By Isabel Taswell
Today we’re pleased to welcome Oge Mora to the WNDB blog to discuss Everybody in the Red Brick Building.
You collaborated on another book before Everybody in the Red Brick Building, when you illustrated The Oldest Student. How did that experience with collaboration inform or differ from collaborating on this book?
I think they’re similar in a lot of ways. It’s an interesting situation to be illustrating someone else’s words rather than illustrating my own words. Something I look for in any manuscript is if that author has left room for me, if they’ve left a trail of breadcrumbs or wisps of an image or idea. It was very fun reading Everybody in the Red Brick Building for the first time. Anne [Wynter] paints such a wonderful image of these kids and what they’re up to in the building, but she also leaves a lot of room for me to imagine this world. That drew me to this book, just like Rita [Hubbard’s] words drew me to The Oldest Student.
Does your artistic process change in a collaboration compared to some of the books you’ve created on your own?
Not really. When I illustrate my own books I iron out the manuscript before I illustrate anything. I believe you have to have the right foundation. If you don’t have a story that’s moving you or making you laugh or just making you feel, then what’s the point in illustrating it? I believe you can make anything pretty but it has to be pretty with purpose. I find that’s the hardest part: the illustrations need to have the right foundation. What’s nice in this situation is I don’t have to spend weeks stressing about getting the right foundation—someone already did it for me!
This book is filled with sounds and onomatopoeia. Were there sounds that you listened to during your artistic process that helped you create this book, or were there soundscapes that influenced your artistic process?
No, actually, I don’t think there was anything that I listened to that was out of the norm for what I usually listen to when I work. I definitely said “weeooo weooo weeooo” a lot as I was working. As a kid, I loved saying the sounds of words during story time. I thought it was so much fun. I would love for everything I read to be fun to say, so even when I’m writing my own work, I’m always reading it over and over again, trying to pay attention to each word and replicate that magic.
You do such a beautiful job of bringing sound to life on each page—the collage print letters do a lot of work to help readers understand the sounds in the house in a visual way. Could you tell us about how you use visuals to evoke auditory information?
Doing more type-design has been an interesting journey for me. I feel like I sort of happened upon it with my first book. When I was putting Thank You, Omu together, I typed the knocks in red print at first. Later, my art director and I were looking at some nice red paper and she suggested I use it to handletter the knocks rather than typing them out. I was like, “What?” I had never anticipated that I was going to do any sort of type-work. When I finished that book and was working on Saturday, I ended up doing more type-work. It was another cool artistic journey for me. For this book, from the get-go, I thought sound was such an important part. Rather than having the text typeset in the corner, I wanted it to be so much a part of the design of each page that it’s a part of the actual artwork.
Was there anything you found particularly compelling or challenging about illustrating this book? What did you learn from those compelling moments, and how did you overcome those challenges?
One challenge for this book was the color orange. I never use a lot of orange in my palettes. I think it’s because a lot of the brown tones I use in my work have orange undertones, so if you’re trying to have your character stand out from all the backgrounds that you’ve used, you don’t want to use that same palette; you want to use some more blues and greens in order to bring out the richness of that brown. By the time I got to this book I was like, “Okay, I have to use orange.” I had all these beautiful orange hues that were collecting dust in my paint collection. I decided to take one of the backgrounds, paint it as orange as I possibly could, and then collage on top of that. I had to develop a couple more skin tones then to get the rich brown-ness that I wanted, but that allowed orange to enter the color palette a bit more.
I also got stuck on the end pages. I was glancing through my blues and I knew I wanted a rich blue sky. I tried painting it once and it didn’t work, so I tried painting it again and it still didn’t work, so I tried a different technique and I just could not get it. I had the whole book boxed up to send to my editor and suddenly remembered, “Oh yeah, I still have to do my end paper.” Suddenly it just came out. I wondered, “Why couldn’t I do that months ago?!”
But I think that’s why I love collage so much. I like to plan every little thing. I want that control, but you can’t control collage—you just can’t! I really love that aspect; it’s something that’s always going to challenge me and fascinate me, but I just think there’s something really freeing about realizing the limits of our capabilities. Somewhere in those limits, the miracle of art can begin to happen. I had been trying to scientifically engineer the perfect blue with all my knowledge, but when I finally let go, what I wanted came out. So that’s been something I’ve been reflecting on recently: how do I allow that improvisation, those miracles, to happen?
This book in many ways is a bedtime story—were there memories or emotions that you associate with bedtime that influenced your artistic process?
Definitely. One of the key places kids are read to is at night right before you go to sleep. As I worked on this book, I remembered begging whichever of my siblings were around, or sometimes my mom, to tell me stories each night. I loved being read to as a kid.
I also had my very first nephew while I was working on this book. I kept getting all the angles wrong on the final page where the caregiver and child are snuggling, until my sister sent me a picture of her and her new baby. Those feelings in that picture really helped me get that final page together. Working on that final page, I thought that this is a book where I’m looking to offer care. When I read it, I think, “What a perfect bedtime story.”
This book, like all of your books, has a central focus on community. It explores the way that people come together, relate to each other, and coexist, whether it’s through parallel living or intersecting lives. It’s such a powerful component of your books and your art. You wrote this book during the Covid-19 pandemic, which was such a lonely and isolating moment. Were there ways in which working on this book during the pandemic served as an outlet for you?
For a while during the pandemic, I truly didn’t know what to make of things. It felt very hard to work with everything that was going on, but this book reminded me that my work, my collaging, is important. I think it’s magical that I can take an old piece of newspaper, snip it in just the right way, place it on a page, and suddenly it becomes something of value. The act of collaging, of putting this piece of paper here and fitting it together there, brought a lot of joy and warmth to my life during the pandemic. If I have any hope for this book, I hope to let at least an ounce of that joy transfer to readers. I hope that reading this book with someone special in your life will be a small moment to cherish for years to come. Working on this book reminded me we’re not in this journey by ourselves—we’re all part of communities.
Do you think that Everybody in the Red Brick Building is in conversation with other books? Which books?
Yes, I think it’s in conversation with Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House. Anne [Wynter] and I talked about how we have a lot of books about houses that have their own lives, but we noticed that those books don’t exist from a more urban perspective. They don’t often show apartment buildings. There’s another one by Mac Barnett called Noisy Night that I think also speaks to this book.
What are some of your favorite picture books? Do you have recommendations for published or forthcoming picture books?
I love Accident by Andrea Tsurumi; I think it’s perfect. Andrea has such great type-work throughout her book but I also love that it’s a simple clean story with a lot of weight. It’s about this little armadillo who knocks something over and catastrophe ensues. It has a lot of really great words like “catastrophe,” “disaster,” “fiasco,” “mayhem,” and “calamity.” I read it every once in a while, usually when I start working in my studio in the morning. I pull out a couple books from my collection and I’ll just read them and get inspired. There’s nothing better to get you ready to make good books than reading good books.
What one question do you each wish people asked you more often, and how would you answer it?
I don’t think I get asked about color and why I love it, but I wish I did. Color is about relationships. We only know something is yellow or red based on what’s beside it. When I was working on this book, I had scanned all these beautiful red linen book covers and was using them to create the bricks for the red brick building. I was looking at all those book covers on their own, but then I put them all in relationship with each other and their miniscule differences stood out more. What looked like red when I was holding it up on its own looked a lot more pink, or a lot more brown. I said to myself, “Oge, you forgot your color theory! It doesn’t work like that!” I had to paint over them with more reds to dampen down the differences between each tone. But it goes back to colors: color is just building relationships.
When you find the right colors, and the right color relationships, it creates this deep giddy feeling right smack dab in your heart. I don’t think I have synesthesia, but I’ll definitely feel in colors. When I read, I’ll see colors with the way I feel. I try to take that feeling, that color that I have in my heart or my mind, and find the right pigments to replicate it on the page. Color will always pool out of oceans from us. It’s a vehicle that moves us. What’s really magnificent about being an artist and a painter is you get to play with that every day. The colors I use are pulling something out of me.
Recently, there was a lime green gouache that I have in a tube and I poured it out and I gasped and exclaimed, “Isn’t this color delightful!” Just seeing it in all its glory made me so happy! I’m so grateful that I can experience color and reflect on how color makes me feel and how color can make a reader feel, and use those different vehicles of color in telling a narrative.
Oge Mora (she/they) graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design with a BFA in illustration. Her debut picture book, Thank You, Omu!, was a Caldecott Honor Book, a New York Times Notable Book and Editors’ Choice, and a Junior Library Guild selection. She is also the author-illustrator of Saturday, as well as the illustrator of The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read. Oge lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and invites you to visit her website at www.ogemora.com.
Isabel Taswell (they/them) is an avid reader, writer, teacher, and learner based in New York City. They are committed to decolonizing education and believe in the power of children’s literature to affirm a child’s sense of self and commitment to community. Isabel received their B.A. in English-Psychology from Barnard College and their M.S. in Education from Bank Street College of Education. In their free time, Isabel enjoys climbing mountains, cooking meals, and jumping in puddles.