Maine children’s-book author Ryan T. Higgins has penned a series of hits — and drawn his titular grumpy bear into the holiday spirit.
By Joel Crabtree
Bruce is a bear who lives alone in a cabin in the woods. He prefers fixing fancy dinners for himself to sharing a meal with friends. But in book one of author-illustrator Ryan T. Higgins’s Bruce series, the cantankerous protagonist forages eggs that hatch a flock of geese, whom he begrudgingly mothers. In subsequent books, Bruce’s den turns into a refuge for even more wildlife, so the bear moves to a cabin, trying unsuccessfully to leave his mengarie of roommates behind.
In Santa Bruce, a holiday installment out this year, Bruce is still a grouch — all the more so when his red coat and matching hat prompt forest critters to converge on his home. Though he insists he’s not Santa, they clamber onto his lap and rattle off their holiday wish lists just the same.
In at least one sense, Higgins is still very in touch with his childhood. He lives in the house he grew up in, in Kittery, now with his wife and three children. For a time, his childhood bedroom was his workspace, but (like Bruce) he started to get crowded out, so he built a studio in the backyard. “This is my morning commute,” he said on a recent morning, strolling to the shed where he keeps his favorite Douglas Adams reads, like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, as well as collections of Russian fairytales, wildlife biology texts, and animal skulls.
Three years ago, Mother Bruce, the first book in the Bruce series, netted Higgins the American Booksellers Association’s E.B. White Read-Aloud Award for picture books. This summer, his first non-Bruce story in several years — We Don’t Eat Our Classmates, about a dinosaur who, um, eats her classmates — topped the New York Times Best Sellers list for picture books.
Today, the Bruce universe comprises six titles, and the crotchety ursine recently ambled into new literary terrain with a counting book, 1 Grumpy Bruce. Next, Higgins joked, Bruce will take a turn as a hard-boiled detective.
Stories play out in his head all day long, he said, even if they never wind up on the page. When he was a kid, he’d wonder what Mario was up to after the Nintendo was shut off. Now 35, he has wanted to be a cartoonist since he was four, but as a student at College of the Atlantic, he worried his dream was unrealistic. He studied ecology, hoping to live in the woods and research bears. Then, a professor took note of his humorous side and encouraged him to take more writing and illustration classes. Higgins landed an apprenticeship with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles artist Steve Lavigne, self-published a couple of books, and eventually caught the attention of a major publisher, Disney-Hyperion. His style gives him crossover appeal — his books are fun for kids and parents, with cuddly woodland creatures alongside, say, the occasional sly Seinfeld reference.
“Sometimes I worry that I’ll wake up one morning and find out this isn’t actually happening,” Higgins admitted, starting the commute home across his yard. He doesn’t want to wind up like Bruce, conscripted into a job he doesn’t want, even if sporting a comfy Santa suit wouldn’t be such a stretch for him. When he visits schools, he advises kids to dress for the job they want. “I have my sleep pajamas,” he tells them, “and I have my work pajamas.”