skip to Main Content
12 X 12 Featured Author November 2017 – Carter Higgins

12 x 12 Featured Author November 2017 – Carter Higgins

Hello, 12×12!

I am so excited to be on this slate of home-team authors this year. Isn’t that amazing? That what you are doing today, this month, this year means we might all be reading your blog post someday? I can’t wait.

What to share had me stumped a little bit though, I’ll admit. I’m not much for rules. I’m not an every-day-writer. And I’m always, always, always still learning. And so! I want to point you in the direction of this Q+A I did with All the Wonders recently, and dig a little deeper. Shall we?

Them: How did you purposefully create a text that allowed Emily Hughes, the illustrator, plenty of room to create her own visual story?

Me: There’s a certain amount of restraint required in picture book writing that I find so satisfying. I think that’s the beauty of creating something in this form. It’s like putting together a puzzle without seeing the picture on the box and missing half the pieces. How? You write the heart, the framework, the foundation—so that someone else can come alongside and show you what you can’t see. It’s baffling, really. And incredible.

This question and response was in reference to our picture book, Everything You Need for a Treehouse. And it really stopped me in my tracks. Because the truth?

This magic of picture books surprises me every single time. 

Baffling might have been an understatement.

Baffling. And the very best thing.

Laurel Snyder said something once on Twitter or Facebook, and I wish I had written it down. I’ll do my best to paraphrase her here, but it was something like, “Writing picture books is expecting ghosts to show up.”

It’s counterintuitive, right? We see everything in our minds, we have a firm grasp on the story’s beats, and in books with a different author and illustrator, a picture book seed begins with the author.

And yet, you are working with an imaginary collaborator.

Can you squint a teensy bit so that your vision blurs? Can you let the story go a little slippery? Can you see that you planted a seed and trust that the flower will be spectacular?

Here’s an example from my upcoming book, This Is Not a Valentine, illustrated by the brilliant Lucy Ruth Cummins.

In the text, I wrote a sequence of things that weren’t quite as Valentine-y as you might expect. There was a subtle arc, but it wasn’t traditionally structured. And then Lucy got her hands on it.

She created the book’s inciting moment visually. The action plays out right on the title page—a girl slips her friend a Valentine.

This is NOT a Valentine by Carter Higgins

And then he finds it.

This is Not a Valentine Image2

The text, then, unfolds his reaction to this sweet moment. All of the unusual treasures in the text are grounded in the pictures, in their friendship, in their history, and in their future.

This is NOT a Valentine Image3

I squinted and let the story become a little blurry.

I had a manuscript full of more questions than answers.

I wrote the heart, the framework, the foundation—and someone else came alongside and showed me what I couldn’t see.

It’s baffling, really. And incredible.



Carter Higgins is a librarian at an independent school in Los Angeles. She is the author of A Rambler Steals Home (HMH) and two forthcoming picture books from Chronicle Books, This is Not a Valentine (with Lucy Ruth Cummins) and Everything You Need For a Treehouse (Emily Hughes). She is an Emmy-winning visual effects and motion graphics artist. She writes about picture books and graphic design at her blog, Design of the Picture Book. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @carterhiggins

Carter will be offering one lucky 12 x 12 member a picture book manuscript critique. Better get to writing!


This Post Has 156 Comments
  1. Carter, Big congratulations on all of your books!
    And great post today! I think picture book writers often have a vision in their minds of how they think the art in their books should look, and it’s hard to give that up. But we need to trust the illustrator. Illustrators think visually for a living.

  2. What a great analogy, Carter, about how writing a PB is like putting together a puzzle without having the photo on the box yet. I’m going to squint and make my story a little blurry today!

  3. Your books look amazing – and I can’t wait to read them! Congratulations on your success! It must be so awesome to see your work transformed by talented illustrators into something you didn’t even think was possible. It is a good lesson in trusting the strength of your words and trusting in the vision of the illustrator!

  4. Carter –

    I went to all your links….what fun! Will get your book when it comes out. Thank you for sharing especially about using illustrators….

  5. Thanks for helping me see that what I don’t see someone else has the eyes to see if for me. I eager to read your books!

  6. “You write the heart, the framework, the foundation—so that someone else can come alongside and show you what you can’t see.” I love this line, Carter 🙂 I’m looking forward to reading your books. Congratulations!

  7. I do so love your insight into the “making” of a PB story. I’m thinking of it as two different lenses that create a single focus. Congrats on having all that hard work pay off!

  8. This is such a great post – thanks Carter! Even as someone who intends to illustrate her own manuscripts, I have to remind myself sometimes to leave room for the pictures. I kind of love thinking of them as the ghosts. This is Not a Valentine looks adorable and perfect!

  9. I love Laurel Snyder! And love hearing about that great collaboration in Valentine. Can’t wait to get my hands on that and Treehouse. (Have you read Another Way to Climb a Tree by Liz Garton Scanlon and Hadley Hooper? It’s lovely!)


  10. I love this!! That magic is so baffling and can feel so elusive…thanks for sharing a peek into your writing world! Can’t wait to read your work.

  11. I love this post – there is something that cannot be pinned down about writing the best picture books. Something elusive and lucky at work, combined with paying attention, doing the work, and being ready. Thank you!

  12. It’s teamwork, even when the team members are usually working separately to create the magic, at least at first. Thank you for your perspective on the process, Carter. Good thoughts.
    Congratulations on your books!

  13. I’ve heard so many authors say this. It’s amazing how much more an illustrator can bring to a story. And it must be magical to see it happen with your text. Congrats on your upcoming books.

  14. So excited to read your new book! It’s very interesting to think about how much to “blur” the story. I always think I’ve left enough space, but from my writerly perspective, it’s probably not true. I’m always so intrigued by the interplay between the text and the illustrations. Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

  15. So excited to read your new book! It’s very interesting to think about how much to “blur” the story. I always think I’ve left enough space, but from my writerly perspective, it’s probably not true. I’m always so intrigued by the interplay between the text and the illustrations. Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

  16. I try to write with illustrator in mind, not illustrations. Hard to do, but you have to leave room for the magic. Congratulations on your two upcoming picture books with Chronicle – I look forward to reading them!

  17. I also think we could apply this same advice, this same excitement, this same “hope for magic” attitude to the relationship between creators and readers.

    P.S. I’m so excited for these two books! Just requested Valentine from my library, and I’m officially first in line. 🙂

  18. Great insight into the collaboration between author and illustrator. Thanks for the advice of allowing the story to get a little “slippery” to allow the illustrator to bring it all together!

  19. I like the special connection you have with your illustrators. Truly collaborations of spirits.
    Thanks for sharing.

  20. Can’t wait to see THIS IS NOT A VALENTINE and how the illustrator built upon the scaffolding of your story – elusive magic for sure. Congratulations on your upcoming books.

  21. Great information, Carter! I took a workshop with Lucy Ruth Cummins at an Orlando SCBWI event last summer. She’s very funny and her style looks wonderful with your words. I can’t wait to read your book.

  22. Hi Carter, no doubt I agree that picture books are magical. I liked and appreciated your comment about how working with the illustrator is like putting together a puzzle. It’s a great thought to keep in mind as we work – to keep the magic alive! Congratulations on your books. Can’t wait to read them!

  23. Loved your post, Carter! I will work on squinting and letting the story become blurry. Congratulations on your soon to be launched books. I look forward to reading them!

  24. Great post Carter! Thank you for giving us a behind the scenes peek at how you leave the illustrator the freedom to work his/her “magic.” I love when you said, “You write the heart, the framework, the foundation—so that someone else can come alongside and show you what you can’t see.”

    Congratulations on your books!

  25. I love you how you articulated leaving space for an illustrator. It’s such a difficult thing to do, let alone explain, but I think the very best picture books are the ones that do this well. Congrats on your gorgeous titles. I can’t wait to read them.

  26. Congratulations, Carter! I look forward to reading both these books! Thanks for writing about the interplay between the author and illustrator, and for reminding us to allow our eyes to be blurry!

  27. Thanks for your behind-the-scenes view of what happens in the “white space” around a story. I love the idea that the illustrator can have the picture on the puzzle box. Congratulations on your books- I can’t wait for both of these!

  28. What a wonderful post. Thanks Carter! The coming together of author and illustrator really is magic. And it looks like magic happened with both your upcoming books. Congratulations! I cannot wait to read them.

  29. Restraint. That’s the word. It’s like that in script writing and acting as well. A lot of parallels. How awful it is to see overacting. Allow the reader/ watcher some moments of intuition and ‘aha that’s what’s going on’. That makes the reading so much more enjoyable than ‘on the nose’ information.

  30. I love the magical way you describe the writer’s trust that an illustrator will take our seed and make it blossom, will take our blurry vision and bring it to life! Sometimes, it’s easier to be fearful that an illustrator might ruin our vision. I’ll remember to squint and leave things a little blurry for that invisible collaborator to fill in.

  31. What a great post! Isn’t it true, that our imaginations allow us as we write to see our stories unfold? But even the greater wonder that someone without our prompting can see something too. I sometimes read and see things differently than the illustrations. I have begun to admire the subtle visions everyone has and realize that sometimes it is all in the mind of the reader.

  32. Thanks for this insightful post, Carter. I love how you describe the magical marriage of text and art. You write the heart or framework and then the illustrator comes in and draws the rest of the story — what you couldn’t see. I can’t wait to read This Is NOT a Valentine!

  33. Hi Carter? I’ve been following your beautiful blog for a long time. Now I can’t wait to get my hands on your books! Congrats on all of your success.

  34. Excellent post! Thank you for addressing the question on how to leave room for the illustrator. Very insightful. Boiling it down to: write the heart, the framework, the foundation, is brilliant!

  35. Carter, thank you for sharing your insights. It is amazing writing with an invisible collaborator. I will remember to move over and share my desk when I write now.

  36. I love the discussion that you prompt here, with regards to leaving room for the illustrator. There are lots of ways to think about this, and the first time an author does it, it’s hard to think about. It’s hard to conceptualize. Your analogies of putting a puzzle together by trust, or planting a flower seed by faith? They’re gentle ways of encouraging writers to release some control, to collaborate via potential. And I think that’s so great! I find that when I choose to see this aspect of picture book writing in terms of potential magic, I’m much happier in my writing. I take leaps. I take chances. And it’s the nuance and the subtle humor in those manuscripts that make them some of my favorites. Thanks for picking such a thought-provoking topic for your post, and congratulations on your book! It looks so sweet.

  37. Carter,

    First of all, congratulations on getting not only two picture books published that are sure to please kids but also a middle grade book as well!! You are an inspiration to me> I write young adult as well as pb’s and am currently doing NaNoWriMo working on my second YA novel. I wrote another for NaNo back in 2014 that I am still revising. So, I will be picking up A RAMBLER STEALS HOME when it comes in. I truly am so excited for you and for kids to read your books.

    Thank you for giving us all a vote of confidence. <3

  38. Planting a seed and trusting someone else to grow it is so hard. I’m going to go squint at my current revision ms. Thanks!

  39. “I squinted and let the story become a little blurry.” THANK YOU so much for that line. I just had an AHA! moment. I think I’ve tried so hard to write in all the details that it’s like beating the illustrator over the head with what HAS to be; rather than leaving room for what COULD be!

    I see it now and have a clear vision on some revisions. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  40. Thank you for your post. I especially loved your words about making room for the illustrator:
    “Can you squint a teensy bit so that your vision blurs? Can you let the story go a little slippery? Can you see that you planted a seed and trust that the flower will be spectacular?”
    Letting go is so hard, especially if you have made pictures in your own mind or you have become attached to your words.

  41. Thank you for a reminder that there is something magical about picture books. We sometimes focus so much on the “craft” that we forget about the magic.

  42. I agree with you – the restraint required for writing PB texts can be incredibly satisfying – which in itself seems almost counter-intuitive. I am fairly new to writing picture books (having previously written YA and MG), and I used to think those genres were the best because you got to say it all – you were in control of all exposition. It kind of becomes a power trip. Now that I’ve seriously delved into PBs, with their limited word counts, I’m finding the fun is in selecting just the right word – the perfect single word rather than the several you might use to construct a whole sentence. It’s a challenge I’m really enjoying.

  43. I look forward to reading your book Carter. Congratulations! I like your squinting comment. Once I had an art instructor who advised me to remove my glasses whenever I got stuck on a painting. Squinting helps to determine the next step. :0)

  44. Thank you Carter. Lovely ways to show us the ‘how’ of leaving room for the illustrator. Your books look so heart-warming.

  45. Thanks Carter. I like the idea of squinting at what your imaginary collaborator will see! Great food for thought ?

  46. I’ve heard different comments on author’s notes to the illustrator. However if the author has a particular vision in mind she (or he) needs to communicate it. So it can part of the text and changed to illustration if need be.

  47. Loved your interview! Can’t wait to see your books-always looking to share not-Valentine books with kids at school 🙂

  48. Carter, you have inspired me to go back through my latest subs and take out what the illustrator can put in. I mean, I try to do that each time, but I want to be ruthless about it now. It makes for a great partnership!

  49. I like everything about this post, and have some new and different ways of looking at the process of picture book writing. There’s more than a ghost of a chance I’ll be checking out your fabulous books!

  50. Great analogy – really hits home when you’re trying to piece together something from your imagination – Thanks for taking the time to write!

  51. “You write the heart, the framework, the foundation—so that someone else can come alongside and show you what you can’t see.” Carter, you make this look so easy and effortless. I’ve found my new mantra for 2018!

  52. I’m berating myself for not making the time to read this earlier! I’ve a hard time stepping back and not writing all the description, all the details (I love adjectives!). But to step back, and squint a little–fabulous thought! Best of luck on your upcoming books & thanks for your inspiring words!

  53. Carter,
    Can’t wait to read your books. Your insights ring true- I realized with one of my manuscripts I needed to trust that an illustrator would take the heart of my story to the next level- thanks for the inspiration!

  54. This is such a lovely way to look at picture book creation. “You write the heart, the framework, the foundation – so that someone else can come alongside and show you what you can’t see.” That’s going up above my computer. Thank you for this!

  55. Carter, I love your post. Thanks for your insight and all you have given to this community. Good luck in all your endeavors. I can’t wait to read This is Not a Valentine.

  56. “working with an imaginary collaborator” – yes always! Thanks for sharing, and showing how your trust in your illustrator helped the puzzle be completed. As both a/i, I still have the struggle of puzzling between what to say and what to leave unsaid in words, what to say with pictures alone.
    It is wonderful seeing your beautiful outcome.

  57. Hi, Carter. Truly insightful post. Leaving room for the illustrator and the reader to take your story to the next level is extremely important yet one of the hardest things to do, at least for me, when it comes to writing picture books. Wishing you much success with all your books.

  58. Congratulations and thank you for the post. I loved reading it. And now near my desk, is a handwritten reminder with your quote, “You write the heart, the framework, and the foundation.” Very inspiring.

  59. As someone who doesn’t really get the Valentine thing, this could be the Valentin book for me! Thanks for your post. It’s definitely a baffling process, that’s for sure.

  60. Thanks for addressing writing questions and including illustrations to make your point. So helpful! Will be checking out your books and your newest when it’s out.

  61. I remember when I first started back in 2012/2013, you were already a name to be reckoned with, Carter. You were making TRAILERS, right? And I was so impressed…I thought…oh my gosh…how does she do that. Well, I still don’t know how you do that. But I do know how you get books published. You work your butt off and never give up!!! Well done!!! So happy for your success!

  62. Thank you for your post Carter! Your insight will help me trust other people and their processes when that big day comes to see my manuscript bloom from my work sandwiched between others’ in a slush pile to my work between a front and back cover with my name on it. Congrats to your success!

  63. Carter tickles my imagination and gives me hope that while I keep squinting, writing with heart, and expecting ghosts to show up, I can do this! I shall continue to plant the seeds that can become the flowers. Thanks, Carter…and thanks to 12 x 12.

  64. I love how you compare PB writing to a puzzle…and how freeing it is. Made me think about writing PB’s a little differently–I love that!

  65. As someone who is often still baffled by how best to leave room for illustrations while telling enough of a satisfying story, this was quite useful and interesting. What a fascinating process for your Valentine book. Thanks for sharing!

  66. Love this post. You are so right about letting the ghosts show up. I honestly wish publishers would allows writers and illustrators to collaborate as I think it might allow more of this magic to happen.

  67. What a lovely and touching post, Carter. I applaud your squinting and wish you well as you continue along your writing journey. Thanks for the motivating words, which I will take along my own journey!

  68. Thank you for your post, Carter! I love the idea of “squinting” to blur our focus and let the illustrator create more of the story through pictures. I’m looking forward to reading your blog too for more ideas. Congrats on your books!

  69. We have so much advice in the direction of structure and pattern, or prescription for what works, that your blurry focus suggestion is enchanting.

  70. I loved this post. It’s a reminder that rather than trying to push all our ideas into the story so they can’t be misinterpreted, we need to squint and trust that magic will happen. It is quite an amazing synergy between writing and art. Thank you!

  71. Thanks for your post! Marrying words and pictures is something I am just beginning to understand. I am still tempted to add “illustrator details” into my manuscript when my critique group demands to know more about the actual setting — what kind of party? is it inside or outside?, etc.

  72. When my critique group demands to know more about the actual setting — what kind of party? is it inside or outside?, what dog breed? etc. — I am always tempted to add these details. I’m still learning to tell them it’s not my decision.

  73. Thank you Carter. You share a perspective I haven’t connected to in the past. That is too relish the excitement of creating content for a story that is then handed over to someone else’s loving care to embellish and bring to life. Positive.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back To Top