April 11, 2023

Let's Talk Illustrators #244: Abigail Halpin

Recently I spoke with veteran illustrator Abigail Halpin about her most recent picture book Mouseboat, written by Larissa Theule. We discussed Abigail's career so far, what she has planned for the future, and the importance of leaning into certain emotions (even the hardest ones) to best connect with a manuscript. Enjoy the read.

About the book:
The wind is your voice.
You whisper to me.

A young girl feels lost after the death of her mother. Dad tries his best to manage everything alone, but things just aren't the same. When they take a trip to their lake house, the girl longs to feel a connection to her mom, and so she takes out the small mouseboat that she and her mom built together. And somehow, in the wind and the rain, protected by the mouseboat, she finds her mother's love.

Let's talk Abigail Halpin!

LTPB: How did you become the illustrator of Mouseboat? What was your personal connection to Larissa Theule’s text and story?

AH: Summer 2019, I was approached by Tamar Brazis at Viking Books. She had a manuscript that she thought I’d be a good fit for; I was hesitant initially, because of pre-existing commitments. But once I read Larissa Theule’s story, I knew I couldn’t say no: there was an instant emotional connection. For a long time, I had wanted to illustrate a picture book about loss and grief. I had an uncle who had passed away from childhood leukemia years before I was born and his story made a deep impression on me growing up (the illustrations are dedicated to him). Because of that family backstory, I wanted to make a book revolving around loss, but had always struggled to find the words. So when I read the manuscript for Mouseboat, everything clicked. Larissa had written the kind of book I had longed to illustrate. There was a quietness to it that resonated and my mind instantly began to picture this father and daughter driving to a family cabin, looking to escape.

LTPB: What is the first thing you do when you receive a new project? How do you make a conscious effort to tailor your illustration style to each new manuscript? Did you have a clear vision for the illustrations when you saw the text?

AH: When I receive a new project, I read the manuscript first as a reader. I don’t read it with an eye to the illustrations or narrative, I just try to engage with the story as the story. From there, I’ll reread and reread some more, objectively, as I look for patterns and images to reveal themselves in the text, eventually moving on to thumbnails from here. Once I have a sense of visually how the story will progress, I start to think about style. In the case of Mouseboat, I knew it would focus largely on the outdoors, so there’s lots of lush green vegetation, wind whipping around, rain and all sorts of other atmospheric elements. I went through a number of art tests for the illustrations, briefly considering block printing elements and a heavier use of gouache. I waffled on style, whether to go more realistic or create characters who were slightly more abstract. It took a little while for me to unearth a vision for the illustrations. Lots of sketching and pondering were involved in the process.

LTPB: What did you find most difficult in creating this book? What did you find most rewarding?

AH: What I found most difficult and simultaneously most rewarding was working with the subject matter: loss. I started sketches two weeks after my grandmother passed away during lockdown and finished the first round a few months before one of my uncles passed away from an aggressive, quick-moving brain tumor. I went to funerals for other family and friends during this time as well. I think there’s something to be said for a healthy detachment from the manuscript you’re illustrating. I tend to shy away from going too far down a personal rabbit hole, because there’s the danger of neglecting what the story is actually saying and conflating your own experiences with the characters. But in the case of Mouseboat, I broke that rule and did lean into my own grief. I don’t think I could have drawn what I did without doing that, but it was incredibly difficult to enter into those emotions each day.

Different cover iterations

Final cover

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? How does your process change from book to book?

AH: For the past few picture books I’ve done, I’ve used mixed media, incorporating watercolor, graphite, colored pencil and some gouache. There’s a spontaneity (and occasionally frustration) that comes along with watercolor and I appreciate the freshness it can bring to the illustrations. I think for each book it’s diving deep into the story and determining whether the medium is serving the story. And so far the combination I’m using has worked, but I’m open to evolving with new books.

LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can show us?

AH: I’m working on the final installment in an Anne of Green Gables adapted series, published by Tundra Books (Penguin Random House Canada). It’s bittersweet to be saying goodbye to Anne Shirley, but there’s so many iconic Anne moments in this book. I’m in the sketch phase right now, so nothing to show, but hopefully soon!

LTPB: If you got the chance to write your own picture book autobiography, who (dead or alive!) would you want to illustrate it, and why?

AH: I am a colossal fan of the late Trina Schart Hyman’s work, especially her amazing line-work and beautiful spontaneity. I would be over the moon to have her illustrate an autobiography. And I trust that she could bring something magical to my very quotidian life. She’d be drawing lots of coffee, dog walks and podcast binge sessions, which doesn’t seem particularly exciting, but I think with her talent she could make even that mesmerizing.

Thank you so, so much to Abigail for taking time to talk to me about her illustration process! Mouseboat published just a few weeks ago from Viking Books for Young Readers.

Special thanks to Abigail and Viking for use of these images!

This post contains affiliate links. For more information, visit my policies & disclosures page

No comments:

Post a Comment