Interview with Debbie Ridpath Ohi
Debbie Ridpath Ohi is the talented author and illustrator that I first came to know through her book, 'WHERE ARE MY BOOKS?' In that story, an expressive little boy loses his favorite books one by one. He goes on a mission to find them. The surprising culprits in the book actually have quite the history with Debbie, which you can learn more about here. The book quickly became my son's favorite, and his one-ish year old way of showing me which books he loved was by tearing out their pages and handing them to me. Does anyone else's toddler do this? When I posted about the book on our Instagram, I found that I'm surprisingly not alone in that experience! Thankfully, it was a short lived phase.
Debbie writes and illustrates books for young people in Toronto, Canada, where she lives with her husband Jeff. In addition to being the author and illustrator of 'WHERE ARE MY BOOKS?' (Simon & Schuster), Debbie's illustrations appear in books by Michael Ian Black, Judy Blume, Rob Sanders and Lauren McLaughlin.
She graciously took the time out of her busy schedule to give us a peak inside her creative mind, career and upcoming projects:
’WHERE ARE MY BOOKS?’ is your first solo picture book. Did you learn anything new being both writer and illustrator?
Yes! Writing picture books is hard. Or rather…while it may be easy to write a picture book, it’s much harder to write a picture book that people will want to read. Happily, I have an excellent editor at Simon & Schuster Children’s, Justin Chanda, who helped me get my picture book manuscript into shape.
I once asked Justin what tended to be the biggest mistake that aspiring picture books tend to make. He said, "The one that I see most often, and it covers a multitude of sins, is they do not take the time to really hone their project. Writers have so many ideas they want to work on one, move on to the next, flood an editor with a bunch of projects… Thing is, picture books take time. There is craft, there is fine tuning, there is CUTTING OF TEXT. All of this takes time. A book needs to be read aloud. It needs to be tweaked and made sure that every word is there for a reason — a good reason. Rushing to get through, or assuming that short = easy or quick is a recipe for disaster. That and thinking rhyming solves everything are the biggest mistakes.”
What are the top 5 things inspiring you right now?
In no particular order and off the top of my head….
A middle grade novel that is begging to be finished.
My sister, Ruth Ohi. She is awesome.
Reading a poem every day. Poetry makes me so appreciate the power of voice. I’m writing more poetry as well.
My new macro lens (Canon Macro Lens EF 100mm 1:2:8 USM). Whoa, everything looks SO AMAZINGLY DIFFERENT THROUGH THIS LENS.
What do you consider to be the greatest achievement of your career thus far?
Hard to choose THE greatest achievement but I’d say that one of my career highlights so far is definitely illustrating Judy Blume chapter books and middle grade covers that were revamped by Atheneum/Simon & Schuster, including Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
I also got to meet Ms. Blume! That was such a thrill.
Image credit: Justin Chanda
If anyone’s curious, you can find out how I got to illustrate Judy Blume’s books here.
Has your computer science/programming background impacted your work? How?
I think my early enjoyment of programming combined with my love of online communities spurred me to embrace the World Wide Web as well as social media long before many others. That helped me when it came to getting to know others in the industry before I got published; not only did I become friends with a lot of wonderful kit lit types, but I also learned a great deal about the craft and business.
When explaining how rejection got you a book deal, you mention that you considered yourself a writer rather than an illustrator because you had no formal art training. When did you first begin drawing?
I began drawing as soon as I could hold a crayon; I used to draw on the furniture, much to my parents’ dismay. My dad still uses a bookshelf that has one of my crayoned happy faces on the side. I also loved drawing comics from an early age:
But even though I always loved to draw, it never crossed my mind that I could ever be a professional illustrator. What I’ve learned: always be open to new opportunities!
Your sister, Ruth Ohi, is also a children’s book author and illustrator. Did you grow up in a super creative environment?
Yes, definitely! Our parents were always encouraging us to be creative. What really helped: READING was a big part of our childhood. My dad used to take us to the library every week, I remember, and we got to choose our own books. This was such a treat! I am 100% convinced that this love of reading was a big factor in encouraging creativity while we were growing up. We didn’t have a lot of money, but my parents still took us to museums, art galleries, festivals and free public events.
My mom loved to draw, and I remember we used to sit at the kitchen table sometimes, all drawing.
Do you have any tips for parents to encourage their children’s natural artistic abilities?
Encourage a love of reading at home. Show your children how important reading is to you by example.
Also, be careful when you offer any criticism or critiquing of your child’s creative work. I have run into so many grown-ups who decided very early on that they just weren’t good at (insert creative activity here) because of something a grown-up said when they were just a child. Encourage your child to do creative PLAY, to experiment.
And again…be an example! Grown-ups can be creative and try new things, too.
When you compliment and encourage young people, try to focus your comments on how wonderful their efforts and hard work have been been and what progress they’ve made in their creative efforts as a result, rather than any “natural talent.”
Will ‘Where Are My Books?’ fans ever be able to get our hands on Spencer’s favourite book, ‘Night, Night Narwhal’?
Ha! So many people have been asking me that. :-D Someday, maybe.
What projects are you working on that readers can look forward to?
I’m just finishing my second solo picture book, SAM & EVA, which debuts from Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers in Fall 2017. It’s a fun story about art, creativity and collaboration!
In fact, I’m excited about ALL my launches in 2017:
SEA MONKEY AND BOB, written by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by me (Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers, April 2017)
MITZI TULANE, PRESCHOOL DETECTIVE in THE SECRET INGREDIENT, written by Lauren McLaughlin and illustrated by me (Random House Children’s Books, July 2017)
RUBY ROSE, BIG BRAVOS, written by Rob Sanders and illustrated by me (HarperCollins Children’s Books, August 2017).
SAM & EVA, written and illustrated by me (Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers, October 2017)
My next illustration project is I’M SAD, written by Michael Ian Black. It’s the sequel to I’M BORED, which was my very first children’s book illustration project! It’s tentatively scheduled to come out in 2018.