If you’ve ever picked up one of Kathryn Otoshi’s books — including Zero, What Emily Saw, and Beautiful Hands, and others — you already know that she is a dynamic illustrator, an open-hearted storyteller, and a creator of narratives that exude patience and compassion. With the combination of these traits comes a body of work that’s singularly refreshing, enlightening, and encouraging for any reader.
Though based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Kathryn travels often and spends a lot of her time talking with children, parents, and educators about ways to nurture empathy and empower young people to stand up for what they believe is right. We’re so glad to have had the chance to work with her on September’s Literati experience and to ask her a few questions about her past, current, and future work.
Your books One, Zero, and Two all handle complex topics such as bullying, belonging, identity, and purpose so gracefully for a young audience. What inspired you to tell these stories?
Children’s books have become a meditative way for me to work through some of the challenging issues I’m wrestling with in my own personal life. All the messages in the books are things adults have to deal with too – whether it be about standing up for yourself, concerns with our own identity or struggling with relationships. I realized if I kept the illustration style of the main characters as a simple dot or number, then perhaps people could project their feelings into these abstract shapes. That’s why I think the Number Books transpire across all age levels.
Zero, for example, took a couple of years to finish, because I was going through some life changes, and the resolution to this story came to me much later when I realized I needed to focus on my own inner character and values. I suppose you could line up all my books side by side, and see my life’s journey or the personal challenges I’ve sought to overcome – all through my picture books!
What made you choose to publish your books independently at the beginning of your career, starting with What Emily Saw in 2003?
My journey into the children’s book didn’t begin with me thinking, “Hey, I want to be an indie children’s book publisher!” It happened because I kept hearing over and over how hard it was to get a picture book published and I realized the book I’d just finished, What Emily Saw, was a ‘quiet’ book – possibly too quiet to ever see the light of day. I figured if I did it myself, then my story would get out there and it would be a fun way to explore the publishing process and discover the children’s book industry. For a long time, I labeled this as my ‘expensive hobby’. Soon after, I got a wonderful distributor, Publishers Group West, to help me get What Emily Saw out into the world. Suddenly, without realizing all that I was in for, I had launched myself as an indie publisher in the world of books. I started learning the ropes and my ‘hobby’ started to grow…the rest is history.
How has your experience in the film industry affected your approach to creating books for children? Are there similarities between the two?
There are so many similarities between children’s books and films! To me, picture books are like ‘mini-movies’. My illustrated characters become my actors/actresses who walk onto the picture book stage. I often find myself ‘talking’ to my characters in my head, as if I were the director, telling them how to act for the scene. As the illustrator, I become the casting director…is it a yellow dog or a little boy or a blue dot who will become the ‘lead’ in my ‘movie’? I become the director of photography when I frame each spread. And the turning of each page can be viewed as a ‘cut’ in a scene, and I become the film editor. You can see how it all becomes very interactive and busy in my head with all these different hats to wear! It’s a fun way for me to get engaged in the picture book process while giving a nod to my past.
Which picture book(s) did you love as a child? As an adult, which books stuck with you?
I love Corduroy by Don Freeman for the little stuffed bear who shares his longing to belong and have a home someday, and A Bargain for Frances by Russell Hoban for showing us how to become a better friend to someone who is ‘not so nice’. As an adult, I love the book, Town Is By The Sea by Joanne Schwartz (Illustrated by Sydney Smith) and The Gardener, by Sarah Stewart (illustrated by David Small) – the very last spread in this book always brings tears to my eyes.
Your style of illustration varies so much between projects, it’s like you have a team of illustrators working with you — but you do them all! I’m thinking specifically of the differences between, for example, One, The Saddest Little Robot (by Brian Gage), and Beautiful Hands. How do you decide which style fits a particular story?
Yes! I am definitely an anomaly in the children’s book industry, in that I change up my illustration style to match the writing style in the book. I spend a ton of time researching and going through the ‘cabinet drawers’ in my head pondering this (collage, charcoal pencils, watercolors, digital art?). Then I ask myself how do I want the illustrations to feel (loose/sketchy, tightly rendered, cartoony?) until I find what feels like the right style for the story. Then I practice that style over and over so it feels consistent throughout the entire narrative. If you look at all my illustrated books side-by-side, you might think a different artist illustrated each book!
While we do read a ton of zany, silly, and just plain outrageous picture books, we also fall in love with softer, quieter stories. What’s the key to creating a good book for children that is quiet yet engaging?
I think it’s important to allow your story, quiet or not, to be as authentic as possible. If you imagine each book as ‘children’, you will see that each one has its own voice and will interact with the world in a different way. Each voice has a place and should be honored. With a quiet book, it can definitely still be engaging, but I’d say all the details in the book must be all the more important. And our audience must also be open to ‘listening’ for these quiet and wonderful ‘voices’.
Can you tell us about one of your favorite interactions you’ve had with a child about your work?
Part of my process as an artist is letting go, and sometimes making yourself vulnerable at times, and then seeing what life may bring from there. A few years back, a friend of mine, Bret Baumgarten, told me some sad news. He had stage 4 pancreatic cancer. I found out every day he would hold his kids’ hands in his and ask them, “What will your beautiful hands do today?” Bret and I decided to co-write a story for his children, Noah and Sofie, about all the amazing things little hands can do.
Much later, after Bret had passed away, Sofie wrote me a card and at the end of it, it said: “I knew I could count on you”. We have a special relationship and whenever I see those kids, I give them a big hug. Noah is too big, but I can still lift Sofie right off her feet! Bret’s message of love and connection continues on through the book!
What advice do you have for young people who want to create books?
Read lots of books, and let yourself be completely absorbed. Discover the kind of stories that you love – the kind that you want to hug to your chest. Plant your ideas, and nourish them with love and attention. Pray for sunshine. In the meanwhile, find others who embrace stories as much as you do. Take classes. Listen. Take chances. Hone in on your craft. Soon the garden in your mind will grow. Never give up. Never give up. Never give up. It takes time, energy and discipline. Many talented writers want to get into this industry, but it’s the ones who have a strong passion and are willing to persevere through the ups and downs of it that sustain and thrive!
What are you working on now?
Draw The Line is about to come out with Roaring Brook/Macmillan this Fall (October 10th). I’m very excited about going on tour for this soon. The concept for this started with me just feeling overextended and not feeling I had enough downtime for my artwork. I was feeling a push-pull within myself, but also started to feel it with other people as well.
Then it dawned on me. I needed to draw clearer boundaries!
Suddenly I saw a stark visual “line” becoming a clear metaphor for our own boundaries – and also symbolic of our relationship with other people. We can walk the line, jump the line, read in between the lines, and can even cross a line. And sometimes when we try to negotiate our space, that line with others can get blurred and even start to fray. I grabbed a black pencil and started to go with it. Thus Draw The Line was born.
The final resolution of the conflict in the story didn’t come easy. But like life, the story became an evolutionary process, ever shifting, ever changing, sometimes pushing, sometimes pulling with a goal to reach for the greater vision of working together.
Where is your favorite spot to read?
Kona, Hawaii, out on a balcony overlooking the sea. With maybe a gecko or two looking over my shoulder.