Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Abigail Halpin

h1 November 30th, 2011 by jules

As you can see here in a comic she created, illustrator Abigail Halpin has known since childhood that she wanted to illustrate. If you’re like me, you’ve seen her cover and interior artwork in several middle-grade novels, all listed below. Early this year, she also illustrated Kallie George’s original fairy tale, The Melancholic Mermaid (published by Simply Read), which I suppose is a sort of hybrid picture book/illustrated novel.

I’ve followed Abigail’s work with interest over the years, and it’s a real treat to have her visit this morning, especially given the fact that she shares a lot of character studies and artwork below, not previously published in books, which are very different from the pen and ink drawings of hers we’ve seen in novels. (I’m particularly fond of her Steampunk image and would love to read a story swirling around that one.) Fortunately, she shares a bit of everything below, and I thank her for visiting, as well as for bringing so many images to the breakfast table. Let’s get right to it so that you can see it all.

Her breakfast-of-choice today? “Huevos Rancheros and a whole lotta’ coffee, ” she told me, adding that she’s a former barista, “so the coffee part is crucial.” A visitor after my own heart.

* * * * * * *

Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Abigail: Illustrator, but hopefully author/illustrator down the line.

Jules: Can you list your books-to-date?


Jules: What is your usual medium, or––if you use a variety—your preferred one?

Abigail: I work with a blend of digital and traditional media. My illustrations start out either as pen and ink or pencil drawings (sometimes with watercolor). I then add additional color, textures, and other details digitally.

Jules: If you have illustrated for various age ranges (such as, both picture books and early reader books OR, say, picture books and chapter books), can you briefly discuss the differences, if any, in illustrating for one age group to another?

Abigail: The interaction between text and image is the biggest difference I’ve found between age groups. Most of what I’ve illustrated so far has been middle-grade — with full-page or spots that fit into the story at intervals. With the picture book format, the words and images are more integrated. It almost feels like that relationship between music and lyrics, a kind of push/pull.

Illustrations from Laurel Snyder’s Penny Dreadful (Random House, 2010)

Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Abigail: Dover, New Hampshire. Ironically, I live two streets over from where my great-great aunt had a house, something I didn’t learn until after moving here.

Jules: Can you briefly tell me about your road to publication?

Abigail: I have a background in graphic design, but illustration was always my first love. I grew up drawing continuously, and my parents were really encouraging when it came to my interest in art. My Dad used to bring home scrap paper from work for my sisters and I to draw on. I’d spend hours drawing complicated fairy tale scenes with ballpoint pen on dot matrix paper.

I went to school for graphic design, graduated and worked for a design agency for several years. I did mostly publication work, identity development — that sort of thing. Gaining knowledge of budgets, client management, and working under deadline was invaluable, but I knew illustration was ultimately what I wanted to do. Around that time, I was a finalist for the SCBWI Don Freeman Grant and through this, Susan Patron ran across my illustrations. Her book, Maybe Yes, Maybe No, Maybe Maybe was being reissued, and I had the opportunity to create new cover and interior illustrations for the book. And from there, things kind of clicked.

Jules: Can you please point readers to your web site and/or blog?

Abigail: My website is, and my blog is

Jules: Any new titles/projects you might be working on now that you can tell me about?

Abigail: I just finished final artwork for Andrea Cheng’s The Year of the Book (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), and I’m beginning to work on sketches for Elissa Haden Guest’s Bella (Dial Books for Young Readers, 2013). I’ll also be starting work soon on the sequel to The Grand Plan to Fix Everything — more adventures with Dolly Singh! I’m hoping to carve out some time in the next year as well to work on some of the ideas that have been filling up my sketchbooks and percolating in my head.



Mmm. Coffee.Okay, the table’s set and we’ve brewed lots of coffee. Let’s get a bit more detailed with seven questions over breakfast. I thank Abigail again for visiting 7-Imp.

1. Jules: What exactly is your process when you are illustrating a book? You can start wherever you’d like when answering: getting initial ideas, starting to illustrate, or even what it’s like under deadline, etc. Do you outline a great deal of the book before you illustrate or just let your muse lead you on and see where you end up?

Abigail: First, I read the story straight through for pure enjoyment, getting caught up in the adventure and the fun. After that, I go back and begin reading with a more analytical eye. I keep a character description list with each character’s physical attributes, personality quirks, relationships — basically, any kind of information that gives me a sense of what makes them tick. After that, I do research: looking for inspiration online, trips to the library, taking reference photos. (I owe my family big-time for being witting accomplices on this one.) And in the case of The Grand Plan to Fix Everything {pictured below}, research even meant listening to music — getting that Bollywood sound and spirit inside my head.

(Click to enlarge)

Once I’ve done that foundational work, then I start doing the actual drawing. I do a lot of character sketches, looking for something that speaks to me. I don’t know if it sounds strange, but it’s almost like when you sketch that character for the first time you step back and know that’s them. It’s as if they’d always existed and it was just an issue of your pencil discovering them. Sometimes it takes dozens upon dozens of sheets of paper to stumble on that, and sometimes it’s a matter of an instant.

From character sketches, I move on to thumbnails, then rough sketches. I’ll refine these sketches for a while (I tend to work fairly tight), then send them along for feedback, doing edits as needed (lather, rinse, repeat). For final art, I mostly work in pen and ink (with some occasional pencil work). I then bring the drawing into Photoshop and begin to color and refine. Sometimes I do all my color work digitally; sometimes it’s more a process of editing, working off of a watercolor underpainting (which is how I worked with The Melancholic Mermaid, pictured below).

Either way, for my work, I see digital as a tool to develop the piece further, rather than something to depend on. In school, we were forced to use traditional tools (French curve, rapidograph pen, markers, etc.) for several semesters before even beginning to think of touching a computer. At the time, it seemed Neolithic, but that kind of an education left me viewing the computer as a tool, rather than a crutch.

2. Jules: Describe your studio or usual work space.

Abigail: I work out of my apartment; I’m on the second floor of an old house, and my drafting table is right next to the window where I get some terrific light. I’m also within walking distance of the library, a couple coffee shops and a bookstore, so when I hit the wall, I’ve got plenty of things to help rekindle my creativity. It’s amazing the illustrative conundrums you can work out in your head while walking.

3. Jules: As a book lover, it interests me: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?

Abigail: Laura Ingalls Wilder and, by extension, Garth Williams were some of the earliest influences I had. The Little House series were the first “chapter books” I was able to read on my own. I actually wrote Garth Williams a fan letter in elementary school, but we couldn’t seem to find the right address and the letters kept coming back “undeliverable.” The energy and warmth in his drawings really appealed to me then — and still does now.

Tasha Tudor was another huge influence, and I was completely in love with Irene Haas’s work. (I blame her illustrations in The Maggie B for a life-long obsession with owning a houseboat.)

And I’m going to add pretty much anything and everything Chris Van Allsburg’s done to that list. The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is one of my top ten favorite picture books. Actually, come to think of, it’s one of my favorite books ever. Period.

4. Jules: If you could have three authors or illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?

Abigail: Diane Goode, Shaun Tan, and Melissa Sweet. I’m a huge fan of all three, and grabbing coffee with them would be neat — except I’d probably be too tongue-tied to say much because of their collective awesomeness.

5. Jules: What is currently in rotation on your iPod or loaded in your CD player? Do you listen to music while you create books?

Abigail: What’s currently in rotation on my iPod, in no particular order: The Decemberists, Fitz and the Tantrums, Arcade Fire, Cab Calloway, Belle and Sebastian, The Kinks, Talking Heads, The Beatles, The Magnetic Fields, Elliott Smith, and Andrew Bird (who, if his lyrics are any indication, should really think about writing picture books).

{Ed. Note: Fellow Andrew Bird fans may want to see this comic of Abigail’s. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming…}

6. Jules: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Abigail: I was homeschooled.

(A bit of embroidery)

7. Jules: Is there something you wish interviewers would ask you — but never do? Feel free to ask and respond here.

Abigail: If someone were to ask me, If you could illustrate any classic children’s book, what would it be?, I’d be thrilled, because then I could holler, “PLEASE UNIVERSE, let me do a graphic novel version of The Westing Game!” I can’t even begin to describe the blinding love I have for that book. It’s dark, mysterious, yet strangely hopeful — illustrating that would be a dream come true.

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

Jules: What is your favorite word?

Abigail: “Ethereal.”

Jules: What is your least favorite word?

Abigail: “Ooze.”

Jules: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Abigail: Drawing in coffee shops, knitting, listening to This American Life, 2B pencils, and used bookstores.

Jules: What turns you off?

Abigail: The color beige, fluorescent lighting, and waiting in line at the DMV.

Jules: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Abigail: Because I have young nieces, I utilize, “What the French Toast!” a lot. It’s a strangely satisfying thing to yell.

Jules: What sound or noise do you love?

Abigail: Scratchy records, foghorns, and the din of conversation at family get-togethers.

Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?

Abigail: The dentist’s drill. Shudder.

Jules: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Abigail: Music critic. I want to give NPR’s Bob Boilen a run for his money. Also, it would allow me to justify my iTunes spending habits.

Jules: What profession would you not like to do?

Abigail: Window cleaner and/or entomologist. I have a deathly fear of heights and insects.

Jules: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Abigail: “Regular or decaf?”

* * * * * * *

All artwork and images (with the exception of book covers) used with permission of Abigail Halpin. All rights reserved.

The spiffy and slightly sinister gentleman introducing the Pivot Questionnaire is Alfred, © 2009 Matt Phelan.

21 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Abigail Halpin”

  1. Absolutely delightful work! I am really looking forward to Andrea Cheng’s new book and the illustration looks like icing on the cake!

    PS love the web journal/comic too…

  2. Oooooooh. That just started my day off in such a beautiful and satisfying way. Love the robots. Love the robot embroidery. Love the watercolor, and the long, angular tween bodies. Love the movement in the still characters – such an illustrator’s gift! Trés, trés beau.

  3. This is so beautiful. I love the delicate line art. The mermaid really is my favourite. Great colouruse.
    It was fun reading up on this interview 😀

  4. I love your work so much! It’s so nice to see the process that other illustrators use when getting started on a project. Good job and a lovely interview!

  5. Wonderful! A great way to start the day.

  6. What a lovely interview! I have always been a fan of Abigail’s work, it was fun to learn more about her.

  7. Wow, what a fabulous interview. Getting a glimpse into an artist’s life is always a treasure. I absolutely love all of the illustration samples—they’re gorgeous!

  8. Thank you for sharing the wealth of fabulous illustrations and peeks at Abigail’s workspace. But, most of all, can’t stop thinking about a graphic novel of THE WESTING GAME!!!! I loved that book as a kid and cry like a baby when I read it now. The characters stick with you and Abigail would be the perfect person to bring them to life. I never quite could picture Crow. Would love to see an artist’s vision of her and all the oddballs in that book. Please Universe, answer this call!!!

  9. Delicately lovely and buzzing with personality. *sigh*

  10. this is a wonderful interview. i love Abigail’s charming art. Thank you for letting us get to know her better!

  11. I have long loved Abigail’s work! Thank you for the delightful interview!

  12. WONDERFUL! I adore Abigail’s work and this was such a fabulous interview. Thank you!!

  13. What a lovely interview. It was joy to ‘meet’ Abigail.

  14. So super wicked awesome. The Melancholic Mermaid was one of those rare books that *everyone* in our family loved, from the four-year-old almost-reader (as a read-aloud) to the too-cool-for-picture-books 8- and 10-year-olds, and of course the grown-ups too. Beautiful!

  15. Beautiful! Abbie – such a talent you have! 🙂

  16. I want to see her version of The Westing Game!

  17. Three things I did not know about you, Abbie: you enjoy Twinings’ Earl Grey; you, too, aren’t a fan of beige; you were homeschooled (or perhaps I totally forgot that one).
    Three things I could have figured out on my own: you’d like to be a music critic, you don’t swear, and that you have a true passion not just for creating the character, but ensuring you captured the best portrayal of that character.
    I’m so proud of you.

  18. I missed this yesterday but what a joy to come back and read it this morning. I have some new books to add to my wish list. What delightful illustrations from an equally delightful illustrator!

  19. Beautiful, all the way around.

  20. What a great interview and charming illustrations. I’d pay good money for an Abigal Halpin version of THE WESTING GAME!

  21. I love Abigail. Even more so now! Great interview, and insight into an otherwise quiet shy-ish blossom.

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