Debbie Ridpath Ohi is the author-illustrator behind Where Are My Books and Sam & Eva, and she has also illustrated many books including I’m Bored and I’m Worried written by Michael Ian Black. Next year, Simon & Schuster will publish Gurple and Preen, a book that was years in the making, and had a remarkable start as a popular blog.
“You never know what will come out of a broken crayon.” That was the phrase behind Ohi’s Broken Crayon blog, an inventive gallery combining illustration with found object art (actual broken crayons that Ohi weaves into the reality of the drawing). What started out as a fun exercise turned into such a winning idea that some schools began adopting the idea, encouraging kids to create their own broken crayon drawings and posting the results on Twitter. It was inevitable that Ohi’s idea would catch the attention of the publishing world, but she actually turned down many opportunities to turn the blog into a book.
The stars eventually aligned, which is why the broken crayons will find new life in Gurple and Preen, written by Linda Sue Park, with editing by Justin Chanda and art direction by Laurent Linn.
Ohi was kind enough to answer our questions about creation, social media, and waiting for the right collaborator.
What was the beginning of The Broken Crayon blog?
I created my first piece of broken crayon art when I was looking around my office for something small I could use for found object art. At first I was going to do my usual found object exercise by making the broken green crayon I found part of my drawing but then I thought how much more interesting to have something crawling OUT of the broken bit.
I was also looking for an excuse to try out my new DSLR macro lens, so I photographed the broken bit first and then added the illustrative element afterward. When I first posted it on social media along with “You never know what will come out of a broken crayon”, the overwhelmingly positive response inspired me to do more. Sometimes I did it with real-life crayon drawings and other times partly digitally. Educators started telling me they were doing broken crayon art in their libraries and classrooms. Sometimes the students wrote little stories to go with the art. Sometimes (especially after reading SAM & EVA, which is my picture book about creative collaboration) they would collaborate on broken crayon drawings. All of this made me incredibly happy. And inevitably, I started thinking about doing a book.
How else have you used social media to build your brand/readership?
I used social media back in the early days of the Web (yes, I am that old) because I wanted to connect with other children’s book writers. I created a website with resources I found online, and also created an electronic newsletter as well as message boards. I loved the fact that I could interact with writers all around the world from the comfort of my home office. As an introvert, I found it far easier to network this way than face-to-face.
As the popularity of my site grew, I attracted advertisers and could afford to start hiring columnists and paying writers. I couldn’t afford to pay much, but at least I was paying! Meanwhile, my online community was growing. During this time, I learned a lot about online communities, including their volatility and time sink potential. Keep in mind that this was years before Facebook and Twitter were invented! Since then, I have used social media to connect with not only others in the industry but also booksellers, educators, librarians, and young readers. I also enjoy sharing my process and bits of my creative life on social media as well as seeing similar posts by others. There are sometimes challenges, of course (navigating negativity, envy, and time management, for example) but in the end, social media has helped my career in so many ways that it’s well worth it.
You’ve said in the past that you had been approached by several people in the publishing industry about turning The Broken Crayon into a book. Why did you hold off on saying yes?
I was deeply flattered by the number of authors and editors who were approaching me about turning my broken crayon art into a book or books for young people.
One reason I said no at first was because I was working on my own story ideas, and wanted to take my time. For this first broken crayon book (and yes, I hope there will be more!), I didn’t want it to be just about a gallery of things and people coming out of broken crayons. I also wanted it to be fun and interesting for me to illustrate. Another reason I held off saying yes was because my broken crayon art pieces were something I did purely for the fun of it. I have found that the creation experience changes when I am creating art that is connected to a book or might be connected to a book. I still enjoy the creation process, of course! But it is different from when I’m making art just for myself. One person advised me to hurry up and do the book before someone else did it. I also got this advice early on when I started posting found object art as well. My own take: I didn’t want my book to rely on the novelty factor to succeed. I’d rather wait until I found the right project.
What was it like to collaborate with Linda Sue Park?
Collaborating with Linda Sue Park has been a dream.She is SO respectful of the illustrator’s role in a picture book. It’s one of the reasons we started working together.
As I mentioned earlier, I had always politely declined when approached about collaborating on a broken crayon book. Time passed, and I kept working on story ideas but didn’t like any of them. And then (I will never forget this!) Linda Sue talked to me about my broken crayon art at the 2017 SCBWI Northern Ohio regional conference faculty dinner. She told me that she loved my broken crayon art and also said that assumed that I was working on my own story. “I have been,” I told her, “but I’ve having trouble coming up with one that I’d want to illustrate.”
What ensued was a sort of verbal dance we both did around each other, neither of us wanting to be pushy or make assumptions, but also both of us interested in collaborating. Right after the conference, I got an email from Linda Sue. Apparently she woke up in the middle of the night after getting home from the conference with a possible idea for a broken crayon book — which I *loved*. It’s a story that I never would have come up with, and has so many fun elements.
After talking about the story with our agent (Ginger Knowlton at Curtis Brown), we pitched it to my editor, Justin Chanda at Simon & Schuster, and he said YES.
Throughout the process, Linda Sue has emphasized that she was more than willing to change any of the text for my illustrations, saying that she saw this project as being “illustrator-led”, not the other way around. I’ve so appreciated this approach!