Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Brian Lies

h1 November 10th, 2008 by jules

You know what I think of when I think of the art work of author/illustrator Brian Lies, pictured here having dinner with his bat buddy from his popular Bats at the Beach and brand-new Bats at the Library books? I think: precision, rich details, meticulous, and craftmanship. And I’m not alone. Writes Publishers Weekly about his latest Bats at the Library, “the author/artist outdoes himself: the library-after-dark setting works a magic all its own, taking Lies and his audience to a an intensely personal place,” and Kirkus writes, “{i}n this latest from Lies, it’s all-deservingly-about the artwork. He brings a sure, expressive and transporting hand to this story of a colony of bats paying a nighttime visit to a small-town library.” I mean, just check out this beautiful spread from the book. This is one of several spreads in which we see the bats absorbed in their books-of-choice: “And if we listen, we will hear / some distant voices drawing near — / louder, louder, louder still, / they coax and pull us in, until… / everyone—old bat or pup— / has been completely swallowed up / and lives inside a book instead / of simply hearing something read”:

I only wish this image were bigger so that you could see the craftmanship involved — not to mention the many children’s lit references. (Better yet, you could just go get a copy of the book at your local library or bookstore, and then come back and talk to me about how fabulous the art work is.)

As you can see from the bibliography he provided at the bottom of this interview, he’s not new to children’s books, but it was, arguably, with his recent bat books that he garnered a bit more attention in his career as author/illustrator (you can’t get more popular than Martha Stewart announcing Bats at the Library as a “good thing” on the October 29th episode of her show, which apparently she did). But, as adventurous and impish and enjoyable as those two picture books are, don’t forget his other illustrated titles, including Donna M. Bateman’s Deep in the Swamp (Charlesbridge) from last year, reviewed here at 7-Imp. Yes, move over Audubon: Lies’ acrylics are detailed, precise, and—as School Library Journal noted—glowing in this one, too. There are a great many more, but let’s get to our breakfast . . .

And Brian’s 7-Imp breakfast-of-choice this morning? “Two over easy, homefries (crispy), toast (wheat), corned beef hash (also crispy). Usual breakfast: yogurt, cereal and fruit, coffee.” His fellow mammalian friend up there, the ever-so adorable bat, seems to be having Grasshopper. Ahem. I’ll stick with my coffee and maybe see if I can bum some toast off of Brian.

Let’s get the basics from Brian while we set the table here for our seven questions over breakfast, and I thank him for stopping by.

* * * * * * *

7-Imp: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Brian: I’m lucky enough to be both an author and illustrator. I’ve illustrated twenty-one children’s trade books to-date, four of which I also wrote.

7-Imp: Can you list your books-to-date?

Brian: Best-known listed here; full list and bibliography below {at end of interview}.

7-Imp: What is your usual medium, or -– if you use a variety -– your preferred one?

Brian: I’ve gone through three distinct styles in my years in children’s books: scratchboard, watercolor, and now acrylics. I’ve found a home in the acrylics, though—they can provide bold color, subtle lighting, interesting texture, and they’re forgiving. If I make mistakes, I can paint over them.

{Pictured here is one of Brian’s blue pencil sketches for Bats at the Library.}

7-Imp: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Brian: I live about twenty-five miles south of Boston. We’ve got a great beach (which I seem to only be able to get to occasionally, because of deadlines) and good roads for bicycling. I’m frustrated by the soil and by the 70+ foot white pines, though, which have made gardening difficult. This year, I started getting ripe tomatoes in late September!

7-Imp: Can you briefly tell us about your road to publication?

Brian: Harry Devlin, who with his wife, Wende, created some of my favorite children’s books (The Knobby Boys to the Rescue, The Wonderful Treehouse), visited my school when I was in fifth grade. I’d always drawn and made up stories, and the idea that this could actually be a job was like a thunderbolt out of the skies. I was never the best artist in my class, though, and so I didn’t think I could ever be an author/illustrator.

When I was at Brown University, I started taking classes at the Rhode Island School of Design and doing political illustrations for the college newspaper. It dawned on me that doing something you loved, not just something that made money, was important. So I sent portfolios of my work to one hundred and forty major metropolitan daily papers in the U.S., and was rejected by all of them. I’d gotten so invested in the idea of trying, though, that I didn’t give up. I went on to two and a half years of art school and, during that time, started doing Op-Ed illustrations for the Boston Globe and the Christian Science Monitor. And, in a freaky coincidence, I started talking in a store line with a woman who turned out to be Susan Sherman, then Art Director at Houghton Mifflin (she’s with Charlesbridge Publishing now). We traded cards, and about a month and a half later, she sent me my first manuscript to illustrate.

7-Imp: Can you please point us to your web site and/or blog?


7-Imp: If you do school visits, tell us what they’re like.

Brian: When I visit schools, one of my main goals is to let kids know that it’s okay to make mistakes and that all authors/illustrators have to work hard at their craft to make a publishable book. I think a lot of kids believe it’s a question of innate talent and that their feelings of inadequacy about their own work are a sign that they’re never going to be good at things. I show drawings from books I’m working on and talk about the seemingly endless revisions I do in both words and pictures, but also show one of my second-grade drawings, to prove that it’s more a question of hard work and time commitment than it is about being born talented. They laugh at my early drawings—most second-graders today can draw far better than I could. At the end of a school visit, I do a demonstration drawing suggested by the students—so they can see how I put a drawing together, and also see the mistakes I make along the way.

Brian on a visit to the Toledo-Lucas Co. Public Library7-Imp: Any new titles/projects you might be working on now that you can tell us about?

Brian (pictured here on a visit to the Toledo-Lucas Co. Public Library): I’m working on another bat book now, scheduled for publication in 2010. Turns out, my bats love baseball. But I’ve also got a bunch of different ideas percolating for stories, ranging from picture books to novel-length things.

Mmm. Coffee.Okay, the table’s set. We’re good-to-go with our coffee, and even Brian’s bat friend is set. We’re ready to talk more specifics . . .

1. 7-Imp: What exactly is your process when you are illustrating a book? You can start wherever you’d like when answering: getting initial ideas, starting to illustrate, or even what it’s like under deadline, etc. Do you outline a great deal of the book before you illustrate or just let your muse lead you on and see where you end up?

Brian’s sketch of the library from Bats at the Library (“one of the research drawings I did of the REAL library,” Brian told me, “which is in Riverside, Illinois”)

Brian: If I’m illustrating someone else’s story, I’ll read the manuscript a number of times, with different things in mind: First reading, overall feeling. Is this something I want to spend a half-year working on? Do I think I can add something to the story? Once I decide to go forward on illustrating a book, I do a very close re-reading to start generating visual ideas. The manuscript gets messy with marginal notes and scribbles. From there, I move on to generating a full dummy.

But if I’m writing and illustrating a book, words and pictures come at the same time. I have some ideas for pictures with no words, some ideas for words with no pictures. My process is messy—I generate lots of stuff, some of which is good, and some of which is hopelessly damaged. The longer I spend with the mess, writing and drawing, the more the bits start to stick together and feel like a story. As it moves forward, I create a full-sized dummy to check flow and page-turns, and then do very tight sketches for each page.

I do my finishes in acrylics on Strathmore 400 Series paper and do a lot of glazing and layering (the night skies in the bat-books have eight layers of color to achieve a sort of night glow).

2. 7-Imp: Describe your studio or usual work space for us.

Brian: I work in the former fourth bedroom in our house, with windows overlooking our front lawn and the street. Though I like working alone, it helps me to see the movement of cars in my peripheral vision—that way I feel as though I’m perched at the edge of activity, and not isolated. Two years ago, after working among free-standing bookshelves and hopeless tangles of electric-cord spaghetti, I finally reworked my studio with built-in cabinets and bookshelves, with hidden chases for all of the wires. It’s been great—I work much better when I don’t feel crowded in by chaos. A book underway is chaotic enough.

3. 7-Imp: As book lovers, it interests us: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?

Brian: My favorite picture books were ones with detailed illustrations I could spend hours looking at—Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever, for instance, or David Stiles’ Fun Projects for Dad and the Kids. I also liked the work of P.D. Eastman (Are You My Mother?), and especially that one wonderful illustration from Go, Dog, Go!—the party in the treetop at the end with all of the dogs eating cake and ice cream and bouncing on trampolines.

Some of my favorite reads were Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain, anything by Jane Langton (including The Diamond in the Window and The Swing in the Summerhouse), and Edward Eager’s magic books, including Half Magic and The Well-Wishers. Kipling’s Just So Stories are also terrific. At one point, early on, I stopped reading altogether. I was “cured” with a book club subscription to Jerry West’s The Happy Hollisters series. Every few weeks, a book arrived in the mail for me—and I devoured it. I’ve been a solid reader ever since.

4. 7-Imp: If you could have three (living) illustrators or author/illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?

N.C. Wyeth, ca 1920; image in the public domainBrian: That’s a really hard one to answer without sounding sycophantic. It’s far easier to talk about which deceased authors/illustrators I’d like to talk with: Probably N.C. Wyeth {pictured here}, C.S. Lewis and Robert McCloskey. . .

5. 7-Imp: What is currently in rotation on your iPod or loaded in your CD player? Do you listen to music while you create books?

Brian: I often listen to books on CD when I’m doing the final illustrations for a book, because I like hearing a long narrative and the radio can make me nervous (“What? Another hour gone??”). I listen to music based on mood—if I need to get into a calm space, it’s likely to be Mozart piano concertos or the Grateful Dead, and if I’m tired and need an energy lift, it’s more likely to be Green Day or Alison Krauss + Union Station. My iPod has a pretty eclectic mix on it.

6. 7-Imp: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Brian: My last name rhymes with “cheese,” not “flies.”

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Brian: “Yolk.” Like many words, it sounds funny if you keep repeating it out loud.

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Brian: “Avgolemono.” It’s one of those words, which, when I read it, keeps bouncing in my head for the rest of the day, like an annoying song.

7-Imp: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Brian: Looking at art in museums, exercise, meditative things, like weeding or cooking.

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Brian: Thinking about taxes.

7-Imp: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Brian: (Indignant tone) I’m a children’s book author/illustrator. We never swear!

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you love?

Brian: Mail truck brakes.

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you hate?

Brian: Tuneless whistling, or the whine of a mosquito past an ear.

7-Imp: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Brian: Assuming talent came with the wish, I’d want to be a performing musician.

7-Imp: What profession would you not like to do?

Brian: Factory worker, mid-level executive, anything grindingly repetitive.

7-Imp: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Brian: “There are some people here who have been waiting a long time to see you.”

* * * * * * *

Breakfast, bat-mobile, and studio photos courtesy of Brian Lies. All sketches and illustrations courtesy of Brian Lies. All rights reserved and all that good stuff.

Illustrations from BATS AT THE LIBRARY © 2008 by Brian Lies. Published by Houghton Mifflin, Boston. Posted with permission of illustrator. All rights reserved.

* * * * * * *

Brian’s response to the books-to-date question —


Bats at the Library, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2008.

Bats at the Beach, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2006.

Hamlet and the Enormous Chinese Dragon Kite, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1994.

Hamlet and the Magnificent Sandcastle, Moon Mountain Publisher (North Kingstown, RI), 2001.


Eth Clifford, Flatfoot Fox and the Case of the Missing Eye, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1990.

Dianne Snyder, George and the Dragon Word, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1991.

Eth Clifford, Flatfoot Fox and the Case of the Nosy Otter, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1992.

Eth Clifford, Flatfoot Fox and the Case of the Missing Eye, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1992.

Eth Clifford, Flatfoot Fox and the Case of the Missing Whoooo, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1993.

Betty Bonham Lies, The Poet’s Pen, Teacher Ideas Press, 1993.

Eth Clifford, Flatfoot Fox and the Case of the Bashful Beaver, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1995.

Eth Clifford, Flatfoot Fox and the Case of the Missing Schoolhouse, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1997.

Eth Clifford, Flatfoot Fox and the Case of the Missing Eye, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1997.

Bruce Glassman, The Midnight Fridge, Blackbirch Press (Woodbridge, CT), 1998.

Kay Winters, Where Are the Bears?, Bantam Doubleday Dell (New York, NY), 1998.

Charles Ghigna, See the Yak Yak, Random House (New York, NY), 2000.

Elaine Landau, Popcorn, Charlesbridge (Watertown, MA), 2003.

Irene Livingston, Finklehopper Frog, Tricycle Press (Berkeley, CA), 2003.

Lynda Graham-Barber, Spy Hops and Belly Flops: Curious Behaviors of Woodland Animals, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2004.

Ellen Weiss, Lucky Duck, Aladdin (New York, NY), 2004.

Irene Livingston, Finklehopper Frog Cheers, Tricycle Press (Berkeley, CA), 2005.

Donna M. Bateman, Deep in the Swamp, Charlesbridge (Watertown, MA), 2007.

15 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Brian Lies”

  1. Wow, fantastic art (and great interview). We’ve read a few of his books before without connecting the dots and figuring out that we liked all of them.

  2. When the bats get lost in the stories…my favorite part!

  3. Ha! That bat eating the grasshopper cracks me up. Is it crispy? (I gotta have my home fries and corned beef hash crispy, too.)

    And, oh! The Diamond in the Window! The Swing in the Summerhouse! I adored those books. And many other things he mentioned in this interview: Alison Krauss and exercise and art in museums and talking to kids about mistakes.

    Now all I need to do is get my hands on Bats in the Library, which I know I will love too.

  4. Lots of wonderful rich material here to savor over breakfast…

    The bats books look terrific! If, like me, this is your first exposure to them, you might like to stop by The Bat Wing at Brian Lies’s Web site for some close-ups, and even a “coming soon!” interactive map of where the “Book Bats” will be visiting. Cool!

    Also found the site for the Riverside Public Library. (LOVED that “research drawing”; it always kills me how the terms artists use for their work, pre-final, make it sound so banal.) There I found that Brian Lies was featured, with his book and the library, on Martha Stewart’s show of 10/29/08. Also cool!

    My favorite bats-in-books have always been Pogo’s Bewitched, Bothered, and Bemildred. Brian’s book bats are challenging that tradition, though.

  5. I loved the illustrations in Bats at the Beach, and I really, really love Bats in the Library. What a treat to be able to see some of his sketches. Also, I kind of want that car.

  6. […] Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Brian Lies […]

  7. I was hooked with the bats. I love bats. Of course, every time I admit that, the next thing I know I’m getting bat figurines and bat earrings with fangs that drip blood, so I have to keep it pretty quiet. I’m off to find Bats at the Library….

  8. Thanks, you all. Adrienne, I’d at least like to zoom around in that car one day. Wouldn’t you be kick-ass, too, showing up for a story time in that thing? Reading Bats at the Library, OF COURSE.

    Mary Lee, that’s my favorite part, too!

    Note to self: Do not buy Alkelda any bat toaster cozies for the holidays.

  9. Bats at the Beach is one of my favorite books ever. I just love the detailed images of those bats! It was great to read more about this talented illustator and author.

    Coolio being on the video from Children’s Writing Web Journal with you guys too!

  10. I absolutely adore that frog!! And really, if you have a large grasshopper, that’s all you need for the day, I’m sure. Oh, and a spoon.

  11. Jules,

    Brian was at Boston College last Thursday for an event sponsored by The Foundation for Children’s Books Conversations with…Series. I subscribe to the series–but I was so busy last week that I forgot about Brian being at BC until after well after 5 o’clock. The events are usually held on Tuesdays. Myabe that’s why it slipped my mind.

    Anyway, I hope to hear Brian present some time. He does live up here in Massachusetts.

    I love his “Bats” books! Thanks for the interview.

  12. We’ve got that new Bats book out from the library, but I haven’t gotten my hands on it yet. The child made off with it. How dare he.

    Loved Bats at the Beach.

  13. Love the chance to see the sketches! What a gift!
    I was also delighted to see the “Little Nemo” reference in that big spread. Hopefully this is an indication that Little Nemo is moving out of obscurity and finding a place in popular culture once again! Beautiful work Brian!

  14. […] From I. C. Springman’s More(Houghton Mifflin, March 2012), illustrated by Brian Lies […]

  15. […] Brian Lies answers some questions at the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. […]

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