Bats at the Beach. Bats at the Library. Bats at the Ballgame. Bats all up in here.
Brian Lies doesn't just write children's books about bats, but the ones featuring the ever-fascinating flying mammals are his most popular. The New Jersey native, now living in Massachusetts, began illustrating children's books in 1989 and hasn't looked back.
Lies — rhymes with "please" — appears at the Savannah Children's Book Festival. We spoke to him last week.
Bats have this mystical reputation, but in real life they're quite cute. What's the deal with you and bats?
Brian Lies: The whole bat thing started by accident. It was sparked by my daughter, who at the time was in second grade. One cold morning we were trying to get her ready for the school bus, and she pointed at four bumps of frost at a window, and said, "Look Dad, it's a bat with sea foam." It was like a wing, two ears, and another wing.
I thought, wow, that sounds really good. Sounds like a weird opportunity for humor, so I was off. The funny thing is bats aren't even my favorite animal. Armadillos are!
You're working to help save bats from a very serious environmental issue.
Brian Lies: The whole bat thing has turned into something very interesting. Bats are an extremely useful part of the ecosystem. They're also imperiled by a thing called White Nose Syndrome. It's a terrible thing. Scientists are talking about the possible extinction of all bats east of the Mississippi River within 20 years if something doesn't change.
They won't be there to eat bugs, to eat the moths that attack crops. They won't be there to eat mosquitoes. I'm donating part of the proceeds of all my bat books to Bat Conservation International.
The first thing was to figure out what was causing it. They've discovered it's a fungus, and apparently the reason it kills bats is it grows on them during hibernation. They get irritated by the fungus and wake up a little bit. So if they're waking up in the middle of hibernation, they burn up the stores of fat intended to get them through.
They end up flying out into the sky in January looking for bugs to eat. Of course that time of year there's nothing to eat. So they end up dying of starvation. It's horrible.
There is some good news. The fungus strain comes from Europe, and they've discovered a mold which may inhibit the growth of the fungus. So the idea is you could spray the bats' hibernacula with an agent to get rid of the fungus.
It's not enough to draw cute animal pictures, of course. How does an adult author really make that connection with children to keep them coming back for that second book, and the third book, and so on?
Brian Lies: It's important to respect the intelligence of kids. A lot of authors for children fail in that they talk down to them. It's very important to understand that children are creatures of very complex inner lives. They don't have the same vocabulary as adults, but they can understand complex issues very well.
I try to avoid a heavy lesson. In my family we call lesson-y books "broccoli books." Like when you can tell someone's steaming broccoli because you smell it all over the house. Any time a writer starts with a lesson first, you've already shot yourself in the foot. It's got to be story first.
I've always tried to keep an ear to the things that interested me as a 6-8 year old. First, I make the story ultimately for the 6-8 year old that still lodges somewhere within me. If it pleases me on that level then I know I'm in the right direction.
I also try to put stuff in for grownups. I hide little picture jokes. A family reading together is incredibly important to instill the love of reading in children. Often as soon as kids can read independently, their parents drop it like a hot rock. It's sad, because I remember sitting with my mother and older sister, one on either side of my mother, leaning into her shoulder as she read to us.
As a grownup I still have that feeling of reading as being a safe place. When parents read with their children, the children equate reading with parental love. My advice is to read to your children as long as you possibly can until they say, "Leave me alone."