Friday, July 19, 2013

SMA Interview Series: Author / Illustrator Debbie Ridpath Ohi

Debbie Ridpath Ohi is a writer and illustrator based in Toronto, Canada.

Her debut picture book, WHERE ARE MY BOOKS?, will be published by Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers in Spring 2015. Her illustrations appear in I'M BORED (NYTimes Notable Book) and NAKED! (2014), both written by Michael Ian Black and published by Simon & Schuster BFYR.

She also has upcoming book illustration projects with HarperCollins Children's (RUBY ROSE books by Rob Sanders) and Random House Children's (MITZI TULANE books by Lauren McLaughlin).
Debbie is represented by Ginger Knowlton of Curtis Brown Ltd. For more info, visit or @inkyelbows on Twitter.


Q: You are so dedicated to inspiring other author/illustrators with your blog,, which has become a hub for some of the most useful information in publishing (for that we are all thankful). What made you decide to start your blog?

Thanks for the kind words about my blog! Answering your question requires some backstory….

I have had a writing resource website since the early days of the Web. My original site was called Inkspot, which began as a resource for children's book writers.

Inkspot got a lot of press back then, and I expanded it over six years to include many types of writing. At its peak, the companion newsletter had nearly 50,000 subscribers and the site had 200,000 unique visitors. I had some excellent columnists, like Lee Wardlaw (who did the ASK THE CHILDREN'S BOOK WRITER column) and Ginger Knowlton (my agent at Curtis Brown did ASK THE AGENT column) as well as hired freelancers and community volunteers. Advertising income supported the site. 

It grew to the point, however, that I was spending far more time managing the site than I was on my own writing. I ended up selling the site to a company in the U.S., who ended up shutting it down soon after because of cutbacks ( Here's a one page summary of my entire experience in the corporate world:

I took a much-needed break, and then turned back to my writing. I also started up but have vowed to keep it small-scale and never let it grow to the point where I'm spending more time on it than on my own creative work. I've narrowed its focus to align with my own longterm career interest, which is writing and illustrating books for young people.

Q: How do you schedule your work days/weeks in order to keep up with your blog and projects at the same time? 

Since I was offered my first children's book contract, I've been gradually shutting down or pulling back from various projects. I'll still end up posting and tweeting much more than the average person, I'm sure, because I love online communities. 

These days, I usually check Twitter first thing in the day; it's my equivalent of a morning cup of coffee. I also tend to check social media around lunchtime and then late afternoon.

I'm still in the midst of figuring out what schedule works for me, though. Starting VERY soon, I'm going to be diving into multiple book projects for the next few years, so will  need to be much more disciplined about how I spend my online time.

My biggest piece of advice for those wanting to carve out more time for their creative work: Learn how to say NO.

And for those who love online communities and social media as much as I do, be aware of how much time you spend tweeting, etc. Set a timer. Keep a logbook. I know from experience how easy it is to justify the hours that get sucked into the black hole of social media ("It's part of my work, really!"). Be honest with yourself about when you're working and when you're not.

Q: The SCBWI Illustrator Portfolio Showcase was instrumental to your career flourish! Why should every writer and illustrator join the SCBWI - and participate? 

If I could send a message to my younger self, it would be to attend SCBWI conferences sooner than later. Nothing really happened for me in terms of children's books until I began to regularly attend SCBWI events.

Having said that, I also want to emphasize how important it is to have a clear goal in mind when you attend these events, and to have a plan that will help you achieve this goal.

The goal needs to be realistic, else you're just asking to be disappointed. “I'm going to get a book contract” is not a realistic goal. “I'm going to introduce myself to at least 20 people in the industry” or “I'm going to find out what editors are looking for” or even “I'm going to have fun” are much more reasonable goals.

My friend Maureen McGowan (author of YA series, THE DUST CHRONICLES) compares publishing success to getting hit by lightning. You may not be able to control when lightning hits, but you can build better lightning rods.

And you never know what might happen when you attend SCBWI conventions. My children's book career certainly got its jumpstart at the 2010 SCBWI Summer Conference (, when I was offered a picture book illustration contract (I'M BORED) from Simon & Schuster, as well as winning an Honor Award and a Mentorship Program Award in the overall showcase.

I have also made so many wonderful friends through the SCBWI. One of your members, Christina Forshay, is one of them!

Q: How did you get up the courage to network at conferences before you were familiar with so many writers, illustrators, and industry professionals?

Many people who have met me in person don't realize this, but I'm an introvert. I am perfectly content working at home alone all day in my little basement office, and would far rather spend the evening curled up on the couch with a good book than at a crowded party. 

Debbie's office in Toronto!
Despite my introvert leanings, I made the decision to start attending SCBWI conferences regularly in 2009 because I was tired of rejections. My rejections had been gradually improving in quality, evolving from the "don't call us, we'll call you" form letters to more personal notes, especially after I got an agent. More and more often, my mss would get past the first reader and be shown to others, only to be shot down later in the process because it was too similar to another book on the list, or too similar to a book that was coming out, or because it wasn't quite strong enough to stand out in the marketplace.

At first I was way excited to be getting so close. Surely this meant that I would be offered a book contract any day now! But the weeks turned into months and months into years, much to my frustration and growing depression. I started asking myself, "What if I never get past this stage? What if I'm just not good enough?"

Up to that point, I had been highly resistant to the idea of networking. The word "networking" had such negative connotations for me. It should be about the WORK, not about schmoozing, I had told myself. Forget about the networking, just focus on your craft. Eventually, your work will find the right editor.

Plus I was also terrified at the idea of having to spend an entire weekend trying to network with strangers, especially since I felt like I was a nobody. I dreaded having to walk up to people and insert myself into conversations.

What I found: people at the convention were friendly and just as interested in meeting others as I was. Much to my initial surprise, I had a lot of fun! And by the end of the convention, I was seeing familiar faces in the hallways and session rooms; we'd greet each other and catch up on our favorite speakers so far, what we learned, and so on.

I have some comics for SCBWI conference newbies, for those interested:

Q: A big theme on our blog is how to get out of creative ruts! What do you do when you get stuck?

I go for walks. I usually never listen to anything during these walks, to give my subconscious a chance to turn things over. Almost always, I'll come up with an idea for a new creative project, or a way of getting past some challenge in a work-in-progress.

Something else that helps: Going to my local bookstore or library and looking through the children's books section. 

Q: You're always smiling! How do you maintain your positive attitude?

Heh, not sure my husband would agree about the "always smiling" part, but thanks.

Answer #1: Chocolate helps. :-)

Answer #2: So does having a support network. I feel very lucky to have the family and friends that I do.

Answer #3: See my guest post on Robert Lee Brewer's blog about happiness:

Q: Would you mind giving us a list of all the places we can all find you online? 

It would be too embarrassing to list ALL the places where you can find me online (there are way too many) but here are a few:

Twitter: @inkyelbows 

Inkygirl: For Those Who Write & Illustrate For Young People - SCBWI Illustration Mentees

MiG Writers - My critique group

Facebook (personal):

Facebook (professional):

Debbie with art director Laurent Linn and editor/publisher Justin Chanda at Simon & Schuster Children's.

Thank you SO MUCH for sharing your fantastic journey with us Debbie!


I have a magnet on my refrigerator (a place I frequent!) with a quote from Winston Churchill that reads: "Never, never, never give up." As small as that sounds, it's the best reminder to keep pursuing my goals.

A real life story of perseverance is a little long to paste on a refrigerator. However, after reading Debbie's story, it will definitely stay in my memory bank and resurface every time I read that quote.

It's hard work, but if you love what you do, persevere, and you embrace your peers (*kidlit artists and writers are the FRIENDLIEST folks in all the land*) - you could find yourself as lucky as Debbie and be really, really, really...Bored...and NAKED!


    Thursday, July 18, 2013

    Becoming Confident

    With the big SCBWI National Conference coming up, I've been thinking a lot about making connections, meeting people, but doing that is way out of my comfort zone. I've gotten better at it over the years, but it's still really difficult. I've been using the 20 Seconds of Courage method for awhile now (I posted about it here), but it's still so hard.

    I came across this Ted Talk with Amy Cuddy, social psychologist, about your body language changing your posture can change the way you feel and up your chances for success.

    "Body language affects how others see us, but it may also change how we see ourselves. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy shows how “power posing” -- standing in a posture of confidence, even when we don’t feel confident -- can affect testosterone and cortisol levels in the brain, and might even have an impact on our chances for success."

    I will definitely be using this in LA next month. I can just picture a bunch of us hiding in the bathroom doing the power pose. At least, now you'll know we're not completely crazy. Will you be joining me in?
    "Don't fake it till you make it. Fake it till you become it.”

    Friday, July 12, 2013

    SMA Interview Series: Illustrator / Painter, Lynne Avril

    Lynne Avril grew up in Montana and got her art degree from the University of Montana. She has lived in Arizona, though, for the last 30 years. 

    She has illustrated over 80 books for children, and when she's not drawing or painting, she plays bass in local Phoenix blues bands. 

    She now divides her time  between Phoenix, Polson (MT) and Paris, where she spends 2 months of the year for battery-charging her creativity.


    Q: What is the first thing you do when you receive a manuscript? Do you ever write as well as illustrate?

    The first thing I do when I get a new manuscript is make a pot of coffee, then curl up in my big white chair, start reading, and make little sketches in the margins of the paper with the ideas that pop into my head as I read. If one or more of the characters don't come to me at that time, I go out with my sketchbook over the next few days and watch for them! 

    A lot of times, I'll use friends and relatives as my characters. Amelia Bedelia's dad is my son-in-law! The main character in "Underpants Dance" was a little girl I spied in Safeway. She had all the characteristics I was looking for, and I loved her hair!  I try to get a sense of the mood of the story and what style of artwork I'm going to use to convey that mood effectively. I might use gouache, or watercolor, or pastels used with acrylic medium in a series of washes. When I read the story, I try to get a sense of the energy, the rhythm, the humor, and the palette that I am going to use. 

    I have not written any books yet, I have been too busy illustrating everybody else's!

    Underpants Dance,  written by Marlena Zapf / illustrated by Lynne Avril
    (April 2014 - Dial Books for Young Readers)

    Q: Many of your books involve a lot of action! How do you reference your drawings and keep them feeling so fresh and alive as you paint?

    That is a really good question, because that is one of the things I strive for - freshness and energy. I think one thing that helps is that I start with small thumbnail sketches  - a double page spread may be a sketch only 1 1/2" x 2 1/2". Then I enlarge that sketch on my copier and finesse it. I think composition is so important and that's one way to start out with a good composition without getting involved in the details too early. 

    I also like accidents and spontaneity, so I don't have things too pre-planned before I start and I just follow my gut feeling. I always lay down the color first and do the line work over the top of that - I don't believe in staying in the lines much!

    Q: Do you keep a sketchbook? How is it helpful for you? 

    I LOVE to keep a sketchbook!  Especially when I am in Paris - there is so much to draw there - people, architecture, copies of great masters, statues, more interesting people!  Besides recording good ideas, it is just good practice for your drawing skills. 

    When you're drawing moving people or animals, you learn to make good gesture drawing and how to capture a feeling in just a few lines. You're going for the essence of what you're drawing. When you look at a person you're about to draw, you think - what is it about that person that makes him look the way he does, and then you emphasize that feature. I have drawn pictures of musicians playing in clubs for years - I have stacks and stacks of bar napkins with little portraits or figure drawings on them.

    Q: A common theme on our blog is how to get "unstuck." How do you get yourself out of a creative rut?

    I do it by changing styles from one book to the next. I do a lot of Amelia Bedelia books, where I use gouache paint with a black prismacolor pencil outline. So, for example, at the moment I am working on a book by another author, and I am using pastel chalk that I smear onto the paper and then cover with  acrylic matte medium. I am really enjoying it, because I created a layout for the book that has large areas of color, not a lot of small detail, and it is like a breath of fresh air. Then I enjoy going back to the gouache again!

    I also look at the work of other illustrators to get inspiration and new ideas. I particularly like the work of many European illustrators that have a strong sense of whimsy and humor.

    One of Lynne's oil paintings, a 3'x4' commission, "Starla"

    Q: What are your favorite tools? Is there any part of your process that lends itself to using a computer?

    Well, I like good old-fashioned paint and paper. I don't have anything against computer art, but I never have gotten into it. I didn't start out wanting to be an illustrator. I was a painter and still am, and going back and forth between the two has been good for both. One influences the other. My favorite tool, I think, is the toothbrush, that I use to splatter paint with. If you look closely at my work, you will see lots of little splatters, and that is done by mixing gouache paint with acrylic matte medium and flicking it onto the paper with the toothbrush.

    For me, the only time I use the computer is when I scan and send my sketches or artwork. That can be really useful in another way too, because when you first scan the artwork and see it up on the computer screen, often you will see it in a different way and you see little things you want to change before you send it off.

    Q: Would you mind giving us a peek at your workspace? 

    I have three places I work during the year - one studio at my house in Phoenix, Arizona. 

    Lynne's cactus garden in Arizona.

    Another up at Flathead Lake in Polson, Montana.  My studio in Montana has a drafting table that my dad made. He was a very good artist himself, and my first and best teacher!

    Lynne's studio space in Montana.

    And the other is when I haul all my stuff to Paris for two months every year. I like to knit and I find that is a very good way to ease myself into starting to work. It helps make that transition into the "zone."

    Lynne working in Paris while her son and grandson play on the couch!

    Q: What is an unexpected thing you've learned in your career?

    I've learned that everything you learn comes in handy at some point of time - it all adds up. Experience! I've learned never give up on a piece - sometimes when you say oh%$#@*, you just let go and then things really start to happen. 

    Never crumple up anything. 

    You might calm down and see it's really not that bad. I've learned that you can't wait for inspiration, you just sit down and start to work. Sometimes it is so hard. But if you just make the first obvious mark that needs to be made, then you will make another one, and then you'll be into the zone without even knowing it. It's the first step that's the hardest. I always go through a period of depression at the beginning of a book before I know what I'm doing. 

    And sometimes toward the end, you feel like you've hit the wall. But you just keep going and boom before you know it, it's done.

    Just keep this cycling Amelia Bedelia!

    Q: What's the most fun thing about being an illustrator?

    The most fun thing is having the flexibility to work wherever and whenever you want. To be able to travel and work at the same time. To work with incredibly talented and creative people. To have fun with kids reading and talking about the books. To live in the world of my imagination. Wow, I'm so damn lucky!

    Q: Do you have any upcoming projects or news you're excited about?!

    Well, I'm keeping very busy with Amelia Bedelia. I am working on an Easy Reader right now and then will do a chapter book in the fall. I have finished a book called Underpants Dance that will be out next spring. 

    I am working on final art for a book by Marilyn Springer called I'm Gonna Climb the Mountain in my Patent Leather Shoes. And I'm ready to start final art on the next Ruby Valentine book. 
    There will be another Cowgirl book. 

    In a month, I will be hiking in the French and Italian Alps, visiting Corsica, and going back to Paris for another shot of inspiration. Life is good and I'm happy to be alive and working.

    Thank you SO MUCH for sharing your stories with us, Lynne! 

    Find all of Lynne Avril's books on, here.
    View more of her work on her website


    Ok, so now you're wondering: What's the deal with this "SMA Interview Series" business?


    We hope you enjoyed this change of pace, because to mix things up a bit on Simply Messing About, we have decided to open our internet doors! During the next few weeks, you can look forward to even more stories from super talented children's illustrators and publishing professionals!

    There will be lots of inspiration, peeks into workspaces, tips on getting out of a creative rut, and more. 

    It was a pleasure to chat with Lynne Avril, because not only is she extremely talented and inspirational, she's just an all around nice person. I can't think of a single person who wouldn't want to be just like her! For that reason, we are so glad to be able to share her story with you. Being an illustrator, especially for children, is all about loving life and truly "seeing" everything around you. 

    Now, go forth and draw everything!

    Tuesday, July 2, 2013

    Learning From Your Peers

    Yesterday, in search of inspiration for a new blog post, I posed this question on Twitter:

    "What is your favorite picture book cover?"

    I don't know why I chose covers specifically, and I definitely didn't expect so many answers! On Twitter, you have to catch the timing just right and if the Universe aligns, replies will pour in. It just so happened that yesterday afternoon, the response was overwhelming enough to leave me feeling a little sad about my lack of children's book knowledge.

    "Anything by Jan Brett" and " Anything by Trina Shart Hyman" were some replies.

    There were quite a few that I recognized, but there were even more books and illustrators that I had never heard of. What a mess I was about this!

    Pondering this over a good night's sleep, I came to the conclusion that my self proclaimed "lack of knowledge" (in quotes because I like to think this isn't entirely true) is long as I keep learning. I don't ever want to stop learning and I love that, because of Twitter, I can learn from my peers. 

    Here are a few of the recommended covers, in no particular order:
    (some of which are selections I've made based on the above suggestions of "Anything by–")

    A different take on the same book...
    Multiple titles by Shaun Tan were mentioned.

    Another different take on the same book...

    Now, I will take all of this newly gained information and make room for it up in that rusty, old memory bank of mine. Though not until after, of course, I share it with you. :) 

    If you're interested in exploring more about the design of picture books, here are some great blogs and posts to follow:

    And some places to merely feast your eyes:

    And a big thank you to the following folks for offering up their favorite book covers:
    @iamemmamusic (and your hubby!)

    What are your favorite book covers? Is there a reason why?
    Please share in the comments below!