A Pen & Oink interview, in which Abby Hanlon tells us her story


For our inaugural interview, we’re excited and proud to introduce the fourth member of our critique group, Abby Hanlon. She’s been so busy making her first (and second, and third) book that she wasn’t able to join the blog, but we hope she’ll visit us here from time to time!

Hometown: Armonk, New York
Now lives in: Brooklyn, New York
Tools of the trade: Prismacolor pencils and a pan of watercolors (Schmincke)
Illustration idol: Arnold Lobel
Caffeine of choice: I am naturally overcaffeinated.
Workspace: We have a little room in our house, half playroom/half studio.
Favorite children’s book
…as a child: Babar and Zephir
…as an adult: Miss Nelson is Missing
Favorite thing to read: little kid handwriting
YouTube video you can’t stop watching: Jenny Slate, “What is Wrong with Books”
Must-read blog: Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast

Woodstock, NY: Abby in her favorite place to work. All images courtesy of Abby Hanlon.

Ralph Tells A Story, about a boy who can’t think of any stories, is your first book. Where did you get the idea? Is it at all autobiographical?

I got the idea for Ralph Tells A Story when I was a first grade teacher and there was a super cool kid in my class with really messy hair who often wore a T-shirt that said, “Talk to my Agent.” I loved him. Every day during writing time, he would throw his hands up in frustration and declare that he had no story. He was the specific catalyst for Ralph, but my overall goal was to create a book that would inspire my first graders to write. I wrote the book that I wished I had had as a classroom teacher. Little kids often feel stuck during writing time, and teachers can feel frustrated. I wanted to create a book that had the potential to help both parties.

How did you illustrate Ralph Tells A Story–medium, process? Did you ever consider having someone else illustrate it?

I never considered having someone else illustrate the book, but that would have been a very rational choice at many different junctures.

Here is my process:

First I try to make a very right-brain sketch. For this I figured out I need to use a sketchbook and be completely physically comfortable, not sitting at a desk. Then I take my sketch to my desk, and with my left-brain I try to clean it up. I often wreck it at this stage, and have to start over again.

Once I get a drawing that I like, I trace it onto watercolor paper with a black colored pencil using a big translucent board, back lit.

Abby’s workspace.

For me, there was a huge learning curve with tracing and I’m ashamed to admit how much watercolor paper I wasted learning how to trace. Now I can confidently trace without losing the energy of the original drawing. That was a major milestone. Lastly, I add watercolor to the drawing. For Ralph Tells A Story, I used only three colors and painted each in layers.

We love a good “how I got published” story. What’s yours?

It was finding an agent that was the major breakthrough for me. When I was a teacher, I submitted a couple of stories to several agents with very some awkward little line drawings, not even laid out as a book. (I hadn’t even thought about how a page turns!) To my amazement, one agent wrote me back and told me to call her. The first thing she asked on the phone was: “Tell me honestly, have you ever taken a drawing class?” I said no. And she said, “Well, it really shows… but I think you can do this.”

The agent told me that she liked my stories because she thought that I had a unique understanding of children and this made my work stand out to her among the 100 or so manuscripts a week she was getting at the time. She told me to take some drawing classes and work on my art and then send her a postcard to show her how I progressed. Since she didn’t divulge her email address, there was a period that we only communicated through postcards! Finally, one day she sent me my manuscript back, with her email address written on it and post-its decorating the manuscript with her fantastic edits. This was the real beginning.

But the process of learning how to use color in my illustrations was enormously challenging for me as I had never thought about color before. I think attempting to use watercolor as an introduction to color cost me a lot of time. There was a long period that my work was beyond hideous. My agent was so dismayed she even dropped me at one point. But I kept working and didn’t give up, and a year later she took me back. Once my agent finally decided that my work was good enough for her to submit we found a publisher pretty quickly.

Are there other agents out there who work like this or was she some kind of fairy godmother? I don’t know.

It’s pretty amazing that you began drawing so recently.

I was so blindly determined to illustrate this book that I learned to draw by drawing Ralph and his classmates a million times. This was definitely the insane way to go about it – in retrospect, I should have invested a few years in learning to draw, and then returned to Ralph with new skills. Drawing little pictures of children over and over again, I sometimes wondered, is this a really weird thing to be spending so much time doing? Am I going crazy? I think definitely people in my life wondered…

What’s a typical workday like for you? Do you have a routine?

I am longing to establish a routine. I have been home with my twins for the past five and a half years and so I have learned to squeeze in work whenever I can. I am not good at setting limits on my kids’ projects, so I spend much of my day navigating around their giant forts or managing issues like discovering the couch is wrapped in wet toilet paper or finding a human size bone that they put on my bed, which, horrifyingly, they found while digging in the backyard.

“My kids rummaging through my enormous pile of mess-ups.”

A lot of my day is dealing with the repercussions of allowing my kids to play with flour/shaving cream/wall paint/Styrofoam peanuts/mud/food coloring/recycling/make-up/matches… They just started kindergarten so I now have an extended period of time to work for the first time. (And good luck to their teachers.)

Whose work has influenced yours?

The illustrators whom I love, whose books I keep on my bedside table and study closely (while my husband is reading yet another 500-page book about the constitution) are the classics: Arnold Lobel, James Marshall, William Steig, and Maurice Sendak (his line drawings like in Open House for Butterflies). I also love the drawings of Margaret Bloy Graham, Marc Simont and Jean Jacques Sempe. I find that I gravitate strongly towards line as opposed to shape. I suspect that I have a very childlike sensibility when looking at illustration. I am intimidated by technical brilliance and I am drawn to simple, expressive, gestural drawing.

Why children’s illustration?

To write a story for children without any pictures never appealed to me at all. The pictures are an intricate part of the storytelling. When I set out to write for children, I couldn’t write without also drawing, because the magic, it seems, happens in the exchange between words and pictures. Most of my favorite books are authored/illustrated by a single person.

What’s next?

I am currently working on an illustrated chapter book series for young readers, inspired by my kids.


What’s the secret to living with twins?

Don’t talk to them unless they talk to you.


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