Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Super Star Interviews: Debbie Ridpath Ohi

Welcome to my monthly interview feature! I’m so excited to be interviewing all the fabulous artists, illustrators and designers I’ve meet over the years (both personally and virtually!) and sharing their artwork and experiences here on Bird Meets Worm. Look for a new interview on the first Tuesday of every month.

This month I’m thrilled to pieces to be chatting it up with super star children's book author-illustrator Debbie Ridpath Ohi! Like so many other lucky duckies, I've had the pleasure of hearing Debbie speak at various SCBWI events and even have a lovely signed copy of her picture book, Sam & Eva, to prove it! I love her bright, playful style—it's irresistible! Debbie is also the author-illustrator of the picture book Where Are My Books? (Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers). Her illustrations appear in books by Judy Blume and Michael Ian Black, among others. Her newest picture book, Gurple and Preen: A Broken Crayon Cosmic Adventurelaunches next month from Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers on 
on August 25th. You can view more of Debbie's artwork and books here.

How totally fun!

Q: Your adorable NEW picture book for Simon & Schuster, Gurple and Preen, releases this August! (It’s so fun! Congratulations!) Give us the full scoop on Gurple and Preen: how you came to be illustrating it, your working relationship with your publisher & what you love best about your new book!

A: Thank you for the kind words about Gurple And Preen! I'm super-excited to be illustrating not only a story written by Linda Sue Park (I am a longtime fan) but also a story that Linda Sue wrote specifically for me to illustrate.

I've been posting "you never know what will come out of a broken crayon" found object art for years now, and I was thrilled when Linda Sue contacted me out of the blue to find out if one of my pieces (the one with a grey robot crawling out of a broken crayon) was available for sale as a print. Although I had none available, I created one and mailed it to her, refusing to take any payment.

A while later, we found ourselves sitting beside each other at the faculty dinner at SCBWI Northern Ohio regional conference. I had never had a real conversation with Linda Sue before, so was a wee bit star-struck! But we started chatting about my broken crayon art, and when she asked about the story I was working on, I confessed that I was finding it a challenge to write a story that I wanted to illustrate. I know that sounds odd, but I'm experienced enough in picture book illustration to have an idea about when my illustration style would be the right fit for the text, and also to only take on picture book illustration projects in which I'm super-excited about the story.

I was thrilled when Linda Sue agreed to try writing a story for me! Together, we pitched the idea to my editor at Simon & Schuster Children's, Justin Chanda, and he loved it, too—hurray! After we signed the contract, Linda Sue worked with Justin on polishing the manuscript, and then Laurent Linn and I worked on the art.

I am super-happy with how the book turned out. One of the things I'm most excited about: looking forward to seeing what Gurple and Preen might inspire in young creators. You never know what will come out of a broken crayon.

(Psst! Pre-order your copy of Gurple and Preen here:)
Barnes & Noble

Hello, Mr. Robot!

Q: Your sweet style is a delightful mix of expressive line and bright color. Dish with us a bit about your creative process—inspiration to sketches to color artwork—and how you incorporated new photographic elements into your latest book.

A: Thank you! It took a LOT of experimentation and preliminary sketches to nail down the photography as well as the illustration style. The photography was something I had to work out on my own. I've always enjoyed photography, but I did start ramping up my photography knowledge as well as gear as I began to play around more with found object art. I had also gotten some experience creating and importing real-life textures I created with traditional media when I was illustrating Sea Monkey & Bob written by Aaron Reynolds.

I also did many, many characters sketches and rough sketches, trying to figure out what would best service Linda Sue Park's story. It helped so much to have feedback along the way from Laurent and Justin. At some point when I thought I was nearly finished, we decided that the style wasn't working and I had to pretty much start again. I was somewhat disheartened at the time BUT I knew it was the right decision.

One of my challenges was that for my regular broken crayon art, there was a blank background. With Gurple & Preen, there were lots of things in the background, from outer space to the planet/asteroid to piles of crayons, which made it a challenge in terms of layout since I wanted readers to be able to clearly see what was coming out of the crayons.

Even though I may go through difficult stages, I have found that these creative challenges are good for me in so many ways. They mean I'm stepping out of my comfort zone, learning something new. I've reached the point in my career where, if I don't feel panicked and out of my depth at some point, then I know I'm not pushing myself hard enough.

Oh, no! What are Gurple & Preen going to do?!

Q: Over the course of your career, you’ve illustrated picture books (both those you’ve written & those written by others!), chapter books and book covers. Chat with us a bit about how creating artwork for each of these types of projects is both similar and different and what must uniquely be considered for each.

A: My experience is mainly with Simon & Schuster Children's, so I can't really speak for other publishers. Here are some of the differences I've found between illustrating picture books, chapter books and book covers:

Chapter Books: I've only illustrated the interiors for some of Judy Blume's chapter books, so I'm not sure how it would work with chapter books written by an author who is not as well known. What I did: read through the books over and over (I love that I got to read Judy Blume books for WORK) and then come up with sketches for some key scenes, sent them to S&S art director Lauren Rille. Lauren would then send me a mock-up of the text layout for each book, leaving spaces for where my illustrations would go. Another difference for chapter books: the illustrations are all black and white.

Book Covers: I'm not a book designer, so I leave it up to the art director to do the design. Laurent Linn always invites me to brainstorm some rough cover ideas, and I have fun with that. He looks at my ideas as well as coming up with his own, then he'll come up with a mock-up and ask me for more polished elements. With Gurple and Preen, for example, the mockup used bits and pieces from the interiors. Once I see the mockup, then I can see what he needs from me. With the Judy Blume covers, I was part of the brainstorming process but then worked with Lauren Rille, who did the awesome cover design revamps. Just like Laurent, she asked me to send her specific elements that she could play around with in the covers.

Picture Books:
Illustrating picture books are very different from illustrating chapter books and book covers. Much more challenging in many ways but also much more satisfying as an illustrator, at least for me. Chapter books could probably be enjoyed by readers to some extent without illustrations, but picture books need illustrations. I feel much more a part of the creative collaboration when illustrating picture books.

The behind-the-scenes-MAGIC!

Q: Tell us about your typical workday as an author-illustrator—routines, rituals & practical practices. Set the scene for us, too—what does your creative workspace look & feel like?

A: My office is very full of stuff, especially these days when I'm doing a lot of live-streaming. Half of my small basement office is my desk area with shelves of books, computer monitors, lots of wires, traditional media supplies, my sewing machine, pencils and pens and lots and LOTS of crayons. The other half of my office has more shelves of books, stationery, camera gear, green screen gear, my found object photography table with large soft-box lights.

My routine tends to vary a lot, depending on what's going on, but these days I've settled into doing creative writing first thing in the morning (someday I hope to get my middle grade novels published). I try not to schedule any meetings or virtual events before 11am, though sometimes it's unavoidable.

I take a break late morning to catch up with admin, sometimes Zoom with my dad (who is in semi-lockdown at his senior home because of the pandemic), get some exercise and have lunch. In the afternoons I either do book work, admin, promo, virtual events, or sometimes all of the above. I try to avoid working in the evenings.

Since the pandemic began, I have found myself doing more and more virtual events, both work-related and personal. Like many others, I sometimes get screen fatigue! But so much has moved online now, including schools.

Realistically, I won't be able to really answer your "typical workday" question until after the pandemic is over.

Quail drama is the cutest drama!

Q: You are a self-marketing superstar! What are your best top 3 tips for fellow author-illustrators on how to promote their children’s books?

A: I don't consider myself a superstar, but thank you. I think it's more that I've been online for far longer than most people. I was using social media before the term existed. I've made a lot of mistakes along the way. Here are three things I've learned, in case it helps anyone else:

1) Rather than waiting until just before your book launches to promote, embrace the children's book community far in advance. Get to know others, share advice and info. Be generous. Be grateful. Don't think of it as a direct exchange of favors ("if I promote her book then she has to promote mine"). I think of it as sending good karma out into the world and trusting that it will come back to you in some form.

2) You need to find what works for you. You don't have to be on all social media platforms. I advise choosing one or two that you enjoy using, and focusing on those. Be authentic. If you're not, it's going to eventually catch up with you.

3) Don't get so caught up in promotion that you forget about the rest of your life. Take time to refill your well. Also, don't forget that you need to finish the work. All the great marketing and promo in the world won't help you if you don't finish creating your book.

What would you make with a broken crayon?

Q: Describe your most perfect Sunday.

A: Reading a good book all in one sitting. Tea and finger sandwiches with their crusts cut off. And at some point, cupcakes.

Oh, yes! Cupcakes for me, too, please! Thank you so much, Debbie, for catching up with us here at Bird Meets Worm, and congratulations on Gurple and Preen! Hooray!