Archive for the ‘rants’ Category



Friday, December 1st, 2017

I recently was asked to draw and design some bookplates and postcards for Literati, which is a book club for kids. They send out curated collections of children’s books, and each of these has a theme. The theme I was asked to illustrate was “Heroes,” and I’m a Veterinarian from the Tinyville Town series is part of the collection of books.

Along with the artwork, I got to talk about my work and answer some questions via a short interview. Here’s a link to the interview, but I’m gonna copy/paste the whole thing below, for posterity. In the past, I felt I didn’t have much to say about why I make the books I make and what’s important to me in going about it. Lately though, maybe as my own kids are getting older (17 and 18) and maybe as we’re living in this age of Trump and the daily embarrassment and, well, horror, frankly, that goes along with that, I’m finding I’ve got words. Stay tuned for more.

In discussions on your early comics, Frederick & Eloise and Dear Julia, you’ve listed artists such as Edward Gorey, Jacques Tardi, and Jim Jarmusch as influences. What intrigued you about their work when you were working on your comics, and has their influence crept into your books for children at all?

I grew up in a time and place of The Love Boat, Chips, and Gilligan’s Island reruns. I knew I had a dark, or “weird” streak but in the suburbs of Houston in the 80s, I didn’t have a name for it or a place to put it. I first ran across Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies my first year of college, and that dark humor was a revelation. It was later, living in Paris, where Tardi and Jarmusch appeared in my world, and they were more about a mood and a different way of storytelling that I hadn’t seen to that point.

Over the last fifteen years of making kids’ books, I’ve kind of kept those influences in my pocket, I think. I haven’t had the opportunity to pull that stuff out for the books I’ve worked on yet. There are plenty of strains of that kind of thing in middle-grade, like Lemony Snicket of course. And some picture book artists seem to be able to get away with it too, especially the Europeans like Wolf Erlbruch (see Duck, Death and the Tulip to see what I mean). Sendak and Lobel among others were able to bring darker themes into their work as well, but today’s market seems to limit it somewhat.

These darker, “weird” stories are what naturally exists in my head, so hope to bring that world into my kids’ books at some point.

It’s cute, but it bites.

Are you still creating, or do you have plans to create, more comics or graphic novels for an older audience?

While I’ve been saying “yes” to this question since 1996, with no real results to speak of, I started writing something a comic last Spring that has potential. It’s about a guy who is dying. Probably not for kids.

Was it a challenge to move from writing comics for adults to picture books for young people?

Stories “for kids” aren’t what naturally comes out of my pen. I find that because of this, I over-compensate when I write, and end up oversimplifying and maybe not giving the potential younger audience enough credit. Thank god for editors.

The two book series I’ve written, Everything Goes and Tinyville Town, do a lot of things I want to do. But finding the voice of those books was more work than it maybe should have been.

Many of your books for children (in particular Everything Goes On Land and, of course, the Tinyville Town series) are based on cities, with a focus on the way citizens work together and keep their community running. You’ve been recognized for your attention to diversity in these fictional cities. Can you tell us a bit about why representation was important to you when creating these characters?

Because it’s what exists in real life. I can’t even think of a reason why a city or community wouldn’t be represented this way.

Your newest release, (This Is Not A Normal) Animal Book with author Julie Segal-Walters, just came out in October. What was the process/collaboration like between you and Julie on this hilarious book?

Well, nothing like the book would imply, of course. She wrote the manuscript in 2014, and I didn’t see it until six months later. She saw sketches now and then as I worked on the art, but there was no collaboration per se. This is the way picture books almost always work, by the way. The writer and artist rarely have any communication during the process. The book pretends otherwise, which is most of the joke. You’re right, it is hilarious and I had a great time making it.

Which artists or illustrators have had the most influence on your style and approach to your work for children?

This is always so hard to answer. There are so many ways to approach the question. I see work all the time that inspires me and makes me want to draw like that, or tell stories like that. I can’t leave a bookstore without seeing at least one book that depresses me because it’s so good and I wish I’d done it. A thousand illustrators have influenced a thousand of my drawings, and while there are probably a few giants that I tried to emulate as I developed my work, the last time I can actually remember actually sitting down and changing the way I draw a picture was when I rediscovered the singular Mexican printmaker José Posada a few years back. Would you see that influence in my current drawings? Well, I do, but I would doubt anyone else would.

The real answer here is probably Maurice Sendak. Not in any particular method or technique he used to draw pictures, but in his commitment to honesty in his way of writing about children, for children. Where the Wild Things Are came out in 1963, and Max’s emotions and imaginings in that book may have scared a bunch of parents and librarians back then, but kids knew it was the truth. This is totally aspirational for me. If I even get close to that in my own storytelling in my lifetime, I think I’ll be satisfied.

What is your favorite interaction you’ve had with a child about your work?

I was on a Tinyville Town deadline two New Year’s Eves ago while staying at a cabin in the Poconos with family, which included my sister-in-law and her three little kids. I had my computer set up on the big dining table every day, finishing up the drawings for Tinyville Town Gets to Work, and the kids were kind of warned to leave Uncle Brian alone so he could work. One morning, my at-the-time seven-year-old niece, Kate, who has all of my books and even several of my drawings hanging on her bedroom wall, came by and looked over my shoulder to see what I was doing. In the way that only Kate can, she incredulously announced to the house, “Uncle Brian’s not working! He’s just drawing pictures!”

What tips do you have for the young person who wants to create books?

A big part of the job that editors and agents do, is look for and find new work by new talent with new things to say. No matter how hard it seems to get through that door, keep writing, keep drawing, and keep knocking. They’re looking for you, too.

What’s next for you, in Tinyville Town and beyond?

I’m a Mail Carrier will be out in March, which is the next Tinyville Town book. And I’ll be illustrating four picture books in 2018, including one which is a Tinyville Town book, and one of which is a book I wrote about an astronaut who just wants to take a walk.

If you could split a pizza with one person you admire, living or dead, who would it be? (Bonus: What kind of pizza?)

Jim Henson. (Bonus: Any kind of pizza he wants.)

Friday, August 12th, 2016

Tinyville Town, by Brian Biggs

Super-blogger and librarian Betsy Bird wanted to talk to me about Tinyville Town recently, and put together some really good questions about the series and around some more general children’s book topics, like gender roles and the idea of “timelessness.” The spark that became Tinyville Town came from my literary agent, Steve Malk, but the ingredients had been cooking in my head for some time, and I was happy to mix it up a bit. I don’t often think of myself as one of those children’s book authors with an axe to grind or anything, but as I raise and send these kids of mine into this sometimes backward world, I realize that words have formed in my head. Please enjoy, and feel free to comment.

Here’s the interview.

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013

So today is publication day for third and final Everything Goes book, called By Sea. I had a nice juicy blog post with lots of pictures and sketches lined up to post today but today is also the day that my trusty seven-year-old Mac decided to go belly up. Even worse, it happened on the second day of my book tour while preparing to give a presentation to 75 kids at the wonderful Washington DC book store Politics & Prose.
So I improvised, doing a bit of an analog song and dance, and am now posting this via my phone while on the way to Raleigh NC, trying to figure out what to do next. Going to the Raleigh Apple Store and getting a new laptop is a strong option.

In the meantime, today is publication day for Everything Goes By Sea and I couldn’t be more thrilled! Stay tuned and I’ll get that blog post up ASAP.

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Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

Today, the internet is filled with posts and post-mortems and obits and love-letters to Maurice Sendak, who died this morning. My friend Charles Hatfield wrote a particularly good one:

RIP Maurice Sendak (1928-2012), one of America’s great cartoonists, her preeminent picture book artist, and one of the most articulate and impassioned author/critics in the children’s book field.

Sendak was a genuine Renaissance man, an artist whose interests could not be neatly corralled into one tiny box (genre, style, medium). But for me the heart of his achievement will always be his picture book children, those squat, feisty urchins, full of vinegar and fire: feisty, anti-authoritarian, and, yes, wild. He paid tribute to their imaginations by unleashing his own fierce imagination, untrammeled, boundless, and free.

Sendak pursued his interests in defiance of pinched, hidebound ideas about what children’s book could be (and children’s authors could do). He is that rare artist whose pursuit of self-indulgence liberated and humanized an entire field, extending its horizons and enriching its emotional palette. And he was a genuine scholar of his field too: his understanding of the picture book form was so complete, and his reverence for its history and greatest practitioners so genuine, that he became the great practitioner-critic of children’s books. (Who else would accept his Caldecott Medal by giving a speech praising Randolph Caldecott?)

Farewell, Mr. Sendak, one of our bright, burning stars.

There’s not much I can add, since I’m not so good about putting these kinds of thoughts down on a blog or Facebook or whatever. What I can say is that Sendak always scared me. I had stacks of great books — Scarry, Seuss, I’ll Fix Anthony, Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel, etc — and I read these books all the time, even when I was “too old” for them. But Where the Wild Things Are was kind of like the monster under the bed. There was something harder about that story, something scarier and dark and true that I didn’t understand when I was a kid. Max was angry. At his mom. He left home (or at least imagined he did). The monsters were chaotic. Did he control them? It didn’t seem possible. The safety net was gone.
Of course in the end Max returns home, but the line had already been cut and the truth revealed. It’s like the fence in your backyard where the woods begin. The yard is safe, sure. But once you’ve seen things move in the woods, once you know there is something more out there, nothing seems right any more.

Later on, Sendak’s drawings themselves, apart from the stories, were what led me back to the Where the Wild Things Are. His crosshatching, his kids, his compositions. In college, he was a big piece of the influence-puzzle that I soaked in and obsessed over. Along with Moebius, Lobel, especially Gorey, and a hundred other cartoonists and artists, Sendak made me look. Somewhere around the early or mid-nineties I found The Juniper Tree and Zlateh the Goat, both of which startled me. I think the thought went something like “good lord, this dude can draw.” I fell in love with the folk tales and the magic and, again, the crosshatching.

Then, once I was actually able to step foot through that door and start making picture books myself, I went back and read his words. Both his stories and his essays about picture books, as well as the marvelous biography by Selma Lanes. It so happened that my kids were quite young at this time, and I discovered Little Bear. The kids didn’t choose Little Bear to read at night as often as I did. Mainly so I could look at the drawings.

I’d just moved to Philadelphia and spent a lot of time at the Rosenbach Library, where I could put on the white gloves, sit in a nice clean room, and get to handle and swoon over Sendak’s original art. (By the way, a couple of observations about this: the Juniper Tree drawings are drawn at 100% of the size that they’re printed in the book, and four-color offset doesn’t remotely do justice to the colors Sendak used to make Where the Wild Things Are. They’re unbelievably gorgeous, while the book is muted and dull.)

I got to meet Maurice Sendak twice. The first time was at The Boathouse Cafe in Central Park, New York City. I was a waiter at the restaurant there, and had a table with two very nice men chatting about the lake behind them as they ate. After I delivered the check, one of them gave me his credit card, American Express, where I saw that the man’s name was Maurice Sendak. I asked him, probably in a daze, if he was the children’s author Maurice Sendak. He agreed that he was, and asked if I was an artist. I admitted that although I was actually a graphic design major at Parsons, I was a fan, and illustrating books was one of the things I truly wanted to do. He wished me luck, and signed his AmEx receipt when I returned. I’m sure the statute of limitations has expired, so I can finally admit that I kept the original and I’ve had it framed over my drawing table in various studios in various cities for twenty-four years.

The second time I met him was in 1993 where I saw him lecture in San Francisco. At the end of his lecture I ran to the stage and handed someone a copy of my graphic novel, Frederick & Eloise, with a inscription to Maurice, which had weeks earlier been published by Fantagraphics. Gorey is the more obvious influence on Frederick, but it was Sendak that forced me to put down on paper what I had in my head. There is a scene in the book where the main character, Frederick, a kind of rotund middle-aged man is falling through the sky, naked, which came right from In the Night Kitchen, and me not worrying about what my parents or people might say at what was to me a pretty twisted and dark story came from Where the Wild Things Are. Even last week, at a school visit north of Philadelphia, the school librarian had mistakenly ordered several copies of my pre-kids-books books from Amazon (Frederick, and Dear Julia,). She was a bit wary of a naked Frederick, and I brought up Night Kitchen when she asked me about it. It felt good to do that.
So the woman to whom I gave the book, back at the lecture in San Francisco, politely thanked me and walked off stage. Optimistically I waited a minute or two, and was repaid by Mr. Sendak returning to the stage, my book in his hands, looking for me. He walked over and told me he hadn’t had time to read it (!) but he loved what he saw, and wished me luck. Again. Two good lucks from Maurice Sendak did me just fine.

Admittedly, the work I am doing now isn’t digging into those recesses that Sendak exists in for me. But like Where the Wild Things Are did among my stack of books when I was a kid, that honesty, that unruly child with fears and dreams and real emotions hasn’t gone anywhere, and those stories are still working their way to the surface. I knew as a kid that the book was sitting there in the shelf, and just as I do now, I opened it and read it just to remind myself of what’s over that fence or under that bed. I’d stare at the pages where Max’s room transmogrifies into the woods, and I’d shudder.

And I still do.

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

I awoke this morning to news that Ronald Searle passed away yesterday. Back in college, around 1988-90, Ronald Searle traded blows with Edward Gorey for my affections. Searle represented the loose, luscious line work and bawdy observations that I was attracted to on one hand (but secretly so, since I was such a prude back then and Searle’s subject matter was often a little, how do you say, naughty), while Gorey represented a precise and obsessed drawing style, and the more macabre side of my sensitivities. Gorey eventually got the upper hand when I wrote and drew Frederick & Eloise, but even then, I had Searle’s book Ah Yes, I Remember it Well: Paris 1961 – 1975 with me while living on Place Pigalle in 1991 and referred to it often.
I haven’t thought about Searle in some time, and I have no idea what happened to that book. Other inspirations and influences have come and gone and you’d be hard-pressed to find that dripping quill-line ink and robust sensuousness in anything I’ve drawn in the last ten years. I think maybe I’ll go find a used copy of that book, or else his Paris Sketchbook, and live in the past for a few hours.

Friday, October 21st, 2011

Go here and read this.

I think it’s important, and I’m in pretty good company I think.

Here’s the text:

We are tired of hearing the picture book is in trouble, and tired of pretending it is not. And so:

WE BELIEVE

• Imitation, laziness, and timidity are poisoning a great art form.
• A picture book should be fresh, honest, piquant, and beautiful.
• Children’s books merit grown-up conversation.
• Grown-up conversation doesn’t mean asking kids to leave the room.
• We write for children, adults who read with children, and adults who simply enjoy children’s books–in that order.
• We should know our history.
• We must cease writing the same book again and again.
• We need a more robust criticism to keep us original.
• The line between author and illustrator is irrelevant.
• The line between moral and meaning is paramount.
• It is right that anything a child sees, feels, or thinks be our grist.
• Picture books are a form, not a genre.
• Good design fosters good reading.
• Picture books look best when their covers face outward.
• The tidy ending is often dishonest.
• Even books meant to put kids to sleep should give them strange dreams.

WE CONDEMN

• The term “kid-friendly.”
• Convention as crutch.
• Glossy paper as default.
• The amnesiacs who treasure unruly classics while praising the bland today.

WE PROCLAIM

• Every day we make new children—let us also make new children’s books.

Signed: Mac Barnett, Brian Biggs, Sophie Blackall, Lisa Brown, Kevin Cornell, Carson Ellis, Isol, Laurie Keller, Jon Klassen, Matthew Myers, Tao Nyeu, Sean Qualls, Aaron Renier, Adam Rex, Christian Robinson, Jon Scieszka, Dan Santat, Lemony Snicket, Erin E. Stead, Philip C. Stead, Scott Teplin, Maria Van Lieshout

Thursday, May 5th, 2011

Interesting piece in the New York Times today about the new Nissan van that is to replace the Ford Crown Victoria as the “official” New York taxicab over the next several years. The first time I visited New York in 1985, I was lucky enough to take a Checker Cab once or twice in the four weeks I was there. They were big and spacious and held a ton of luggage. By the time I moved there to go to college in 1987, I don’t recall ever seeing a Checker Cab. Rather, the Ford Crown Victoria — the same car the police department used for their cruisers — was pretty ubiquitous. While I was in school (design school mind you) I remember reading an article in a magazine about vehicles designed specifically as cabs. They were boxy and electric, and seemed much more appropriate as a vehicle that could get one around town while having more cargo room and taking up less space. When I loved lived in Paris I was surprised to find a large number of Mercedes taxis along with the Peugeots and Renaults. But it still seemed silly to have these sedans fitted with a meter and a sign on top pretending to be a variation on public transportation.
Over the last several years, as I visit NY often now, I’ve been seeing and riding in more and more Ford Escape hybrid SUV taxis. These made a lot more sense to me as taxis, what with the cargo space and the fuel-efficient engine. Now the Nissan NV200 has been chosen to take over, and by the end of the decade pretty much every cab in NY will be an electric minivan. Albeit one designed specifically for New York’s “peculiar” needs as Mayor Bloomberg put it.

While some seem to be lamenting the idea that a suburban minivan will be the new New York City taxi, I kind of feel that once the Checker Cab was replaced with the Crown Vic, whatever romance or ideal one had about the city cab was gone already. It was like riding around in Grandpa’s car. The Nissan, as goofy-looking as it is, makes more sense as a taxi. I espcially like the huge sun roof that will allow one to stare up at the skyscrapers as one goes from place to place. That’s my kind of taxi.

However, I will say right now that no matter how much sense these taxis make, and no matter how slick is the sunroof and how much gas will be saved, when I draw a taxi, my taxis will always be, more or less, a Checker. Everything Goes: On Land is full of taxis (comes out in September…) and as you can see it’s pretty clear that I derive the look and feel of these things in fact many of my cars taxi or not, from the look of the Checker.

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

After completing the first book of Everything Goes in mid-February, I went on a tear and illustrated the sixth Brownie & Pearl book by the first week of March, and then immediately completed a book for Hyperion called The Boy Who Cried Alien which I’d been working on since sometime in 2007. As you might imagine, this schedule has left little time for stuff like eating, going to the bathroom, and cleaning up one’s mess. Over the weekend I took care of the eating and bathroom issues, and this week I focused on cleaning the studio. Over the winter, with the windows closed and the garage door shut, the place got musty and dank. Piles of papers and bills and sketches and books were stacked in looming piles on one of my worktables. Cables and hard drives were scattered around my computer area, coffee cups were discovered still holding coffee (and milk) from days of yore (disgusting), my filing cabinet was disorganized, and a layer of dust and grime covered nearly everything.
Monday was a lovely day with temps in the high 70s and 80s, so I was happy to open the garage door up, let the place air out, and get to work. My storage closet is still needing help, but the main part of my studio is nice and clean. The papers were filed, surfaces wiped, and I have two boxes of papers and catalogs and ephemera that will go to recycling later this week. The place is now a good place to work, and it was such a pleasure to walk in this morning and see the results.
And not a moment to soon. Sketches for book seven of Brownie & Pearl are due toute suite, and UPS delivered a big pile of research materials I ordered from Amazon, all about airplanes and airports and aircraft, for Everything Goes: Air, which I’ll begin the hard work on later this week. No rest for the weary.

I wish I’d taken ‘before’ pictures. But here are the after.



Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

glasses

So I got my glasses on Monday. The more rounded pair is for stuff which is close to me, like my dog is right now staring me in the face. The more rectangular pair is for the stuff which is further away, like you are right now wherever you are. After two days of this, I’m not really excited. I mean, I know I look all smarter and stuff. And if you were choosing a math team, I’m suddenly a candidate. But the close-range glasses are kind of giving me a headache, and I find that when I’m drawing, for instance, I’m more comfortable not wearing them. Not more comfortable like on my head. But comfortable like my eyeballs are less weary. On the other hand, when I’m staring at the computer reading TMZ or funny cat videos, the rounder glasses are definitely pretty clear and make everything more better.
The distance pair on the other hand are the cat’s pajamas, and I can see stuff that I didn’t know I wasn’t seeing before.

This is weird.

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

So after months of squinting at the computer and noticing that everyone in the car is seeing the billboards and roadsigns ahead before me, I found out yesterday that I need glasses. As the doctor said, forty-two years of 20/20 isn’t bad. He’s right, I suppose. My eleven-year-old son got glasses a couple of months ago, and I’m sure that the way I draw, with my face about eight inches above the table, drawing tiny little 2-inch sketches has never helped anything.

The funny thing is that when it rains it pours. The optometrist said that, well, he said that I’m a pretty good candidate for bifocals but he’d rather “start me off” with just two pairs of glasses. One is for distances beyond ten feet and the other is for nearer vision, within ten feet. I’m not sure which, if either, will be my day-to-day glasses. I can think of plenty of situations where both would be nice.

It was really startling, when after fifteen minutes of reading the small type through those various lenses that optometrists use he turned the lenses to some setting that really blurred everything. He asked whether I could read the projected alphabet, and I could not. He then tells me that this is my natural vision, and the reason that I could read it when I started was that my eye-ball muscles (or whatever) are working overtime to focus on things. It’s why I’m often squinting and probably why I occasionally get headaches. Go figure!

So, then I had to pick out frames. Since picking out frames is somewhat like shopping, I called Sacha, who biked over to the office and helped. They should be ready in a week, and I shall post a photo. Until then, here’s an artist’s concept sketch.