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Q&A: Debbie Ridpath Ohi on illustrating for Judy Blume

Less than four years after breaking into the children’s book industry, Toronto’s Debbie Ridpath Ohi landed one of the most coveted jobs in the business: illustrating covers for 10 new editions of classic Judy Blume titles.

In January, Simon & Schuster commissioned Ohi’s illustrations for the covers of seven middle-grade novels: Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, It’s Not the End of the World, Iggie’s House, Blubber, Deenie, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, and Then Again, Maybe I Won’t. She is also providing cover and interior illustrations for three chapter books: Freckle Juice, The One in the Middle Is the Green Kangaroo, and The Pain and the Great One, to be released on May 27.*

Sister of prolific kids’ book writer-illustrator Ruth Ohi, Debbie Ridpath Ohi launched her career illustrating Michael Ian Black’s picture book I’m Bored. The story, about a girl and an unimpressed talking potato, was named a 2012 New York Times Notable Children’s Book. They are currently working on a follow-up, Naked!, which comes out April 29.

Q&Q spoke to Ohi about her rising career and the process of illustrating for Blume.

How did you land the contract? My editor at Simon & Schuster, Justin Chanda, called right before Christmas and asked if I was interested in auditioning for the project. I had to work through the holidays, but how could I say no? It’s Judy Blume! It was right before the Toronto ice storm, and we lost power for a few days, but I moved into a friend’s house so I could keep working.

How did you approach the illustrations? S&S asked me to come up with cover illustration ideas. Through discussions with Judy Blume they realized that they didn’t want characters on the covers, but iconic objects that capture the essence of the novels. Justin and I talked almost every day. I think I did about 150 sketches, and sent him about a third.

After the holidays it was narrowed down to a few sketches. Then I worked with associate art director Lauren Rille ““ I think her designs make the covers magical ““ and others at S&S to fine-tune. It was a very collaborative process. Then we sent them to Judy and I waited and waited.

When I officially found out I got the job in the middle of January, I screamed a lot. That’s when they told me I got the chapter book illustrations as well. Since then it’s been full-speed ahead.

How did Blume react? Apparently she loved the cover designs and the illustrations. She tweeted about them ““ I’m going to print it out and frame it.

I grew up on Judy Blume and her novels had a big impact on me. I hope to some day actually have a face-to-face conversation with her.

How did you break into children’s book illustration? I was writing novels for young people, but I kept getting rejections. In 2010, I submitted a manuscript to the critique program at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference, and it was rejected because it had pictures in it. I was really depressed.

A friend of mine suggested I enter the portfolio showcase instead because I was always drawing cartoons. At first I thought, “No, my training is in computer science.” I was a programmer-analyst. But I submitted my portfolio and ended up being a runner-up for the overall showcase and receiving a mentorship award. One of the judges was Justin, my future editor at S&S. He came up and asked if I would be interested in illustrating I’m Bored.

Has your sister Ruth influenced your work? My sister’s been encouraging through my entire career. Some day the two of us want to do a project together. We even have a Facebook page called The Ohi Sisters. Our schedules are so crazy, but every once in awhile the two of us sit down and talk about ideas.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Update: The Judy Blume chapters books will now be released May 27, not April 29 as earlier reported.