The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Carter Higgins
Today, I get the amazing opportunity to interview Carter Higgins.
Carter has worn a few hats. She is an Emmy-winning visual effects and motion graphics artist, an elementary school librarian, and the author of MG novel - A Rambler Steals Home (HMH) and two picture books from Chronicle Books: This is Not a Valentine (illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins) and Everything You Need For a Treehouse (illustrated by Emily Hughes). Her third picture book Bikes for Sale (illustrated by Zachariah Ohora) released last week on April 2nd!
ME: Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? What is your favorite type of book to write?)
CARTER: Thanks for having me, Maria! I'm always happy to talk books with book people.
Let's see, it took me decades to realize that being a reader could translate into being a writer. I chased storytelling with careers as a school librarian and in motion graphics—which seem like an unusual pair, but are definitely connected through visual storytelling. It took some small tweaks in creative vision to think that I could create stories on my own!
I think that's an awesome combination of experiences to have before writing books. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
I am super afraid to drive across bridges. They are so small! And high! And do you trust your colleagues on the road to not be Instagramming?!
I'm with you on the second half, but that applies to driving anywhere for me. How long were you writing and submitting before you signed with your agent, Rubin Pfeffer? Any hints for those still seeking an agent?
I had been writing seriously for a few years. Even if you've had a lifetime of writing experience (which lots of us have!), picture books are such an unusual and wonderful form that makes you unlearn a lot of what you think you know about writing.
The great news about agents is that they are book lovers too, just like us. They're uniquely positioned in the business to match authors and publishers, but they're regular people who love books. I love that reminder. So if that's you, still seeking, keep your focus on their desire to bring your books into the world. They don't exist solely as gatekeepers or rejection machines.
Good reminder - they are just people who love books. As a child, who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book?
So many! But if I had to pick a favorite, it's Ramona Quimby's fault that I too stapled paper towels together in order to make a pair of slippers. She meant well, but was kind of a mess. Same.
Ha! I can imagine the mess. How did writing Bikes For Sale differ from writing This is Not a Valentine and Everything You Need For a Treehouse? Was one either easier or more
challenging to write? Why?
Bikes for Sale was the hardest of this trio, for sure—mostly because it has a plot! Those are very tough for me. I just want to write beautiful reflections of things, and crafting a narrative arc isn't usually top on my list of priorities. But I do understand that plots make a story satisfying, and ultimately, this one was for me to write.
I'm glad you ultimately figured it out. Where did the inspiration for Bikes For Sale come from? Did that core idea change as you started writing or doing revisions?
I saw this flyer stapled up to a telephone pole one summer, and it was sincerely a story in itself to me. Who was selling them? Who needs them? Why? What happened? Would the bikes be different after they were discarded? Have some kind of new, magical life?
I scribbled the first draft the same day as I took this photo.
What a curious sign. I can see where that would spark a story. What's something you want your readers to know about Bikes For Sale?
Be sure to peek at the case cover. There's a really lovely thing there with pink foil and it sums up the whole book in one beautiful glossy picture.
It's also dedicated to the biker girls in my neighborhood growing up. One of my favorite things about being a librarian, and now writing books, is how the books we read as kids change our lives for so long. The same can be true of friendships established in childhood, so dedicating it to them, to us, felt like a perfect story.
Pink foil? So, who isn't going to rush out and lift the dust jacket? There are really three main characters and story lines in this picture book. How long did it take to set up this structure? What did you use as a mentor text for this book?
It's true! Leave it to me to be a writer who struggles with plot and then need three quasi-different ones.
But truthfully, there was never any other structural option that made sense to try. Maurice and Lotta don't know each other at the beginning of the story, so we needed to follow both of them to see what was the same and what was different about their routines. The text mirrors itself, even when its details vary.
And the question that I asked when I first saw the sign—who is selling these bikes?—seemed just as important as the main two.
This is where making picture books gets very magical. Sid, the owner of the shop, appears in the pictures as Maurice and Lotta are going about their day. Zachariah Ohora made sure that his backstory was fully fleshed out in the pictures, even though we don't hear his name or completely understand his role until midway through the text.
Zachariah did a great job of helping carry through all three story lines. The jacket cover calls it a “meet-cute,” a term I first heard in the movie, The Holiday. What does it mean in the context of this book?
I love that movie—talk about parallel structures, right?
Most of the time, meet-cutes infer some kind of romance down the line. But in the world of picture books and their readers, friendships can exist the same way—you're swept up in a whirlwind of newness and excitement and hopefulness for all of the experiences you can share together. It's that moment where you encounter someone for the first time in a completely unexpected and charming way, setting the stage for the friendship to follow.
Beautifully put. Thanks for the explanation. When did you come up with the opening and closing line - “They were new once. And then, they weren’t?”
Those lines were in the very first draft, but I don't think it was until much later that I made the connection between the bikes and the friendships themselves. A lot changed as revisions unfolded, but from the moment I saw that sign, I wanted to tell the story of how bikes are an extension of their rider. What happens when bikes get old? What about friends?
It's also deliciously abstract to me, but framed a very possible story. There's something once-upon-a-time-y to me about lines like that, the ones that ask you to settle in and hear this story.
It does feel fairy tale-like and so intriguing. How many drafts, or revisions, did Bikes For Sale take? Did you have to revise the words after Zachariah finished the illustrations?
A bunch, truly. I am the kind of writer that doesn't like to look too closely as I type away, which results in logic issues and holes and what in the world is this thing even about? My editor helped me get back to those same questions I had at the sign, time and time again.
Once Zach was visualizing the world and its physicality, we found room to pull back even more in the text. It's one of the trickiest parts of writing as a picture book author—those moments when the text is only on your plate. It has to be robust enough for an editor to understand how the book functions, but you've still got to understand where you aren't the only creator who will be involved. And then when an illustrator comes alongside, you might end up with even more room to share the stage.
Perfect analogy - sharing the stage - as co-performers. Assuming you had few, if any, illustration notes, did any of the illustrations, end pages, or cover surprise you?
Zach figured out a problem visually that I had in draft after draft after draft of the text, which is incredible to me. It becomes something that belongs to all of us. I was the one that saw that literal sign and wrote down glimmers of this world first, but a finished book is way more than one writer's notebook or Word document.
Which is harder for you to write a middle grade novel, A Rambler Steals Home, or picture books? Why?
Picture books, for sure. With picture books, it's easier to see the whole scope of the thing at once, but to fit all those parts together seamlessly? While understanding at a gut level where you can leave room for visuals? And writing in a zillion ways that they tell you not to in school? And spending a whole work day on the perfect two-syllable word? And understanding that the physicality of the book is at play and writing for the actual way that the book works as its own mini-theater? There's a lot to consider, and that's even after you've figured out if you've even got a good story to tell or not.
Not to mention finding a plot that works.
So, easy peasy! *grinning* Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I'm working on another parallel type of story, one that relies heavily on a visual storyline that is invisible to the main characters. And needs a plot. It's a challenge for me, but I haven't given up yet!
Tantalizing, best of luck with it. Is there anything about writing, illustrating, or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or maybe something you’re glad you didn’t know at first?
I wished I'd realized that a kid hugging your book is better than any rejection or pit along the way. It's easy to get discouraged by what the grownups say, and while picture books are for all ages, that hug is really the greatest thing.
True enough. May we all get a chance to experience that moment. What is something you learned from your critique partners?
One of my critique partners has been dialing in on this idea lately of having a clear understanding of your ideal reader—their age and their worldview and why they are the reader for your book. That's helped a lot to crystallize a book's intention—that it has to be more than a string of lovely sentences (whether or not it has a plot!), that it has to say something to somebody. Otherwise it's just a lump of stuff, too hard to decipher or just plain ignored.
This is definitely something to remember as we all write, thanks. What is your favorite animal? Why?
I've always loved elephants. So big and rough and tumble and wrinkly and majestic.
Thank you Carter for stopping by and sharing so much about your book and writing picture books in general.
Be sure to stop back by on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book post on Bikes for Sale.
For more information about Carter Higgins, or to contact her: