One for the Kids

Designer Kathryn Otoshi turns her hopes, fears and dreams into children’s literature.

April 16, 2010

(Photo by Andria Lo)

Kathryn Otoshi's world is one of complete imagination. She has crafted numerous pieces of Star Wars paraphernalia for George Lucas. Last winter, she had a hand in designing storefronts seen in Disney’s A Christmas Carol. And at her day job, she creates graphics for ImageMovers Digital, Robert Zemeckis’ award-winning film company.

So it’s no surprise that in her spare time, the San Francisco Bay Area-based Japanese American graphic designer writes and illustrates fantastic worlds for young readers. She’s written and illustrated four books of her own and illustrated three for other authors.

Her first book, What Emily Saw, featuring an Asian American protagonist, was named Best Children’s Book of the Year by the Bay Area Independent Publisher’s Association in 2003. Her second book, Simon and the Sock Monster, received top accolades from Writer’s Digest and USA Book News. Her latest, Zero, will hit shelves this fall.

Otoshi recently discussed with us her youthful inspiration, her childhood fears and her views on the state of Asian Americans in publishing.

What Emily Saw encourages children to embrace their imagination. What was your inspiration?
I wrote What Emily Saw as a reaction to what was happening in my own life during that time. I was working insane hours at my job and feeling stressed all the time. I started thinking about my own childhood. I remembered I could watch an ant for hours and follow it to see where it would go. I think we as adults can use more serious play on a daily basis.

What motivated you to write and illustrate children’s books and launch your own publishing company, KO Kids Books?
My mom was a part-time librarian and both of my parents encouraged me to read and draw when I was little. I loved hearing the sound of their voices when they read to me at bedtime. Since I write, illustrate and do graphic design professionally, publishing my own stories seemed like a natural progression.

What are some of your all-time favorite children’s books?
The Gardener, created by a husband-and-wife team, David Small and Sarah Stewart. The story takes place during the Depression, a daunting subject and setting to tackle. It’s a wonderful, emotional story, all packed within 32 pages. Amazing! And Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.

Your 2008 book, One, focuses on anti-bullying. Were you ever bullied as a kid?
I don’t believe I was really bullied any more than any other kid. I was one of the few minorities and the only Japanese American kid in my class. I can’t tell you for how long I wished that I had blonde hair and blue eyes. When another little Asian girl in my elementary school arrived, she could not speak English well and was bullied mercilessly. Every now and then I think of this little girl and how I wished I had said something.

Simon and the Sock Monster is about a boy who fears that a mysterious creature has abducted his lucky sock. What were you afraid of as a child?
Elevators — because the open door looked like a gaping mouth to me. There was also a painting of a little girl in my room. It took me years to tell my parents I was afraid of it. They finally took it down and put it in the garage. Then I was afraid of going into the garage.

Is there a need for more Asian American children’s books?
There does seem to be a need. [In order] to have more Asian American books out there, we need to support publishers who do just that. The market will bear what the reader demands. If we support these smaller, specialized indie publishers, as well as the indie bookstores [that] take a chance and put these books on their shelves, then the chains will deem these “successful” and there will be a better chance [that] we can see these books in more mass market venues for people to pick up.

Do you think children’s books have become too mature for young readers?
[Children’s] picture books almost always have bigger issues at their center if you look closely — themes of belonging, abandonment, sibling rivalry, adjusting to loss. These are timeless themes that every culture and age bracket grapples with.

For more on Kathryn Otoshi and KO Kids Books, visit  

Angela Pang is a Hyphen contributing editor. This is her first article for the magazine.

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