Following the publication of the wonderful Flossie McFluff – An Irish Fairy, author Eoin O’Brien and illustrator Audrey Dowling tell us all about the making of Flossie McFluff.
I have always loved fairies. I love the idea that there are magical creatures looking after forests and wild places, taking care of all the tiny creatures and the natural world. There is so much magic in nature – and more the closer you look – that it is not hard to picture little guardians keeping an eye on it all.
Flossie McFluff began as a name. It just popped into my head one day, and made me smile. It was partly inspired by meeting one of the famous McNutt family from Donegal, who make beautiful woollen things – what a great name! And I think that Flossie is from somewhere towards the north of the country, where there is lots of magic.
Since writing the book, I discovered another Flossie – Flossie Donnelly, a twelve-year-old who organises ‘Flossie and the Beach Cleaners’, a campaign to clean beaches in south County Dublin. I imagine my Flossie would get on great with her!
I have heard that a good way to write a story is to create an interesting character and then sit back and see what they get up to. So, I thought about Flossie, and what she might be like: She’s very small, small enough that a big gust of wind would probably send her flying, but she’s feisty and tough. She’s a faithful friend, always ready to lend a hand, but she’s also likely to have a fit of giggles at any moment. She talks to trees and flowers, and lets them know that they’ll always have a good friend in her. And she loves just flying around, singing a little song to herself.
I’m a singer myself, and I love rhyme and rhythm, and playing around with words. I especially like when there are extra rhymes inside a line as well as the main rhyme. It makes the words bounce along in a very satisfying way. Here’s an example:
‘Us wee folk are tree folk, we’ll look after you.’
And alliteration – when you use the same sound repeatedly – like the ‘s’ sounds in this line:
‘Like a great silent shadow she swooped through the sky.’
Or this one:
‘Pack up your picnic or I’ll pick on you.’
It’s such a nice feeling when you find little phrases like these. Playing with words is like having an enormous box of toys – you can really have endless fun with them! I went over and over the stories for Flossie, swapping words and moving lines around. And then the editors, Emer and Nicola, went through it all again, thinking about every word and every comma and full stop!
Then the text was sent to the amazing illustrator Audrey Dowling. She made some rough drawings, including a few different ideas for what Flossie could look like, and I was completely bowled over. Flossie has the coolest hair I’ve ever seen on a fairy, and a dress made of flower petals – awesome! Audrey put an amazing amount of detail into the illustrations – you can look at them again and again and keep finding new things. My very favourite is the picture of Paddy the leprechaun sitting down for a delicious-looking picnic lunch with a family of hedgehogs. It’s fantastic to see your text spring to life in full colour!
Now Flossie is back from the printers and out in the bookshops and in people’s homes. Lots of little people are hearing about her adventures as a bedtime story. I hope they enjoy reading about her as much as I enjoyed writing about her.
When I was approached for this project by the lovely people at The O’Brien Press, all I knew was that the book was about an Irish fairy or a Leprechaun. I didn’t need to know any more: Irish, fairies, magic, lush forests and colourful flowers … all these words jumped at me and only meant that I would have a lot of fun with this assignment. So, I gladly accepted it.
I definitely didn’t regret my decision when I got to read Eoin’s charming stories featuring a tiny but mighty main character that my fingers instantly itched to draw! Flossie caught my imagination straight away, and I knew that designing her would be the most important task in this whole project.
After reading the manuscript, I read it another few times, this time writing words down, to “capture” my first impressions, the mood of the book. Sometimes they are important words from the text, sometimes they are just feelings or descriptions that pop into my head while reading. I also write down important details that will need to be given extra attention later.
I like to take my time, while designing a character, especially the main one in a story. Half of its development is done in my sketchbook, with words and scribbles, and the other half is in my head. So, you can often find me daydreaming, taking breaks after breaks after breaks on a working day, finding excuses to drive here and there and stopping in a café with my sketchbook in hand. From the outside, it might look like I’m doing nothing! But in my head, the character is taking shape and when I finally get back to my desk, I have a clearer idea of what the characters look like and how they hold themselves and I can start sketching. Here is the very first sketch I did of Flossie:
As you can see, she has changed quite a bit!
After more sketching and some research on different types of wings, I drew a cleaner, more finished version of our little fairy. Then I thought the straight angular arms and overall pose made her look a bit too serious, and the curvy hips and legs too grown-up. So, I drew another version with a more supple body, very thin overall and I thought this made her look friendlier, less preppy and also more aerial and ready to fly to action.
From there I played with trying different wings, hair-dos and outfits. This was my favourite part of the process because it took me back to what I loved drawing when I was little. Here are a few selected sketches:
And the final version!
What I like about this last Flossie is that she doesn’t look too “girly” and her appearance is not overly done up, which can be an easy mistake to make. Simple is often better.
Flossie looks small and thin but not fragile. Her features are cute and friendly, but her expressions and poses show confidence and determination. Her fairy nature is evident in every detail: her distinctive hair-do reminds me of the shape of a peanut, her ears are pointy, her clothes are made of petals, shamrocks and leaves, her wings are simple and delicate … She belongs to the forest and it shows.
Designing a character is such an exciting part of the process of illustration. There are tons of possibilities and trying to better understand the character helps us to channel all these options to find the ones that work best for the story.
I had such fun giving shape to Flossie and imagining how she moves, her environment, her friends … All I can hope for now is that you enjoy following her in her adventures and getting lost in the world I drew for her.
Eoin O’Brien and Audrey Dowling, April 2021
Flossie McFluff – An Irish Fairy is available to order from your local bookshop (online, over the phone or via email) or here.