September 14, 2021

Let's Talk Illustrators #190: Carter Higgins

It's truly a magical moment when you get a chance to interview one of your idols! Talking to Carter Higgins about her illustration debut Circle Under Berry was truly a dream come true for me, having been a follower of her Design of the Picture Book blog for many years and then getting the chance to work with her many moons ago at the website All the Wonders. Circle Under Berry is an incredibly special book that works hard not to fit into any particular mold, and I hope you enjoy our chat about one of this year's most unique books for children!

About the book:
This striking, delightfully different exploration of shape, color, and patterns redefines what a picture book can be. Read it once, read it ten times. See something new every time.

Let's talk Carter Higgins!

LTPB: First of all, a million congrats on your illustrator debut!! 

CH: Thanks, Mel! It was such a wild milestone to see only one name on the spine!

LTPB: Where did the idea for Circle Under Berry come from? How long have you been working on it?

CH: I spent a few months on this idea in 2019 before I had the guts to share it with my editor. But it was a visual puzzle that I’d turned over in my head long before it started to take shape.

You’ve probably heard other animators who also make books say this before, and they are right: there’s a direct translation between how an animation unfolds visually over time and the way picture books work. I was always fascinated by that concept, and have taken a similar approach to pacing picture book texts.

But I’ve wanted to illustrate a book for as long as I’ve been making picture books. When I began writing for kids, I was working in motion graphics and compositing. I love visual storytelling, and understanding how it works has always served my writing. But as I was considering illustration, I was always daunted by narrative and character development and continuity and do I even have a style?

My primary work was in television and trailers, which were usually either photorealistic visual effects or motion graphics bound by clients’ style guides. It’s incredibly satisfying to design creative solutions within limits like that, but I wondered how I would make personal art separate from working as an artist.

Eventually, the how emerged—I could design an experience for young readers rather than illustrate a narrative. What if I made something that felt like animation, where each spread was just a place where someone pressed pause? That was really foundational to the book.

LTPB: What can you share about the design of this book? It’s sort of half-picture book, half-board book, and longer than most picture books at 52 pages! Did you always envision this as the final product?

CH: I love this question. I wrote a blog for a number of years called Design of the Picture Book, because (like you!) I am in awe of this art form. Studying design choices with such intention and celebrating my favorites certainly informed what I wanted Circle Under Berry to be. Even though there are some technical limits to the physicality of a picture book, there are still a ton of choices to make, right?

Initially, I’d designed it as a tall rectangle so that it opened up to be a perfect square. I thought that was a clever way to use the book itself to represent one of the main concepts inside—the shapes. As I revised the text and sketches a billion times, it became clear that the compositions needed more variation than the layouts I’d started with. It all needed a little more room to breathe.

Jay Marvel is the art director at Chronicle Books who designed this book so impeccably, and this final trim size was his suggestion. I love how it’s not too board-book-ish for a picture book reader, and not too picture-book-ish for the very very young. (Those corners are nice and rounded just in case anyone wants to take a chomp!) Jay also used a typeface called Brown, which is one of my favorite details about the whole thing. Perfect for a book that explores color.

And yes, it clocks in at a whopping 52 pages! I’d worked with my dear, dear editor on a number of other books, but this was brand new territory for us. Even though I knew her so well, I wanted to stick to the space of a 32-page book—assuring her that I knew what I was doing, maybe?! I remember the email where she just said use the room you need and oh, the relief. This book is truly a puzzle from the pictures to the poetry, and having the room both in trim size and length was essential. I love what we made.

LTPB: What differences have you found between creating a picture book on your own (text and illustrations) versus letting someone else illustrate your text? Do you find that you prefer one over the other?

CH: The collaboration that happens on a picture book has been one of the most unexpected joys in this work. I love that I can write something, ship it off to someone else, and share the final result. There’s some real magic in that! Each of the illustrators I’ve created books with are also authors of their own picture books, and so it’s a tremendous honor that they’d work with my texts.

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium?

CH: When I was first experimenting with handmade art, I bought the most expensive materials I could stand. And there’s nothing wrong with fancy, special tools if you’re using them—except, I wasn’t. I was intimidated by their specialness.

Then one morning I had coffee with a lovely illustrator friend who told me to stop by the dollar store on the way home and get out of my own way.

Once I’d gathered the cheapest acrylic paints, some newsprint, and rummaged through my junk mail for those fake credit cards, it felt like play rather than work. I’m not sure if you know much about preschool art projects, but scrape painting is a popular one. You squirt some paint on paper and then scrape it around with something flat: cardboard, a tool, an old library card. It’s purposeful, but exploratory. There’s so much accidental beauty in the texture and colors you can create.

I had a very specific set of colors in the text, so I made an inventory of painted paper specifically for this book. The greens are different from the emerald, the red is different from the scarlet, the magenta from the pink. And then each piece of art is made up of very specific shapes that are also in the text—that was a rule I stuck to in the world-building puzzle. I collaged each piece by hand (with my cheap purple gluesticks!) and then composited the spreads and did a touch of color correction in Photoshop.

LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can show us?

CH: It’s a fall full of firsts around here! My first chapter book comes out in just a couple weeks, Audrey L & Audrey W: Best Friends-ish. It’s all about how excruciating and exhausting second grade is. Do you remember?! There’s something both charming and painful about how immersive classroom dynamics are, and I loved capturing that into this funny book.

Jennifer K. Mann illustrated it to absolute perfection. Her characters are so expressive and endearing. Though it’s not a picture book, I think the pairing of our art and text is essential to how well this book works. I can’t wait for it to find its readers.

LTPB: If you got the chance to write your own picture book autobiography, who (dead or alive!) would you want to illustrate it, and why?

CH: Okay, I could spend a full week thinking about this question, but I’ve landed on Ann Jonas or Remy Charlip. There’s something so slippery and vibrant and experimental about both of their work, while always being true and kid-centered. Perfect matches for a story based on memories (or memories based on stories?)

Thank you a billion times over to Carter for talking to me about this super special book! Circle Under Berry publishes TODAY from Chronicle Books!

Special thanks to Carter and Chronicle for use of these images!

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  1. Thank you for sharing so much about the journey of Circle Under Berry! As both a pre-published PB writer and preschool teacher, I think this book is perfection. Carter’s books always do such a brilliant job of giving kids exactly what they need. Can't wait to read this one and meet the Audreys in her forthcoming chapter book too!

  2. What a wonderful interview! Can’t wait to own this book. Carter’s work is inspiring. Thank you!

  3. What a wonderful interview! Can’t wait to own this book. Carter’s work is inspiring. Thank you!