Today I get to talk with and about one of my favorite picture book author/illustrators of ALL time! Debbie Ridpath Ohi doesn’t know this yet, but I suspect if we met in person, we’d be kindred spirits.
Let me explain. I learned about Debbie’s work a few years ago and read and read and read her online writings. She also doesn’t know that she became my inspiration.
You see, once upon a time I met a picture book author/illustrator locally well-known (i.e., in Alaska) when I was just deciding to start on this journey. She was at a book signing at Barnes and Noble all by herself and I barraged her with questions (she was SO gracious to patiently answer every single one of my silly little newbie questions). But somehow in this conversation I walked away with the “fact” (I still don’t know how I became convinced of this) that I could NOT be a picture book writer AND illustrator. It simply wasn’t done.
The truth is that it’s very hard for an unknown writer/illustrator to start out with a book deal for both of those things at the same time, but that’s not how I interpreted it. I somehow got it in my head that I could only be a writer OR an illustrator. At the time, I thought to myself, “Well, my writing has always been my strong suit, so I’ll be a writer.” I started my journey and spent a couple of years learning only about the writing side of the picture book process.
And that whole time I thought that I couldn’t be an illustrator because 1) I didn’t have an art degree and 2) I wasn’t good with that computer illustration stuff. LOL! Oh boy did I have things wrong! THEN I read Debbie’s success story and my life changed. I had an epiphany, the brightest lightbulb I think I’ve ever experienced in my life went off. I did NOT have to have an art degree (Debbie didn’t!). I did NOT have to be good with that computer illustration stuff because some people did illustration by hand and that was OKAY! (NOTE: I’ve been learning that computer illustration stuff and getting better at it, because like EVERY form of art, it all just takes practice).
BUT that is all a digression to explain why I’m going to be a raving lunatic fangirl over this interview. AHHHHH!!! Debbie is my hero and she has inspired and lifted me up SO many times over the years with her daily “found” art sketches or her funny comics about the writer life that hit just the right spot (like this one below that I keep on my desktop as a REMINDER to myself!).
Okay, let me back up. Do YOU know Debbie? IF not, let me introduce her. Debbie Ridpath Ohi is the author-illustrator of Where Are My Books? and Sam & Eva (Simon & Schuster). Her illustrations also appear in books by Judy Blume, Michael Ian Black, Rob Sanders and Lauren McLaughlin, among others. You can learn more about her at her website. And, although we’ve never met, I’m convinced that she cannot help but laugh on a regular basis (like myself) as well. Maybe she TOO gets noticed for her laugh.
Today we get to talk about her latest picture book “Sam and Eva.” But we could just as easily talk about her new cover designs for Judy Blume’s books. Or her work on one of my favorites “Sea Monkey and Bob.” Or her work on any of the books she illustrated for Michael Ian Black (“I’m Bored,” “I’m Sad,” or “I’m Naked”). She’s on a roll! YEAH! But today we talk about her latest book. It is a fantastic creative duel of the wits TO THE DEATH! Not really. But it could be!
“Sam and Eva” is about two creative kids. Sam likes to draw and Eva likes to paint. Eva suggests a collaboration, but Sam declines. Aaaand then chaos ensues. I cannot say more without spoiling all of the goodies hidden within. Let’s just say that it’s a fun confetti explosion of creativity. Hee!
Welcome to my blog Debbie!!!
Debbie: Thanks for letting me visit your blog!
Me: Can you tell us a little bit about your artistic journey? When did you start drawing? Which came first, the writing or the drawing?
Debbie: I’ve been drawing ever since I can remember. My dad still uses a wooden bookshelf that I drew on with crayon as a child, without permission. Yes, I got in trouble!
As soon as I could write, however, I also started writing stories.
Early on, I combined my love of drawing and writing in creating comics. I did comic strips for a homemade newsletter that my siblings and I made, both one panel one-offs as well as some comics in three and four panels at a time.
I firmly believe that the latter really helped prepare me for writing and illustrating picture books many years later because I had a lot of practice in paring down a story or story event into its bare bones, picking out the key moments as well as making sure there was a beginning, middle and end.
Me: You have several picture books out now. What draws you to writing and/or illustrating picture books in particular?
Debbie: I love reading, writing and illustrating picture books. I still remember how deeply my own childhood favorites affected me in so many ways. Even when I reread some of these books as an adult, some of the illustrations bring back an echo of a strong emotion. While re-reading The Story Of Ferdinand, for example, I still get a knee-jerk twinge of unease when I see Robert Lawson’s illustration of the bee, just before Ferdinand sits on it.
In Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, I feel Sylvester’s helplessness after he accidentally turns himself into a rock, and remember how horrified I was back as a child – the idea of young Sylvester’s parents not being able to recognize him, how alone and afraid Sylvester must have been. These types of books enabled me to experience these strong emotions in a safe space, to try them on for size, to help me learn about myself.
Me: “Sam and Eva” so perfectly captures the personalities of kids I know. What inspired these characters?
Debbie: Thank you so much!
When I was in university, my friend and I used to have drawing battles. One person would draw a character doing something and the other would draw something that was supposed to wipe out the other character, Looney Tunes style (a ticking bomb, an anvil falling out of the sky). The first person would draw something in retaliation (a force field to protect the character, a rocket designed to knock the anvil out of its trajectory).
Another influence on the characters from Sam & Eva: my nieces and nephews, with whom I continued to have drawing battles – though with far less cartoon violence – as well as Harold from Harold and the Purple Crayon (one of my favorite childhood books).
Me: This book reminds me a little bit of Peter H. Reynolds’ “Dot” or “Ish” but your book is more about “coloring outside of the lines” and collaboration. Do you feel like this is an important message for kids?
Debbie: Yes, definitely, though I didn’t really write Sam & Eva with any particular message in mind. And thanks for the comparison! I love Peter H. Reynolds’ “Dot” and “Ish.”
Since Sam & Eva came out, I’ve so enjoyed hearing from educators who used my book to help inspired collaborative art activities.
It’s important to enjoy creating on one’s own, but I also believe there is also a joy in finding a way to collaborate with others.
Me: I agree! That’s why I started Holidoodle. To create with others. What is one thing that surprised you in writing and/or illustrating this story?
Debbie: How much fun it is to draw falling pianos and exploding confetti.
Me: LOL! Awesome! Any advice for other aspiring picture book writers and/or illustrators?
Debbie: Before you start writing or illustrating, immerse yourself in the world of picture books. Read as many of them as you can, not just the classics but also picture books being published today. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve noticed in aspiring picture book writers is that they tend to write in the style of picture books they read in their childhood.
Other common mistakes include assuming that a picture book has to rhyme and assuming that writing picture books is easy because the text is so short.
Me: HA! Yeah. I’ve seen that too. It’s NOT easy! Which character are you more like artistically, Sam or Eva? Does your art take on a life of its own sometimes like Sam and Eva’s work?
Debbie: I’m definitely Eva.
And YES, my art often decides to do what it wants. I encourage that in the early stages, actually, because that’s when the best things happen. My art director, Laurent Linn, also encourages me to experiment as much as I want in the beginning. Part of his job, he says, is to help reign me in later in the process. I definitely need the latter!
Aww. What an awesome philosophy. Just go create. I love it. Dear readers, if you haven’t had a chance yet to check out “Sam and Eva,” you really must. It’s a fun read for any creative child (or maybe your creative inner child?).