WHITPAIN TWP. >> Walk into an exhibit at the Fine Arts Center at Montgomery County Community College and it feels like you’ve stepped into the pages of a children’s book. That’s because it’s a retrospective on the work of Zachariah OHora, an award winning children’s illustrator and author, whose books include “Stop Snoring Bernard” and “No Fits, Nilson.” He sometimes teams up with writer Ame Dyckman. You may have heard of their book “Wolfie the Bunny,” a New York Times bestseller.
OHora’s studio at his Narberth home is decorated with animal characters who have stepped out of his books and onto his walls. A cozy fire kept him warm on a recent cold spring day and soft jazz played on the stereo to set a creative mood.
OHora, 44, who mostly works in acrylic on paper, said that he begins with a character, inspired by cute animals, like a flying squirrel. He draws the animal in clothing and thinks about its world. Eventually, a story emerges from his imagination bringing the character to life but OHora admits that writing is harder for him that drawing.
“I’m a writer but my writing is really difficult,” said OHora. “It tends to come from a character first. Sometimes I’m just painting characters and scenarios for a year before the story comes.”
The characters “end up telling you, what world they live in and what are their quirks, that kind of thing,” he said. “My Cousin Momo” took 17 drafts, he said.
“I hadn’t quite figured out what the story is about, what was the character’s mission,” he said.
His fifth book, “Niblet & Ralph,” is due out from Penguin on June 5. It was inspired by an actual incident from his childhood where his family adopted a cat named Ralph that got lost but in the meantime an identically marked black, white and gray feline showed up at their house. OHora realized it was not Ralph and called it Fake Ralph, but his parents believed it was the real Ralph until they saw signs posted for the missing cat.
While OHora was growing up in Manchester, New Hampshire, a substitute teacher made an impression on him.
“I was in third grade and there was an art teacher that came in,” he said. “She had a dark-haired, Stevie Nicks, gypsy, witch vibe and she picked out the thing that I did and was like, ‘What’s your sign?’” He told her his birthday and she said, “‘Ah, Scorpio. I knew it.’ Between her witchy-ness and a little attention, I was like, oh, huh, I guess I’m an artist,” he said.
The next year he moved to a new school and began drawing Smurfs and Garfield characters on his book covers. His classmates noticed and asked him to draw the characters on theirs, paying him in candy bars. Those were his first commissions.
OHora is just back from a statewide tour for, “My Cousin Momo,” sponsored by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. This is the second time one of his books was picked for that honor. He toured Pennsylvania with “Stop Snoring Bernard” in 2012.
“I was a big comic book fan as a kid,” he said. He likes to use “flat color (and) heavy black lines.” He said he was influenced by Ben Shawn and “mid-Century advertising art.” He also studied Max Beckmann and the German Expressionist Movement in Berlin, which was “pre-Nazi modernism that ended up being banned by the Nazis.”
After high school, OHora hitchhiked from New Hampshire to San Francisco and studied at the California College of the Arts in Oakland and San Francisco. OHora had read “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac and “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig but couldn’t afford a motorcycle so he hitchhiked instead as the “economic alternative.”
As an art student, he started sending pieces to the art director at The Fillmore for posters and had one accepted for Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, which was his first sale. He began to sell pictures to newspaper and magazines, including the New York Times, Bloomberg and “The Atlantic.”
“I always wanted to do children’s books,” he said. “I just loved them growing up.” The oldest of five, his family did not have a television so he spent a lot of time reading and going to the library. When he was in high school an art teacher showed him the book, “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by A. Wolf,” a book by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith based on the fairy tale. “It’s so good. It blew my mind…That you could take a fairy tale and turn it on its head. The art was edgy and a little transgressive. It was like a lightbulb moment, that someone would pay you to do children’s books, that someone would pay you to make art.”
He was also influenced by children’s book artist and author Richard Scarry, who also drew animals that wore clothes and acted as if they were humans. Fuzzytown grew out of Scarry’s Busytown, he said.
“Who doesn’t like cute animals?” asked OHora.
Asked for advice for kids who want to be an artist, he said, “If you want to do it, keep working at it. If it’s what you love to do, it’s not work.”
OHora’s wife, Lydia Ricci, is a graphic designer and artist who is from King of Prussia. The couple, who met in San Francisco and also lived in New York, has two children, Oskar, 10, and Teddy, 8.