Interview with Totally Talented Brian Lies

Brian jacket5inch150dpi

Brian Lies, the renowned author and illustrator of the Bats books (Bats at the Beach, Bats at the Library, Bats at the Ballgame, Bats in the Band) and dozens of other popular picture books, and presenter at the NESCBWI conference last weekend, has agreed to talk with us about his newest endeavors. Three days ago, on May 3rd, Brian’s book Gator Dad was released to the public by his long-time publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Congratulations, Brian!

In Brian’s book  More, with text by I. C. Springman, textured paper imparts light as the background on which his amazingly detailed artwork of the kleptomaniacal magpie is painted. In Bats at the Library, the story happens at night, so moonlight and the artificial lights within the library are depicted so well. And he has used unusual perspectives to fun advantage. Even his author photo on the jacket flap was taken as he apparently hung upside-down in bat fashion! Obviously he has a history of maximizing the visual possibilities within a picture book. Gator Dad is no exception.

Gator Dad bath

JAZ: What was your inspiration for the theme of Gator Dad?

BL: When our daughter was born, my wife and I agreed I’d be a stay-at-home dad after her maternity leave at a Boston PR agency was up.  After all, I already worked from home.  So Gator Dad is a reflection on time I spent with my daughter, thoughts I had looking back on parenting as my daughter went off to college, and recollections about time I spent with my own father when I was a boy.  I like to think of it as a celebration of dads who are very involved in their kids’ lives, and a counter to the typical modern image of “dad” on TV— he’s the incompetent buffoon who does love his kids, but can’t get anything right.  Oops— looks like Dad’s letting the kids play with the chainsaw!

There are lots of fathers out there who are genuine in their love for their kids, active in their daily lives, and somehow manage to get things right.  This book is for those dads.

JAZ: What is/are your goal(s) for the book?

BL: Sometimes, fathers show love more through things they do than things they say.  My hope is that this story shows the love between the alligator dad and his kids, and that maybe kids with undemonstrative fathers will recognize their dad in this gator dad, and understand that their dad loves them, too.  I also see it as a celebration of dads who are truly present in their kids’ lives.

This book was published in time for Fathers’ Day (June 19), but it’s not intended as a “holiday book.”  It seems to me that being an involved father is a year-round thing.  I’d love it if this book became a gift item that spouses and grandmothers-to-be gave to  expectant dads, the way Suess’s Oh, The Places You’ll Go! has become a required gift for high school and college grads!


JAZ: The characters are wonderfully sinuous and expressive. However, you, um, live in Massachusetts. How did you choose gators?

Brian inspiration drawingBBL: The very first sketch I did for this story, a decade ago, was the back view of an alligator with his arm around a dejected little gator.  I explored other animals—kangaroos, rabbits, etc., but decided I didn’t want to go with something overtly fuzzy and cute.  It also seemed that an animal with a tough and toothy exterior might be a good representative for dads, whose sometimes gruff demeanor often disguises a surprisingly sensitive interior.

Gator Dad sickJAZ: How many stages are there between your idea for a character and the actual finished art?

BL: I typically begin with realistic studies, learning how to draw the animal as accurately as possible from life or reference images, and then I’ll set the reference materials aside and draw from memory.  The characters seem to morph automatically from realistic animals to animal characters.

People in the animation field, and some illustrators, begin with a “style sheet”—a page with multiple views/positions of a character, including facial expressions, to be used as a “standards guide.”  I don’t do this.  After my realistic studies, I almost always leap right into drawing the characters in situ, and develop them as characters as I go along.

Brian Gator Dad office

JAZ: What is your favorite medium? Favorite paper? Do you also use the computer for the art?

BL: I paint on Strathmore Series 400 or 500 Bristol, with tube acrylic paints.  I use a combination of Windsor & Newton, Sennellier, Lascaux and Golden brands. I do use Photoshop for copying, resizing and printing out sketches, and occasionally editing sketches before I work on a finished piece, but all of my paintings are traditionally-rendered.

JAZ: Your quality of light, the chiaroscuro modelling, is fantastic. Any tips?

Gator Dad wakeupBL: I start by transferring my sketch to the Strathmore paper, and then “ink” it with pthalo blue acrylic.

Gator Dad pillow fort processNext, I do an underpainting, getting rid of all of the paper’s whiteness and developing the dark/light relationships in the piece.  The underpainting is usually either a burnt sienna / raw umber mix, or a greenish-blue, depending on the colors I anticipate in the final piece.

Gator Dad pillow fortAfter the underpainting, I usually fill in the very darkest parts of the picture, and then the very brightest.  That way, I’ve created a sort of  “bright/dark bracket,” and all of the other colors have to fit between those two.

Years ago, President Bill Clinton’s staff had a saying: “It’s the economy, Stupid!”  I wrote up an altered version of the saying, which was on my studio wall for years:  “It’s the light, Stupid!”  I complete the picture with the light in mind—how does it fall on this object?  How does light reflect onto it from other objects?  My hope is that, in the end, the light effect is convincing and feels like actual light.

JAZ: Using animals leaves the door open for a diverse range of kids to identify with the characters. What is your reason?

BL: Your statement before this question is the perfect answer!  There’s a story (myth or true?) that Aesop used animals rather than people in the fables so as not to risk punishment from powerful people who felt he was targeting them.  Theoretically, no king would hear a story about a crow and think, “That’s me he’s mocking!”

We know these stories are about human nature, hidden in animal skins.  And that’s one of the reasons I like to use animals in my books.  Unfortunately, many kids won’t pick up a book with someone of a different ethnicity on the cover, and I hope that some day we’ll get to a place where that isn’t so.  Having alligators as the family in Gator Dad allows everyone to identify with the story.  I also enjoy drawing animals because of the variety of shapes, textures and colors they offer.

JAZ: You use lots of irony in Gator Dad, for example when Dad says, “You’ll probably need to rest,” yet the picture shows otherwise!

Gator Dad jacket illo processBL: This book went through many different iterations.  It began as a rhyming text, but it became hopelessly “sing-songy,” so I had to pull it back into prose.  At one point, it was entirely ABOUT irony—the dad’s “voice” sounded either disengaged or negative, but the pictures showed him doting on the kids (“you can step on my toes” is him dancing with his daughter).  And in the example you give, it’s not the kids who need to rest at the playground—it’s dad, collapsed on the ground. But in that version of the story, that irony felt a little too edgy, more negative than I wanted.  So I turned the text in a more overtly positive direction, and that’s where it stayed.

JAZ: And the backgrounds include detail: turtles playing checkers, a fishing rabbit, and an anthropomorphic Mt. Rushmore, for starters. Why more so in this book? 

BL: One of my big influences growing up was Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever, and one of the things I loved about it was all of the things going on in the pages.  You could look at them forever.  Gator Dad is the first book I’ve ever done that was decidedly urban—this gator and his kids live in a city.  There’s always lots to see in a city—buildings, people, vehicles.  It seems your field of vision is always completely filled with stuff, as compared to being at the beach, or a mountain top, where it might be mostly featureless water or sky.  So it felt like the illustrations ought to have lots of details in them as well.

JAZ: Is there a story behind the monument to the rabbit who appears to be playing a lyre while astride an emu or guinea hen? Or is it just for fun?

BL: I like filling images with details which make the world I’m creating feel plausible within its own parameters.  The bronze rabbit-and-emu in the background is a nod to equestrian statues we see here and there, and beyond that doesn’t have any specific significance in my life.  But what’s a public park without statuary?

JAZ: Is Gator Dad the first of a series?

Gator Dad practice paintingBL: I see Gator Dad as a stand-alone book. Gator Dad is my reflection on being an involved and capable dad, rather than the introduction of a new cast of characters for new stories.

JAZ: Three is an iconic number. Why three gator kids? 

BL: I wanted this book to be as universal as possible, to reflect as many family structures as I could.  Likewise, I expanded the one gator kid in that initial sketch to three because I didn’t want it to be a dad-and-son book, or a dad-and-daughter book.  It evolved into what I see as a set of twins (one boy, one girl), and a toddler of uncertain gender.  And as you said, three is a magical story number!

JAZ: Your blog shows your fantastic step-by-step process for 3D bat-related sculptural enhancements for your car. What are your promotional plans for Gator Dad?

Bat Prius

BL: I’m doing a multi-city book tour, as well as a number of bookstore events with favorite booksellers in New England.  Some planned features include building pillow forts and a “Stink Station” (the gator dad in the book lets his kids smell something that’s gone bad in the fridge).  We’re going to be doing something fun with the car again. . . but for now, I’m not telling!

JAZ: What book is next? Future ideas?

BL: My next picture book (fall, 2018) is called Got to Get to Bear’s!, and is probably influenced by last winter’s unprecedented snowfall (I live south of Boston, where we broke all existing records, and lived in snow trenches for several months).  In the story, a chipmunk named Izzy gets an urgent letter from a friend, asking her to come right away, and Bear never asks. . . so off she goes.  Snow flakes turn into a blizzard, and Izzy needs to rely on a growing number of friends to get to Bear’s place, and to see what it was that he needed in the first place.

I’ve got a long list of different story ideas lined up, waiting for attention, and dealing with a variety of themes and characters:  grief and renewal, foxes and cats and ancient Egypt, lobstermen and other unusual protagonists.  It looks to be a fun few years ahead!

JAZ: Thank you for sharing so generously, Brian! In Gator Dad texture, gorgeous color, detail, and lively action combine in beautiful paintings that enhance the pleasure of your story. Dads (and their kids) will love your book! And Got to Get to Bear’s is another to look forward to!

Gator Dad one last squeeze

Here is a link to more of Brian’s sketches in an excellent interview on Dylan Teut’s blog.


    1. Hi Kirsti. I’m thinking you probably interacted directly with Brian at the conference. He was very generous with sharing himself for this interview. He’s a good guy. Glad you like it.


  1. Wonderful interview Joyce – thanks for giving us more insight into the terrific AND totally talented Brian Lies!


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