Lisa Brown is a multifaceted figure in the world of illustration, authorship, and cartooning, whose award-winning work has gained prominence on the shelves of the New York Times bestsellers. Known for her unique creativity and distinctive style, Brown enchants readers of all ages with a variety of works, from illustrated children’s books to engaging graphic novels. Among her notable collaborations are partnerships with renowned author Lemony Snicket and a successful series of illustrated books, including the beloved “Baby Be of Use”. In her latest work, “The Hospital Book”, released in March 2023, Brown delves into the children’s universe with sensitivity and insight. In addition to her creative work, Lisa shares her expertise as a teacher at the California College of the Arts and as chair of the board of 826 Valencia. Residing in San Francisco with her family and a quirky little dog, Lisa Brown continues to inspire and delight with her unique art, while enjoying her passion for coffee in leisure moments.
How did you start your career as an illustrator and cartoonist?
There was never a time that I didn’t want to draw. Or read. In college, I studied history and literature, but always kept my art in my back pocket: drawing a bi-monthly cartoon for the school paper and doodling in my classes. After graduation, I worked as an editorial assistant for a magazine, but was drawn to the art department the whole time. I got my master’s in graphic design in New York City and started a career as a designer. But deepest wish, one I had had my whole life, was to create illustrated books. I was lucky to be able to steal my husband’s literary agent and my first picture book came out in 2003.
What are your main influences and inspirations in the world of illustration and art?
Maurice Sendak was my first love, and Edward Gorey the second. There’s something about their uniquely strange worldview that spoke to me. Nowadays I worship them both as much as ever, but also love to spend time with the work of more contemporary folks, like Catià Chen, Rafael Lopez, Carson Ellis, Sydney Smith, and Isabelle Arsenault, to name just a few. I’ve also become an enormous comics fan. For example, I’m crazy for the work of Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, Isabelle Greenberg, Johann Sfar, and Vera Brosgol.
Could you tell us more about your award-winning illustrated books, such as “The Airport Book” and “How to Be”?
How to Be was my first book, about two kids pretending to be different animals. It remains in print, but it’s hard for me to look at now; my style has changed so much since then! The Airport Book is the story of a family going on a plane trip, narrated by the young boy. It’s an explanation the steps one takes through the airport, and how one sees all sorts of diverse people coming and going from all sorts of places. I wanted to talk about a liminal space; a journey between spaces.
What is it like to collaborate with renowned authors like Lemony Snicket on literary projects?
Well, he’s my husband so it’s a very workaday process. We read and edit everything that each other does, anyway, so actual collaboration on a specific project just feels like an extension of all that.
What was your inspiration behind creating the “Baby Be of Use” board book series?
It was just after my child was born, and I was tired of reading boring board books. I thought about what I was craving: a drink. And babies don’t know what they’re looking at, anyway! It’s all shape and color, so it might as well be something I wanted to look at.
Could you share with us your experience in releasing your first graphic novel, “The Phantom Twin,” and your first collection of comics, “Long Story Short”?
They both came out in the spring of 2020, days after lockdown. All the wonderful festivals and book events I was supposed to present at were either cancelled or moved online. I had been looking forward to being part of the world of cartoonists, and I was so sad. The Phantom Twin was especially dear to me: I’d been working on it for so long, and the subject, (conjoined twins at a circus sideshow) and the theme, (feeling like an outsider and misfit), was one that had absorbed me for years.
What was the creative process behind “The Hospital Book,” your latest book for young children?
This one was fun to research. I had some wonderful folks who took me around children’s hospitals and walked me through what kids and their parents go through when they are dealing with a difficult and scary medical situation.
Could you tell us about your involvement with the California College of the Arts and 826 Valencia?
I’ve been teaching a course called Writing and Illustrating Picture Books for the illustration department at the California College of Art (CCA) for 10 years now, and I love it. It’s so amazing to teach and admire the next generation of artists. I’m really proud of them.
Right now, I’m the chair of the board for 826 Valencia, a writing and tutoring center in San Francisco founded by Dave Eggers and Ninive Calegari. It’s a magical place. There are three locations, each of them with a different theme: pirates, marine life, and forest creatures. I’ve been involved in the organization since the founding 25 years! ago, as a donor, volunteer, and workshop instructor. It’s a special experience to support students, especially under resourced students, find their voices through writing.
How do you balance your career as an author and illustrator with your personal life, including your family and your dog?
There is no line between my personal and professional life at all, I’m afraid. My husband and I eat, sleep, and dream books, and have a kid who grew up doing the same. They’re in college, now, so my husband and I find ourselves even deeper into our work; one of us will sheepishly ask the other if we could please please work all weekend, and the other will say “I was hoping you’d say that.” As far as the dog goes, he’s a pain. He wants to sit on my lap all day as I try to draw.
What are your plans and future projects in the world of illustration and writing?
I’m working on The Moving Book, the third in the Airport/Hospital Book series, and slowly working my way through a new graphic novel about a boarding school full of ghosts.
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