June 20, 2017

Let's Talk Illustrators #29: Zachariah OHora

You guys! The insanely talented (and one of my favorite illustrators) Zachariah OHora is here to talk about his new book The Teacher's Pet, which publishes today! Zach has earned dozens of accolades for his work on children's books, both as an illustrator and as an author, and I'm thrilled to have him discuss his latest adventure here today! Let's get started!

About the book:
When their class tadpoles are big enough, Mr. Stricter tells his students they can keep just one. The class chooses Bruno, the smallest of the bunch. But Bruno doesn't stay that way for long. Soon, he's grown into a giant, classroom-wrecking creature: he eats desks, he farts for show-and-tell, and he sneezes slime all over everything! With Mr. Stricter blinded by love for the pet, the students must step up and take matters into their own heroic hands.

Peek underneath the dust jacket here.

Let's talk Zach OHora!

LTPB: In your new book The Teacher's Pet, written by Anica Mrose Rissi, the text is pretty disparate from the illustrations -- we read “tadpole” but we see “hippo.” We see that Mr. Stricter doesn’t seem to notice the unusual behavior of his pet, but the children around him are clearly fussed. How much illustration direction did you have for this book? How much was you stepping in and giving the characters distinct personalities?

ZO: Authors that leave the text wide open for the illustrator to interpret are my favorite ones to work with. I think Anica’s art note was something like “Whatever Bruno is, he’s definitely not a frog”. That kind of art note is exactly what an illustrator wants to read! I had the idea for a hippo because I thought it would be fun for the reader to be in on the joke. The kids can see the reality of the situation but the grown-up does not. As it turns out, Anica had in her mind some kind of monster thing. Which would be also funny, but I had just come off two books with different monsters in them, and I was thinking three in a row was too much. To her credit, she and Rotem Moscovich (our editor) were totally down. Anica even tweaked some text to leave it even more vague.

LTPB: Which do you enjoy more, creating an entire book or illustrating someone else's text? Do you consider yourself an author-illustrator or an illustrator first?

ZO: I enjoy both! When it’s your own writing, there’s an advantage because it's your world and usually I have the character first that I’m excited about writing a scenario for. On the other hand, writing is hard! I consider myself an illustrator first for sure.

I love being surprised by authors and I like being challenged by stories I would never think of on my own. I know its going to be a good collaboration when I wish that I had wrote it!

LTPB: How do your stories come about?  

ZO: I tend to come up with characters first. Usually cute animals that have some kind of style that betrays their personality. Often I make cards for my wife and those paintings become characters in books eventually. Sometimes years later the next stage is usually some situation that I think that character might get into that I think is going to be funny. And then the hard part, filling in the rest happens.

LTPB: What is the first thing you do when you get a new manuscript to illustrate?

ZO: I’ll read it through a couple times. And if an image comes to mind I’ll scribble it down on a post-it. Usually I connect with the manuscript right away to know that I’m a good fit for it. But sometimes I have to think about it for a couple days to find my take on it. I always strive to bring my own unique take on things, because otherwise, there are plenty of people who can draw better bunnies than I can. I try to create one that you really haven’t seen before but also fits in the larger personal universe that I call Fuzzytown.

LTPB: Can you talk a little about how you create your illustrations? 

ZO: Most of my work is done with acrylic paint on printmaking paper. I love the feel of paint and the little accidents that can happen that make it better. I have a back ground in printmaking, as you can probably tell, I used to do a lot of woodcuts. I’m very influenced by German Expressionism and artists like Max Beckmann.

For other illustration work I also work in pen and ink and add texture and color in Photoshop but I prefer to just paint (the beaver illustration below is an example of pen and ink and photoshop).

LTPB: How does your process/style change from book to book? 

ZO: I really only have one style, so that makes it easy to keep a consistency between books. But I also am trying to evolve it while keeping it recognizably mine. That happens organically, too, by absorbing and being influenced by other artists.

Process-wise I work generally the same way every time. Try to not repeat the same mistakes.

LTPB: What concepts do you set out to explore with each new project?

ZO: I don’t have an overall Conceptual Continuity other than to keep things a little weird, hopefully its funny to a young reader and the adult who has to read it over and over. Also important is that it's a little ugly! A little ugly is beautiful, too! If there was one over arching theme that I dabble with, it’s managing your expectations and embracing things that are different. I try to keep things from being too tidy and leave room for the reader to decide in their mind what happens.

LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can show us?

ZO: I literally turned in artwork today for a book I wrote originally called Fake Ralph. It’s been re-titled Niblet & Ralph. It’s like The Parent Trap for cats, and it's loosely based on something that happened in my own childhood. I’m also illustrating a book written by Kelly DiPucchio, who is one of my favorite authors. It’s called Poe Won’t Go!, and it’s about an elephant who shuts down an entire town by refusing to move. Really excited to be working on this! Both books will be out next year.

Here are a couple art concept samples for those books.

LTPB: Last question! If you could have one illustrator illustrate your picture book biography, who would it be and why?

ZO: It would have to be Richard Scarry. He’s the first illustrator that I pored over his illustrations and wanted to live in his world.

LTPB: Thanks so much for stopping by, Zach!!

ZO: Thanks for having me Mel!

Zach was on a pretty tight deadline, so I appreciate him taking time to stop by and talk about The Teacher's Pet! Teacher's Pet publishes TODAY from Disney-Hyperion Press!

Special thanks to Zach for use of these images!

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