Friday, 20 January 2012

The whole world in our hands by Abie Longstaff

One of my favourite things about making picture books is creating a world for the reader to delve into. I love inventing a fully rounded character and giving him/her a home, a job, friends and hobbies.

Ideally, I want readers to bond with my character and know all about him/her, but I frequently run up against my evil enemy Mr Word Count Limit, so I have had to think of cunning ways to get around him.

1) Use illustration to develop character. If I don’t have the word count to talk about my character’s mum, I add in a photo in a frame in the background.

2) Hide extra characters or snippets of story in the images. My character has a whole host of friends in the background, getting on with their lives and I love the idea that a child will get joy out of suddenly noticing an extra character or funny antic (the Richard Scarry effect.) A quick way of doing this is to use characters who are already well known, for example in the background spreads of my Fairytale Hairdresser book, I used familiar nursery rhyme and folk characters.

3) Use illustrations to create juxtaposition with the text, for example the text ‘no one could see the wolf’ could be accompanied by a drawing of the wolf hiding behind the tree. Children love feeling clever and being the one to spot something the characters in your story can’t. It helps them feel like they are really inside the world.

4) Don’t forget the grownups. They will be reading your story for the millionth time (hopefully) and it by then they might be very bored (I speak from experience). Put something in for the parents too – an extra detail or a textual joke in the illustration could really help when reading the book aloud at the end of a long day.

5) You can even use one book to give a clue about another. In this spread from Pirate House Swap (illustrated by the wonderful Mark Chambers), one of the ads on the left is for the Fairytale Hairdresser.

6) Try not to annoy your illustrator. I put my hand up to this one. I make copious illustration notes. Some illustrators like it. Some HATE it. Luckily Lauren Beard, my illustrator for The Fairytale Hairdresser, put up with my suggestions and added a load of better ones of her own. Her fantastic drawings really made the world we created come alive. I’ve tracked down my notes and her finished version:

My notes: Now the hair is tamed we can see the tower more clearly – lots of different sized cauldrons with coloured steam coming out, black cats dozing on shelves, spiders hanging from webs, bats flying around the tower, lots of books with names like ‘Relocation Relocation to the Forest.’ ‘The Grand Designs Guide to Gingerbread Houses.’ Frogs are playing on the books. Witch is wearing an apron saying ‘I’m charming!’ and holding a book of ‘Forgetfulness Potions’

The result (you can click on the image to make it bigger):


  1. Thanks Abie, there are some really helpful points here for picture book writers like myself. Mind you, it's not only the children who enjoy looking at those extra snippets of story in the illustrations. I love that sort of thing! And that illustration for the Fairytale Hairdresser looks amazing.

  2. Lauren is a great partner for you, by the look and sound of it. You obviously work really well together, on the same wavelength. It'd be interesting to get a blog from an illustrator's side of things - Will work on getting someone - maybe the 'anonymous illustrator'!

  3. Fab blog and will be sending the link to the students on my 'how to write a picture book' course as I'm sure they'll find it useful

  4. Very interesting blog, Abie. I agree that it would be great to hear what illustrators think when they receive texts! I suspect that, like writers, they vary a lot in the way they work and how they view 'illustration notes'.

  5. Fascinating and practical insights into the partnership between author and illustrator, and how when it works well the resulting book is so much richer. As you say Abie, lots of attention and hard work is needed to layer picturebooks, but you've shown how playful it can be too.