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Debbie Ridpath Ohi reads, writes and illustrates for young people. Every few weeks, she shares new art, writing and resources; subscribe below. Browse the archives here.

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« A Couple of Five Year Olds’ Favorite Books | Main | Profile of Eliza Wheeler in latest issue of KITE TAILS »

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

PLEASE NOTE: This article has moved to the site. This page will eventually go away, so please do adjust your bookmarks to: - Thanks!

(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 the SCBWI 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 (also see her personal blog & Etsy shop), 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 an Honor 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 Mims, John Deininger, Andrea 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 for Simon & 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.

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

Reader Comments (39)

What an inspiring post. Congrats!!!

September 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCassidy

Congratulations, Debbie! I love your cartoons, especially the ones during NaNoWriMo. They kept me laughing!

September 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRobin Mullet

Congratulations! SO excited for you!!

September 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJeni Bell

Whoohoooo! Go, Debbie!

September 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJohanna Harness

Exceeding congratulations, Debbie! I'm really excited for you.

September 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRachel Starr Thomson

That is just wonderful news! Much congratulations to you. :) And I love your message. Rejection doesn't mean the end of everything. It could be the first step to something else, equally wonderful. Inspiring.

September 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMarisa Birns

This news made my day. Congrats, Debbie!

September 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKristin Gray

Amazing! Congratulations!

September 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLisa Tiffin

Oh, dude.

So happy for you-hoo! :)

September 4, 2010 | Unregistered Commentertammi sauer

Amazing and inspirational story, Debbie! And so well deserved!

September 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Tolson

First, Congratulations again!

Second, thank you for sharing this! You are so much an inspiration to me, even though we've only met a couple of times.

Third, I will definitely look up Beckett's Etsy site - thanks for sharing that link.

September 5, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterotherdeb

So well deserved, and I can see all this suiting you so very well!
Also, thank you, your posts are always positive, usually inspiriing and&or encouraging... you make the world a brighter, hapier place by being in it. :)

September 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRika

That's excellent news, Debbie! I'm very happy for you!

September 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJim

And you didn't even mention your book interest the other night...jeez! LOL. HUGE (BOLD) CONGRATS!!!

September 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJackie Garlick-Pynaert

Thanks for sharing this incredible story with us, Debbie! You inspired me to tears... I'm so excited for you!!! And now I'm off to go do some writing - OUT of the box :)

September 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJenni Bielicki

Thanks so much for sharing and posting! Great story!

September 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLinda Lodding

Debbie, I am SO, SO thrilled for you!!! CONGRATULATIONS!!! :-D e

September 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth Dulemba

Congratulations, Debbie! I'm SO happy for you. This post made my day.

September 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRuta Sepetys

Congratulations, Debbie, and yay SCBWI! What wonderful serendipity!

September 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKristin Tubb

You are my HERO!!!!

September 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer Bower

Debbie...I did not know that back story. How inspiring. I LOVED reading that.

September 10, 2010 | Registered CommenterKimberly Gee

Thank you for sharing this post, Debbie. It illustrates so many important points for an aspiring creative artist. Never give up in the face of rejection. Find ways to turn a negative into a positive. The importance of mentors, networking, and career conferences. Have faith in yourself and never underestimate your work. Sometimes these seem like meaningless clichés, but your story illustrates their truth.

Congrats and good luck to you on this exciting project!

October 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAmara Lewis

Congratulations! I have always enjoyed your drawings and your sense of humour. Thank you!

November 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterClarity Jules

This is such an inspiring post. How I wish all of us had friends and family as supportive as yours. Congratulations and I hope we can read more of your successes soon! Best of luck!

December 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEat Dance Pray

What a wonderful story!

December 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterP.F. Palm

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