Friday, October 21, 2016

Carter Higgins, Picture Book Guru

If you have not read Carter Higgin's blog Design of the Picture Book then go and read it (AFTER you read this post). In her blog Carter talks about all the wonderful visual aspects of the picture book. Carter lovingly dissects what makes each book great. If you study her blog you will find out what to do to make your picture books fantastic.

Carter is here to bring a taste of the genius she is to my blog. If it's not obvious, I am just in awe with everything Carter writes. So much so that I can't even make up a story where Carter saves the world through her blog. I can't, because any story I made up would be completely non fiction. Carter Higgins just gurus picture books.


You’re obviously here, you Smart Dummy, because you love how unique the picture book’s form is. And one of the best things you can do for your own picture book making is understand the nitty gritty of how things work. The more sense you can make of the form, the more you can squeeze the very best storytelling into it.

While you are making your dummies this month, keep this design feature in mind—because it’s a part of every single book, no matter the genre or medium or size of the book. It’s the gutter, the place in the center of a book where the edges are bound. It’s something that sets the picture book apart from storytelling on the screen, and savvy creators will use this to their advantage.

There’s the gutter as a plot point:

Here, the book literally swallows up a character. His little leash dangles behind. Can you shake him out of the gutter? How did he get down there? And how will he get out?

Now you’ve seen a book hide its main character, but what if that main character doesn’t want to come out? That’s at play here in Deborah Freedman’s stunning new book Shy. Shy loves the sweetly singing birds that flit about the pages, except he’s too bashful to come out and sing. You’ll turn a lot of pages before this gentle main character emerges from the gutter, but you’ll be glad you waited for him.

The gutter as a place to pause:

A general commands a guard to not anyone cross the line in this book. The line here is the gutter, and that missive leaves a blank right side of the page and an increasingly cluttered left hand side. The gutter is the physical spot that serves as a set piece to the story, and thanks to that, the book becomes a thoughtful look at injustice.

Suzy Lee’s picture books are perfectly crafted around the gutter. I adore Shadow for the way a girl’s playful antics line up on one side of the gutter, and their almost-matching shadow splotches are on the other. Be sure to turn this one ninety degrees so the the gutter runs horizontal. Simple and mesmerizing, as is this post on her process.

And the gutter that paces the action:

This is a book about the divide between our digital lives and the wide open outdoors. As a girl approaches each screen-faced family member, they are separated by the gutter. And as she ventures out to follow a leaf, she crosses over the gutter, embracing the wildness of the world. See more from Matthew Cordell on this here.

This is a majestic little book with lift-the-flaps and a Caldecott honor, and it’s a beautiful example of subtle gutter use. Flora and her bird friend dance on either side of the page, on either side of their stage. Once their nerves and awkward smiles fizzle, they jaunt to the same side of the spread together and that’s where their dance (and the music!) soars.

No place but the picture book can do this. Do you have other favorite gutter moments in picture books? Let me know in the comments!

Carter Higgins is a librarian at an independent school in Los Angeles. She is the author of A Rambler Steals Home (HMH, February 28, 2017) and two forthcoming picture books from Chronicle Books, This is Not a Valentine (Fall 2017) and Everything You Need For a Treehouse (2018). She writes about picture books and graphic design at her blog, Design of the Picture Book, and is a team member of All the Wonders, a home for readers to experience the stories they love in wondrous ways. Connect with her on Twitter and Goodreads.


  1. I always pay attention to the gutter, but I guess I don't always use the gutter.

  2. I have never really paid attention to the gutter, but that gives me a wonderful idea. How much fun to use this technique. Thanks for sharing! Your website is my next destination.

  3. I've always regarded the gutter as something to avoid. How clever of these illustrators to USE it to help tell their story. Clever, clever. Two thumbs up.

  4. The gutter has always been something i struggle with. I like placing my illustrations on corners of pages... keeping fingers crossed that they dont get cut at the wrong place....

  5. I learned a lot about gutters in Joy Chu's Got Story UCSB Extension's amazing how well these authors/illustrators played with gutters! Carter really is brilliant. :)

  6. Thanks for sharing the gutter as plot point - genius!