Children’s author/illustrator Brian Biggs lives in Philadelphia, Pa., in a neighborhood called Roxborough, but he grew up in Little Rock, Ark., and Pasadena, Texas, near the Gulf Coast.
As an adult, he lived in New York City, N.Y., San Francisco, Calif., and even Paris, France, before settling in Pennsylvania.
Each of those cities has things that make them unique and special, but there also were lots of things they had in common, said Biggs.
There were police officers who protected different parts of the city; trash collectors who picked up everyone’s garbage; a baker who made the doughnuts; a mayor who tried to solve all of the city’s problems . . .
Moving around so much in his life enabled Biggs to see these kind of similarities, and that inspired him to create a book series, “Tinyville Town,” about the people who work together to make a community what it is.
The first book in the series, “Tinyville Town Gets to Work!” is about a community that finds itself in need of a new bridge, so the people work together to get it built, just like here in Washington, where a new bridge is underway and expected to be completed by the end of the year.
Biggs will be in Washington Friday, March 2, to share the story behind “Tinyville Town Gets to Work!” as the featured author at The Missourian’s annual Family Reading Night, set for 5:30-8:30 p.m. at Washington Middle School.
“When we read this book about a happy little town that finds itself in need of a new bridge, we knew this was the book to build this year’s community reading event around,” said Dawn Kitchell, event chair and Missourian educational services director. “Our plea to Brian was that we needed him to come because ‘we are Tinyville Town!’ ”
Kitchell said the series is unique in the way it uses the picture book to tell the bigger story, then breaks the characters — all community helpers with their own stories — into board books.
The newest community helper board book is “I’m a Mail Carrier.” Kitchell said it is due to be released on March 6, but the publisher released it early for Family Reading Night.
Another of Biggs’ book series to be featured at the event is his juvenile fiction chapter books created in collaboration with Jon Scieszka, “Frank Einstein.” The sixth book in the series, “Frank Einstein and the Space-Time Zipper,” isn’t due to be released until March 20, but will be available at Family Reading Night.
‘I’ve Always Been Very Curious’
As a child, Biggs didn’t have much say in where he lived, but when he was old enough to take charge of his life, he knew he wanted to experience different cities. Spending a month in New York City as part of a summer program during high school helped him realize “there’s a lot to see out there.”
As a college student at Parsons School of Design, Biggs spent each year at a different campus (including Paris), and after graduating he moved to California before settling on the East Coast.
“I’ve always been very curious . . . It’s been mostly about having a curiosity and being able to go — pack your bags and see what else is out there,” said Biggs.
What he found is that there are more similarities between communities than differences.
“In the end Washington, Mo. — it sounds disingenuous to say — but it’s not that different from Manhattan. Like, when I read about the Old Dutch hotel (where he’ll be staying next weekend when he comes to Washington) I thought, it’s a boutique hotel, and I’ve stayed in hotels like that in Chicago and Denver and everywhere else,” said Biggs.
“If you go to your Applebee’s, you might see a local teacher there, and if you’re in Manhattan, it’s the same thing.”
So while the big stuff, like infrastructure, will be different in big cities like New York or Chicago than in smaller communities like Washington, Mo., the people and needs are all the same.
“We all need bridges and trash collectors and police officers,” said Biggs.
Since Biggs created “Tinyville Town” in 2016, it has been a popular series. It includes picture books, like “Tinyville Town Gets to Work!” and “Tinyville Town Goes to School!,” along with board books that focus on individual jobs, like “Tinyville Town, I’m a Veterinarian” and “Tinyville Town, I’m a Firefighter.” The newest book in the series, “Tinyville Town, I’m a Mail Carrier,” is due out the first week of March.
Biggs, who has some 70 books to his name (mostly as an illustrator), said he enjoys working on the “Tinyville” series and looks forward to creating many more titles.
“I could write those books forever,” he said, noting he has a list of 25 potential board books for the series. “They fit right into what I like to talk about when I talk about books and cities.”
The original contract for the series was for eight or nine books, said Biggs. Currently he’s working on a book that will be a companion to the “I’m a Firefighter” board book. It’s called “At the Firehouse,” and it shows how it takes a team to do the work.
Biggs expects other similar books will follow.
“We could do ‘At the Hospital’ or ‘At City Hall’ to show how everyone works together to get a job done,” he said.
First Paper, Then Computer
Biggs’ illustrations for “Tinyville” books are created first with pen and paper and then scanned into a computer where they are edited using Photoshop software.
So while some illustrators working today create all of their work on a computer using software, Biggs does not.
“With ‘Tinyville Town,’ every page is an actual drawing somewhere, and then it’s scanned,” Biggs explained. “Then all the color is added in Photoshop and usually a little editing as well to get a certain look.
“I love the process of drawing with ink and paper and pens. I’m kind of a nerd for that stuff,” said Biggs.
As a graphic design major in college (1986-’90), he graduated right at the transition period when computers were becoming dominant.
He was planning for a career as an art director for a magazine or newspaper, so he learned “all the traditional techniques,” like gluing type onto paper to create a layout and using a Photostat machine to enlarge photographs.
“Around the time I was graduating is when all of that went out the window,” said Biggs. “The Macintosh had just come in and replaced everything. I was always interested in technology and I was 21, 22 years old, so it was a really easy transition. I was more curious about what it could do.
“I thought it was the coolest thing in the world to be able to play around in Photoshop. It’s something I got on really quickly, and in California, I worked for Adobe Systems and Oracle and some of these software companies, working on animation projects for them and things. So I never wanted to distinguish between them. I saw it as tools in your toolbox.”
Today, Biggs works out of an old garage space located about four blocks from his house. It had previously been used as a storage space for a contracting company and then a florist shop.
When Biggs noticed the for rent sign in the window in 2009, he knew it would make a great studio space.
“It’s right between my house and my kids’ elementary school, where they were going at the time, I thought it was so perfect,” he said. “On nice days we open the big garage door.”
On occasion, Biggs even opens the space to bands as a concert venue.
Over the course of his career, Biggs has held a variety of jobs, including college instructor, but since 2006, he has worked almost exclusively as a children’s book illustrator.
Biggs is well-known for his “Everything Goes” series of three books that came out in 2011, ’12 and ’13. Those were the first books where he was both author and illustrator.
In addition to his “Tinyville” books, Biggs is working on several other projects at the moment.
He is creating cover art for a series of four Judy Blume books and illustrating another book about a used car dealer who has to sell a car to a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
He’s also illustrating a book that he wrote called “The Walk.” It’s about an astronaut who is bored, and wants to go out for a walk, “so it would be a space walk,” said Biggs.
That project has been fun because it’s the first book he’s written that isn’t part of a series.
“It’s just a single, stand-alone picture book, and I haven’t actually done that yet. I’ve illustrated nearly 70 books but none of them are a single, individual artsy picture book that stands on its own,” said Biggs.
Working as an illustrator for other authors’ work is just as interesting for Biggs as working on books he’s written himself.
“I enjoy both types of work equally,” he said. “I would never have come up with the story about the car salesman and the T-rex on my own, and when I read it, I said, ‘I know what this book is going to look like.’ As soon as I read the words, I could see where the page turns would be, and I knew it would be fun.”
He had the same feeling a few years ago illustrating a book by Kelly DiPucchio called “Dog Days of School,” where a kid wishes he could lay around all day like his dog, and then he wakes up one morning to find they have switched places. He’s now being put out in the back yard, while his dog is at school trying to solve math problems.
“They both are miserable and miss their own lives,” said Biggs. “That’s another one I never would have thought of, but boy, it was fun to draw.”
He feels like working as an illustrator on another author’s manuscript is a collaboration.
“A really good script is written in a way that allows me to be half of the storyteller,” Biggs remarked.
Want Parents to Model Reading
One of the goals of Family Reading Night has always been to encourage families to spend time reading together on a regular basis, so in the days leading up to the event, families who read together for 15 minutes each day for seven days can document their reading on a Family Reading Log and enter it into a drawing to win a six-month home library of Missourian Book Buzz Picks ($100 value) sponsored by the Washington High School football team and Washington NEA.
Seven winners will be drawn.
Reading logs were sent home to students in Washington area schools and published in the Feb. 17-18 issue of The Missourian. Copies also can be downloaded at emissourian.com.
“Parents are such an important influence on their kids becoming readers, both reading to them and modeling reading in front of them,” said Dawn Kitchell, educational services director for The Missourian and chair of Family Reading Night.
“We provide data on the reading log that stresses the importance of reading to a child at least 15 minutes a day beginning at birth,” Kitchell said. “It’s alarming how many children aren’t getting that — only about half of the children in this country are read to each day.”
Reading Rooms, Craft Tables, More
After Biggs’ presentation, families have their choice of heading to the cafeteria to make crafts inspired by Book Buzz Picks from this past year or heading to any of the evening’s reading rooms to hear stories being read by community leaders, like Mayor Sandy Lucy, community helpers like UPS driver Darren Johnson, and high school students.
New this year, the Stories Matter organization will host a room offering diverse stories.
Craft tables this year are sponsored by parent-teacher groups from Clearview, Augusta, Labadie, Immanuel Lutheran, Our Lady of Lourdes schools, as well as All-Abilities Athletics, Stories Matter Committee, the Education Committee of the Washington Historical Society and Washington NEA.
After the craft tables and reading rooms close, families can gather again in the school gym at 8 p.m. to watch members of the Washington Police Department perform a skit of a popular children’s story.
Following the skit, names will be drawn to award the night’s prizes, including the dozens of book-filled baskets donated by individuals, businesses and organizations.
Book baskets will be awarded from a drawing of children who visited at least two reading rooms and received punches on the special bookmarks that will be distributed at the event.
For the second year, sign language interpreters will be part of the author presentation and one of the reading rooms.
As always, a Scholastic Book Fair will be held in the library. Funds raised are used to award free books at Family Reading Night.
There is no charge to attend Family Reading Night, and it is open to all ages, from young families to older readers.
This year’s Family Reading Night is sponsored by the Washington Optimist Club, the School District of Washington and The Missourian, with support from the Washington Public Library, Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company of New Haven, Washington High School football team, Washington NEA, and Neighborhood Reads bookstore.
The Family Reading Night Committee organizing this year’s event includes Kitchell, Ann Joyce, Chris Stuckenschneider, Ann Loesing, Penny Heisel, Ruth McInnis, Judy Straatmann, Margaret Holtmeier, Jane Haberberger, Valerie Jankowski, Jennifer Wirthwein, Danielle Snider, Amanda Nilges, Julie Frankenberg, Jessica Tollison, Rachael Eggert, Amy Steffens, Erin Gaebe and Ruth Ann Smith.