Blue Dot Press | KO Kids Books

Kathryn OtoshiMeet Kathryn Oto­shi, artist, author, edu­ca­tor, and the cre­ator of two award-win­ning indie pub­lish­ing com­pa­nies, KO Kids Books and Blue Dot Press. In 2016, SCBWI (Soci­ety of Children’s Book Writ­ers and Illus­tra­tors) rec­og­nized Blue Dot Press with their SPARK Award for excel­lence in inde­pen­dent publishing.

Kathryn O’s books are bright, col­or­ful, delight­ful, cre­ative, and just plain fun. Her newest book, Beau­ti­ful Hands, cre­at­ed with Bret Baum­garten, cel­e­brates and inspires cre­ativ­i­ty in many sur­pris­ing forms. Look at your own hands. Imag­ine all the ways they can be cre­ative — from Beau­ti­ful Hands:

What will your beau­ti­ful hands DO today? 
Will they PLANT …
What can you plant? IDEAS?

Kathryn O’s books show chil­dren impor­tant mes­sages. Per­haps her most well-known book is One. In this pic­ture book, Blue is a qui­et col­or. Red’s a hot­head who likes to bul­ly Blue. The oth­er col­ors don’t like what they see, but what can they do? When no one speaks up, things get out of hand — until One comes along and shows all the col­ors how to stand up, stand togeth­er, and count. As read­ers learn about num­bers, count­ing, and pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary col­ors, they also learn about accept­ing each oth­er’s dif­fer­ences and how it often takes only one coura­geous voice to make every­one count.

One Two Zero

Then came Kathryn’s books Zero and Two. What might these books be about? Just a hint — Two is best friends with One, until … Three comes along. You guessed it — this “tri­an­gle” friend­ship soon has problems.

I had the plea­sure of ask­ing Kathryn Oto­shi a few ques­tions. Enjoy read­ing Kathryn’s thought­ful respons­es. They are an inspi­ra­tion as are her beau­ti­ful books.

What are your hopes when a child opens one of your books?

My hope is that when the child opens the book and fin­ish­es read­ing it, they will clutch it to their chest like a dear friend and not want to let it go! And when they become teenagers and see the book, they will be com­pelled to pick up the book, and page by page, read through it from begin­ning to end, with a smile on their face. And when they grow old, if they see its tat­tered cov­er on the shelf, my hope is they pick it up with cher­ished fond­ness — and per­haps even love.

What is the pas­sion that gives you the courage to cre­ate your own pub­lish­ing company?

It is the sto­ries them­selves, the mes­sages and themes in them, and the spe­cif­ic vision I had for each of the titles (the writ­ing style, the illus­tra­tions, the design and the nar­ra­tive itself) that drove me to cre­ate my own pub­lish­ing com­pa­ny with my hus­band. Most of the issues in my sto­ries are based on issues, prob­lems, or sit­u­a­tions I expe­ri­enced in my own child­hood. When I pub­lished sto­ries about belong­ing, inse­cu­ri­ties, find­ing val­ue in our­selves and in oth­ers, I couldn’t be sure it would have mean­ing or val­ue to any­one else but myself. But I did know I want­ed to share these themes, not just with chil­dren but with adults too. Because I feel these char­ac­ter-build­ing issues are rel­e­vant for everyone.

As far as courage goes, I’m pret­ty sure it was naiveté that drove me to start my own pub­lish­ing com­pa­ny! But I will say it took per­se­ver­ance (and yes, a lit­tle courage) to keep going past the fif­teen-year mark.

What is most reward­ing about being a publisher?

To see how a sin­gle title can impact a child’s life. And cer­tain­ly I didn’t know that was pos­si­ble when I first began. I learned that a book, just like a per­son, can influ­ence oth­ers. Just like a key con­ver­sa­tion can change someone’s life’s direc­tion, words in a book can “speak” to some­one right at the most need­ed moment. I learned that beyond the phys­i­cal cov­er, spine, paper, words and illus­tra­tion of a book, the mes­sages inside it can some­how live and breathe in the real world.

One time, after I did a pre­sen­ta­tion, a woman came to me almost in tears and told me her son was get­ting bul­lied at school. She then told me the prin­ci­pal read the book One to all the class­rooms. The boy end­ed up stay­ing at the school after much live­ly con­ver­sa­tion had been gen­er­at­ed. The book cre­at­ed a spark, but it was the stu­dents, par­ents, and teach­ers them­selves who took it way beyond the book and made their own sto­ry in real life. Now that is tru­ly magical.

What are your chal­lenges as a publisher?

For me, the chal­lenges that face a pub­lish­er are two-fold: cre­ative chal­lenges and prac­ti­cal chal­lenges. For me, enabling the cre­ative process is key. So what­ev­er cre­ative chal­lenges a pub­lish­er might face (need­ing to make the sto­ry longer, thus hav­ing more pages affect­ing more paper thus mak­ing it more expen­sive) must be sup­port­ed by the prac­ti­cal. Not the oth­er way around. If ‘how much a book costs’ ulti­mate­ly dic­tates how a book looks or what it must be, then the book will like­ly not live up to its full poten­tial. Of course, mar­ket­ing is always key. With­out it, how will peo­ple know your book exists? You need to mar­ket to make peo­ple aware. There is a very low prof­it mar­gin in the pub­lish­ing indus­try, so it’s always a tricky bal­ance with how much mar­ket­ing you do, how real­is­ti­cal­ly you can hope this book will per­form, what your bud­get should be, and — with all this in mind — still enable the book. When your book is “born” and released into the world, it will have it’s own per­son­al­i­ty and tra­jec­to­ry. The mar­ket­ing plan you decide on at first might not ulti­mate­ly be the right one for the book. It’s impor­tant to evolve to what the book tells you it needs once it’s out in the world.

Tell us about one or two of your books and why they are unique.

The book One is spe­cial to me because it’s the first book I cre­at­ed that had illus­tra­tions that were sym­bol­ic. The main char­ac­ters are col­ors and num­bers, but they also rep­re­sent emo­tions and dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties. In the begin­ning, I was told this book would nev­er sell. A major chain book­store rep­re­sen­ta­tive told me “kids won’t ‘get it.’ It’s too con­cep­tu­al.” It was also sug­gest­ed that I “should have a more col­or­ful cov­er like Rain­bow Fish, which has a very beau­ti­ful, col­or flashy holo­graph­ic foil on it. Pub­lish­ers must some­times “pro­tect” our books like par­ents. We must know what the book inher­ent­ly and authen­ti­cal­ly needs and stick to it. I knew the cov­er and sto­ry of One need­ed to be thought­ful, yet sim­ply told. I’m glad I stuck to my guns! One is now in its 24th printing!

Beautiful HandsBeau­ti­ful Hands was done for Bret Baum­garten, who was diag­nosed with pan­cre­at­ic can­cer. When we found out, it was at stage 4. It was heart­break­ing. He and I both want­ed to do a book for his chil­dren, Noah and Sofie. I found out every day he would hold his kids’ hands in his and ask them, “What will your beau­ti­ful hands do today?”

I want­ed every­one whom Bret loved to be in this book. We arranged for his fam­i­ly and friends (mine too!) to make hand­prints as part of the illus­tra­tions in the book, so that they could par­tic­i­pate and be a part of this nar­ra­tive. Over 100 people’s hand­prints are in the rain­bow at the end of the sto­ry. So many peo­ple loved Bret, we didn’t know where to put our grief. The book became a pos­i­tive way to remem­ber the mes­sage he want­ed to impart most: love, cre­ativ­i­ty, com­pas­sion, and our con­nec­tion with one another.

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Aimee Bissonette
5 years ago

Beau­ti­ful Hands” is one of my favorite new pic­ture books — even more so now that I know the sto­ry behind it. Keep mak­ing won­der­ful books, Kathryn O!

5 years ago

I had the plea­sure of meet­ing Kathryn in line for a book sign­ing at NCTE. I was able to thank her per­son­al­ly for Beau­ti­ful Hands.