Debbie Ridpath Ohi is the author of Where Are My Books?. Her illustrations also appear in Sea Monkey and Bob, written by Aaron Reynolds; I’m Bored (a New York Times Notable Book); and Naked!, written by Michael Ian Black, as well as ten Judy Blume chapter books and middle grade titles.

Author Q&A with Debbie Ridpath Ohi

Where do you find the inspiration for your books?
I find that reading a good book always inspires me to create. Sometimes I’ll go back to my old favourites and reread, to remind myself of how I want my readers to feel. For illustrated books, I also enjoy rereading multiple times, poring over the art and appreciating the interplay between words and text, getting inspired to try new techniques and approaches. I do find, though, that inspiration can come from anything and anyone….I just have to be open to it. That’s one reason I rarely wear headphones when I’m out walking, because I want to be fully present, listening and feeling and looking all around me.

What were your favourite books when you were a kid? As a young reader, did you see yourself in the books you read?
Just a few of my favorite picture books while I was growing up: Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig and Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson. I loved Sylvester not just because of the art, but because of how the story enabled me to experience darker emotions in a safe space, helped me learn more about myself. Sylvester’s helplessness after he accidentally turns himself into a rock, for example, always fascinated me. I 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. I remember rereading that book mainly because I kept being drawn to that part of the story.

Another of my favorite childhood books was Harold and the Purple Crayon. I loved the idea of art coming to life! The solo picture book Sam & Eva is an homage to this favourite childhood classic. When I began reading middle grade, some of my faves included Kit Pearson’s books, Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, Farley Mowat adventure books, Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson, and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I’ve always felt like a bit of a misfit when I was growing up, so I often identified with young characters who felt similarly.

In terms of racial identification, I remember seeing books as a child that depicted Asian characters and having a gut instinct that something was wrong. I hated the whole “East Asian skin is yellow” stereotype, as shown in The Five Chinese Brothers, for example. As a young person, I also remember writing to the author of one middle grade novel that described an East Asian character as being “slanty-eyed,” saying that I was Japanese and did not consider my eyes as “slanty.” The author wrote back, clearly insulted, basically saying I had no right to feel uncomfortable about the phrase.

What’s the most surprising thing you have learned when creating your books?
When I first became a children’s book illustrator, I was so focused on technique, having the right tools, getting every little detail spot on. Because I had no formal art training, I was constantly stressed about making mistakes that would ruin the book, or not knowing enough to do a good job. Early on, I discovered that it was actually OK to ask my editor and art director for help. They encouraged and expected me to ask questions. I was surprised and delighted at how truly
collaborative the picture book creation process is. Another thing that surprised me early on, when I was illustrating someone else’s book: how much is left to the illustrator. I confess that up to that point, I had the same misconception that
many writers do: that a picture book illustrator just illustrates the text. I was initially terrified at how much creative freedom I was given as an illustrator. When Michael Ian Black’s manuscript for I’m Bored was first sent to me (my very first picture book project), it was even left up to me whether the main character was a girl or a boy! Now I’ve learned to appreciate authors like Michael, who trust the illustrator so completely that their manuscripts include very few art instructions for the illustrator. Michael told me he purposely keeps his text sparse to leave lots of room for me to be creative, which I very much appreciate.

What is a challenge you have faced as a writer?
Finding focus, especially during the pandemic. Like some other creatives, I found it nearly impossible to focus on creative projects earlier in the pandemic. I was too worried about loved ones and the future of the world around me. I envy those who say they have been able to be more productive during the pandemic! What has helped me: being flexible and forgiving, not just of myself but also of others.

What advice do you have for kids who are interested in writing?
Write every day. Keep a creative notebook (it doesn’t have to be fancy, and can be digital or paper or both). Write everything and anything you feel like: poems, story snippets, opening paragraphs, character and story ideas, how you’re feeling, bits of conversations, stream-of-conscious meanderings. The more you write, the better you’ll get. Read as much as you can. Read widely across the genres, even if you’re skeptical about whether you’ll enjoy it or not. You never know what might inspire you! What makes you feel like a weirdo misfit can be your superpower! Embrace your quirks and obsessions, and write about them.
Don’t worry if your writing isn’t nearly as good as you hoped it would be. Even experienced authors go through this ALL THE TIME. Learn how to revise, be willing to revise, and keep practicing. Whenever you can, write from the heart. Write what is meaningful to you, what you care about