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Kira Vermond & Suharu Ogawa talk about Why Does my Shadow Follow Me?

Kira: So, Suharu, why did you decide to get into illustrating kids’ books?

Suharu: I feel like I was always drawing pictures for kids even as a kid myself. I drew pictures on the brick wall outside the house for the show (sorry mom and dad!), doodled on the school blackboard after the class (sorry teachers!), and hid drawing notes for my friends for a surprise. As cliché as it might sound, I genuinely loved drawing for friends and wanted to make them smile. I also feel it’s a privilege as an adult to continue having opportunities to transform my imagination into book format and sharing them with many other kids. As for my parents, they kept my “outdoor exhibition” for about 30 years until they recently renovated the house!

Suharu. How about you? Did you always want to be a writer? Who encouraged you growing up?

Kira: From the moment I learned how to write my name as a tiny kid, I knew I wanted to be a writer. Seriously. Writing letters and forming words was like magic. My mom had actually gone to journalism school in Indiana and wrote short stories when I was a kid. She modelled what writing and raising kids could look like, so I guess I’ve followed her lead.

Kira: There are a lot of facts and information in our books. How did you decide what to focus on?

Suharu: After readying the manuscript for a few times, I had to pair ones I found easier to visualize with ones that required more thinking and researching so that I could maintain steady momentum throughout the process and not feel creatively or mentally blocked in the middle. The very first piece I sketched up was the giant strawberry machine!

Kira: So tell me the truth — do you like it or hate it when authors include illustration notes in the text?

Suharu: I don’t like it – I LOVE IT. I don’t find it takes creative freedom away from me. It’s like making a song together where we each play a different instrument and bring the best of our talent. I genuinely enjoy the collaborative nature of the process.

Kira: You painted each spread by hand — no computer required! How much work really went into our books?

Suharu: It was lots of painting for sure, but I really enjoyed it. The hardest part was the sketching phase and finalizing the look of the cover. The editorial team and I made so many small revisions to get it right. I actually did use the computer quite a bit, either to clean up the scanning (getting the dusts and pencil mark out) or to separate some elements from the background so that the art director could move them around to best work with texts.

Suharu: What is your favourite spread in the final book?

Kira: Oh, I love them all, but my absolute favourite is for the question, “How far is it possible to go in a spaceship?” There’s a little astronaut zipping through space in a rocket. It’s simple and stunning – and it feels like the whole spread is moving at lightning speed.

Suharu: Can you name a nice surprise in what I added to the book?

Kira: The best one had to be what you did for the question, “Do we all see colour the same?” Months before I finished the book, we were chatting after a bookstore presentation. You mentioned that there had been no word for “green” for a long time in Japan. It was considered a shade of blue. I thought that was fascinating, so I worked that idea into the new book. I’m sure that surprised you when you received the manuscript – but then I was thrilled when you inserted a little Easter egg into your drawing: you used the name of your old street in Japan on a street sign. That was so cool.

Kira: Speaking of (terrible) surprises, how did COVID-19 have an impact on your process for this book?

Suharu: It was definitely challenging. I share a studio with another illustrator, and we decided to split time so that we can still use the studio but not at the same time. I had to paint 77 pages over the summer, and I had to make a rather meticulous calculation on how long it would take me to finish 4-5 spreads (or 9-10 pages) each week. Then I locked myself in the studio for three-four days straight! I painted from early in the morning until late at night and used three days at home to rest or to do colour correction on my computer. I love the smell of my studio. It’s very calming and peaceful. Can’t wait to go back on regular basis post-COVID!

Suharu: What was the hardest part for you in making this book, Kira?

Kira: Well, I guess it’s the elephant in the room, isn’t it?

I was in active cancer treatment. I remember spreading out on my office floor with my phone and little tape recorder beside me as I did interview after interview with the Ontario Science Centre educators who were helping me. I was so exhausted some days I couldn’t even sit up at my desk, but there was nothing at all in the world I would have rather been doing. The questions evoked such fascinating answers as we discussed everything from wasps to wi-fi in space. With every conversation I could feel the book coming together inside of me like a shower of sparks bonding to create a star.

And that feeling sure beat months of chemo and radiation.

By the time I got to the writing stage I was feeling a little stronger so that was helpful. Then, only hours after I submitted my Why Does My Shadow Follow Me? manuscript, the whole world shut down due to COVID-19. It was unbelievable timing. Now when I hold the final product I’m absolutely amazed it’s actually here. Between my health and the pandemic, this whole book could have easily slid off the rails. But it didn’t. I’m so proud of us!


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