Ryan T. Higgins Talks with Roger

Ryan T. Higgins Talks with Roger

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Photo: Bethany McNaughton
Mother Bruce, not to mention his creator, Ryan T. Higgins, had no idea he would be starring in a series of picture books, but he is probably grumpy about that. Get used to it, Bruce.

Roger Sutton: How's life up in Maine, Ryan?

Ryan T. Higgins: I'm out in my studio, which is a little cabin in my backyard. It's a lot quieter out here than my house. We have two kids and a bunch of dogs and other pets.

RS: How old are your kids?

RTH: My son is five and my daughter will be four in a couple of weeks.

RS: That's like our grandchildren.

RTH: It's a wonderful age. Aren't they the best?

RS: They are, but they're far away, so we don't have to do any of the work. Drop in, take them out for sandwiches, give them a present, bye-bye!

RTH: The grandparent duty does seem to be a sweet spot. You get to have all the fun you want, but then at the end of the day you get to hand them back to the parents.

RS: All right, I want to talk about your Bruce books, which began with Mother Bruce. Now we have four in all. Did you know there were more books coming when you did the first one?

RTH: Not at first. I was about halfway through the illustration process when I started to overflow with ideas. It was also around that time that Disney-Hyperion asked if I was interested in doing more books about Bruce, so it just kind of came together. I've gotten attached to him. He and I seem to click really well.

RS: There's an interesting progression from book to book in that Bruce is the star of the first book, but by the time we get to the third book, Be Quiet!, he basically has a cameo in a story that is mostly about three mice.

RTH: I consider Be Quiet! to be almost a spin-off. I had written a rough draft of Be Quiet! two years before Mother Bruce. When we pitched Mother Bruce to Disney-Hyperion, we also pitched Be Quiet!, and they signed me up for both.

RS: In your mind, at that point, were those two books related?

RTH: No. But when Disney-Hyperion asked me to do a second Bruce book, the ideas seemed to mesh together. I could take these mice I already had and put them in the Bruce book, and that would be a great lead-in to the Be Quiet! book. Cross-promotion, I suppose you could call it.

RS: And what about the fourth?

RTH: The fourth book is called Bruce's Big Move, and it's about Bruce's little house — he lives in a little hill in the ground, like a typical bear — starting to get overcrowded with all the animals that live in there with him. He's got his four geese and the three mice. The mice are starting to get on his nerves, but they're very persistent in sticking around. He eventually decides to move, so the story is about Bruce looking for a new house to get away from the mice.

RS: Good luck with that, I'm guessing.

RTH: Yes. He's riding around on a little yellow motorbike looking for a new house. It's my little yellow motorbike, so that was fun to include. Drawing a bear on a tiny bike is pretty funny.

RS: Well, Bruce is pretty funny. So much of what we know about him is defined by everybody around him.

RTH: He's mostly reaction.

RS: Right. First he's got the geese, and the geese are just there being obnoxious but mostly adorable. And then the mice come on the scene in the second book, and they're a handful, those mice.

RTH: The mice are really fun to work with, because they are my inner monologue. Basically, Be Quiet! is just a conversation with myself.

RS: What do you think of this trend of picture books breaking the fourth wall?

RTH: I like meta books. I grew up reading The Monster at the End of This Book. I really loved that book. But the amusing meta-ness in Be Quiet! was secondary for me. The mice acknowledge that they're in a book, but they don't really talk to the reader too much.

RS: No, they're talking about writing the book that they're in.

RTH: Exactly. Did you ever read Walt Kelly's Pogo comic?

RS: Sure.

RTH: In Pogo they would often reference the comic strip. They would get out the funny pages to see what was going to happen next, which I thought was neat. I like the idea of them knowing what they're doing without necessarily trying to involve the reader too much.

RS: Right. It's not like the Pigeon.

RTH: Or We Are in a Book!, where Gerald and Piggie know they can get the reader to do whatever they want.

RS: How do you find the conventions of comic-book storytelling working in your own books? Is there a lot of influence?

RTH: Definitely. For years, I wanted to be a comic-strip cartoonist for newspapers. All the major syndicates might have ten or fifteen submissions from me that were rejected over the years. It wasn't until college that I shifted more toward picture books. I read Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! my senior year. I thought, this is basically a comic strip, but in book form.

RS: I like that your work is so antic and comic, but at the same time the pictures are painterly. Often when you see picture-book comic books with balloon dialogue, etc., the style is very comic book–y, very line-oriented, very sketchy.

RTH: Thanks. My college degree is not in writing or art, it's in ecology. My backup job was wildlife biologist. But I took a lot of classical painting classes. So when I approach a picture book, even though I do most of it digitally, I go about it more like a classical painting.

RS: And have you always worked digitally?

RTH: Not always, but ever since I've been doing picture books I have. I like watercolor, but I have a tendency to stress out when I know that what I'm putting on the page can't be changed. People have different schools of thought on that. For me, the digital backup, being able to hit undo, makes me feel like I have more freedom to try things. I can add color, and if I don't like that color, I can get rid of it. Another great thing is when my editor asks me to make a change — move a character over a couple inches — I don't have to repaint the whole thing.

RS: Do you worry about having too much choice?

RTH: Yeah, if there's a big menu in a restaurant, I can't pick anything because I get overwhelmed by all the choices. I do give myself strict constraints in my illustrations. I need one particular brush for this painting. I have a set of colors that I like to use. I try to use digital colors that are the most like watercolors. Because you're right, there's an endless amount of possibilities.

RS: That's what I would worry about. I'm looking at this sort of mottled green background where the mice are talking to Bruce in Be Quiet! It's like, okay, mottled green. I could try blue. I could try orange.

RTH: Book designers are great for that. I'm typically really terrible about picking background colors.

RS: Who do you identify with in these books?

RTH: The mouse with the hat is the most like me. But they're all different parts of me. I'm rarely externally grumpy, but I have feelings like Bruce has sometimes. In a way I suppose Bruce is therapeutic for me, to get those feelings out.

RS: There's an explosion in each one of these books, an emotional outburst.

RTH: Yeah, and I never do those, so maybe that's my way of getting it out there.

RS: You never yell?

RTH: Very rarely. I'm very non-confrontational. And Bruce is the opposite, so it is neat to step into his shoes. There are also no repercussions. If I were to shout at somebody, they'd probably shout back at me, and then it would become a whole ordeal. But in a book I can have Bruce be grumpy and surly and grumbly.

RS: And he's accepted by his fellow characters.

RTH: Right. They're kind of oblivious. Or maybe they see underneath his grumpiness.

RS: That's something a book can really do: put us in touch with something we're feeling that we don't even know we're feeling. Have you found that in reading with your own kids?

RTH: Yeah. Books are a great way to explore — like you say — feelings you haven't really expressed out loud.

RS: Do you see more Bruce books coming?

RTH: I'd like to keep making them, as long as I keep having ideas that people think are good. It's important that people like the characters. That frees me up and helps me come up with more storylines. It helps them flow more naturally. I look at each book as kind of a snapshot in the characters' lives.

RS: But what's neat is that you're not doing the same book over and over again.

RTH: I'm trying to stay away from formula. I worry about that sometimes, because it's easy to fall into the formula of Bruce runs into some cute little animal, and then he's grumpy about it, and at the end he's okay with it, but there's some funny stuff that happens. But people have come to expect certain things from the stories.

RS: I think that they expect things from your characters. You don't want Bruce out of character unless there's a very good reason.

RTH: Right. I don't ever really want Bruce to change. He grows a little from story to story, but he's always going to be a grump. In real life, there are very few people who are grumps and then at the drop of a hat they're going to be happy and bubbly for the rest of their lives. Each book is about allowing Bruce to grow a little bit, but each book is also about finding out there's more to Bruce than meets the eye.

RS: These are things that you discover as you go along, I'm guessing.

RTH: Yes, I never sat down to make a big backstory about Bruce. Maybe I should have. But it is kind of neat. Each book I discover more about Bruce, more about the characters.

RS: I do like Bruce's new house. It's beautiful.

RTH: Thanks! It is almost identical to my family's lake house in central Maine. That's where I grew up spending my summers, so when I was trying to think of a new house for Bruce, that seemed to fit for a couple reasons. One, it looks nice. It's a really pretty place, a tranquil spot. The other one was I hate designing the inside of a house, figuring out how the rooms will work and how the characters will look in each room, trying to remember what each one looks like. Is there a window over here, a door over there? What's the relationship between the window and the door? Putting in a house that exists made that all easier for me. I would go up to the cabin and sit in one particular spot, then I'd draw a scene of the inside that I can use for reference.

RS: To keep everything in proportion, spatially.

RTH: It's really hard to fit a bear and four geese and three mice into a tiny little hill that has bedrooms and a kitchen and a dining room and all that stuff.

RS: I imagine that must be one of the hardest things for an illustrator to do, to capture a sense of chaos without being chaotic.

RTH: Exactly. If your illustrations are too chaotic, you kind of lose track of everything. There's a scene in Bruce's Big Move where there's a huge mess in one of the rooms. I had a really difficult time drawing that in a way so that you could see each individual mouse in the room, because there was a lot in the mess.

RS: It's a little Where's Waldo?–esque.

RTH: It is still a little hard to find the mice, but we went through a lot of different drafts and color changes to make the mice stand out as best we could. Also, one of my favorite things about that page is my son drew the dinosaurs you see on the wall.

RS: Oh, really?

RTH: Yup.

RS: I was just talking about this with Jon J Muth: with a picture book, the child is not yet reading it for him- or herself. A parent or adult is reading it, either in a story hour or in a lap, so you've got to give that kid something to do while you're reading aloud.

RTH: That's why it's so important to keep the pictures interesting, with something to look for, little things to spot. It may take kids just a couple of seconds to soak in what the characters are up to, and if the parents still have another minute or two to read, the kids might get bored.

RS: Right. And it's my experience that children are much more natural about really scrutinizing a picture than adults tend to be. How do you think having your own children affects the work you do? (Aside from the chaos that they present.)

RTH: It's funny, last year and the year before, people were asking if my kids had a big influence on my work, and I would sort of hem and haw. "Not really," I thought. But now when I go back and read Mother Bruce, for example, I can see the strong influence my then-newborn daughter had on it. There are scenes of Bruce trying to feed the goslings and they make a big mess; and there are scenes in which Bruce has them in a little Baby Bjorn, a frontpack. Just the chaos and the sleeplessness that goes along with having a newborn — I didn't really think about it at the time, but I put a lot of that into this book.

RS: How about the dogs? What kind of effect do they have?

RTH: They make a huge mess. We've got three dogs, two cats, a gecko, and a tortoise in our house, which is a pretty big menagerie. So it's definitely easy to draw from that for those chaos scenes. We'll be giving the kids baths sometimes, and one of the dogs will come and jump in the tub, stuff like that.

RS: I hope they all continue to inspire you for many years.


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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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