Art imitates life

Knoxville Catholic High School graduates partner on autobiographical book for children

By Dan McWilliams
Photography courtesy of Pam Rhodes

Two Knoxville Catholic High School (KCHS) graduates have combined to co-author and illustrate a book, Charlie’s Blue Boots, about the challenges of being a “little person.”

Charlie Higdon (’15), his grandmother, Judye James, and illustrator Aerin Rhoades (’18) created the book, which is available from Amazon.

Charlie’s Blue Boots is based on an experience that happened to me when I was about 5 years old. I am a little person with achondroplasia, which is a common type of dwarfism, and back then my legs were growing out of shape, so I had to get them fixed,” Mr. Higdon said. “I went to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where I met Dr. Michael Ain, who specializes in orthopedic surgery and is also a little person. The story is about my experience going through the surgery, what I went through before, how I wore these blue casts on my legs, and how I recovered from the surgery.”

Mrs. James created the story that eventually became the book during Mr. Higdon’s recovery, he said.

“She wanted to tell the story about my surgery for children so they can understand an aspect of what it is like being a little person,” Mr. Higdon said. “She wrote the manuscript for the story, but she had trouble finding someone who can illustrate it. The book was abandoned until last year, after I graduated from the University of Tennessee. I felt bad that the project was not accomplished, so I decided to pick up where she left off. I wrote Charlie’s Blue Boots with the same intention as my grandmother: to educate children about little people and how life can be challenging in some ways.”

Ms. Rhoades, a student at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) on tap to graduate in 2022, joined the project early on.

“When my 2019 fall quarter at SCAD was wrapping up and finals were just around the corner, I received a message from Charlie. He asked me if I wanted to be the illustrator for the book, and I instantly accepted,” Ms. Rhoades said. “He then told me that he would get me in touch with his publisher, Mrs. Jody Dyer, and she gave me a call. She gave me all the guidelines for how she normally formats children’s books and e-mailed me the manuscript to look over. After buying a sketchbook purely for the purpose for doing these illustrations, the project had officially begun!”

From the moment she read the manuscript, Ms. Rhoades said, “I knew that I wanted this book to be something special.”

“I was taught at SCAD that through the power of art, a message and a story can go hand in hand with each other, and I took this teaching into my work,” she said. “I thought back to all the children’s books I read repeatedly in my childhood and how they conveyed their messages, what the deeper meaning behind the art styles was, and how other children saw these books. I also investigated books that taught more serious topics to children, and that’s when it started to make sense to me.

“Those children’s books, while still teaching a serious message, still kept their bright and colorful art styles. The reason they do that is to ease and comfort the children reading the book while still teaching them the message. Art helps children understand these kinds of things better. And as a kid, it certainly helped me understand stories better. Having all of this in mind, I developed the illustrations for this book in a similar fashion, using bright and vibrant colors to invite children to read the story. Also, I used a lot of blue, hence the title of the book!”

Mr. Higdon says he believes he “had the best team anyone could ever work with” on the book.

“Everyone pitched in and helped make this book come to life,” he said. “My grandmother is the matriarch of the book. Her main role as co-author was to create the story, but she wanted me to edit it in any way I see fit. I often consulted with her about what the book should say or what pictures should go with each page, but she had full faith in me to finish it my way. My publisher, Jody Dyer, has been my inspiration for becoming an author because she motivated me to make the story public. She continues to show me the ins and outs of the book industry, how to write, edit, and how to market the book.

“Aerin is a brilliant illustrator. She and I collaborated on what the pictures look like, and she always consulted with me on what the book needed. In short, my team worked hard in bringing the story to life, and I look forward to working with them on future projects.”

Mr. Higdon and Ms. Rhoades “are particularly close friends, as we began our friendship during high school,” the latter said. They also attended Sacred Heart Cathedral School.

“One time, while we were spending time together a few years ago, he told me that he was thinking about writing a children’s book with his grandmother, Judye James, about what it was like for him growing up. The idea instantly sounded interesting to me, and it makes me so happy that I was able to have a part in his vision,” Ms. Rhoades said. “Ms. Judye James co-wrote an amazing and heartfelt story, and I enjoyed working with her as well. I was a little nervous to publish a book for the first time, but Mrs. Dyer helped me so much through the process and gave me a lot of confidence in my work as I moved forward with the project.”

Ms. Rhoades elaborated on her nervousness about being a published illustrator.

“I’ve dreamt of being published ever since I was a kid, and making it come true just feels so surreal, even now,” she said. “With each illustration I completed, my excitement grew more and more. And it was so rewarding when I held the first official finished copy in my hands!”

Mr. Higdon said his time at KCHS “taught me more than how to write and become an author.”

“While I enjoyed my English classes that taught me how to write and analyze stories, my education in the Catholic school system taught me to accept who I am and how I see the world,” he said. “The school taught me that God loves all His people, no matter the physical differences, and we should love one another as God loves us. I felt at peace when I was at KCHS, and I had a lot of friends and teachers who made me feel accepted in the classroom.

“I was given a crate to prop my feet up and textbooks in every classroom, so I would not have to carry them in my backpack. They even gave me a home set of textbooks, so my backpack would be easy to carry home.”

Ms. Rhoades said she took only one art class at KCHS, “and in that class we could experiment with our own art styles and test out what worked and what didn’t for us. That class, for me, was ground zero in developing my art style. Now that I’m a student at SCAD, I major in dramatic writing with a double minor in performing arts and sequential art. I aim to create and write for my own animated series one day, and I think SCAD is preparing me exceedingly well for achieving my dream.”

Mr. Higdon talked about living life in a world of “big people.”

“I am 4 feet, 2 inches tall, but I believe I am taller than I look,” he said. “While I do not believe my life had any hardships, I have endured many challenges that I still face today. Life can be challenging for any-one, but in my case, the hardest thing for me is adjusting to living life like everyone else. I live in a big world with big people, and often doing ordinary things is hard, such as reaching for something on a shelf, driving, and interacting with other people. I had to learn how to adjust to these situations so I could live life like everyone else.

“Growing up, my parents had footstools around the house for me to reach for high places, ex-tensions on switches to turn the lights on, and pedal extensions for my car so I can reach the gas and brake pedals. If I did not have these things, life would be more challenging for me.”

Sales of Charlie’s Blue Boots have been steady, Mr. Higdon said.

“We’ve sold most copies to our friends and family in the local com-munity, but we have sold several out of state,” he said. “The book also makes a wonderful gift idea. You can receive a hardback copy of the book through Amazon, or people can reach out to my mother and receive a paperback signed by the author and illustrator.”

The fact that the book is selling so well “makes me incredibly happy,” Ms. Rhoades said. “I remember when we passed 100 sales, and it was such an achievement for our whole team. And I believe the numbers are still going up, which is also very exciting.”

Already a second book is in the works from Mr. Higdon and Ms. Rhoades.

“My second book is called Standing Tall While Being Small,” Mr. Higdon said. “It is mostly a general overview of what I believe are the challenges a little person faces every day, such as the ones I mentioned previously and how they can adjust. I created this story to offer education to children about little people. Often when I am out in public, children sometimes laugh and point at me or stare at me because of my physical appearance. I want to create stories about little people where they take part in everyday responsibilities and fun activities to show how they can do anything a person of average height can do.”

Ms. Rhoades has finished her illustrations for Standing Tall.

“I’m extremely excited for its release,” she said. “It’s Charlie’s personal take on what it was like growing up, and it’s such a beautiful story. Now that I’ve got the first book under my belt, I feel like I’ve really honed my art style and am ready to take on even more projects in the future.”

While Ms. Rhoades is a full-time student, Mr. Higdon, “when I am not practicing my writing skills,” works as a full-time customer service agent for the telecommunications company Sitel.

“I work from home as an agent for LG Home Appliances and LG’s mobile app, SmartThinQ. My job is to answer calls from customers who are having issues trying to connect their appliance, such as a refrigerator, washing machine, or dishwasher, to the app, and I walk them through the steps on how to connect them,” he said.

A preschool in Indiana is reading Charlie’s Blue Boots to its children, and a local church in Knoxville is developing a Bible study around it.

“I think it’s wonderful that children everywhere will read this book for themselves and take in the lessons it has to offer. I’m also very honored that a Bible study is being developed around it, and as someone who was born in Indiana, it’s so heartwarming to have my work featured in my home state in my hometown,” Ms. Rhoades said. “Another positive outcome the book has had for me comes from a story Judye told me and Charlie about how her manicurist’s son read the book and did not quite understand the significance of the ‘blue boots’ mentioned in the story. Her son unfortunately ended up breaking a bone and had to get a cast, and when asked what color he wanted his cast, her son replied, ‘Blue. Like in the story.’ That moment really touched me!”

Testimonies like that are “what my grandmother wanted when she originally wrote Charlie’s Blue Boots,” Mr. Higdon said. “I am happy to see that the book is being used for educational purposes to teach others about what being a little person is like. Ever since the book’s release, I have received much positive feedback from my friends, saying how they’ve enjoyed the book and they want to share it with others. I hope this book will reach out to a lot of families who can learn more about little people and help them understand how despite differences in height, we are just like everyone else.”

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