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...
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.
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.
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.
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.