Author-Illustrator Spotlight: Kathryn Otoshi

Today we welcome Kathryn Otoshi, the award-winning and best-selling author-illustrator of many picture books, including the concept books, ONE (2008), ZERO (2010), TWO (2014), and her latest, BEAUTIFUL HANDS. 

Be sure to enter her giveaway -- 2 people will  have a chance to win a signed copy of BEAUTIFUL HANDS.

Please tell us about your background and how you came to writing and illustrating picture books.

My background was working as a Graphic Design Art Director in the film industry at George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic. Working with other creatives in this cinematic realm influenced the way I view narratives.

To me, children’s picture books are like ‘mini-movies.’ My illustrated characters become my actors/actresses who walk onto the picture book stage. As the ‘Director,' I find myself talking to my characters and telling them how to act for the scene. When I draw and choose the clothing they wear, I become the Costume Designer. The sets and props I illustrate for the background enables me to become the Production Designer. When I position and frame each spread, I become the Director of Photography. And each turn of the page becomes a ‘cut’ in the scene and an opportunity to play the Editor. I see the page turn as a wonderful way to surprise the viewer. You can see how it all becomes very interactive and busy in my head with all these different hats to wear! It’s a fun way for me to get engaged in the picture book process while giving a nod to my past.

Tell us about your latest book, BEAUTIFUL HANDS.

Last year my friend, Bret Baumgarten, told me he had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. After the initial shock of the news, I remember he had mentioned to me before that he always wanted to do a children’s book. I went over to his house and asked him if he wanted to do a book together for his two young children, Noah and Sofie. He was really excited and loved the idea! Thus the collaboration began. 

© Kathryn Otoshi

After talking about what we could do, Bret told me that every day he would hold his children’s hands in his and asked them, “What will your beautiful hands do today?” Little hands can do so many wonderful things. TOUCH… LIFT… REACH... The handprints in the illustrations are of his family’s and my own handprints. 

The rainbow at the end of the book embeds the handprints of over 100 dear family members and friends, who gave their loving support to the making of this book.

A bird with 500 kids' handprints

Your books like ONE, ZERO, and TWO deal with important issues (bullying, self-worth, friendship) in an abstract way. In your experience, do children get it? What reactions have you gotten from these books?

To be honest, in the beginning I was pretty worried that no one would understand the book. I had been told it was too ‘high-level’ and that kids would never get it!

Thankfully the kids did! And not only did kids get it, but parents, teachers, counselors and educators really embraced it! In fact, everyone didn’t just embrace the books. They took the message to heart and started using the books in skits, ballets, songs, murals, and other artistic endeavors to embody as themes for their school.

KO collaborating with the Orange County Dept of Ed encouraging kids to stand up against bullying

In retrospect what I realized was that ZERO, ONE and TWO are conceptual and symbolic in nature. Ideas are not limited to a target range or a genre. So the book’s issues and concepts (self-esteem, prejudice, exclusion, anti-bullying) crossed over not only to pre-schoolers and adults, but to different genders, genres and cultures.

Can you walk us through your illustration process?

I’m sort of an anomaly in the children’s book industry, in that I change up my illustration style to match the writing style in the book. I spend a ton of time researching and going through the illustration ‘drawers’ and categories in my head (collage, charcoal pencils, watercolors, digital art, etc) and then asking myself how do I want the illustrations to feel (loose/sketchy, tightly rendered, cartoony) until I find what feels like the right style. Then I practice that style over and over so it feels consistent throughout the whole story. If you look at all my illustrated books side-by-side, you might think a different artist illustrated each book.

What projects are you working on now?

Currently I am working on a book called DRAW THE LINE with Roaring Brook/Macmillan. Every time I have a challenge in my own life, I seem to do a book about it! That’s why it sometimes takes me years to finish a book. It’s because I haven’t figured out the solution in my own life yet. (NOTE to Macmillan: Please don’t worry. I will finish this book and I promise not to take years!)

© Kathryn Otoshi

Right now my new life challenge is about drawing boundaries, saying ‘no’ sometimes, and defining my personal creative space better. This new book is about understanding what your line is, where you need to draw the line, and then realizing others will sometimes push your line around. 

I am still working through it, but the main goal of the story will leave my audience with questions about themselves:  can your line move to accommodate others? Can you do so without infringing on your own space? What we realize is that our own line and bandwidth will stretch, grow and evolve over time, as our own understanding of a situation and view of life changes.

You have independently published your books, and they have done extremely well. What made you decide to go down this path?

Well for sure, I didn’t start off doing picture books with a BANG. In fact in the beginning, I would joke around with friends and call publishing my ‘expensive hobby.’ I went down this path because I kept hearing how hard it was to get a picture book published. I had gone to classes and workshops and realized my book WHAT EMILY SAW would be categorized as a book that would be too ‘quiet’ to ever publish. I’m sort of a do-it-yourself kinda gal so I rolled up my sleeves and figured, why not try to find  out why publishing is so hard? Oh wow…I certainly found out! Doing a book yourself is not for everyone, but I personally have found it immeasurably rewarding.

© Kathryn Otoshi

What are the top 2 or 3 pieces of advice you would give to others who want to independently publish a picture book?

Truthfully? Do the traditional route first. Seriously, if you can find the right publisher who believes in your work – why not try to get someone else pay for your project? Indie publishing is a business. So if you go this route you must treat it as such and realize you are running a business.

Give yourself time and do your research! If you decide to go this route, it might take at least a few years for your business to flourish.  The nuts and bolts of this is that it’s a tough industry with a very small profit margin. So put in your time. Plant your ideas, nourish them with love and attention, pray for sunshine, and get out their and tell people about your garden!

© Kathryn Otoshi

What is the best advice you have gotten (or best advice you would give) for writing and illustrating picture books?

Never give up. It takes time, energy and discipline. Many talented creatives want to get into this industry, but it’s the people who have a strong passion for it that sustain and thrive.
What is something most people don’t know about you?

That I am a total introvert! Sure, I do a lot of extroverted things like talk to a hundreds, sometimes thousands of kids in a week. But several years ago, I used to be completely scared to talk in front of a few kindergarteners. Over time though, I realized getting yourself out there wasn’t about me at all. It was all about the books and the message. I totally believe that books help others, and this knowledge changed me forever. I took one step at a time, and have never looked back.

© Kathryn Otoshi

Here’s the real kicker: while people come up to me and thank me for writing a book, now I turn around and thank them. After all, while I might have written these books, it’s what kids and communities have done with them that is truly amazing!

Kathryn Otoshi is a multi-award winning author/illustrator and national/international speaker best known for her character-building book series, ZERO, ONE, and TWO. She goes to schools across the country to encourage kids to develop strong character assets, and helps teachers find customized, creative methods to engage and connect with their students through art, reading and the power of literature. Her newest book, BEAUTIFUL HANDS, co-authored with Bret Baumgarten, is a call-to-action book reminding kids to use their hands to do something positive and inspirational for each other and our communities. To learn more, visit her website: 


  1. I've given away many a copy of ONE. Seriously one of the best picture books ever written. Thank you.

  2. Love the inspiring interview and lovely books. And so many beautiful colors - Colors Rock!

  3. Cultivate those ideas and plant them in your garden-love the visual. Thank you you for this positive post and for sharing your journey, Kathryn :)

  4. I absolutely loved "One," "Two," and "Zero" and I'm so tickled to read this interview to find out Kathryn's creative process! Thanks for the giveaway!

  5. LOVE these books - and so enjoyed this post. Thank you!!

  6. I want to hold someone's hands and ask what will your beautiful hands do today? Love it!
    I enjoyed the post, Kathryn.

  7. I love your books, Kathryn! I can't wait to read the latest!

  8. Inspiring interview - and I'm absolutely loving the peeks at BEAUTIFUL HANDS. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Kathryn, I fell in love with ONE when I first read a copy I borrowed from the library. When I found ONE at a book sale a couple weeks later, I snatched it off the table and hugged it.

    Interesting to see your picture book evolution as creating a movie. I see my stories in my head as movies before I write them down, but haven't carried that through to imagining how a story will play out on the pages. I'm not an illustrator, but I think this is an important process for writers, too. Thanks.

  10. Whenever my friend has to discuss with me issues, she will tell my Telling it was about person A and person B. Will never name directly and use abstract means to convey the issue. I like to use numbers. So alphabets and numbers is nice mix. The Hundred Dresses and such other books do raise issue about bullying but I am always fond of 'abstract to concrete' as Architect I try to have this symbolic transformation and so immediately felt in love with One, Zero, Two series. Would love to get hold on the book: 'Draw the line' and Beautiful Hands inspiration story is heart touching.

  11. Great interview! The book looks beautiful

  12. Wonderful! Thank you for the interview. The bird of handprints is fantastic!

  13. just love you and your story. I was so touched by your stories on the conference yeaterday. all of them went to my heart.


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