Today I get to talk to TWO amazing picture book creators. And since they worked together to create this book, I thought it would make perfect sense to interview them together. At the same time. That’s right! For the first time ever on this blog, I will be simultaneously interviewing TWO people!
Debbie Ridpath Ohi is the author and illustrator of WHERE ARE MY BOOKS? and SAM & EVA (Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers). Her illustrations also appear in books by Judy Blume, Michael Ian Black, Linda Sue Park, Rob Sanders, Lauren McLaughlin, Aaron Reynolds and others. She breaks crayons and draws with her food. You can read more about her in my first blog interview with her or learn more about Debbie at her website.
Linda Sue Park is the author of many books for young readers, including the 2002 Newbery Medal winner A SINGLE SHARD; the NYTimes bestseller A LONG WALK TO WATER; and the highly acclaimed PRAIRIE LOTUS, a historical fiction middle-grade novel. She is honored to serve on the advisory boards of We Need Diverse Books; the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators; and the Rabbit hOle national children’s literature museum project. While she knows very well that she will never be able to read every great book ever written, she keeps trying anyway. You can learn more about her at her website.
Together they have collaborated on a wonderful picture book that is coming out NEXT week! If you’re a fan of Debbie’s illustration work and her amazing doodles that she posts on social media, then you’re already familiar with her broken crayon work. I’ve loved it from afar for years and I’m delighted to see it finally harnessed into a very fun concept in “Gurple and Preen.” In this story, two very different robot friends are on a mission and you’ll never guess how the broken crayons play into that mission. I don’t want to say anything more for fear of spoiling it!
Welcome to my blog Lind Sue and welcome back Debbie!
Me: I’ve been watching Debbie make these broken crayon pictures on social media for years. I remember the day Jane Yolen wrote a poem about one of them and I practically spazzed. I was super excited that you might do a book with her. However, I think Debbie already had a manuscript idea then. Were you already talking with Linda Sue about working together at that point too? How hard was it to say no to working on a book with Jane Yolen?
Debbie: I am a longtime fan of Jane Yolen and her work, and I did love Jane’s poem so much! At that point, however, I was working on a broken crayon story myself. I had a number of other authors and publishers approach me as well around that time, but I told everyone the same thing: that I was writing a story that I would illustrate myself. My background is actually more in writing than illustrating, and I continue to be eager to get more of my own writing out there.
However, although I ended up writing several different stories about broken crayons, I wasn’t happy with any of them. The timing just worked out that I was on faculty with Linda Sue Park at the SCBWI Northern Ohio regional conference, and we had a conversation about my broken crayon art. I told her about the trouble I was having coming up with a story.
I remember we did a sort of polite verbal dance around each other, trying NOT to pressure the other into something they didn’t want to do, but at some point I became aware that Linda Sue was open to writing a story to go with my broken crayon art, and I was thrilled. We talked some more and she emailed me soon after with a story idea that I loved. After talking with our mutual agent, Ginger Knowlton at Curtis Brown Ltd., we pitched the book idea together to my editor at Simon & Schuster (Justin Chanda)….and he gave us a book contract!
Me: Wow! Serendipity! I love the idea of broken crayons and cosmic space shenanigans. I know this book was a joint effort, so who came up with that concept? Was that your first story idea, or were there many ideas of what story to work into the broken crayons before this one?
Linda Sue: I knew right away that the story would be about robots. My favorite piece of art from Debbie’s broken-crayon gallery is a robot crawling out of a gray crayon.
And of course, my favorite robots are the droids in the Star Wars movies. I’ve never written a story set in outer space before, and I thought it would be fun to try.
Robots + space + breakage = a spaceship with a cargo of crayons, crash-landing!
Debbie: And I loved this concept! I love that the story is about so much more than just breaking crayons, and I’ve been wanting to do a robot story for ages.
Me: What was it like working as a team on this picture book? I know that primarily Linda Sue is known for her writing and Debbie is known for her illustrations, but did you stay within those roles, or was this a true team effort where you wrote pieces side-by-side (or email by email)?
Linda Sue: I was inspired every step of the way by Debbie’s broken-crayon gallery. Each time I worked on the story, I would visit the gallery online for ideas and inspiration. Debbie saw an early version of the manuscript, but after that, I worked with editor Justin Chanda at Simon & Schuster to get the story into better shape. Then Debbie began work on the illustrations. Once she produced an initial draft, the direct collaboration started: I would comment on the illustrations, while Debbie, Justin, and Laurent Linn, the book’s designer, would offer suggestions on the text. Both Debbie and I did a lot of revising. I wrote at least fifteen drafts of the manuscript, and at one point, Debbie had to scrap all her sketches and start over! It was worth it in the end: We’re both really happy with the final result.
Debbie: As Linda Sue said, I saw a very early version of the manuscript, but then it was entirely between Linda Sue and Justin for fine tuning the text. Initially, Linda Sue had talked about involving me in the writing process, before we approached my publisher, but I told her that much of the joy for me as an illustrator is the creative problem-solving that is part of figuring out how my illustrations could support and enhance someone else’s text.
And as Linda Sue points out above, a LOT of work went into both the text and illustrations, on both our parts as well as collaborating with Justin and Laurent. Linda Sue and I did have a few brief exchanges during my illustration process but for most of the book work, we communicated through our editor and art director.
Me: I love the concept of breaking something to create something else. Is creativity or imagination an important topic for both of you? What drew each of you to this project?
Debbie: Embracing and encouraging creativity has always been super-important for me, as well as reminding myself that making mistakes is part of the creative learning process. After I started posting my “You never know what will come out of a broken crayon” found object art, I was blown away by the response from educators, from kindergarten up through early teens. These teachers and librarians were using my found object art as creativity prompts for young artists and writers, nurturing makerspaces that emphasized the message that “broken crayons still draw”, creative critical thinking, and more. You can see some examples at my Broken Crayons In The Classroom resource.
Linda Sue: Again, Debbie’s work was the key. In addition to the broken-crayon gallery, she also does found-object art. I love the ideas of reusing, repurposing, recycling. I think it’s really important for kids to understand those concepts at an early age, because that’s how they’re going to have to save the planet.
Me: Debbie, I love how you have a little bit of purple and green on each of the characters and have jumbled their names. Where did that idea of mixing colors and names come from?
Linda Sue: The story was almost finished, but I didn’t have names for the robots. Well, actually, I had a bunch of names, but none of them were quite right. On my usual visit to Debbie’s gallery, I realized that the names should have something to do with colors. Right away, the idea of mixing up the letters in the names of the colors came to me, and I fiddled around for just a few minutes. As soon as I thought of ‘Gurple and Preen’, it was like, Eureka—that’s it!
And then Debbie reinforced their names by the way she illustrated them, which I found completely delightful.
Debbie: The mix of purple and green in the main characters was because of the awesome names that Linda Sue came up, as she said above. Plus while I was brainstorming how the characters would look, Laurent Linn was the one who suggested to me that I might consider including a bit of purple and green in each of the characters – I loved this idea!
Me: What is one thing that surprised each of you in writing and/or illustrating this story together?
Linda Sue: I was and am in AWE of how Debbie created the illustrations—a combination of drawing and photography and traditional and digital techniques. I’m not at all gifted in the visual arts, so it makes my head hurt to even try to imagine how she did it!
Debbie: I was and am in AWE of the wonderful story that Linda Sue came up with. I’m in love with so many elements of the story, but especially the ending (which made me weepy when I read it). And this is exactly why I will always enjoy illustrating other people’s stories as well as ones I’ve written: because of the stories I would never think of writing myself, and I know I will grow both as a writer and an illustrator because of working on these projects.
Me: Oh wow. I love that! What advice for other aspiring picture book writers and/or illustrators would you each give? Would you recommend working as a team?
Linda Sue: There are so many different ways of creating picture books. It really depends on the writer, the illustrator, and the story itself. My advice to aspiring picture-book writers is to read and write and study poetry. It’s by far the best way to grasp the magic of language that has to happen in a good picture book: to make a connection with the reader in the fewest number of words.
Debbie: For aspiring illustrators, my advice is to read as many picture books and as many different types of picture books as possible, with different illustration styles. Study how the illustrations and text enhance each other, and especially how the illustrations are enhancing and adding to the overall reader experience. Sketch and draw and do a lot of creative PLAY every day – have fun with your art, experiment with different styles.
Writing and illustrating are usually solitary activities, and it’s easy to start feeling overwhelmed; I highly recommend seeking out like-minded creators for mutual encouragement and commiseration. I also recommend joining the SCBWI and if you’re in Canada, join CANSCAIP. Both have so many great resources and communities.
Thank you both for visiting my blog. Dear readers, keep an eye out for this book releasing next week. It’s been years in the making and it was well worth the wait. This book truly is the perfect product of creative collaboration.