I am a big fan of Debbie Ohi’s illustrations and love both of the picture books she illustrated for Michael Ian Black, I’M BORED and NAKED so when I learned that she was illustrating the new covers and interior art for the update to my favorite Judy Blume books, I had to ask Debbie for an interview for our blog.
Alison: Debbie, I have to start with asking you to share how you got the offer to work on Judy Blume’s classic books.
Debbie: My editor at Simon & Schuster, Justin Chanda, emailed me in December 2013. He asked if I was interested in auditioning for a book project “of great proportions” but that also had a very tight deadline. Intrigued, I said I was interested. Here is a transcript of the email exchange that followed…
—- Transcript begins ——
9:07 pm, JUSTIN:
Did you perhaps read Judy Blume growing up?
9:08 pm, ME:
9:10 pm, JUSTIN:
Ok good. We’ll talk tomorrow morning.
9:11 pm, ME:
Very much looking forward to chatting tomorrow
—- Transcript ends ——
I knew there was a good chance that I wouldn’t get the job; Ms. Blume had already rejected other cover art proposals. It would also mean that I’d need to work very hard through the Christmas holidays.
But as a Judy Blume fangirl, I couldn’t resist.
When Justin called to tell me I got the job, I started screaming. A LOT. You can read the full story here.
Alison: Since you were already a big fan of Ms. Blume’s books, I’m sure that you read them years ago. Did you re-read her books for the assignment?
Debbie: I was DELIGHTED to have the excuse to reread Judy Blume’s books during the audition process for the cover illustrations and kept rereading some of her books throughout the process after I found out I got the job. Timing was tight and I was working 12-hour-days pretty steadily during that time, but I still remember exchanging some fun emails with art director Lauren Rille; we both marveled at the fact that we got to read Judy Blume books and say it was for work!
I was hired to illustrate the covers of ten Judy Blume being reissued by Atheneum/Simon & Schuster Children’s but also the interior art (approximately 90 b&w illustrations) for three chapter books. Didn’t find out about the latter until I was told I had the gig. I was THRILLED!
Alison: That is soo cool! I grew up on Judy Blume books. What a great opportunity. Did you get to meet her?
Debbie: I remain grateful to my editor at Simon & Schuster Children’s for so many things, and one of them is the chance to meet Judy Blume in person. Justin said she wanted to meet me, too, and I told him that I wouldn’t go all fangirlsquealy. Nosirree, I’d be professional and courteous and respectful.
Well….a few seconds after introducing myself and telling Ms. Blume how much I’ve loved her books, I BURST INTO TEARS. Later on, I heard that this is a common reaction from women my age who grew up on Judy Blume books. At the time, though, I was horrified.
But bless her heart, Ms. Blume was unfazed. She was so kind and warm and friendly; it was as if it was just the two of us and we had all the time in the world. She put her hand on my arm and asked me stuff and I answered, but to be honest I can’t recall exactly what we said because my brain was EXPLODING WITH JOY OH MY GOSH I’M TALKING WITH JUDY BLUME AND SHE’S RIGHT HERE CANTBELIEVEITCANTBELIEVEIT.
Alison: Debbie, I totally get it. When I met Ms. Blume at the debut of the Tiger Eyes movie in Alpharetta, Georgia and I was shaking when she signed my copy. So when you were working on the art, how much direction did you get from the art director, Lauren Rille?
Debbie: For the covers, I worked closely with Justin Chanda (especially during the audition process, which took place through the Christmas holidays and New Year’s in late 2013) and then with Lauren Rille for the final covers and interior art. For the audition process with Justin, we exchanged tons of email throughout the winter holidays every day and I got a lot of guidance from him about what was working and what wasn’t, plus brainstorming ideas from others at Simon & Schuster.
Here are just some of the sketches I sent him for the cover of Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret:
Because of the tight deadline for the covers and because S&S had already been in discussions with Ms. Blume about cover content and style, I had more art direction for the covers than I did for the interiors, though of course I had feedback for the interiors as well, including tips from Ms. Blume through S&S as well as on Twitter:
Alison: That hilarious! So how was this process of working on mid grade novels different from working on the picture books you illustrated for Michael Ian Black?
Debbie: For picture books, my illustrations were in full color and were much more involved in telling the story. When writing the story, Michael purposely left a lot of room for me to be creative in my illustrations. For the covers of Judy Blume’s middle grade novels I illustrated, there were more restrictions in terms of the style and palette. I wasn’t illustrating the story but rather an iconic object that helped convey an essence of the book.
Alison: Debbie, many of our readers are interested in finding an agent. Since you are represented by Ginger Knowlton at Curtis Brown Ltd, can you share your story of how you made that connection?
Debbie: I feel very lucky to have Ginger Knowlton at Curtis Brown Ltd. as my agent. My father-in-law was a friend of one of Ginger’s clients, Lee Wardlaw, and asked if Lee would take a look at one of my manuscripts. Lee generously agreed and helped me improve my manuscript with thoughtful critiques. When the mss was polished enough for Lee to recommend me to Ginger, I submitted it….and Ginger ended up taking me on as a client! I was thrilled.
Now for some Art questions –
Alison: Debbie, your illustrations are fun and full of such great energy. How would you describe your style?
Debbie: Hm, tough one since I have several different styles. But I guess you could say I had a cartoon-y style compared to some other illustrators.
Alison: Where did you get your artistic training and develop your “cartoon-y style?”
Debbie: From lots and lots of practice. I have no formal art training; my educational background is in computer science and my first career was a programmer/analyst. But I’ve been doodling all my life as well as making comics.
Alison: How do you keep your illustrations so fresh?
Debbie: For book illustrations, I still find it a challenge to keep the fresh, spontaneous look of my early sketches. I think this is a common challenge for many book illustrators! People seem to be drawn to my spontaneous, sketchier style (oo, I should have used that phrase in answering your earlier question!) but I sometimes have re-drawn a book illustration 40-50 times before the final version.
My process usually starts with a very rough sketch then tightens up with later versions as I work it into the background. When I get the scene layout the way I want it, then I loosen things up again.
I also find it essential to keep doing drawings purely for the fun of it, no matter how busy things get.
Alison: Do you have a favorite media to use?
Debbie: That changes, depending on my mood and the situation. If you asked me a year ago, I’d say digital art. In the past year, I’ve started doing more experimenting with non-digital techniques, including found object art. In the latter case, I’d have to say my favorite art materials are stuff I can eat after I draw around it. 🙂
I also love sketching with a Pentel Pocket Brush.
Alison: I love my Pentel Pocket Brush pen, too!
We’d love to learn more about your process…
For my most recent project, WHERE ARE MY BOOKS?, I started with lots of character sketches in pencil and pen to loosen up and play around with gestures and expressions. I know some other digital illustrators then scan their sketches into Photoshop, but I just draw directly into Photoshop; the Wacom tablet and pen feels very natural to me.
Here’s a video of how I drew the Potato in I’M BORED:
You can see links to my I’m Bored videos here: http://debbieohi.com/im-bored-videos
Alison: Where do you like to work or what is your studio space like?
Debbie: I’m in the midst of revamping my office so that I have a digital art/writing corner as well as a physical art corner! Here’s a photo of how my computer writing/drawing corner looked earlier in the year:
and here’s my physical art corner so far (I’m revamping it):
Don’t worry – I’m sure it won’t stay this organized-looking for long. 🙂
Alison: That is a clean drawing space!
Here’s a fun question that I like to ask all of the illustrators that I interview: Do you have a favorite snack to nosh on while you illustrate?
Debbie: Royal Gala apples.
Alison: Debbie, do you have any advice for other illustrators trying to get discovered by an agent or art director?
Debbie: While you’re trying to get discovered, keep working on your craft. Go to conferences where you have a chance to meet agents and art directors in person. Follow agents and art directors online to find out more about what they’re like. On Twitter, I maintain a list of agents who represent children’s/YA book writers and/or illustrators (be sure to check their agency guidelines before submitting): https://twitter.com/inkyelbows/lists/agents-who-rep-kidlit-ya
and art directors who have worked on children’s books:
Alison: Debbie, thank you for the interview and for sharing the great tips! Where can our readers see more of your art?
I also post my found object art and doodles on Instagram: http://instagram.com/inkygirl
You can find out more about how I became a Judy Blume illustrator and the books here: http://debbieohi.com/judyblume
Thanks, Alison! If you need anything else, just let me know,