A guest post from Abie Longstaff: My Picture Book Process

books&beyond-colour-webNext month sees the FCBG annual conference, ‘Books and Beyond’, at Worth (April 11-13). There’s still just time to book your place (from as little as £200 for 2 nights accommodation, all your meals, plus the chance to meet and listen to over 20 brilliant authors and illustrators for children and young people).

In the run up to conference I’ll be bringing you a few posts from some of the authors and illustrators attending and today I’m delighted to bring you a post by Abie Longstaff.

Abie Longstaff
is the author of the bestselling Fairytale Hairdresser series which follows the adventures of Kittie Lacey, stylist to the Big Bad Wolf, Father Christmas, the Tooth Fairy, and all of Fairyland. Abie has a six-book fiction series for 5-7 year olds coming out in January 2015 called The Magic Potions Shop and her other books include Just the Job for Dad and The Mummy Shop, winner of the Coventry Inspiration Awards in the Never too Young category.

But now over to Abie, talking about her Picture Book Process:-

The Idea

Like any writer, the first thing I need is an idea.

When I’m starting a project, I lay myself open to every idea possible. At this stage I don’t worry about whether it might lead to a book, I just try to enjoy the process.

Some of my ideas come from simply living my life: chats with my friends or my sisters, eavesdropped conversations in the supermarket queue, observations of children or animals. ‘The Fairytale Hairdresser,’ for instance, came from games I played with my sisters as a child.

Abie with three of her five sisters

Abie with three of her five sisters

Just the Job for Dad was inspired by a story my friend told me about how, when she was a child, her dad said he worked with lions, so she told everyone he was a lion tamer. It turned out he worked with Lyons, the tea house. It gave me the idea for a story about children who want to find their dad a more exciting job.

Just the Job for Dad, Scholastic June 2014

Just the Job for Dad, Scholastic June 2014

Sometimes ideas need a bit of coaxing out. I keep a book of images, such as photos from exhibitions, cut outs from the newspaper, anything that helps jog a thought.

Abie's image book

Abie’s image book

I also use the website Pinterest to collect images digitally. I have all kinds of different online boards and I tend to keep one for each book series.

Abie's Pinterest boards

Abie’s Pinterest boards

If my ideas need nudging along, I often search through Pinterest with just a word or a phrase like ‘penguin in a hat’. You never know what it will spark off.

Search result for ‘Penguin in a hat’

Search result for ‘Penguin in a hat’

The wheat from the chaff

Once I have a range of ideas, I start to work them up.

I scribble and scribble in word or picture form to develop the character, themes and plot. These are my notes for The Fairytale Hairdresser and Cinderella:

First stage notes from Abie's sketchbook

First stage notes from Abie’s sketchbook

I start thinking through the themes of the story: what should go in from the original story, and what should be left out?

Then I draw out some very rough thumbnails to see how the pacing would work.

Thumbnails of Cinderella

Thumbnails of Cinderella

I might do this process for lots of different ideas, working them up one by one until I find something that feels right.


Once I’ve chosen an idea, I carry it around in my head for a while to see if I like it. I scribble down key phrases in my teeny notebook I have with me all the time. In this stage I’m mulling it all over while I’m on the tube, or a bus, or at kiddie gymnastics pickup.

Abie finds the car is a great place to think

Abie finds the car is a great place to think

I like this stage. It’s really exciting to play with the idea and just see what happens.

Once I’m happy, I start to write; often longhand.

Early stage text for Cinderella from Abie's small notebook

Early stage text for Cinderella from Abie’s small notebook

Writing and Rewriting

Because picture books are short, every word counts. It is essential to get each phrase right and sentences get pored over for hours until they fit.

I start by writing and rewriting the text until I’m happy.

I show it to friends or family, and rewrite it again.

I set it aside and I don’t look at it for about a week (this is really important – you have to see it with fresh eyes).

Then I rewrite it until I’m happy once more.

Rewrites for Cinderella

Rewrites for Cinderella

It goes to my agent for her feedback and I rewrite if the text needs it.
Then it goes to my editor. It might go back and forth between my editor and me many times over until we both feel it works.


Once I have a text that works, my publisher sends it to the illustrator.
I love working with a regular illustrator. Having a rapport with someone makes the process so much more pleasant! I’ve worked with Lauren Beard on many different books now and, not only do I love her style, but I like that she has the same sense of humour as me and can understand from my illustration notes exactly what I’m trying to achieve.

I get to see the drawings at every stage from initial pencils roughs through to first stage colour and final layout. I really like being involved in the design and illustration decisions – it’s so crucial in picture books that the text and art work well together.

And finally…

It’s still a huge thrill to see the finished book with illustrations, text and cover. The final stage is my favourite – getting to share the story with readers. It makes it all worthwhile!

Lauren Beard and Abie Longstaff at Seven Stories

Lauren Beard and Abie Longstaff at Seven Stories


Abie’s seminar at conference will be on ‘Creating an engaging fairy tale world’ where she will share the challenges of making fairy tales contemporary and of building a consistent world in a fantasy genre.

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