ILLUSTRATING A DIFFICULT SUBJECT
Guest Blog Post by Brian Lies
My newest book, The Rough Patch, deals with a difficult topic—grief, especially the anger aspect of grief—and hope. The story is about fox named Evan who does everything with his dog, but one day the dog dies. One of their favorite activities had been working in Evan’s garden, and without the dog, Evan can’t bear to even look at the place they’d enjoyed so much together. He hacks it to bits, and in his grief, begins to tend the weeds that sprout in the space where his vegetables and plants had grown before. The garden becomes a dark place, but when a pumpkin vine sneaks in under his garden fence, Evan begins a transformation back to hope.
I didn’t set out to write a story about grief. Sometimes a story idea comes to you and won’t leave you alone. This was one of those ideas. The story of a man, a dog and a garden began as I was weeding my own vegetable garden, wondering what would happen if instead of pulling weeds, I transplanted them into even rows and tended them. Would some reverse psychology cause the vegetables I wanted to come up between my rows of weeds?
When you’re illustrating a story on a difficult subject, many questions arise. How are you actually going to depict the difficult parts? How much should happen “off-stage”? How much is too much to show? Or too little? I wanted the story to carry real feeling but not be so strong that it felt brutal or manipulative.
One roadblock at the beginning was that I originally envisioned Evan as human, a crusty old New Englander with a good heart. The more I thought about this, the more I worried that young readers wouldn’t empathize with him. When we’re children, most of us don’t see our grandparents as fully-rounded beings with complex emotional lives. Much of our relationship with grandparents is selfish—about how they make us feel, or what they’ll give us. So, would a child looking at a story about an old man really feel for him when he’s sad? I didn’t think so.
Turning him into an animal may seem like a no-brainer solution, but it took a while for me to see him differently. I tried him as a bear...
and then as a rhinoceros.
Both looked clunky, and I didn’t instinctively feel anything for them. But then I drew Evan as a fox, and knew I’d found him. A fox has soulful eyes, expressive ears and tail, and his long lines better echoed that crusty old Yankee that I’d originally envisioned. Evan became a fox, and I think it’s much easier for a child to look at his face now and think, “Poor fox! He’s so sad...”
The next big challenge was to find that storytelling line between bland and brutal. The interplay between text and illustrations is always important in a picture book, but here it felt critical. It’s easy to get maudlin if you say too much about how a character feels. So I decided to keep the text mostly factual, explaining Evan’s actions in a kind of reportorial way, and let the illustrations show his feelings. The classic “show, don’t tell.”
Several techniques or tricks came to the forefront as I worked on how to illustrate the story. One was using a wide range of compositions or “camera angles” to convey emotion and feeling. When Evan destroys his garden, I didn’t want to fill the page with a bird’s eye view, looking down at a character mowing down vegetation. The most important thing was his emotional state at that moment, so I came in for one of two extreme close-ups in the book—Evan filling the page, slashing with a hoe and vegetation spraying behind the hoe.
Evan is cropped in an uneasy way, with his lower body and one arm off of the page. On the next page, I wanted to focus on the emotional aftermath of his action.
So I zoomed out and showed him from the back, carrying an armload of plants to a compost heap, his tail curving in a counterpoint to his weight as he walks. In the foreground, everything is spiky—the slashed stems of plants, the shattered, splintery bamboo support pole. A garden fork sticks out of the soil in a stark silhouette. The sharp imagery echoes the sharpness of his pain.
Another thing I employed was white space. When I’m watching a movie, I don’t want to be aware that I’m watching a movie—I want to be in that world. I don’t normally like white space in illustrations for the same reason. White space reminds me that I’m looking at pictures in a book. But here, using white space felt important. Early on, we see vignettes of Evan’s life with the dog in little bursts surrounded by white.
This serves to pack days, seasons and even years into several pages. (If you look closely in the book, you’ll see the dog aging from a puppy to a gray-muzzled older dog). And then later, on the page where the dog dies, or where Evan loads up his pumpkin, the white space focuses our attention on the emotion of the moment.
We’re not distracted by additional details. And that’s not so unreal—sometimes, in fraught moments, the rest of the world goes away and we see only the one person or thing that’s the most important to us. Color choices felt very important in these pieces, too. We react to colors instinctively. So the palette here is very simple: in happier days, things are bright and tend toward primaries.
When Evan’s in the throes of anger and sadness, the color dims and becomes a kind of sickly green-gray.
And as hope returns to Evan’s life, the primaries re-assert themselves. Even if the text doesn’t say that Evan is going to be okay in the end, the palette suggests that it will be. The colors act as our guide.
This book was very rewarding to create. Each image was different enough from the others to make the process of painting them interesting, from the first day to the last. And it was also the most difficult book I think I’ve done, taking some fourteen years from when I first came up with Evan’s story to publication. But it’s a good reminder to keep plugging away if a story idea grabs you. I returned to the idea for years, thinking “I’ve got to do that story!” before I finally discovered how it should look.
Honestly, I don’t think I was ready to do this book back in 2004, and though it would have been great to get it out quickly, I think it’s a better book for the wait.
Brian Lies is the author and illustrator of the NY Times bestselling bat series (Bats at the Beach, Bats at the Library, etc.), and over two dozen other titles. The Rough Patch has already received three starred reviews (Booklist, School Library Journal and Publishers Weekly), been named a Junior Library Guild selection and is being translated into three languages. You can visit him at www.brianlies.com, connect on Twitter at @BrianLiesbooks, or Instagram at brianlies.
8/12/2018 08:01:49 am
Brian, thank you. The insight that a human grandfather would not have elicited empathy from your child audience is key. I understand. Kids don't see their grandparents as having full personal lives. Your garden metaphor is brilliant.
8/23/2018 06:09:23 pm
Thank you, Kay. Isn't it funny--things that you think SHOULD work fine sometimes. . . don't?
8/12/2018 08:42:37 am
Loved this whole toughtful process shared with us, and I think Evan, and the scenes, the color, the sad ones, the dramatic ones... it all ended up looking awesome. Really worth the time it took you :)
8/12/2018 09:32:48 am
This is a delight to read, Brian. I love hearing how you thought through the choices you made. It’s a treat to see your bear and rhinoceros attempts juxtaposed with Evan as a fox. There’s a need for books that show grief. Such a lovely title too! You are a gift to readers, teachers, librarians, and all of us in the childrens’ book creating world. We are so lucky to have your work.
8/12/2018 09:35:49 am
I can't wait to see this book! And what a treat to read about Brian's process. The guy's a genius!
8/12/2018 11:15:02 am
Thank you so much for this insight into your process, Brian. You are truly brilliant, and I can't wait to read this book!
8/12/2018 11:54:13 am
Thanks for this insightful guest post. So informative to see things from the illustrator's point of view and how the journey there takes innumerable twists and turns.
8/13/2018 03:44:11 pm
Wow! This was so helpful. I have been trying to write about a difficult topic and although I can't see me dong it as animals I may have to think about that. If nothing else it has me thinking more about how the illustrations will tell the story.
8/14/2018 06:59:32 pm
Moved on multiple levels.
8/18/2018 01:46:59 pm
This is a terrific post, Brian. Really interesting to hear about your process and always inspirational to hear about a story that took a long time to find its way into the world.
8/19/2018 10:19:58 am
Brian, thank you so much for sharing. And a rare glimpse into the way your storytelling and illustrating from first thought to end unfolds. What a wonderful process. Thank you again.
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