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Illustrator's book has kids going batty

DUXBURY -- You might think a picture book about hairy bats on vacation, roasting bugs at night over an open fire, would give kids the creeps. Wouldn't they say ``Ewwwww!"? But you'd be wrong, and the proof is ``Bats at the Beach," by Brian Lies.

To the surprise and delight of Lies and publisher Houghton Mifflin, the new book rocketed briefly to a No. 2 ranking last month on, shortly after Daniel Pinkwater gave it a rave review on NPR's `` Weekend Edition. " While the Amazon and Barnes & Noble online numbers have fallen off, the book is still No. 2 on The New York Times children's bestseller list. The book is virtually sold out nationwide, and Houghton has rushed back to press to catch up with demand.

``I don't really understand it yet," Lies (pronounced Lees) said during an interview at his home, set amid piney woods (no bat-boxes visible) in this South Shore town. ``It was just a fun situation that I was trying to write about. It seemed a natural thing to me." He added with a laugh, ``People are coming to me to tell me their bat experiences."

It's a simple story. At dusk in a small town, a family of bats emerges from an attic and flies to the seashore for a night of frolics. They bask on tiny beach chairs, play in the surf, dig in the sand, toast bugs around a campfire, then head home at dawn's early light. The text is in verse, narrated by a mysterious ``we." The scenes, in a realistic style, are detailed and richly colored in deep blues and browns. All is eerily illuminated by bright moonlight, yet the moon itself is offstage.

Lies, 43, remembers the date of inspiration: Dec.12, 2002. His second-grade daughter was getting ready for school. ``She dragged me into the guest room and said, `You've got to see this,' " he recalls. ``There was a frost pattern on the window, and the sun was coming up through the trees, and lit the frost in this beautiful orange glow, and she said, `Look, it's a bat in sea foam.' There was a line of frost, wings, a pair of bumps that looked like ears -- it looked like a happy bat standing waist-deep in the ocean."

Though it was winter, Lies began to think about childhood summers, his family's happy all-day excursions to the New Jersey Shore.

``I started to think, `What would bats do at the beach?' " he said, ``and the first thing I thought of was to turn yourself into a sailboat, because you have a ready - made sail. All you need is to stand on something to raise your hands, and you're wing-surfing. I started to think of other things I was interested in doing at the beach. The words started coming to me." The bats play volleyball, slather on moontan lotion, snack on Skeetercrisps.

He began to sketch, and to write. But why in verse? He doesn't know; he had never written in verse before. ``I couldn't help it," he said. ``The words started to come to me in verse. It's very rare that I get something that seems whole the second I think of it."

A chance encounter
While not as famous as Maurice Sendak or Chris Van Allsburg, Brian Lies is no newcomer to children's picture books. He has illustrated 20 of them since 1990; of those, he has written the text for three. Yet the arc of his career was as unlikely as wind-surfing bats.

Raised in Princeton, N.J., he liked to make art -- drawing, stained glass -- but never thought of it as a life's work. ``I knew that nobody earned a living in the arts," he said. At Brown University, he majored in American and British literature, and drew political cartoons for the student newspaper. That would be a cool profession, he thought, and applied for jobs at 140 newspapers as graduation approached. All turned him down. ``They liked my ideas," he said, ``but thought my drawing was terrible." So, after graduation in 1985, he came to Boston, enrolled in the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, and immersed himself in painting and drawing.

His skills improved. By the late 1980s he was illustrating magazine articles and newspaper op-ed pages, including those of The Christian Science Monitor and The Boston Globe. He got married in 1991, and was making a living. But in the back of his mind was a boyhood dream of creating a children's picture book. One day in 1989, while talking about his work with a friend in a Cambridge store, a woman turned around and said, ``Excuse me, I heard you say you were an illustrator. Have you ever considered children's books?"

The woman was Susan Sherman, art director for children's books at Houghton Mifflin, now art director at Charlesbridge , a Watertown-based children's publisher. When she saw Lies's portfolio a few days later, she asked him to illustrate a book about an animal detective. The result in 1990 was ``Flatfoot Fox and the Case of the Missing Eye," by Eth Clifford, which ultimately became a successful five-part series, still in print.

``His portfolio was fabulous," Sherman said. ``He could animate animal characters in a brilliant, unusual style. He could bring humor and emotional content to animal faces. Kids have to be able to read emotions clearly, to see how characters are feeling: scared, happy, sad, puzzled."

It's no easy matter to show emotion in an animal that really looks like an animal, as Lies's do. ``As an illustrator," he said, ``I've always been interested in making the body of an animal be really that body -- not a human body with paws and an animal head coming out of a shirt. Though the animals are doing human activities, they never leave their animal natures."

Every picture tells a story
Replete with famous names like Sendak, Van Allsburg, and Beatrix Potter, the picture-book genre might seem a surefire profit-maker. Some might ask, how hard can this be? Kids aren't sophisticated book-shoppers, after all. Even Madonna is writing children's books. But while sales of middle-grade fiction have grown steadily in recent years, picture books have been up and down, year to year.

``We have a soft picture-book market now, for whatever reason," said Kate O'Sullivan, editor of ``Bats at the Beach." ``More picture books are being published than ever, which makes it a difficult market to break into, to cut through all the noise. The spotlight is on fantasy novels, like `Harry Potter.' We're hoping the pendulum will flip back."


To hear the author read, visit

No one suggests that picture books will disappear as long as kids like to be read to. Parents and grandparents still love to buy them. Almost everyone's memory of a beloved picture book includes another person, of another generation, reading it or listening as you read.

At their best, picture books are complex, sophisticated, and difficult to execute. Success is always unpredictable. Like poems, when they work, it's hard to explain just why.

``Every word has to count, because you don't get many," said Roger Sutton, editor of the Horn Book magazine, the Boston-based children's book review. ``It's not enough to have stunning pictures. There has to be the drama of the turning page. How do the pictures transform as the book moves from spread to spread? It works like a movie; it doesn't stand still in time. The pictures have to work with text, but you don't want the words to say what the pictures can say better."

The sense of a picture book as a whole small world, contained in 32 pages, can be as strong for an adult as for a child. In a visit to his upstairs studio, Brian Lies picked up one of the paintings in ``Bats at the Beach," showing the bats surfing on bits of wood and sailing in clam chowder and French fry cups, and held it up for inspection.

Though it was a pleasure to see the original, outside the book, it was also a small letdown to be reminded that bats didn't really go to the beach that night. It was all in an artist's mind.

David Mehegan can be reached at

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