Posted by: Kathy Temean | November 5, 2016

Illustrator Saturday – Debbie Ridpath Ohi


Debbie Ridpath Ohi writes and illustrates books for young people in Toronto, Canada. Her first solo picture book, WHERE ARE MY BOOKS?, debuted from Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers in 2015. Debbie’s illustrations appear in picture books by Michael Ian Black (NAKED!, NYTimes Notable Children’s Book I’M BORED) and Judy Blume chapter book and middle grade reissues (Atheneum). In 2016, her illustrations will appear in RUBY ROSE, OFF TO SCHOOL SHE GOES written by Rob Sanders (HarperCollins Children’s) and MITZI TULANE, PRESCHOOL DETECTIVE: WHAT’S THAT SMELL? written by Lauren McLaughlin (Random House Children’s). Debbie lives in Toronto with her husband Jeff. Twitter: @inkyelbows.


HERE’S Debbie explaining her process:

This illustration is the first spread from my first solo picture book, Where Are My Books? (Simon & Schuster).

The idea for the first spread came at the same time as my idea for the story! I was inspired by my nephew Spencer, who loves to read:


When I write and illustrate a picture book, I usually take a LOT of notes in the beginning. Some written, some doodled, some a mishmash with lots of arrows and scribbles:


As I work on the text, I also do a lot of character sketches. Here are some of the early sketches for Spencer:


Once I settled on the main character and had him approved by my art director and editor, I posted a copy up in my office where I can refer to it anytime:


Here’s one of the first real attempts I made at illustrating the first spread:


The text for the first spread was eventually changed (see final spread further down). Also, we decided NOT to have the hint of squirrels this early to postpone the surprise (plus it might across as a wee bit creepy).

Here’s the sketch spread with comments from my art director (Laurent Linn at Simon & Schuster) in blue, plus my additional comments in purple.


Laurent suggested pulling back to show more of the scene, among other great ideas.

I did a LOT of sketches and experiments with this scene, incidentally. Not just the layout, but also the drawing style. I have multiple illustration styles and while this can be a blessing, it can also make it more challenging when I’m trying to decide which is the right one for a project.

Anyway, here’s one of my later attempts:


We decided that I had pulled back TOO far and needed to bring the “camera” in closer. My art director and editor also felt that my line work was too tight, that I needed to be looser. Here’s a “loose line” experiment:


I also experimented with different color schemes:




These are only a FEW of the many, many styles and colours I tried out before settling on one that would be the one I’d use for the rest of the book.

And here’s the final version:


Throughout, I used a lot of photo reference. I usually just took a quick photo with my iPhone in my own house. Here’s a couple I took so I’d had photo for books on a shelf and the edge of the bed:


I’d print out and hang up different versions where I could see them. My office is pretty small and cluttered with ZERO empty space, so my husband kindly rigged up some string with clips along my ceiling so I could hang them up that way:


I like doing this to help me get an overall idea of whether the flow is working, an easy check for consistency, plus it gives me a sense of accomplishment as the drawings go up.


Final with Text.

Interview with Debbie Ridpath Ohi

How long have you been illustrating?

I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember! My father still uses an old bookshelf that has some of my crayon art on the side; I went through a phase where I drew happy faces on everything, including things I wasn’t supposed to! Got in trouble for it, not surprisingly.


Where do you live?

I live in Toronto, Canada.


How did a Computer Science and Psychology major end up getting into art?

Though I’ve always enjoyed drawing, it never ever crossed my mind to pursue illustration as a career. Because my math and science marks were good, and I enjoyed computer programming, I opted for financial stability.


What was the first thing you illustrated where someone paid you for your work?

Ooh, no one has ever asked me that question before! Let me think, hm.

I’m not sure if this counts as being paid, but I won first prize in a comic contest in a country-wide newspaper contest, and they sent me an electric typewriter. I was THRILLED, and immediately started using the typewriter for my writing.


As for cash, I think the first time was when I received US$10 for a short story I wrote for a small magazine. I never did cash that check — I was SO proud to get it. I have no idea where it is right now, though. Probably stashed in a box somewhere in our basement; now I want to dig it out and get it framed for my home office!


Did you go to school for art?

No. The last format art training I received was ninth grade, in high school. I remember my art teacher was upset with me when I decided to drop art and keep music; I could only keep one arts option in tenth grade.


What type of work did you do after you got out of school?

I worked as a computer programmer-analyst for TD Bank’s head office in Toronto. I helped design the interface that the tellers used at bank branches.


Have you seen your style change since you started illustrating?

All the time. 🙂

I work in multiple styles, and even these are gradually changing as I continue to practice, learn and grow as an illustrator.


When did you decide you wanted to illustrate for children?

That’s a complicated question because I never imagined that I’d ever be good enough to illustrate children’s books. The first time I seriously considered illustrating for children is 2010, when I won two awards during the SCBWI Illustration Portfolio Showcase with my first portfolio. See my answer later in this interview.


Was I’m Bored the first book you illustrated?

Yes! I will always be grateful to author Michael Ian Black for his support. He could have opted for a well-known illustrator but instead helped to give me my first big break.


I noticed you next picture book was with Simon & Schuster, too. Did you sign a two book deal when you signed to do I’M BORED?

I had to check my records to answer this because I couldn’t remember! No, it was just for the one book.


How did those S&S find you?

Publisher/editor Justin Chanda discovered my work at the 2010 SCBWI Summer Conference in Los Angeles. After my submission to the mss critique program was rejected (I had submitted an illustrated middle grade mss but illustrations weren’t allowed), my friend Beckett Gladney and my sister Ruth Ohi convinced me to enter the Illustration Portfolio Showcase.

I resisted because I had no art training and didn’t think my art was polished enough to be considered for published books. Even after I registered for the showcase, I tried to back out. (cont,)


But then Beckett went online to my Flickr account, where I had been posting my doodles. She picked out the pieces she thought were my strongest (interestingly enough, these were NOT the pieces I would have picked), printed them out, and helped me put together my very first portfolio in our shared hotel room the night before the Showcase. She even made me a gorgeous portfolio cover! (cont.)


I ended up winning two awards: an Illustration Mentorship Program award and an Honor Award. Justin Chanda was on the panel of judges for the latter, and asked me if I’d be interested in illustrating Michael Ian Black’s new picture book, I’M BORED.

I said yes, and that was the beginning of everything. 🙂


How exciting was it to do the cover and interior art for three of Judy Blume’s chapter books?”

INCREDIBLY exciting! Omigosh, I can’t even begin to tell you how thrilled I was. I’ve been a fan of Ms. Blume’s for as long as I can remember.


How did that grow into doing the new covers for seven of her previous published books?

The opportunity actually began with the covers. My editor Justin Chanda (Simon & Schuster Children’s) emailed in December 2013 to ask 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?


9:10 pm, JUSTIN: Ok good. We’ll talk tomorrow morning.

—- Transcript ends ——

In our phonecall, Justin invited me to audition to be the illustrator of seven Judy Blume middle grade books that were being revamped and reissued by Atheneum. I said YES, of course, even though it meant working through the holiday season. My husband Jeff was so supportive throughout! And when a massive ice storm hit Toronto and knocked out our power for a few days, my friend Cathy Rutland offered to let me work in her apartment and Jeff helped me move all my hardware (computer, monitors, Wacom tablet, cords and printer) over. Justin and I emailed every day over the winter holidays, including New Year’s, with sketches and comments flying back and forth.

And then I waited. Waiting was AGONY.


Justin called me on January 16th, 2014. I will always remember how my heart did a flipflop inside my chest when I saw the 212 area code and immediately thought ohpleaseohpleaseohplease as I picked up the phone. When Justin told me that Judy Blume loved the covers AND that they wanted me to do the interior illustrations for three chapters books, I freaked out.


I started screaming into the phone, tried to calm down and be professional, then started screaming again. At one point, Justin had to reassure me that “Yes, this is really happening.”

Here’s a photo of when I actually got to meet Ms. Blume in person!


Despite my resolve to be all professional and non-fangirly, I burst into tears as soon as we met. She was SO gracious, wasn’t freaked out at all, and later on I found out that my reaction was pretty common for women my age who had grown up on Judy Blume books.


Congratulations on having two picture books come out this year with Random House (MITZI TULANE, PRESCHOOL DETECTIVE in WHAT’S THAT SMELL) and HarperCollins (RUBY ROSE, OFF TO SCHOOL SHE GOES! ). How long did they give you to illustrate the books?

Thank you!

Hm, hard to give an accurate timeline since I signed both 2-book deals long before I could start working on them because I had other projects on the go. Both publishers were willing to wait for me, however, which I appreciate.


Did Simon & Schuster encourage you to write and illustrate WHERE ARE MY BOOKS? Or was it the other way around?

Justin encouraged me to start working on writing and illustrating picture books in addition to illustrating from very early on. He made it clear that he was interested in my career longterm, helping me grow as both a writer and an illustrator.


Do you plan on writing and illustrating more of your own books?

ABSOLUTELY! I’m already contracted to write and illustrate another picture book for Simon & Schuster, which is one of the projects I’m working on now. I will always enjoy illustrating other people’s books but am VERY keen on doing more picture book writing as well as illustrating. (cont.)


Also, many people don’t realize that I began as a middle grade writer. I signed on with my agent at Curtis Brown, Ginger Knowlton, because of a middle grade novel. I’ve written several, sent out two through my agent, never sent the third (not even to my agent) because I could tell it was not strong enough. I’m now working on my fourth and while I can’t guarantee it will be published, I’m MUCH more excited about this novel than I was about the others.


It looks like you are on a roll with four more picture books 2017 and another one coming out in 2018. Are you still working on the artwork for them?

No, they’re pretty much all finished. I say “pretty much” because I’m working on the final tweaks for the cover of SAM & EVA, my second solo picture book from Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers. That’s scheduled to come out in October 2017.

In theory, the cover will be finished by the time this interview is posted. 🙂


When did you start doing comic strips?

When I was a child. I’ve always loved reading and making comics. My very first comic was about a baby named Boppy. Sadly, I didn’t save any of those. But here’s one I created for my family newsletter:


What do you think is your biggest success? 

Oh, that is too hard a question to answer! It depends what you mean by success.

If pressed, I’d have to say that one thing I’m most happy about: that I didn’t give up despite many, many rejections.


Have you ever tried to do a wordless picture book?

No, but I confess I’ve thought a LOT about this.

And I have some ideas.


I see you are represented by Ginger Knowlton at Curtis-Brown; how did the two of you connect? And how long have you been with her?

I signed with Ginger and Curtis Brown in 1995.

How we met:

My father-in-law knew children’s book author Lee Wardlaw, and Lee agreed to take a look at a middle grade novel I was working on. I will ALWAYS be grateful to Lee for this! Anyway, she critiqued it, helped me improve it. When she felt it was strong enough, she introduced me to her agent.

And now, her agent is my agent. 🙂


Do you think the Internet starting and has opened doors for you?

My first website was actually called Inkspot and is now shut down.

I originally launched Inkspot as a resource for children’s book writers but decided to expand it to other genres when it started getting positive press. At its peak, I had nearly 50,000 subscribers to my email newsletter, 200,000 unique site visitors and over 400,000 page views a month.


(Note re: image above – domain now belongs to someone else, NOT me)

Writer’s Digest Books approached me to write a book about how writers could use the Internet in their career. After years of trying to get my fiction published, I was gobsmacked (love that word) when a publisher called ME to write a book.

I ended up selling Inkspot to a publishing services company in Philadelphia who had been one of my advertisers. I also moved to Philly (away from my husband) for six months to help with the transition. In many ways, my experience in the corporate world could be compared to stacking firewood. See my summary here:

comic-debphonecall-2001-03-15Overall, I learned a great deal that helped me later on when I got back to children’s books again.

I also incorporated a version of the experience into my semi-autobiographical comic. it was the first time I’d attempted to tell an ongoing story in my comics rather than one-offs.

comic-goodbyes-2001-04-28Do you use Photoshop with any of your work?

I use Photoshop for most of my book illustration book.


With my upcoming picture book with Simon & Schuster, SEA MONKEY AND BOB (author: Aaron Reynolds), I also incorporated hand-drawn ink as well.


However, I also still do a lot of sketching and doodling on plain old printer paper:


Do you have and use a graphic tablet?

Yes, I use a Wacom Intros 5 Touch Pen Tablet.


For some of my sketches (cover sketches, character sketches), I also use my iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil.


Has any of your work appeared in magazines?

Some of my comics have, I think. My magazine and newspaper work is mainly writing, not illustrating. Mostly nonfiction, but I’ve also sold some poetry and short stories.


Do you have a studio in your house?

Yes! I have an office in the basement of our house. My husband and I call it my Office Cave. I have a LOT of stuff in it:

office-debbieclutterDo you illustrate full time?

I write and illustrate full-time.


Do you take research pictures before you start a project?

Sometimes. It depends on the project. Here’s how I used a reference photo of my husband’s hands when I worked on the cover of NAKED:

refphoto-jeffhandsmomhandsbeforeafter-v2-1000-copyHave you worked with any educational publishers? If yes, is there any difference working with them?

No, I haven’t worked with any educational publishers yet.


Is there anything in your studio you couldn’t live without?

Not sure if there’s anything I could live without, but I definitely find a second monitor a HUGE help in streamlining my work process.


Do you follow any type of routine to attain your career goals?

I thought hard about how to answer this and realized that my so-called “routine” has changed constantly over the years.

One thing I’ve found is essential: carving out enough creative time where I can just play. There was a period where I was so busy that I wasn’t taking the time to write or doodle for the pure fun of it. Also, to always make time to read.

I know these things don’t seem obviously linked to career goals but in order for me to CREATE, new stuff has to go INTO the melting pot first.


What are your career goals?

To continue to build my body of work, focusing only on book projects I’m super-excited about.

To start getting my middle grade novels published. As I mentioned above, I will ALWAYS want to work on picture books. But I still am a huge fan of middle grade and have wanted to write middle grade ever since I was very young.

I’d also love to do board books, illustrated chapter books and graphic novels someday, plus more middle grade covers.


What are you working on now?

A middle grade novel, a graphic novel and a new picture book.

I’m also eagerly awaiting the manuscript for I’M SAD, the sequel to I’M BORED (author: Michael Ian Black), so I can start illustrating.


Are there any illustrating tips (materials, paper, etc.) you can share that work well for you? Technique tips?

Make regular time for creative play.

ohi0570-found-paintbrush-v4-600-copyAny words of wisdom you can share with the illustrators who are trying to develop their career?

Don’t be so focused on trying to get published that you forget to enjoy the process. Celebrate every success, no matter how small.


Also, try very VERY hard not to compare your own progress with someone else’s. Embrace your own journey. This is one challenge for those of us who spend a lot of time in social media! It’s hard not to feel a twinge of envy when you see a constant stream of others in your industry experiencing or doing things that you wish you could experience or do. Don’t feel guilty about feeling envious. What matters: how you deal with that envy.

And if you’re constantly coming away from social media feeling resentful or insecure or super-jealous or depressed, then I recommend reevaluating how you’re using the time you spend on it.


I also strongly recommend finding a group of supportive kidlit friends with whom you can meet in person. As much as I enjoy social media, I find nothing can replace face-to-face interactions. If you’re not sure where to start looking, I’d advise SCBWI or (if you’re in Canada) CANSCAIP. Both have excellent opportunities to meet up in person, including conferences.


Thank you Debbie for sharing your talent, process, journey, and expertise with us. Please make sure you keep in touch and share your future successes with us. To see more of Debbie’s work, you can visit her at her website:

If you have a minute, please leave a comment for Debbie. I am sure she’d love it and I enjoy reading them, too. Thanks!

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Wow this is such an amazing article!! I love it and I love Debbie. I shared on FB too. 🙂


  2. Such an intelligent work, Debbie !
    It is beautiful and captivating too. As a mother to two young ladies(8 and 7) my house is flooded with children’s books. I can identify with most of the situations. Your illustrations are as if speaking to me.
    The mother reading out to the child on the hospital bed, touches me the most. Children must be so excited with the illustrations!


  3. Debbie is my hero(ine) because she reminds me that innate propensity for art, hard work and a good attitude will take you as far as, and maybe farther, than a degree in fine art. 🙂 Terrific interview! Love all the illos to go with it.


  4. Debbie is sweet, charming, funny and a blast to hang out with! Had the pleasure of meeting her at ALA San Fransisco in 2015 where she graciously signed a free copy of WHERE ARE MY BOOKS? Adore her illustrations.


  5. Thank you for the interview here, Debbie! Your books are adorable, and so is your personality!


  6. Wonderful interview!! I love Debbie, her work, and her infectious enthusiasm!! So great to read her story here and see her process!! 🙂


  7. Your characters are adorable, Debbie. 🙂


  8. Debbie, I’ve loved you for years—EVERYthing you do! Including your board gaming 😀 You’re brilliant!

    And way to go, Beckett Gladney and Lee Wardlaw!


  9. I think I used to get Inkspot through email back in the 90s.


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