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Oge Mora Talks with Roger

Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.

Sponsored by
Little, Brown


Debut picture book creator Oge Mora hails from Columbus, now lives in Providence, and was kind enough to take the train up for a little talk with Roger. We discuss her book, Thank You, Omu!, below, and Cindy Ritter caught the two of us on camera for a chat about cooking. Dig in!

RS: Thank You, Omu! started as a RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) project?

OM: Yes, I was taking a course called Picture and Word taught by Judy Sue Goodwin Sturges.

RS: Judy Sue!

OM: Everybody knows Judy Sue. I always wanted to take that class, from freshman year. I would walk past the door, and it was always crowded, with everyone engrossed in the work.

RS: Had you gone into RISD intending to focus on illustration?

OM: Yes. I had batted between illustration and animation for a bit, but I had always been into illustration. All the work I had done, even in high school, had an illustration tint to it. So when I came to RISD and went into illustration, I felt at home. For my senior year, I was taking other courses, but that Picture and Word class was going to be the class for me. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it — it’s not like I was going to enter the world of children’s book illustration or anything…

RS: Ha!

OM: Well, yeah. You don’t really think about stuff like that. Books are something I’ve always been super-passionate about, but I was taking the class just for me — a selfish decision.

RS: That’s also how I got into this field. I was in graduate library school, and a friend of mine said, “We should take children’s literature together; it’ll be fun.” Here I am, thirty years later.

OM: It got you. So I started taking the class, and I was obsessed with it. I was having so much fun. Every week you would make an illustration based on a prompt for that week, so you were always making new stories and illustrations. One of the week’s prompts was to make either a reductive or a productive story, where something’s been gained or something’s been lost over time. I was thinking about the prompt, and I was like, why do I have to do one or the other? What if I could do both? What if something’s being lost over time, but something’s being gained by the end of it? I started brainstorming around that idea, and I thought about the stew my grandmother always made, and that was my illustration for the week. And then for the course’s final project, you had three or four weeks to develop one story, and everyone kind of pushed me to work on that book — then it was called Omu’s Stew. At the end of the course, Judy Sue invites editors and art directors to come and look at the work. My now–art director, Sasha Illingworth, who’s also a RISD grad, was at my final presentation. She asked for the PDF, and it all started to roll from there. It was weird — I started the class, and I was like, oh, I’m just going to take this class, I’ve always liked picture books. The next semester, spring semester, I was editing the manuscript and getting started on the sketches with Little, Brown, so it was a little wild, but it was also really great.

RS: Does this feel like your direction now?

OM: Yes. If anyone would’ve asked me what I wanted to do, I would always have said picture books. They’re something I’ve always been in love with. Even after I had outgrown reading picture books as a kid, the library was right across the street, and I would still go into the children’s book section to look at the art and read the books. But I didn’t think, oh, you’re going to become a picture book illustrator. It didn’t seem feasible to me. I was like, maybe one day I’ll be able to get a book out there, or maybe I’ll get a grant or something where I can pull together a story. That was my dream, but I didn’t put too much emphasis on it. It just seemed like a very competitive field.

RS: It didn’t seem like a possibility.

OM: No, but it worked out happily. I got what I wanted — it’s kind of wild to actually get to do what you’ve always wanted. That’s what’s been really enjoyable about the past year or so.

RS: Is this your medium, what we’re seeing here?

OM: I jump back and forth. Sometimes people look at the work that’s on my website, and they look at this book, and they get a little confused. I love to paint. I either like to paint with gouache or acrylic, but mostly gouache. Sometimes I’ll do a full collage where all the pieces are cut together, or I’ll paint but I’ll also have collage elements added into it.

RS: And is this all physical collage, pasted down on a board? Not computer collage?

OM: No, not at all. The way I start pieces is I have printmaking paper, Stonehenge, which is archival. And then I’ll color that with acrylic for the background. And then the collage papers — I go back and forth between using some Bristol that I paint over, or, strangely, I love using marker paper.

RS: What is marker paper?

OM: I had no clue what it was until I found it for this very purpose. With collage, when you really start to layer things, you get a lot of dimensionality. Which can be great, but it isn’t always what I want, to have it feel too 3-D. Sometimes I just want it to feel flat.

RS: You want the layers to be visual, but not dimensional.

OM: Yes. But thinner paper will usually scrunch when you’re painting it. So one day I was running around in the RISD store, because I’m always just going there to see what weird stuff they have that I can throw into the pot of materials I work with. I was looking at this marker paper that had some cotton in it, which I thought might actually be perfect because it would be less prone to scrunching. I grabbed a pad of it, and it did exactly what I wanted it to do.

RS: I see.

OM: I paint most things, but then I throw in a couple of odds and ends that I find. There’s a bookstore in Providence called Cellar Stories, which is my favorite bookstore in the world. It has a bunch of old books and maps and nooks and things like that. It’s a collager’s dream.

RS: The last Talks interview I did, last week, was with Yuyi Morales — she also works a lot in collage. The question I forgot to ask her but I will ask you is how do you keep supplies on hand? It seems like you can collage anything. Is it hard to throw things out?

OM: Oh, yeah. You just kind of become a paper hoarder. No shame. My agent sent me cookies around Christmas time, and they came with a little card. I loved the color, so I threw it into a drawer. When I was in school (this is awful) I had a box and I had a trash bag, and I would just put all my scraps of paper — paper I’d collected, paper I had painted and thought I was going to use and didn’t — and I just threw it all together. Every time I did something with collage, it was a disaster. A complete mess. I needed to get organized. I’d heard that Eric Carle had these flat files where he’d put all his paper and organize it by color, and I liked that. I don’t have flat files, but I have a series of drawers organized by color. That’s helped a little bit. It’s just a messy process. I’ve had to just come to terms with it.

RS: Can you look back at your childhood and see what helped turn you into the artist that you are today?

OM: Yes, for sure. There was a local artist named Aminah Robinson…

RS: I’ve met her.

OM: I’ve had the honor to meet her, too. In Columbus she has these murals, everywhere around the Mt. Vernon/Long Street area, where I grew up. I was constantly hearing about her work and seeing her work everywhere I went. It was just there. And she was always telling a story, about people in the neighborhood, people she had known. Her means of working — it’s kind of everything and the kitchen sink. She’s got scraps from different quilts, and she sews them all together, and they have this kind of eclectic, misshapen, colorful aesthetic to them. When I am collaging, I definitely have her in mind, and she has played a large role in what I think is important, art-wise — why my work does, somewhat, reflect the people I know and the place where I grew up.

RS: Did you make art as a child?

OM: Oh, yeah, always. But I started taking art more seriously when a family friend — who saw that I was always scribbling on envelopes — helped me get a scholarship to the Saturday programs at the local art college. I had always been creative, but that helped me gather more technical skills and then helped me go to RISD. I frequently tell her how grateful I am to her for doing that, seeing that and encouraging me to go down that path.

RS: And you’re still on it. So what will you do next?

OM: I’m working on my second book with Little, Brown, which I’m illustrating and writing, and I’m also working on some other projects that I’m just illustrating. That’s been a cool process too, to not have to deal with the words, and just enter that traditional illustrator role. I’m just keeping my hands busy, new projects and things like that.

RS: We look forward to them all.

Sponsored by
Little, Brown

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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