Saturday, September 4, 2010

How a rejection got me a book deal: My career-changing SCBWI Summer Conference experience - by Debbie Ridpath Ohi


Shortcut URLs: (SCBWI Illustration Portfolio Mentees' Blog)

(Text below reprinted with permission from the SCBWI Illustration Committee Blog)
It all began with a rejection.

Originally, I wanted to participate in the manuscript critique program at theSCBWI Summer Conference in L.A. This year, I was excited about submitting pages from a new project: a middle grade humor-mystery illustrated by cartoons. Worked hard to get the pages finished, and then paid to have it couriered it to the SCBWI office to make the deadline.

Sadly, I had misread the submission rules. The hardworking staff at the SCBWI office called to let me know. Illustrations were not allowed for any type of manuscript submission and no, not even a one sample illustration at the end. Disappointed, I told them that I had to withdraw from the critique program.

When I told my illustrator friend, Beckett Gladney, she suggested I submit something to the Illustrator Portfolio Showcase at the convention. I told her I wasn't good enough, but she and my author/illustrator sister Ruth Ohi disagreed. My next excuse: lack of time. Beckett said she'd help me.

I didn't have a proper online portfolio, so Beckett went into my Flickr account and chose images she thought were my strongest. Then she printed them out and created a gorgeous custom-made cover for my portfolio (she sells others in her Etsy shop), if anyone's interested). The night before the Portfolio Showcase, we spread the pictures out on the floor and decided on the order.

To my utter shock, I ended up winning anHonor Award (one of the two runners-up) and a Mentorship Award.

Because I hadn't read the schedule properly, I missed the award announcements. I arrived after they were over, and started browsing porfolios. Oh geez, I thought. These are all so good. What was I THINKING, entering my work in this event? I purposely didn't look for my own portfolio because I was too embarrassed.

Then Beckett grabbed me, all excited, and said that my portfolio was up front on the winners' tables. At first I thought there must have been a mistake. Then I was convinced I was dreaming (seriously, no lie).

Because here's the thing: up to this weekend, I had always considered myself mainly a WRITER. Yes, I did webcomics and some client work, but never thought about doing children's book illustration because I had no art training.

The next morning, the six chosen mentees met with the six mentors for our one-to-one portfolio critique sessions: Cecilia Yung, Art Director and VP at Penguin Young Readers; Pat Cummings, Illustrator, Writer, and Instructor at Parsons; Priscilla Burris, National Illustrator Coordinator;David Diaz, Award Winning Illustrator; Bridget Strevens-Marzo, International Illustrator Liason; and Rubin Pfeffer, Agent at East/West Literary Agency.

At first I was SO intimidated, but then forgot about being nervous once the sessions started because I was too busy absorbing all the feedback and advice about what worked in my portfolio, what didn't, and what I could do to improve. And throughout it all, I couldn't help but get excited. And I mean really, really excited.

After the mentor sessions, we mentees decided to get together on our own and compare notes as well as get to know each other a bit better. The other mentees were: Ashley MimsJohn DeiningerAndrea Offermann,Eliza Wheeler and Kimberly Gee.

We all got along really well. So well, in fact, that we've kept in touch even now that the conference is over. We exchange news, advice and info through a mailing list, and we've even launched our own blog.

In fact, this is the first public announcement about our brand new blog,WHERE THE SIDEWALK BEGINS. In addition to posting updates about our illustration projects, we're also going to share info about what we learned during our mentorship sessions as well as other tips, resources and news of interest to children's book illustrators.

But wait! There's more!

One of the Portfolio Showcase judges was Justin Chanda, publisher forSimon & Schuster Books For Young Readers, Atheneum Books For Young Readers, and Margaret K. McElderry Books. The day after the Showcase, Alice Pope told me that Justin was looking for me.

When I found myself in the front row just before one of Justin's panels, my seat mates (whom I had just met) helped me work up the courage to go up and introduce myself to the publisher.

Justin sent me the unedited picture book story, which I LOVED and he and my agent, Ginger Knowlton from Curtis Brown, worked out the details. Then (YAY) I was told I could make the news public. So for those of you who haven't yet heard, I'm going to be illustrating a picture book by writer/comedian/actor Michael Ian Black, due out from Simon & Schuster in 2012.

Not only that, but another publisher who had seen my portfolio is interested in seeing any picture book stories I've written. SO excited about the possibility of writing -and- illustrating my first picture book.

None of this would have happened had it not been for the SCBWI Illustrator Portfolio Showcase. That weekend was a career-changer for me. It opened my eyes to opportunities I had never considered before. It gave me the opportunity to learn from industry pros one-on-one; several of the mentors have asked me to keep in touch and update them on my progress.

I'm also learning from the other mentees, who are sharing advice as well as encouragement. I'm excited about our new blog.

And I'm keeping an online scrapbook about my first illustration project, I'M BORED.

My advice to illustrators AND writers out there:

1) Be open to new career opportunities.
2) Don’t get in a creative rut. Push yourself to venture out of your comfort zone on a regular basis (or have a supportive friend like Beckett Gladney to help do the pushing).

3) If you're interested in writing or illustrating for children, join the SCBWI.
4) And getting back to how this all began ... Try not to let rejections get you down. You never know what opportunities they'll bring. It turns out that getting my mss rejected was a good thing, since conference attendees can only participate in the mss critique OR the portfolio showcase, not both.
So ... if I HADN'T been rejected by the mss critique program, then I wouldn't have been able to participate in the Illustrator Portfolio Showcase even if I had wanted to.
And to the SCBWI, especially the SCBWI Illustration Board:


-- Debbie Ridpath Ohi


  1. Thank you for sharing your story! That is so inspiring. I've been a fan of yours since I stumbled on your Twitter page. I didn't realize you were a writer first, artist second. Amazing story...Congratulations!

  2. Thank you for posting this story. I've read it about 3times this year , and I always feel encouraged when I read it :)

    1. So glad you found my story encouraging. :-) Good luck with your own projects!

  3. LOVE this amazing and inspiring story. Thanks for sharing all the juicy details!

    Topsy Turvy Land

  4. Beckett is also one of my friends-- she is amazing!

    1. Beckett is one of the most amazing people I know. :-)

  5. That is such an amazing story! Thanks so much for sharing, and best of luck with your upcoming book release. It's on my wishlist! :-)

  6. What an inspiring story! Thanks for sharing the details. I LOVE your illustrations.

  7. What a great story! So exciting!! I love your little girl pictures, and your little black monster.

  8. What a great story. Congratulations!!!!

  9. Such a great story, and i love your work...some of it reminds me of Quentin Blake, whom I love! :) Congratulations!

  10. I loved reading this story, Debbie!!! You're a delight. Can't wait to pick up a copy of I'm Bored for my grandkids.

  11. I love reading about SCBWI success stories! Congratulations!!

  12. Can't tell you how inspiring this is right now. I've had a tough year and was just thinking how maybe I shouldn't keep trying to do this when I saw your tweet and clicked over. Self-doubt is a disabler, and you've shown how it can be overcome. Thank you.

  13. Loved this post. Very inspirational. Sometimes we just need to trust in the way things work out or even in the timing of our rejections. And you've got me thinking....maybe I should try illustrating! Wishing you continued success. Your illustrations look wonderful!

  14. What an awesome and inspiring post, Debbie! Congratulations!

  15. What a fantastic post and story, Debbie, I'm so happy for you!

  16. Awesome success story, Debbie. Thanks for posting. You kept moving forward and took the good adivice of the tres smarty pants people around you.

    Well done!

    I totally love the girl on I'M BORED.

  17. Couldn't happen to a nicer or more deserving lady! Congratulations!


  18. Heartwarming, inspiring and well-written too! Also glad to hear there is another wide-eyed submitter who sometimes misses the fine print.

  19. How wonderful for you! I've seen your I'm bored posts to FB and have been very inspired to take some photos of people reading Picture books when mine comes out next that idea! You have great ideas and are bound to go far!!!

  20. So wonderful to read about your story. You give so much to the community, it is truly wonderful to see and hear all about your success! Congrats, congrats!

    Angela Ackerman

  21. What a beautiful story, so inspiring and shows that you just never know, things are meant to be because they are! So pleased for you Debbie.

  22. Love your art. Look forward to reading and sharing many Debbie Ohi books!

  23. Great story - love your pictures and had no idea the writing came first! All the very best.

  24. Wow! What a story, Debbie! Almost straight out of a book itself! Very inspiring...

  25. I have read this before but I'm glad that you tweeted the link so I would read it again...inspiring.

  26. Thanks for sharing your story, Debbie! The kidlit community is so helpful and supportive. Thanks for all you do!

  27. What a great story! So glad you had SCBWI and friends to encourage you. Now, you're encouraging others through your story and your career! I wish you much continued success!