Meet 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.
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 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.
“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!
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.