Debbie Ridpath Ohi gleefully flips through a scrapbook of author signatures and letters she received in response to fan mail she sent as a teenager: Stephen King. Isaac Asimov. Margaret Atwood. Erma Bombeck. The ultimate fangirl, she grows more excited with each passing page. One of her favourites is a handwritten note from Ray Bradbury, a formative influence on her as a writer. “Dandelion Wine is the first book that made me so conscious of writing voice, how voice could enhance a reader experience,” she says.
Reader experience is key to every project Ohi takes on, whether it’s the picture books she writes herself and illustrates or those she illustrates for other authors. “Sometimes it’s too easy to be drawn into the technique and I have to force myself to pull back and take a look at what is happening from a young reader’s point of view,” she says. “What is going to make the reader want to turn the page? Is everything clear? Are they connecting with the characters and the story throughout? Are the story and character making the reader see the world in a way they’re not used to?”
It’s clear Ohi’s adept at answering those questions. April saw the release of Sea Monkey & Bob (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers), written by Aaron Reynolds; July brings Mitzi Tulane, Preschool Detective: The Secret Ingredient (Random House Books for Young Readers), her second collaboration with author Lauren McLaughlin; August marks the release of Ruby Rose: Big Bravos (HarperCollins), written by Rob Sanders; and in October, Ohi will see the publication of Sam & Eva (S&S), her second book as both author and illustrator (following 2015’s Where Are My Books?).
Despite having a packed calendar, Ohi still seems surprised by her success. She may be the only one who is. “Debbie is the genuine article,” says Justin Chanda, Simon & Schuster vice-president, publisher, and editor. “She is utterly devoted to each book and the readers for each project. She gives them her all because she truly cares.”
Ginger Knowlton of Curtis Brown in New York, Ohi’s agent since 1995, adds: “Debbie is an energetic, appreciative, and enthusiastic writer/illustrator/person. She tackles projects head on and when she doesn’t know how to do something, she figures it out, no matter how scary it seems.”
Tenacity and ability to face her fears are what got Ohi into kids’ books in the first place. After her manuscript for a middle-grade novel was rejected for the critique program at the 2010 Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference in Los Angeles because it had illustrations, a team of supporters – including friend Beckett Gladney, sister (and fellow author-illustrator) Ruth Ohi, and husband Jeff – convinced Ohi to submit to the artist portfolio showcase instead. She had a collection of cartoons and other experimental artwork on Flickr, from which Gladney assembled a submission. Still, Ohi resisted: with no professional art training, she believed her work wasn’t good enough. “I wasn’t even at the awards,” Ohi recalls. “I was embarrassed my work was out there with so many talented illustrators.” To her surprise, she walked away with two honours – and a book deal. Chanda, one of the judges, was so impressed with her portfolio he offered Ohi her first contract, illustrating American author and comedian Michael Ian Black’s I’m Bored. The book was published in 2012, the year Ohi turned 50.
“One of my proudest achievements as a children’s book author is helping usher Debbie into the published world,” says Black, with whom Ohi also collaborated on 2014’s Naked! and the forthcoming I’m Sad, slated for publication in 2018. “There’s a whimsy and joy to [her style], but it never feels insincere, never meta. What’s funny is her personality perfectly matches that style. She’s so big-hearted and open, and that is reflected in her art.” Ohi’s ability to convey emotion or an idea in just a few strokes also caught the eye of kidlit titan Judy Blume. In December 2013, Chanda asked Ohi to audition for a project “of great proportions.” When Chanda emailed, “Did you perhaps read Judy Blume growing up?” Ohi’s response was fangirl at its best: “OMGOMGOMGOMGOMG.” Ohi got the gig – illustrating the covers for new editions of seven of Blume’s classic middle-grade books, as well as creating covers and interior art for three chapter books. “Despite the pressure and the tight deadlines, I just had to remind myself, ‘JUDY BLUME!’” says Ohi. “When my editor introduced us, I burst into tears. That moment – that made all the years of rejection, the stress, worth it.”
Books and art were a huge part of Ohi’s childhood. “We didn’t have lots of fancy toys, but we always had basic craft materials like scissors, paper, crayons, and glue – and we always had books,” recalls younger sister Ruth. “Both Deb and I kept journals, and enjoyed creating comics and other homemade publications with our brother.”
While Ruth graduated from the Ontario College of Art and Design and started a career in kids’ books, Debbie chose to study computer science and psychology at the University of Toronto. She worked for two years as a computer programmer at a major bank. As the number of meetings increased, so did her unhappiness. Seeing her misery, her husband convinced her to quit and follow her creative dreams.
“I started doing anything – I worked part-time at a bookstore, part-time at a library – and all this time I was working on my novel.” She’s written three novels to date; two made the rounds of rejection, one she doesn’t feel is strong enough to send out. During this time she also discovered another passion: the digital realm. In 1995, she launched Inkspot.com, one of the first online communities for writers. (Six years later, Ohi sold the now-defunct site to publishing services provider Xlibris.)
Since then, her web presence has continued to grow, largely in the form of her personal website, Debbieohi.com, and Inkygirl.com, an online hub for aspiring authors and illustrators where Ohi shares insights gleaned from her years in the business, interviews with other creatives, and offers resources such as lists of kidlit agents and editors, and a writers’ guide to Twitter.
The social media platform is another venue in which Ohi shines, as her 34,000 followers can attest. While she originally joined Twitter as a way to attract the attention of editors and publishers, today Ohi enjoys the platform’s community aspect, mutual encouragement, and advice. She also uses Twitter to share side projects like cartoons, comics, poetry, and popular found-object art – and to promote her books, of course.
The forthcoming Sam & Eva – about a pair of friends who become hilariously competitive in their drawing – is trademark Ohi: quirky, independent, and with a flair for the dramatic. The idea for the story came from the cartoon wars she and a friend had in university and her childhood habit of colouring on her parents’ furniture (her father still has a bookshelf festooned with her crayon happy faces). While Chanda says Ohi’s work has become more confident over the years and she now takes bigger risks, her style remains true. “It’s honest and emotional. It’s also fun-filled and intriguing. Her work is always pushing the story and the characters further along, and making readers want to journey with them.”
Ohi’s next task is getting a middle-grade novel ready for submission by the end of the year. Chanda doesn’t mind waiting: “She is a true artist. And when you meet a true artist you want to see what they come up with and support it any way you can.”
It’s a notion shared by many when it comes to Ohi, who is beloved in the Canadian kidlit community of which she is such a large part. She is a member of Torkidlit – a group of authors and illustrators who get together every month to “commiserate and celebrate” – the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and CANSCAIP, the national society of children’s authors, illustrators, and performers. “Creative people tend to be introverts, so at one point I decided I needed to start meeting people,” says Ohi. “I love how authors support each other so much.” Her office is full of books written by her friends, along with letters from fans of her own.
“Dear Debbie,” one reads. “I love your book because it reminds me about myself sometimes and when it’s about me it makes me what to read more. From Ethan.”
“Whenever I get a negative review, whenever I get stressed, I read that letter,” says Ohi. “This is what matters.”