Interview with Carter Higgins and Isabelle Arsenault, A STORY IS TO SHARE
This unique picture book biography provides a mesmerizing look at the life of children’s writer Ruth Krauss (1901–1993), best known for books such as The Carrot Seed, A Hole is to Dig, and A Very Special House.
Max's Boat Pick:
A STORY IS TO SHARE: How Ruth Krauss Found Another Way to Tell a Tale
Written by Carter Higgins and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault
Publisher: Abrams Books for Young Readers (October 11, 2022)
Carter, you’ve previously shared that A Hole is to Dig is one of your all-time favorite picture books. How did you come to Ruth Krauss’s work? Were they read to you when you were a child? Or did you discover them in adulthood?
CH: "The Happy Day and The Carrot Seed feel like solid, tangible memories from my childhood as a reader, though I doubt I knew they were from the same hand. It definitely wasn’t until my first years as a school librarian that I connected all of these books I loved to her, which is one of the most magical things about writers whose books are illustrated by many other people. Finding the patterns in an author’s voice, both mine and as a reader, is so satisfying."
Carter, can you tell me what kind of influence Ruth Krauss has had on your books? There’s a clear thread line with Big and Small and In-Between, but how has she influenced your other work?
CH: "I am a writer who can easily get caught in the cycle of trying way too hard. Too often I’ll squeeze the guts out of a story just because I like a certain turn of phrase or the way one syllable sounds. Ruth’s work has always felt effortless, but well-crafted. Strange, but logical. Always authentic in sound. The idea that a book can be an experience rather than a sequence of events has really stuck with me, and Circle Under Berry doesn’t exist without the visual thinking of A Moon or a Button. I think I’ll always favor vignettes and loose collections of small moments rather than straightforward narratives in my own picture books."
Isabelle, your body of work is so impressive! (I absolutely adore your other new book, The Mouse Who Carried a House on His Back, written by Jonathan Stutzman, too.) You must get so many manuscripts thrown at you. How do you choose what you work on?
IA: "Mostly intuition. When I’m surprised, either by a style of writing or a subject, when it feels new, or when I perceive an interesting concept to the book (like the die-cuts in The Mouse Who Carried a House on His Back) or a potential graphical approach that I’m excited to try, I jump into it. I like stories that allow some freedom, that are not too rooted in reality. I also like exploring, not repeating myself from book to book. And there are subjects that I simply cannot turn down, like the bio of Louise Bourgeois, a collaboration with Mac Barnett (Just Because), or even this book about Ruth Krauss."
Isabelle, can you tell me how you became involved with A Story is to Share? What was it about the text that most drew you in?
IA: "I was puzzled by Carter’s manuscript and uncertain of my understanding, as I was not so familiar with Ruth’s work and poetry. So, I did some research. I took the time to read a biography about Ruth Krauss, in order to know who she was and get more familiar with her journey. I found her life exciting and inspiring. I was able then to realize the impact she had on American children’s books and seize the references featured in Carter's text."
Isabelle Arsenault's research for A Story is to Share:
Isabelle, what kind of influence has Ruth Krauss had on you?
IA: "Ruth Krauss was an inventive artist who followed her instincts and enjoyed exploring new ways of doing things. I can relate to that and admire the accomplishments she made while ignoring rules and conventions or trends."
Isabelle, I’m curious how your approach differs between a biographical picture book and a work of fiction?
IA: "Research increases when it comes to non-fiction, since above all I would not want to make a mistake about a person who has really existed. Once the subject is thoroughly understood, I can put myself more easily in one’s shoes, in order to interpret his or her story. I also like to make graphic references to their works through mine. The idea is not to copy but to be consistent with the subject. For example, I wanted to refer to Ruth Krauss’s innovative way of doing things by being conceptual in my own work and drawing certain elements digitally to contrast with more traditional mediums featured elsewhere in the book."
Isabelle Arsenault's early renderings (above and below):
A color test from Isabelle Arsenault:
Carter, what do you think Isabelle brought to the book that perhaps originally wasn’t there?
CH: "I have such immense gratitude for the way Isabelle took a very fluid, abstracted text and wrapped reality around it in a way that’s accurate and episodic but also playful and unconventional–just like Ruth’s books. Writing any picture book text is a tricky task, but in this case I hadn’t really considered how it might work in an actual book. One summer I’d immersed myself in Philip Nel’s fascinating biography (and improbable beach read) of Ruth and her husband Dave: Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature.
The early drafts were just my response to that book as a reader, paired with a longtime appreciation for Ruth and the undeniable influence she has on my own work. They were nothing more than scribbles and phrases that tiptoed into poetry but weren’t meant to be a book.
Years later when I began working on the text with our editor, I wanted to maintain that spontaneous and accidental quality–both because I liked it that way and thought it was a fitting tribute to Ruth herself. Isabelle’s art wrapped context around it all, making it both grounded and utterly beautiful.
There’s a moment where Ruth comes face to face with the boy who inspired The Carrot Seed, and while we’ve both reimagined this moment, it feels like such a clear representation of how she became a giant."
Interior spreads of A Story is to Share:
For those who love A Story is to Share, can you recommend one or two other titles that you think they might also enjoy?
IA: "Of course, for those who haven't yet, I would recommend reading The Carrot Seed and A Hole Is To Dig. And for those who like biography books about children’s books creators, I would also highly recommend The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown by Mac Barnett and Sarah Jacoby, and It Began With A Page: How Gyo Fujikawa Drew The Way by Kyo Maclear and Julie Morstad."
CH: "Something our book shares with Ruth’s work is a meandering approach to narrative, maybe even just shy of fragmented. Books that play with structure are endlessly fascinating to me. I’d check out The Real Dada Mother Goose: A Treasury of Complete Nonsense by Jon Scieszka and Julia Rothman–what a bunch of twists there! Another recent favorite is Like by Annie Barrows and Leo Espinosa. Its language is both exquisite and accessible, and visually? An absolute treat."
Isabelle, SO many illustrators have said they admire you. Who do YOU most admire?
IA: "Ohhh SO many illustrators, too… for many different reasons. And not just picture book illustrators, but graphic novel/comics artists as well. Hard to mention just one… Beatrice Alemagna, Marc Boutavant, Frédérique Bertrand, Dominique Goblet, Kitty Crowther, Manuele Fior are some of them."
What would be on your list of 100 best picture books of all time?
IA: "In no particular order:
The Lost House by B.B. Cronin
Dillweed’s Revenge by Florence Parry Heide and Carson Ellis
On a Magical Do-Nothing Day by Beatrice Alemagna
Who Owns the Clouds? by Mario Brassard and Gérard DuBois (published in French last year here in Québec, and coming out in English January 2023 from Penguin Random House)
At the Drop of a Cat by Élise Fontenaille and Violeta Lópiz (originally published in French in 2011, and coming out in January 2023, too, from Enchanted Lion. Keep an eye out for these!"
What forthcoming books are you most looking forward to reading?