Creating picture books was never a foregone conclusion for Oge Mora. Her parents, who emigrated from Nigeria to Columbus, Ohio, are “science minded.” (Her mother is a pharmacist; her father is an accountant.) When she told them she wanted to pursue an art degree at the Rhode Island School of Design, they seemed out of their comfort zone. “We’ve never heard of this school,” she recalls them telling her.
Still, they trusted Mora’s judgment. “Go and be you,” they said. Mora enrolled at RISD in 2012, unsure about whether she wanted to specialize in animation or illustration. By senior year, she had come down firmly on the side of picture book making. Nevertheless, she thought it was probably an impractical choice, something she might get to do sometime in the future.
Then Mora took a class called Picture and Word, taught by Judy Sue Goodwin Sturges (pictures) and April Jones Prince (words). The curriculum required students to come up with a new picture book idea—based on a prompt—every two weeks, and then choose the idea they liked best and create a full dummy. Mora chose the story she had initially titled Omu’s Stew (omu is the Igbo word for queen, but in Mora’s family it is also used for grandmother), because it was the one her classmates liked the most. The prompt for that assignment required a story that was either reductive or productive—someone loses something or someone gains something. “I wanted a story that did both,” Mora says. “It appeared something had been lost, but in fact something had been gained.”
Mora’s mother was visiting the week she was writing, and the two made stew. “It really reminded me of my grandmother, and of the tradition of women feeding others but receiving so much love in return,” Mora says. The manuscript opens with Omu making “a thick red stew in a big fat pot.” As the scent wafts through the neighborhood, hungry friends arrive. Omu selflessly feeds them until the pot is empty. They surprise her by returning with a potluck dinner to share.
Mora’s illustrations are done in a mélange of cut paper, paint, and china markers. The palette is vibrant, influenced by her Nigerian heritage and her upbringing in a historically African-American community, where early on she studied the works of Jacob Lawrence and Aminah Robinson, who grew up in the same place. “I really love that I could combine Nigerian and American traditions and create a book that exists in a third space like I myself do,” Mora says.
Ultimately, Mora chose not to include a Nigerian stew recipe in the back matter because, in the end, the story was more about community than a specific culture’s food. Readers have told her that Omu reminds them of their Portuguese grandmothers, their Italian mothers, their Southern families. “That’s the real heart of the book—food’s magical ability to bring us together as a community,” Mora adds.
The “final exam” in Picture and Word consists of reading the dummy aloud to the class, an assignment made a bit more intimidating by the guests the instructors invite to attend. “Judy Sue and April know a lot of people in the industry,” Mora says. One of those special guests at Mora’s final was Sasha Illingworth, executive art director at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Mora wound up selling her final project (she got an A) to editor Andrea Spooner and also a second book, Saturday, scheduled for release in fall 2019.
Only later did Mora get an agent, after displaying her work at an SCBWI conference. “I had put my portfolio in the showcase and left to get ready for the gala when someone came running up to me to say, ‘Steve Malk is looking for you!’ ” Mora recalls. “Of course, as someone who loves picture books, I knew who Steve Malk was. But I wasn’t even courageous enough at that point to have sent him a query letter.” She signed on as a client of Malk’s at Writers House later that year.
Mora’s favorite moment as the newly published author and illustrator of Thank You, Omu! came at her launch party in October, held at Henry Bear’s Park, a toy store in Providence where she worked part-time after graduating from RISD. “My professors came to celebrate with me,” she says. “Through this entire journey wondering, ‘Can I really be a children’s book illustrator?’—they believed in me.”
Like all the people who sampled Omu’s stew, Mora was thrilled to be able to say, in person, “Thank you.”