October 11, 2017

Icebreaker: Kathryn Otoshi

“Suddenly I realized the color in the illustrations could represent emotions, because I didn’t have words.”
Interview by

Kathryn Otoshi, author of Draw the Line, a wordless picture book that begs for rereadings, talks with Deputy Editor Cat Acree. Sponsored by Macmillan Children’s.

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BookPage IcebreakerThis BookPage Icebreaker is sponsored by Macmillan Children’s.

Kathryn Otoshi is an award-winning author-illustrator, best known for her self-published books One, Zero and Two, and her co-authored book Beautiful Hands. Her new wordless picture book, Draw the Line, is a tale about two boys with a powerful message that sneaks up on readers.

First, the two boys draw separate lines, then discover their lines can combine into one. The line becomes a thread between them, something they can play with. But when one boy’s feelings get hurt, the line becomes a focus of their tension, and the two boys pull and pull until the line splits right down in the middle, in the book’s gutter, creating a literal rift. In happy moments, yellow swirls around the heads of the boys, who are depicted in black and white; in heated moments, purple boils, darker and darker. But there is a way to repair the pain between them, and it’s quite simple: One friend must reach out.

Cat: There’s so much I loved about this book. The color! The gutter! But before we get into all that, I want to talk about you a little bit. This is your first book with a major publishing house. Congratulations!

Kathryn: Thank you!

Draw the Line interior 2

I’ve read that you change your artistic style to match each new story you write. I’d love to hear how you chose the style to fit Draw the Line’s concept, and how the book’s wordlessness ties into that.

Well, it was hard, to be honest with you. I wasn’t quite sure how to draw this book. I kept doing different sketches, and it was too loose and I had a little bit of the Goldilocks syndrome when I couldn’t get the line exactly right—which is funny because it’s called Draw the Line. I did illustrations over and over to make it look organic and fresh and spontaneous. It’s a hard thing to do.

Another thing about the illustrations, if you look closely at the boys—it was a fine line (I guess that’s a pun, but I didn’t mean to make it right then) to make the boys, especially the one with the black hair, to look like he could be white or Asian or Hispanic, and it’s hard to do that with a line. And then the other boy, he’s definitely mixed. He has light hair, and he could have a dark tan or he could just be a different skin color, certainly mixed. But it was much harder than I thought.

And then also, the black and white aspects of [the book] became very important. In the beginning, I had planned the whole book to be black and white, and then we’d negotiate the gray zones. But it was [my editor, Connie Hsu]—thank god for Connie—who said, “Could we add a splash of color?” . . . Suddenly I realized the color in the illustrations could represent emotions, because I didn’t have words.

Oh, absolutely, and the use of color as representing emotion is one of the first things the reader really gets.

Thank you!

I think this book requires multiple readings, at different levels—the first reading is like the color reading, where there are these moments of yellow joy, and the royal purple as anger, and how it all comes together in the end. That’s step one. The color experience.

I so appreciate you saying that!

And when it does start to get really purple and really angry, it almost crossed over to sound. It was like, so dark and so intense that you could almost hear the color. As silly as that is to say! But with the color, you can hear the boys screaming.

That is the biggest compliment I’ve gotten on this book. I’m so happy it crossed over to that for you. I do work in layers. [The book can be read by] different kids from all ages, from the very young, 3 or 4 years old, to older kids. . . . When Connie and I started talking, we treated [the colors] as cast members, going in states and going out and really becoming their own personalities. If you notice, too, the colors are complementary colors, in that they are opposites. Yellow and then sort of a blue-violet color, because we’re talking about the black and white of things.

Draw the Line spread 2

There was one moment in particular when someone, maybe a lesser author-illustrator, could’ve been tempted to insert words. It’s early in the story, when the boys’ line goes from being a drawing to being something else—when they pick it up and start playing with it. In that moment, it goes from Harold and the Purple Crayon creativity to being something else. Someone might have felt like there was something to explain, that the line is like the boys’ very existence. But you let the color do that for you.

That moment when they pick up the line is exactly how you feel when you have a true connection with somebody. Suddenly you realize, “Hey, we have a connection.” And it’s like magic. And you pick it up, and that’s how it grows. And sometimes it’s very much about chemistry and relationship and how you interact with somebody . . . it’s kind of how I feel about you right now! It’s exciting.

But what if I start asking questions that are totally off, or I start pushing my own agenda in this interview? That’s like when the boys start to yank on this thread that they’ve created together, and it starts to split right in the middle, in the book’s gutter. At first there’s this push and pull across the gutter, and then it splits and becomes that chasm.

I do see the gutter as a way to either separate or [act as an obstacle to] negotiate—how do we find a way to cross over it? In my book One, when Red crosses over the gutter, it’s a very aggressive movement across the stage. I meant it to be that way. So it was really cool how the gutter is something that the chasm grows from.

At the point when the boys start to create that rift, everything in the scene starts to feel less possible. Before, they were playing on this dreamy, limitless salt-flat plain, and then as soon as it’s broken, their world starts to get small and limited. At that point, the reader starts to be more aware of the setting. Is that something that you were playing with?

The tricky part was to make [the line] a horizon line. I did want it to feel like a little bit amorphous, and at the same time, the hopelessness that you were referring to feels like, “How is this going resolve and come together?” This sounds funny because it looks so simple, but it was really hard to do. That line was a character to me and had to become so many different things. It was a 1-D line and then a 2-D line and then a 3-D line. That line as a character becomes a chasm and later it becomes a road. How much can I stretch your belief in this line and what it could do? And that’s what I wanted the reader to experience as well as, what can we negotiate and work out with this line? And can it become something bigger?

When it becomes the horizon line, it becomes our thread of hope. And when the first boy walks away, it feels like it’s all over, when in fact he’s reaching out, even though he is the one who was hurt first. He starts to build the road. Which is a moment of great humility, and then the boys get on their knees, get dirty and start doing the difficult work of rebuilding.

We all want validation, but what I wanted to project subtly was that it’s not about the right or the wrong but how we come together and how we unite. We don’t reach out from the farthest points of the chasm. Here’s what you need to do: Go to the point. Take that journey inside yourself to what happened, where the rift started. Take a look at it . . . and if it is something you want to resolve, then you start looking at where our common ground is. Where our edges connect—literally. Where it’s closest and where the reset could happen.

When the boy reaches out close to where the rift started, he is able to bridge the gap. I had to do that with my parents, who I had a disagreement with. I didn’t want to go home for Thanksgiving at the time because I was upset . . . for different reasons. But I was working on Draw the Line at the time, and I’m like, I have to go home because I’m writing this book.

So I went home, and [at the time] with the elections, there were so many things going on with [so many] families. My parents were interned in the camps during World War II. I was projecting my own feelings on that, but ultimately I made the decision to go home, and instead of talking about what I didn’t understand, I talked to them about being interned in the camps during World War II, and what did that feel like? And talking about the strength they had, feeling the bigotry, signs [saying] “Japs go home.” And I was able to have a very meaningful conversation with them. And then eventually [I was able to] bring it over to current events. Very lightly. I [found] common ground in a different way.

Oh wow, you made me cry.

It’s not that we’re always right—but who is the person that has not the bigger vision, but the solution or can see beyond the confines of the box? And it’s the person—could be you—who has the greater vision on how to unite that has to reach out.

One thing that I wanted to mention that influenced me was a TV program I saw about how people think. For example, the name of a person or some subject matter . . . is like a button that goes straight to a hot plate in your head. The word goes into your head, and there’s a roaring flame to your nerve endings from point A to B. It’s just that that word always makes you angry. And in your head, you start losing your ability to think otherwise. It’s almost like nerve endings die off, and pretty soon the term narrow-minded really applies. We’ll say, “Oh, they’re so closed” or “close-minded,” but truly that’s the only pathway that’s been forged. That’s why I love reading and books and people who love to read, because it develops critical thinking, and you’re able to think beyond just that one path.

Do you plan on visiting schools for Draw the Line?

Yes! Absolutely. I’m doing a lot of different school visits. I can just see school visits being so playful for this book. I usually divide up the audience so that there’s an aisle, so that I can make it more interactive and talk with them as I’m speaking. It’s boring to watch someone behind a podium. . . . [I want to] find a way to experience the divide and have the kids come together. . . . Basically the point is crossing over that line and realizing you always have something in common with somebody else. And maybe have [kids] physically embody that, that feeling of commonality.


Illustrations © Kathryn Otoshi

Get the Book

Draw the Line

Draw the Line

By Laurent Linn
Margaret K. McElderry
ISBN 9781481452809

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