became one of the characters of the book for me. Lies crawled under sofas and even took pictures of latches and the water fountain. The librarians also let him climb up to the roof to take photos. He had three days to do everything. While there, Lies saw bookshelves with a bat shape. Suddenly, the book was a lot easier to do, and he was able to get rid of all of these “shoulds”. And so, the book became kind an homage to his father.
You can read more about Brian Lies at: