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A Picture-Perfect Interview with Illustrator Debbie Ohi

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photo courtesy Cathy Rutland

Today’s interview brings you a detailed look at the process of illustrating a children’s book, and a chance to win a copy of I’m Bored!

Therese here. I’m thrilled to bring you today’s interview. Debbie Ohi has been a contributor with Writer Unboxed since early 2010 and a friend of the site for much longer. I was elated for her to hear that she’d landed a publishing deal with Simon & Schuster to illustrate a children’s book called I’m Bored, written by Michael Ian Black [2]. The book is out in the wide world now and receiving a great deal of great attention! It received a starred review by Publishers Weekly [3] and was a Junior Library Guild Selection. Recently, it was reviewed beautifully in the New York Times [4], and has gone back for a second printing. Honestly, folks, it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving human being. Debbie is a kind and supportive soul, and her talent is undeniable.

Giveaway details: Simon & Schuster has generously offered a copy of I’m Bored to one commenter (no geographical restrictions). Debbie will also send the randomly chosen winner a fun hand-drawn doodle.

Enjoy our Q&A!

Q: You’ve been an aspiring author for a long time, but you stumbled into a wonderful opportunity — not as an author, but as an illustrator. Can you tell us how that happened?

Sure! My writer background: I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, have published short and long nonfiction in print and online publications but haven’t yet sold any of my longer fiction for young people. I’ve written and submitted two middle grade novels, written a third but never submitted (beta reader feedback make it clear it needed major reworking), and have started writing a new middle grade and a YA. I got very close with my latest MG a few times, or as close as one can get without a contract.

The almost-there rejections hurt the most but made me more determined not to give it up. I’ve been working hard on improving my craft, and I can tell from the increasing quality of my rejection letters that my work is getting stronger.

BUT … no matter how good a rejection letter may be, it’s still a rejection. In 2009, I decided it was time I left my hobbit hole of a basement office and get out to some writer conferences and meet people, and that’s when I began attending SCBWI [5] annual events regularly. In 2010, I was rejected from the manuscript critique program because I had misread the rules and included illustrations with my middle grade novel.

Great, I remember thinking. I’m even rejected when I want to PAY for a critique! But then my friend Beckett Gladney [6] strong-armed me into entering the SCBWI Illustrator Portfolio Showcase in LA. This was complicated by the fact that (1) I was highly reluctant because of my lack of experience and training and (2) I did not have a portfolio.

Beckett, however, persisted and helped me put together a portfolio as well as made me a gorgeous cover [7] and to my utter shock, I ended up winning two awards.

One was a Mentorship Program award; Cecilia Yung, Penguin USAart director, had chosen me. Not only did I get one-on-one sessions with Cecilia and five other industry pros, but I also became friends with the other Mentees and we launched our own blog [8]. Other annual Mentees have since joined us, and it’s been fun to see the mutual support and exchange of info.

The other award I won was one of two runners-up Honor Awards [9]. One of the Portfolio Showcase judges was Justin Chanda, publisher for Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, and Margaret K. McElderry Books.

[Justin invited me to illustrate I’m Bored shortly after that.]

Q: You were paired with author Michael Ian Black for a children’s book called I’m Bored, which has already gone back for a second printing! Were you privy to that matching process? Were you asked to read the book first, to see if you loved it? I’d love to hear more about the process of marrying illustrator to author.

Photobucket [10]Justin asked if I’d be interested in illustrating Michael Ian Black’s new picture book, I’M BORED, and sent me the unedited manuscript to peruse. I loved it!

In most cases where the author and illustrator are different people, the publisher chooses the illustrator for a picture book manuscript they’ve acquired. As for whether the author has a say in which illustrator is chosen — I think it varies, depending on the publisher and the situation. My sister, Ruth Ohi (http://RuthOhi.com [11]) has illustrated over 50 books (some of which she also wrote), so I also learned from her experiences.

From what I’ve read and heard from other illustrators and at conferences, sometimes the author has no say in the choice of illustrator, and in others the author plays an active part in the selection process. In the case of I’M BORED, Michael did have a say and (happily) agreed with Justin that I was the right illustrator for the book.

Here’s what Justin said:

Michael is one of the funniest guys I know, but he takes his kids’ books very seriously. We’ve done three books together prior to I’M BORED and the selection of the artist for each was a pretty long process. We sifted through all kinds of options and choices. With this though, it was a whole different story. I sent him your stuff and he wrote back 10 minutes later: ‘I love the minimalist style. Love her.’ And that, as they say, was that.

[You can read more about the story behind the story here [12].]

Q: Despite what folks may think, illustrators can share storytelling responsibilities with an author. Did you have the opportunity to “play” with the story at all via pictures? Were you surprised by this process?

Oh my gosh, yes. I was surprised by how much of a role I was given in the creative process. Being a newbie, I had expected to be told exactly what to draw and with detailed art notes.

Instead, there was a ton of room for me to play around with…and that really excited me, plus made the process a lot more fun.

Since then, I’ve seen manuscripts from some aspiring picture book writers that have highly detailed art notes (e.g. “Sally is a 6 1/2 year old girl with auburn hair in pigtails tied in blue bows, a dozen freckles, snub nose, wearing a blue party dress with puff sleeves and lace along the hem, brown eyes etc.”). My advice: give the illustrator some creative space.

Here’s an example from I’M BORED:

[Potato] What kind of stuff?

[Kid] Like this! See? Now I’m a famous ballerina.

[Potato] Boring.

Notice that there are no art notes to go with this. Here’s how the final spread turned out:

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Even when there were art notes, my editor and art director made it clear that in most cases these were only suggestions, and that if I came up with other ideas that I thought would work even better, to run with them.

While I wouldn’t have been surprised for this to be normal with an experienced illustrator, I was a first-timer. Despite my newbie situation, however, my input was given full attention and respect. My opinion mattered.

So even though I felt intimidated and way insecure in the beginning, I quickly forgot about the nervousness and became fully immersed in what ended up being a fun and an enormously satisfying creative collaboration.

One of the series of images I had the most fun with was the “Kids can do anything” spread.

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Here’s how it looked in the end:

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I also so enjoyed playing around with the different facial expressions of the Potato throughout the story.

Q: I want to go back to something you said earlier, about feeling reluctant to enter your drawings because you felt inexperienced as an illustrator. It’s interesting, I think, how we see ourselves, because I *know* you to be a very talented illustrator and comic. What do you think that’s about? Do you think you held yourself back a bit because of a lack of a degree or something similar? Did having a published author/illustrator in the family impact you at all?

Photobucket [17]Thanks for the kind words about my drawings! As for holding back, I felt it was more about making choices early on.

Although I had loved to draw, it never crossed my mind that I’d ever be able to make a living at it. And back in grade and high school, I loved the maths and sciences so much as well. My marks were good across the board back then (um, except for phys.ed. :-D) and I figured that meant I was supposed to go into medicine or science or math.

In truth, I really didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up for the longest time. To be clear, I knew I LOVED to write and draw and create music. But for some reason, what I loved had nothing to do with my career decisions. Part of this, I think, was because my family didn’t have a ton of money while I was growing up.

We had enough to get by and were better off than many, I know, but purchasing decisions were always based on practical reasons. My mom made most of our clothes. We used powdered milk sometimes to save money. There wasn’t a lot of room for luxury.

When it was time to hand in applications for university, I chose Computer Science because I liked programming but also because I knew I’d be able to find a job when I graduated.

In answer to your question about siblings influencing my career choice: I was the oldest of the three kids in our family, so was the first to choose a work path. My brother ended up choosing engineering while my sister attended art school and became an established children’s book illustrator and writer [18].

Q: What doors have opened for you because of this deal? What’s next for you? 

Photobucket [19]I am SOOOOOO excited about my next two picture book projects with Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers!

One will be illustrating another story for them, and I can’t wait to find out what it’ll be.

The other will be the first picture book that I write AND illustrate. I’m in the early stages of working with Justin on that story right now, and am very excited about it.

I’m grateful to Justin for being the first publisher to believe in me enough to offer me a contract, and I consider Simon & Schuster as my home.

Other projects I’m working on include the new middle grade and YA projects I mentioned in answer to one of your earlier questions. Now that I have some publishing success and after having worked hard to improve my writing over the years, I’m determined to get my novels out there as well. Fingers crossed!

Plus there is some other exciting news, but I’m waiting until things are finalized before announcing anything. :-)

Q: What advice do you have for aspiring author-illustrators in our audience?


Be open to new opportunities.

Don’t get obsessed with one manuscript. Know when to let it go and move on to new projects.

Find a good critique group. I rely heavily on my writing critique group, the MiG Writers [20] as well as some of my local Torkidlit writer friends. [21]

Photobucket [22]Network with other writers and illustrators. Go to conferences. Join writer and illustrator organizations. Find a local group and attend meetings.

Think twice before posting negativestuff online, especially about others in the industry. I know of at least one editor and agent who decided NOT to take on a new writer after reading their posts online.

Every rejection hurts, but develop a thick skin — you won’t make it in the business if you don’t. After a rejection, give yourself a certain amount of time (an hour? a few hours? no more than a day) to wallow if you need it, but then put it behind you.

If you feel like you’re in a rut, find a way to shake things up. Try a new genre or art medium. Experiment. Take a course or workshop. Push your personal creative envelope. Be brave.

Don’t let anyone tell you what you HAVE to do to succeed. You need to find your own path.

Thanks for a fascinating interview, Debbie!

Readers, don’t forget to comment for a chance to win a copy of I’m Bored along with a one-of-a-kind doodle by Debbie Ohi! (Winner chosen on Friday, 9/21 via a random number generator; stay tuned.)

You can learn more about Debbie and the book she illustrated, I’m Bored, by visiting her website [23], and by following her on Facebook [24] and Twitter [25]. Write (and illustrate) on!

About Therese Walsh [26]

Therese Walsh (she/her) co-founded WU in 2006 and is the site's editorial director. She was the architect and 1st editor of WU's only book, Author in Progress [27], and orchestrates the WU UnConference. [28] Her second novel, The Moon Sisters [29], was named one of the best books of the year by Library Journal and Book Riot; and her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy [30] was a Target Breakout Book. Sign up for her newsletter [31] to be among the first to learn about her new projects (or follow her on BookBub [32]). Learn more on her website [33].