Some of Brian Lies’s happiest childhood memories involved “inventing stuff” on long rainy afternoons. He gathered a variety of materials together and set to work. “Something about the trying was addictive,” he says. He challenged himself to make something that worked or was somehow real. “In high school I wanted to do something so well it didn’t look like I had done it,” he says.
Lies (rhymes with cheese) received initial inspiration from his older sister who wanted to be a writer. “If you ask most younger siblings, they don’t want older siblings to get ahead of them and be better at anything,” he quips. So, in third grade Lies decided to write a book about fossils because he wanted to be a paleontologist. “I got about a page into it and realized that it was an awful lot of hard work. But the idea of putting together a writing project was a magical thing.” And the people who wrote them were magical beings whose skill was inaccessible to mere mortals.
In fifth grade, author Harry Devlin visited Lies’s school, and planted the idea that writing was a viable occupation. “That blew me away,” Lies says. Devlin shared his art with the class and Lies says, “I looked at my fifth grade art work and I couldn’t see the bridge between the two.” He thought he wasn’t good enough, so his dream went underground for about fifteen years.
Eventually, Lies resurrected his dream by attending School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston after graduating from Brown University. Once he embraced his dream, the magic began to find him.
In college he visited the career center and jotted down the name of a possible art director at a children’s book publisher to whom he might eventually send a portfolio. But luck intervened. While standing in line at a store he chatted with a friend about his art. A woman in line ahead of him asked if he’d ever thought about writing for children. She turned out to be the same art director whose name he’d jotted down. A month later she sent him his first contract to illustrate Flatfoot Fox and the Case of the Nosy Otter by Eth Clifford.
One morning his daughter, a current college sophomore who was in second grade at the time, pointed out four bumps of frost on the guest room window of their Duxbury, Massachusetts home. “It’s a bat with sea foam,” she said. Lies mind started to race, and he recalls thinking, “It’s a story I’ve never read which means I can probably write it.” He grabbed a legal pad to scribble notes. “As soon as I imagined a story I starting picturing what the bats might be doing, so I took out a sketch book…To me a story starts out as little glimpses into what’s happening.”
Lies submitted Bats at the Beach to an editor and waited. The magic found him again. While sailing with friends, a hitchhiker bat landed on the roof of the boat’s cabin and hung upside down from a rubber grommet. When they anchored in Salem, Massachusetts, the bat shook out its wings and flew away. They next day Lies received an offer to publish Bats at the Beach.
His local librarian told him she’d once had a bat in the library. Lies remembers thinking, “Hmmm. Interesting. I think my bats would love to read.” But he challenged himself to make the book a companion rather than a sequel by changing the rhyme scheme and ending with a surprise.
“My dad passed away of ALS about six months before Bats at the Beach came out so he never saw his son have a bestselling book.” So Lies set Bats at the Library in the local library of his father’s youth in Riverside, Illinois. “It’s my favorite library in the whole world. It looks like a cathedral of the mind. Stained glass windows. Deep red leather Mission chairs. As a boy…it felt like a place that made you want to be a writer.”
Yet Lies dawdled before entering the library again after a twenty-seven-year hiatus because he wondered if it would have the same power over him. “Just as I was getting ready to stand up, a little girl darted out of the doorway followed by her mother with an armload of books and I’ll be damned if the book that was at the bottom of the pile…wasn’tBats at the Beach. The first book that I saw coming out of the library I’d come to research was my own.”
In Bats in the Band Lies takes great pleasure in creating characters who make music. “I am a frustrated musician…but I always loved making sound.” Lies owns several instruments that he says he “plays badly,” including a banjo, electric and acoustic guitars, an alto saxophone, a piano, a mandolin, and his newest acquisition—a drum kit. Lies suggests that because his bats have big ears, they might appreciate music.
Lies researched bats in order to draw them correctly. And because bats have been so good to him, he donates part of the proceeds of his books to Bat Conservation International (www.batcon.org).
Additionally, he was “concerned about getting the light right” because each Bats book takes place at night. “I tried to cheat the light to make it bright enough to see things. And I thought we, the readers, might actually be [bats] so our eyes might be more adjusted to the light.” All of Lies’s Bats books take place during a full moon, but readers never see it. Rather they see how the light reflects off objects. Lies also finds pools of light in which to stage his bats’ actions.
Although Lies does not write to a theme, he likes knowing that his early childhood emotional memories and experiences are just a breath away so he can tap into “the unbridled enthusiasm for something…[where] you’re so excited you just have to bounce on the balls of your feet because you can’t sit still.” Lies challenges himself to be as honest as possible with his readers. “Kids can see through a fake really easily.”