Debbie Ridpath Ohi’s childhood dream was to someday read all the books in the library. “I grew up in the suburbs of Toronto in a lower-middle income family,” she says. “We couldn’t afford to purchase a lot of chidren’s books so instead my father used to take the whole family to the library once a week. I so looked forward to that weekly visit! My parents trusted us to choose what we wanted. It was almost like being in a candy store.”
Ohi has always considered herself a writer. “I wanted to create books for young people ever since I was a child. I wrote my first illustrated chapter book in a lined notebook when I was in grade school, and was thrilled when the teacher said she loved it.” Her eighth grade teacher made a surprise appearance at her book launch for I’m Bored, and handed over several of her short stories that he’d saved. “I was touched that he had kept my writing all those years,” Ohi says. “That’s why people should not underestimate the importance of teachers. Just a few encouraging words from a teacher at the right time in your life can have a huge impact.”
As a child, Ohi loved the physical comfort of picture books—holding them in her hands and cuddling up with her parents while they read to her. Consequently, she wanted to write a story about a character who shared her feelings. In Where Are My Books?, Spencer’s favorite stories begin to vanish one at a time. “I tried to get across how much I loved and continue to love the physical comfort of picture books,” Ohi says, “plus the [special bond] that happens between a grown-up and [a] child during a read-aloud.”
During the early stages of Where Are My Books?, Ohi knew she wanted to combine her love of reading with her love-hate relationship with squirrels. Although she thinks squirrels are cute, they’ve caused her more than a few headaches, and they seemed like the perfect nemesis for her main character. “[Squirrels] have cut off my Internet [and] they’ve killed my plants,” Ohi says. As a result, friends are fond of sending her news of squirrel hijinks that fuel her imagination. But the book idea gelled during a conversation Ohi had with her nephew about his reading preferences.
The creative process is filled with highs and low, and inevitably Ohi says, “I feel inadequate at least one time during each project.” She values her editor’s input, and claims “he pushes me harder than I would have done on my own.” The trick is to remember not to take his comments personally. “He wants exactly what I want,” she says. “He wants as strong a story as possible.”
Ohi’s inspiration comes from observing people and the world around her. “Not just half-paying-attention observing, but really looking,” she says. She keeps a small notebook in her purse to scribble the odd fragment of text or an idea that pops into her head, or to scrawl a rough sketch. Her found-object art is an attempt to train herself to appreciate color, line, texture, and open her eyes to new possibilities, such as a slice of celery that hides the hull of a sailboat or the body of a bird. She encourages children and adults to carve out time each day to create—something, anything—for the pure fun of it.
As with most authors, Ohi’s daily schedule defies routine. Although she tries to start each morning with a free-writing exercise, she quickly moves into organizational and administrative tasks. Afternoons are usually reserved for creating new art and new text. “Sometimes I can work things out so that I’m able to focus on creative stuff all day, uninterrupted,” she says. “Those days are heaven to me.” Ohi experiments with many media for her illustrations, such as digital drawing and painting, ink, watercolors, collage, and of course, found objects.
“I never imagined that I’d be lucky enough [to create children’s books] for a living,” Ohi says. But she bristles when people call her an overnight success. She was “discovered” at a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (www.scbwi.org) portfolio showcase contest. “[People] don’t realize how hard I’ve worked and how long I’ve been trying to get my children’s books published. Yes, I feel very lucky…but there were many lean years before then in terms of getting the attention of the children’s book industry.”