Brian Lies - interview

I love Brian´s books so I was thrilled when he responded to my plea for help with my dissertation papers and answered my questions. His answers were just splendid and helped me enormously - and not just to do the best possible dissertation. I hope you can also benefit from his knowledge, his obvious passion for his work and his good heart.

Brian Lies is the award-winning author/illustrator of the Bat series. His books Bat at the Beach, Bat at the library and Bat at the Ball Game are the New York Times bestsellers and his another book Bats in the Band came out in August 2014 was also fabulous. You can visit his website for further information and inspiration.

WHAT IN YOUR OPINION ATTRACTS A) THE CHILDREN AND B) THEIR PARENTS TO BUY A CHILDREN´S BOOK (SPEAKING OF CHILDREN OF AGE 4 TO 8)? A strong image on the cover is important—it’s the bait on the hook to catch a reader, for both children and adults.

TO WHAT EXTENT ARE ILLUSTRATIONS IN THESE BOOKS SIGNIFICANT IN THE WHOLE BOOK SELLING PROCESS? I believe the illustrations are very important. Someone shopping for a book can flip through the pages and get a sense of what kind of story it is very quickly from the illustrations. Reading the story itself takes a lot longer.

What are the purposes of the illustration in a children´s book? In a picture book, the illustrations are every bit as important as the words, often much more important. You’re telling a story in both words and pictures, and you ought to be able to understand the story from just the words or pictures, but together they make a much better experience.

Could you describe your design process for creating these illustrations? I start off with very rough sketches, which suggest the action of the characters in the story. Then I refine the drawings, working on the setting and background, and re-drawing the characters to work better in the setting. I think about how the pictures will move the story along and create a flow, or increase tension in parts of the story.

Where do you go or what do you do for inspiration? I often use exercise for inspiration—it’s great for helping shake my head out of whatever place it is, and re-setting it for the next time I sit down to work. Sometimes I go to a museum to look at other people’s artwork.

How important is cooperation with an editor and/or art director for you as illustrator? I think cooperation with an editor and art director is very important. I usually know when I think I’ve gotten something right, but I sometimes don’t recognize weaknesses in my stories or things that don’t work. So I want somebody to tell me those things! I also learn about storytelling and book design from suggestions they give me—which should make me a better storyteller on the next book!

Why in your opinion is the majority of leading children´s book characters male - both human and animal? And would you illustrate a main character a boy or a girl, if the gender would not be specified in the story itself already? Why? I’m not sure I agree that most children’s book characters are male—at least in the US. When I was growing up, it seemed like most children’s books were written for girls, and many boys never became strong readers because they couldn’t find quality books with boys as the main characters. I think that now there are many more books written with boys as an intended audience (the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, for instance), and I think that’s been good for getting boys interested in reading fiction. Personally, I don’t have a particular leaning towards either boy or girl characters. If I’m illustrating someone else’s story and the gender isn’t specified, I think I’d listen for clues in the text—did the author IMPLY a boy or a girl?—and if it’s truly neutral, I believe I’d make the decision based on what I thought would make a stronger book .

What in your opinion brings illustrations in these books - and characters especially - into life? This is hard to answer, because so many different things bring illustrations or characters to life. Are the illustrations flat or dimensional? Is there lots of movement, or do the characters look motionless and pasted into the pictures? Is the setting / background interesting and original, or does it only have things we’ve seen many times before, in other books? Personally, I don’t like things that are TOO cheery or happy, because that feels false to me. Real life isn’t like that, and I think that children know it. If illustrations and characters feel complex and have more than one dimension, then the story is more believable to me.

Do you ever add some underlining element(s) to the story that is not to be found in the written text? If yes, why do you do so and could you give me an example? I ALWAYS add things that are not found in the text. It makes the picture part of the story more interesting. Sometimes I hide picture jokes (such as a pyramid of bats standing on each others’ shoulders in BATS AT THE BEACH—they’re acroBATS), sometimes I put a whole story in the pictures which isn’t in the words. In my bat books, I have a small bat wearing yellow floaties (water wings), and in each story, he’s having a new experience which you can “read” in the pictures. I like picture books which include things I might not see or understand until the third or fourth time I read the book.

How do you pick the right set of colours you use? Are there some elements that affect your choices such as colour psychology or historical placement of a story? When you illustrate a book, you want the pictures to have feeling. That feeling can come through actions shown on the pages, such as body language of characters, or characters’ expressions, but it can also come through composition (a lonely, empty page, or a crowded, joyful one), and through colors. If you’re doing a historical book, keeping the palette historically accurate (no fluorescent colors!) is important, to keep the reader placed in the historical time of the book. I’ve used colors to depict moods, such as paintings done in tones of gray to express dreariness/ unhappiness. All of these things are part of making the pictures work the best with the story.

What decisions does an illustrator need to make while considering text? Is it also your job to place it on the layout and picking a right typeface? The most practical decision is that you need to leave enough space for the words to appear on the pages and feel natural where you’ve placed them. They shouldn’t feel as though they’re crowding in on the picture, and if they’re badly-placed, they can flatten out a picture or make it feel as though we’re looking at the picture through a sheet of glass on which the words are written. When I place the type, I’m trying to make the picture look good with the type printed over it, but also to make the picture look good as a piece of art itself, without the type.

How do you pick the right style of the illustration and/ or a technique to be used to create it? It all depends on the story. The story is everything—and both the words and pictures should do everything they can to make that story as strong as it can be. Some stories want light, airy illustrations, and others ask for dark or heavier illustrations. You have to make a judgment on how you’re going to show the story based on what you think the story wants.

Has the taste preference of children and/or their parents changed over the years? Like almost everything else, there are trends or style changes in picture books. Through a lot of the history of picture books, their “look” depended on technology to print the books—whether color could be used, if the illustrations had to be pre-separated, etc. Now printing technology is great, and can capture many techniques and styles that would have looked awful forty years ago. One big change in taste preferences is that children are much more visually sophisticated than they were even ten years ago. They’ve spent time in front of computers and iPads. They’re used to small bits of information, and things that jump from one thing to another. So modern books can be a lot more complex than they could be before.

Do you think that the personal style of your work (if you have any) is important for you as an illustrator and helps you land the job? Do you prefer traditional techniques or do you rather work digitally? I work traditionally, drawing out my illustrations and painting them with acrylic paints. I do think that personal style is very important—after a while, people will recognize your work without seeing your name on the book, and can make a quick judgment about whether they’ll read it or not. Do I like that person’s other books? Let’s buy this one. Also, if you’ve done books that have been very successful, such as getting on the NY Times bestseller list, then other publishers become more interested in your work and send stories for you to consider illustrating. Success breeds success.

What do you think the future holds for the publishing of children´s books and how is it likely to affect your work as an illustrator? It’s very hard to say. I think that children’s books may stay around longer as real books than adult literature will, because we have a culture of giving books to very young children—and not many people are going to let a toddler use an iPad or Kindle without supervision. I’m also not sure about how my own style may change based on changes in the market. I want to experiment with different media and materials, but only because I think it’ll help me to expand how I tell stories, and not because I think it will sell more books.

What do you think changed in time according to the content of children´s books and their theme? What theme in your opinion dominates the contemporary children´s publishing industry? I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer this one. There are some themes that have repeated many times and have become clichés —such as a character who fails at something and feels bad, but discovers something else within herself which makes her proud and accepted by others, an makes everything better.

Can you tell me 5 of the most dreadful mistakes that you think beginning illustrators usually make when illustrating a children´s book? Have you personally made any of these mistakes? Wow. MOST dreadful? 1) Failing to do the proper research. I have a friend who illustrated a book on Noah’s Ark, and drew two red cardinal birds flying onto the boat. She forgot that male and female cardinals look different, so the book shows a pair of male cardinals. Research is important because there’s always going to be someone who knows more about the subject than you do, and you don’t want that person to throw down the book and say, “This person knows nothing!” 2) Not learning about how the business of illustration works. If you present your work in a sloppy or unprofessional way, you won’t be taken seriously as a professional. 3) Copying famous authors’ or illustrators’ styles. Some beginners think that if their work looks like someone else’s, they’ll be able to get work doing that kind of book. But there can only be ONE person who does a distinctive style—it’s THEIR style, and everything else is a copy.

What is your favourite children´s book and what makes it so memorable? I don’t have one particular favorite children’s book, because there were so many that I loved when I was growing up, and there are so many wonderful stories being made now. But ONE of my favorites is a very obscure book called THE WONDERFUL TREEHOUSE, written by Harold Longman and illustrated by Harry Devlin in 1962. The illustrations stretched my imagination, making me think about whether you could build a stone castle in a tree, or live in a robin’s nest.                © HanaH. art studio, 2020

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