Gurple and Preen: Interview with Debbie Ridpath Ohi

Tell us a little bit about your new book, GURPLE AND PREEN: A BROKEN CRAYON COSMIC ADVENTURE.

Our new picture book is written by Linda Sue Park and illustrated by me. In GURPLE AND PREEN, two robots crash-land onto an unfamiliar planet. The robots have to use creative thinking to get the mission back on course. Their cargo is all stored in crayons. One of the robots, Gurple, breaks open the crayons but dismisses their contents as useless as she continues to panic. The smaller and quieter robot, Preen, picks up the items that Gurple is discarding and uses them to help repair the ship.

It’s a story about creative thinking and problem solving, friendship and collaboration.

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The book came about because Linda Sue saw the broken crayon found object art I’d been posting on social media, and we ended up talking about it in person when we were both on faculty at the SCBWI Northern Ohio conference. I had been trying to write a story for me to use with my broken crayon art, but couldn’t come up with a story that I liked enough.

Linda Sue said that she could try coming up with a story, but that I was under no obligation to use it if I didn’t like it. I ended up LOVING her idea, and we pitched the book together (we have the same agent, Ginger Knowlton at Curtis Brown) to my editor at Simon & Schuster, Justin Chanda. Justin said yes, HURRAY!

Tell us a little bit about your illustration process.

The first thing I did when I received Linda Sue Park’s wonderful mss was to work on character sketches.

 

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I photographed the crayons and removed the Crayola branding. The latter took waaaaay more time than I expected, I must confess. I hired my artist friend Russ Cox to do some of the branding-removal, but realized that there was no way I could afford to hire him to do more than a handful of the hundreds of crayons I needed. I went through 491 Crayola crayons in the making of this picture book! Yes, I did keep track.

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I enjoyed working with my art director, Laurent Linn, and editor Justin Chanda. They helped me figure out the flow and layout of the story through many sketches before I started working on the final illustrations, pulling together the photographic elements, digital illustration elements, and real-life crayon textures.

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Have you always been into writing/illustrating?

Yes, for as long as I can remember! I used to be editor of a hand-made family newsletter called Family Weekly; my brother and sister contributed content, and I put everything together. We used an old Underwood manual typewriter to write poetry, short stories, jokes and riveting news items. All three of us created comics and other illustrated content.

What’s the most exciting part of your job?

Hearing how my books have helped young readers somehow: either inspired them to create something new, helped them sort out a difficult emotion or situation in their life, or simply entertained them.

What inspires your creativity?

Reading a good book always inspires me to create.

Other inspirations include: a blank piece of paper, a sharpened pencil, a fresh box of crayons.

Sometimes creativity comes easily but other times (like during the early weeks of the pandemic) it’s harder to find. In the latter case, I don’t try chasing it – I know it’ll just slip further away. Instead, I find other ways to fill the well.

What is one thing that readers don’t know about you, that only you could tell us?

When I was a child, I had a terrible stammer. It was so bad that I couldn’t even get out the word “hello” when I answered the phone. Sometimes the person on the other end of the phone thought I was laughing (“h..h…h…h..”) so would start laughing. Then I’d laugh, pretending that sure, that’s what was happening. But I dreaded the sound of the phone ringing.

In school, if I was asked a question by a teacher whose answer was going to be difficult for me to say, I would purposely answer incorrectly. Later in life, I was so afraid of public speaking that I would avoid it whenever possible.

When Simon & Schuster first asked me to do my first book tour, I was utterly terrified. I ended up telling my editor, Justin Chanda, why I was so reluctant – he was *totally* understanding and suggested I try just one or two small events at first. So I talked to a small kindergarten class….and I discovered that it was MUCH more fun than I expected! I started doing more talks, got more practice. I also found that sharing about my stammering instead of trying to keep it hidden from people greatly eased my own stress.
I still get nervous BUT I’m finding that i actually do enjoy public speaking as long as I know that I am sharing something of interest or use to my audience, especially if I know I’m helping them somehow.
My stammering still crops up now and again, usually when I’m tired or super stressed or super excited, but I don’t worry about it nearly as much. In fact, I am 100% positive that my speech issues as a child spurred me to pour more of my energy into non-verbal forms of creative expression like writing, art and music.

If you weren’t writing/illustrating books, what do you think you’d be doing?

Assuming you mean career-wise, I’d say something in the music field: probably writing or performing, or maybe both. I’ve done some songwriting with my filk music group, and even had songs on national radio! I’ve also done some session recording on friends’ albums. In an alternate life, I could see myself writing soundtracks, or jingles, musicals.

I still sometimes fantasize about someday writing a musical for kids.

What can readers expect from you in the future?

Right now I’m working on the sequel to SAM & EVA. I’m working on the manuscript with my editor at Simon & Schuster, and I intend to use found object art in the illustrations. REALLY having fun with the story development! I continue to feel incredibly lucky to be working with Justin Chanda – he is a brilliant, BRILLIANT editor.

I’m also working on some middle grade projects. No guarantee that these will ever be published, of course, but writing middle grade has been a goal of mine since waaaay before I thought about writing or illustrating picture books. My middle grade writing is what helped me find my agent! I put it aside for a while to embrace the picture book world. And while I will ALWAYS want to do picture books, I have been finding myself yearning to not give up on my original dream.

Anything else you’d like to share with readers of this blog?

If you’re an educator who is looking for new ways to inspire creativity in your students, I encourage you to check out my Broken Crayon Classroom Resource: https://www.debbieohi.com/broken-crayon

I also wanted to say how much I appreciate champions of children’s books like yourself, especially during times like this. THANK YOU for letting me visit your blog, Dylan!

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