Carter Higgins will make you see shapes and colors like never before

Books

Carter Higgins has worked in school libraries, visual effects and motion graphics—and all that experience shows in Some of These Are Snails. This ingenious concept picture book with bold and vibrant artwork that expands on the approach Higgins took in her 2021 book, Circle Under Berry, which asked readers to consider shapes, colors and prepositions such as over, between and above. In Some of These Are Snails, Higgins turns our attention to explorations of grouping, sorting and classification. At just over 200 words, the book may seem simple, but as Higgins reveals, it’s anything but.

You’ve mentioned that your favorite children’s author is Ruth Krauss, whose books include The Carrot Seed, A Hole Is to Dig and The Happy Day. In fact, you even wrote a picture book about her called A Story Is to Share. Can you talk about her influence on these books?
Krauss’ influence on my life both as a reader and a writer has always felt clear and connected. When I was working on Circle Under Berry, I pitched it as “Hervé Tullet meets Ruth Krauss.” Occasionally, I tend toward overwriting or can get too abstracted to make sense, so I’m always looking to Krauss’ unfussy, authentic language for reminders of writing I respond so deeply to. I hope Some of These Are Snails similarly captures logic and poetry in a playful way.

Can you talk about the beginnings of this book and how it began to take shape from there?
I see what you did there! The editorial process on Circle Under Berry exploded with concepts that could have fit in that world, just not in a singular book. Lots of juicy visual ideas were left on the cutting room floor, so I was able to pick up the scraps (so to speak) and create what might come next.

What qualities were important to you to give the text of the book?
The text needed to be sticky: the kind whose rhythms stay in your head for a while, sounds really great out loud but is also doing some unusual things. I’m always writing for sound design, like the echo-y assonance of snails and squares or the consonance at the end of circle and purple. With the book’s relatively limited vocabulary, I was cautious about too many true rhymes that might lead a reader to assume they are reading a rhyming book, only for it to . . . not. It can’t feel like a mistake. One of the greatest things about our language is how fantastic kid-facing words sound. Try these out loud: Octagon! Elephant! Oval! Wiggly! It’s good clay to smash around from the start. 

“There’s something so mesmerizing about a circle. They are also very elusive and tricky to draw, so it’s satisfying to get that right every once in a while.”

Excluding the jacket and front matter, the book’s text only uses three types of punctuation marks: question marks, a set of hyphens and some apostrophes. How did you arrive at that choice?
Poetry gets to play fast and loose with grammatical conventions, and ultimately that’s what we have here. It’s essentially a song, a rhythm, a cadence—not bound by the same punctuation rules as prose. It’s interesting to note that there are question marks but no other sentence-ending punctuation. Maybe that’s a metaphor for this book asking questions of you but not offering precise solutions. 

The apostrophes solved a rhythm problem, deploying a contraction to turn two syllables into one. And it’s just so delightful to think of the conversations that happen around a book-making table: “Should it be ‘tweet tweet tweet’ or ‘tweet-tweet-tweet’?” I don’t remember why we landed on the hyphens, but I love them.

Did you begin these illustrations with sketches or doodles, or by working directly with cut paper? 
I did very simple sketches in Procreate, a drawing app for the iPad. At that stage, it was primarily the basic shapes: an orange circle for a tiger, a blue square for an owl. Knowing how each picture would change from spread to spread helped ensure the text is equally surprising and playful. 

Did you experiment with different papers or painting tools (brushes, sponge brushes, fingers)? Are the colors we see single shades of paint or multiple shades mixed together? 
I painted large sheets of newsprint with acrylics using a very popular process for preschoolers: scrape painting. You squirt the paint directly on the paper and use a scraper of some sort to pull the paint around. I usually chose no more than two colors to make any one piece of paper, but the only color mixing was what happened right on the paper as a result of the scraping. Most of the papers for this book were painted with plastic pizza ads a local restaurant mails out, the kind that snap out like your library card or grocery store rewards cards.

This is a question I think many children will be interested in: Did you use stencils or outlines to cut the shapes, or did you wing it?
Yes, I am a big fan of stencils! The bottom of my pencil cup made the snails’ bodies. A Post-it pad for the elephants. If I needed to make something from scratch, like an octagon or oval, I used postcards. 

“One of the greatest things about our language is how fantastic kid-facing words sound. Try these out loud: Octagon! Elephant! Oval! Wiggly! It’s good clay to smash around from the start.”

How did you assemble the finished illustrations digitally?
Once their design was figured out, I created the individual pieces of art: all the ladybugs at once, all the yellow squares, all the worms. After that, I scanned them and made the final compositions in Photoshop. Everything was handmade and physically exists, but the final pictures were assembled digitally.

The book has so many great color moments—pages or spreads where it’s clear that you’re interested in the contrasting or complementing interplay of colors as well as in shapes. Can you tell us about one of your favorites?
Thank you for noticing this! Being intentional with color feels similar to being intentional with the sound of the language. The first four spreads primarily feature green, orange, yellow and blue, so when purple and red are both introduced on the fifth spread, it feels like such a treat. You’ve got a sense of how the book is working, so we suddenly start to experience it differently.

What is one of your favorite shapes and why?
There’s something so mesmerizing about a circle. They are also very elusive and tricky to draw, so it’s satisfying to get that right every once in a while. (But I’ll still happily use my pencil-cup stencil!)

You worked as a school librarian for 10 years. What insights did you gain from that work that you were able to bring to this book?
One of the best things about being a librarian is constantly growing up with your students. You don’t pass them along to the next grade level in the same way classroom teachers need to. A kindergartener and that same reader in fourth grade? Wildly different, very much the same. For this book, I wanted to create a few different experiences depending on the reader’s age, whether you are a toddler or a big kid. 

If you could become a fly on the wall during a library storytime in which someone was sharing this book with children, what would you hope to see the storytime provider doing? What would you hope to see the children doing?
You know, I hope it’s a little noisy. I hope kids are shouting out answers and discovering new ways to see something, and that the storytime provider is just happily in the thick of it. 

Read our starred review of Carter Higgins’ ‘Some of These Are Snails.’


Author photo of Carter Higgins courtesy of The Headshot Truck.

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