KITTERY, Maine — Ryan Higgins grew up in Kittery devouring the Sunday comics, making his own, and dreaming of someday having his work be read in newspapers across the country. He never reached his goal; fate helped him swap it for something even better.
"I like coming up with stories. That's my favorite part of making books," Higgins mutters as he works on an illustration for an upcoming book. I met him in his studio, a small shed in his backyard, big enough for a small couch, a computer, and several books.
"The moment when an inspiration hits you. Also, that's when your story seems the best to you...halfway through you think this is the worst idea!"
When Higgins attended the College of the Atlantic, he decided to study wildlife biology, just in case the whole cartoon dream didn't pan out. But while at the Bar Harbor school, his biology professor mentioned that he really enjoyed reading Higgins's research papers but that they "weren't supposed to be funny."
Higgins knew he needed to follow his passion and not settle on a backup plan. He got to work sending his cartoons to major comic syndicates. His work was responded with "very nice rejection letters."
Ever the optimist, Higgins didn't take the letters as an ominous sign, instead, they made him determined to try harder. But at a baby shower, an epiphany came that convinced Higgins he could still be a cartoonist without drawing comics. Someone had bought a Mo Willems book, 'Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus' for the baby. Flipping through the pages Higgins said, "This is a comic strip in a book! I want to do that!"
He self-published several books and then traveled the country doing school lectures and selling copies out of the trunk of his car. While he was enjoying his job, he realized he was selling a lot more books than making them. With the encouragement of friends, he got an agent and landed a deal with Disney Hyperion.
If the secret to good stories is to say an old thing in a new way, Higgins hit the mark with this first published book, Mother Bruce about a grumpy old bear.
"Bruce is just sort of a typical old Mainer; gruff on the edges but sweet underneath but would never let anyone see."
Bruce was such a loveable grump, more Bruce books ensued. Higgins says he likes writing about a grumpy old bear because he is the opposite.
"I'm a people pleaser I want everyone to be happy. I do have an inner Bruce in me but it just doesn't show outwardly so putting that Grump into a book is kind of my outlet of grumpiness," Higgins says with a smile.
His children have inspired both books in the Penelope series, about a young dinosaur going to school at the old Horace Mitchell Elementary in his hometown. When his oldest son was getting ready for kindergarten, Higgins and his wife were nervous. He used those nerves to inspire "We Don't Eat Our Classmates." When his son and daughter both signed up for the school talent show but were nervous about performing, "We Will Rock Our Classmates", the second Penelope book, was born.
"I think that I connect with kids because I never really grew up. I am more or less just a taller, hairy, seven-year-old. When I am making a book I am not making a book for children, I am making a book that I want to read or make and it just happens to be suited for children," explains Higgins.
Higgins is a New York Times best-selling author, has won the E.B White Read-Aloud Award and the Ezra Jack Keats Award. Instead of his works ending up in the trash bin, they serve as bedtime stories to children around the globe, (his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.)
But for Higgins, doing what he loves is fulfilling his childhood dream, one book at a time.
"I'm not surprised that my books sell well, I'm surprised that I made those books," he says.
The story of Higgins' life has become supplying children with bedtime stories.
"It's just this very surreal to realize that people are reading them outside of my household."