We'd love if you could introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your background, where you live, children if any, how long you've been writing, etc.
I live in Duxbury, MA, with my wife, high school aged daughter, and two cats. There are some bats living in a space between the chimney and house sheathing, but I think it'd be bad karma if I tried to evict them. They don't get into the house. I've been writing stories since at least third grade, and started drawing at the same age that most kids start drawing, using fat crayons or finger paints. Though I've always enjoyed making stuff up, I didn't ever really believe I could be good enough to do this as a real job.
How did you first get started illustrating and writing children's books?
The initial inspiration for writing and illustration as a career came in 5th grade, when an author/illustrator visited my school. Harry Devlin (who with his wife, Wende, wrote Cranberry Christmas, Cranberry Thanksgiving and a lot of other books which are still found in many libraries) showed us some of his paintings and told us about how they made their stories, and I was hooked. It sounded like the best thing you could possibly do as a job. Unfortunately, I wasn't the most talented kid in the room, so I never thought I could do this for real. I drew through middle and high school just for my own entertainment, and during college at Brown University, started doing illustrations for the college newspaper, and then a weekly editorial cartoon. It dawned on me that this was the best part of my college week. So I applied for jobs at 140 metropolitan daily newspapers across the country, and was rejected by all of them. Not fun.
But enough of them said, "We like your ideas, but your drawing stinks," that I thought: art school! So I moved to Boston and spent two and a half years at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. It helped a lot. I started getting illustrations published in the Christian Science Monitor, the Boston Globe and a number of other publications, and began to realize that maybe I should think about doing children's books again. At that time, I met the Art Director at Houghton Mifflin Company accidentally in a store in my Cambridge neighborhood, and about two months later, she sent me my first book to illustrate. That was in 1990, and that first book, Flatfoot Fox and the Case of the Missing Eye, is still in print 21 years later.
What are you doing with your time/career/family when not locked away in your studio?
I probably have too many interests. I like doing woodworking, cooking, and have a big vegetable garden in the back yard. I like running, bicycling and kayaking. Traveling is a lot of fun, but right now I mostly travel to school districts around the country which bring me in to work with their students, and visit independent bookstores on book tours.
How many books have you written and do you have any favorites among them?
Out of the twenty-five books I've illustrated, I've written five of them. You're not supposed to have favorites among your children, but I think that Bats at the Library (2008) is my favorite. Libraries and reading have changed my life for the better, and I also set the book in my favorite library building in the country, in Riverside, IL. This was the library my Dad grew up with--full of stained glass, Arts & Crafts furniture, and a deep feeling of knowledge. I got to know it as a kid visiting my grandparents, and it was a place that made me want to write something myself.
Do you have any favorite children's authors or books you enjoyed as a child or you enjoyed reading to your daughter?
There are so many good books out there that it's hard to make a "short list!" You always leave something great off of it. Some of my favorite picture books were Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever, Go, Dog. Go! by P.D. Eastman, The Wonderful Treehouse by Wende and Harry Devlin, and an obscure thing called Why I Built the Boogle House, by Helen Palmer. Chapter books like Beverly Cleary's The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Jean Craighead George's My side of the Mountain, and Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth. Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach, and to a lesser extent, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. These are all still great books, and there are so many more new great books for parents and readers out there now. Even though the publishing business itself is going through some scary changes, there seems to be a kind of Golden Age of storytelling going on now.
What is the creative process like for you, meaning, how do you get the ideas for your stories and characters?
As I tell students in schools I visit, my story ideas come from the same place that everyone else's do. A room you're in can spark story ideas if you see it with fresh eyes. What if I turned the room on its side? How would I climb up to the doorway? Small things we've done in our lives can be retold as stories, or stretched out until they're huge exaggerations, like a tall tale. The most important thing, I think, is to keep your eyes open for ideas and try to recognize them when you see them. If you get in the habit of thinking "What could I write about that?" ideas start to make themselves known to you more easily.
Your "Bats at the…" books are so unique in the fact they don't feature cute puppies or kittens, you chose to use an animal that is largely associated with being a pest, scary and all around disliked. Was there any specific reason for this?
The bat books were a kind of a surprise for me, and when I first wrote Bats at the Beach, I worried that there was going to be a huge "ick factor" about them. But I have been surprised. Though there are lots of people who loudly detest bats, there's probably a larger group of people who think they're cool. And environmentally aware people know that they play a vital role in the ecosystem, getting rid of millions of pounds of harmful insects annually.
The thing is, I never really meant to write about bats. Bats at the Beach was sparked by my daughter, then in 2nd grade, pointing at a frost pattern on our guest room window and exclaiming, "Look, Daddy--it's a bat, with sea foam!" The bumpy shape on the window DID look like a happy bat with wings spread to the sides, if you used your imagination and squinted at it. It dawned on me that I'd never seen a book with bats going to the beach, and I started writing.
What is next for you? Are you working on any new books?
2012 is going to be a pretty busy year. This past June, I finished the illustrations for a picture book called MORE (by I.C. Springman, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), about a magpie with a huge hoarding problem. I'm looking forward to its release in early February. I'm also working on illustrations for a wonderful novel right now, Malcolm at Midnight (by W.H. Beck, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), which is about classroom pets in a middle school who meet in the middle of the night to assure that the school keeps running smoothly. It's a funny story with unforgettable characters, and has been a real pleasure to work with. That one will be published in Fall, 2012. I've also got a number of story ideas of my own, and as soon as I'm finished with the illustrations I'm doing now, I'll be back at work on my own writing. I can't really say what it's going to be, but can promise that it's going to involve my own slightly off-kilter view of the world, and a lot of details!
In conclusion we just want to say thank you SO MUCH to Brian for taking the time to speak with us. We hope you enjoyed reading it! Thank you to the many readers who sent in questions via Twitter too!! If you can think of anybody (artist, illustrator, great dad, athlete, etc) you'd like us to interview just leave a comment on this post and let us know! Thanks. -C