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The Genius of Oge Mora

"When we think about food, food has such a communal aspect to it. You know, when I think about my own memories of food or dishes that I've had in my life, I don't think about the meals that I have had by myself. Part of the magic of a good meal is the people that you're sharing it with." ~ Oge Mora

Oge Mora

Oge Mora was a precocious child who knew what she wanted from an early age. While children her age were still eating their crayons, Oge was doodling and drawing. It is not a surprise that her talent caught the attention of her teachers at an early age. Oge departed from a family history of science and medicine and majored in Art. Today Oge is an award-winning author, publisher and illustrator who has broken several records in children’s book publishing. After winning one of the Caldecott Honor Book awards – the prestigious John Steptoe New Talent – as well as the Ezra Jack Keats Book Award in 2019, NPM sat down with Oge for an interview. Enjoy her uplifting story.

NPM: Oge, Thank you again for accepting our invitation. Letʻs start by getting to know a little about you. Who is this lady behind all the big awards and inspiring books? Tell us a little about yourself.

OGE: Well, as you know, my name is Oge. Last name is Mora. I grew up in Columbus, Ohio. I have five sisters and two brothers. I come from a very large Igbo family. Growing up, I was always the kid that loved to draw. From the sandbox, I was always the kid that was drawing and drawing and drawing. I drew things because I loved it. I didn’t really think that I could actually do this for a living. I didn’t really know any artists personally growing up. And my parents don’t have an art background. So, it wasn’t something that I was like, “oh, this is something I could actually do”. But I had some teachers in high school that really encouraged me to keep going. 

I eventually went to art school. And while in art school I kind of got shoved towards doing publishing work. And I’m so glad that I’m doing what I’m doing. Whenever I think about my career, it just feels very odd in a sense. It usually doesn’t work in that way. Like, I got signed for my first book when I was a senior in college. So it’s just a very kind of odd trajectory. But what can you do? You just feel very blessed, and you just kind of keep going. So, that’s a little about me.

NPM: We have all heard about art school. What exactly happens at art school? Do they teach you how to paint, how to draw?

OGE: Oh, of course. So most art schools, your freshman year, you come to the art school and you actually don’t choose a major for most of the art schools. There are some where they have you choose a major, but traditionally you come in and you just come in as a student. And essentially what happens is you have a foundation year. And so you will take your drawing class. You’ll take maybe a painting class, a 3D design class or a 2D design class in art history. So, you’ll just get the fundamentals of art. And then it’s in your second year that you kind of go towards your major. And once in your major, you have another foundation year for your major, where you kind of learn the ins and outs of that. And then in your final two years, usually you specialize. And so in a lot of schools, you’ll do something like a senior thesis, where you take time and put together a project. 

Our schools are also pretty interesting where everyone is always talking about art and design because they are two different disciplines. But they also go hand-in-hand. And so on the design side, you’ll see your graphic designers, your industrial designers, your architects. And then more on the art side, you’ll see your painters and your sculptors and your glass blowers and things like that. But we all go to the same school and use the same principles. But we define ourselves as different disciplines at the same time as well. 

Sometimes people are like “you planned all of this?” And I am like, “no”. There’s a degree of planning. But then there’s also just going with the flow, you know. “Oh, this is working. Let me keep doing that.”

NPM: That’s the leverage you guys who are raised in the United States have over those raised in Nigeria. In Nigeria, the earlier you figure out what you’re going to do, the better for you. But here you guys have time and resources. Right?

OGE: Yeah. My mom is a pharmacist by trade. A big thing for her as she was growing up in Nigeria was her dad decided she was going to do pharmacy. And that’s what she did. Now she is like, “I am not going to do that for you guys. I want you guys to have a little bit more choice”. She was like “I want you guys to have a lot more choice than I did. But whatever you choose, you just have to really commit to it, you know?”

NPM: Let’s talk about your name. What does your name mean? We know it is an abbreviation. The Igbo use names to capture situations, prevailing circumstances when a child is born. What does Oge mean?

OGE: True. So my name Oge is a shortened form of an Igbo name. It stands for “God’s time”. I don’t know why my dad named me that name exactly. But like with most Igbo names you could just draw a lot of lessons from it. You know, my mom always chastises me because I’m definitely the type of person who likes having something like a five year plan. “I’m gonna do this then. And this is my goal here and here”. And as life goes, they kind of blow up in my face and she’s just like “you’re thinking you’re working on your timetable, but you’re working with God’s timetable. You know your name. Right?” 

NPM: Oge, we could talk to you forever. Your accent is fantastic. You were obviously born in America. Is that correct?

OGE: Yes, I was born here.

NPM: Do you visit Nigeria at all?

OGE: Yes, I have been to Nigeria. The last time I was there was maybe 2016 or 2017.

NPM: So you have been there a few times?

OGE: No, I was there just once.

NPM: Tell us what you brought back. Did you bring groundnuts?

OGE: I didn’t bring them back. My mom and dad have more of a taste for that. I brought back plantain chips. I brought back angelinas. I brought back some jewelry for my editor and my art director, because I was gone for a month, and I was actually on deadlines. But I was like … “I’m going to my aunt’s title ceremony. Bye”. So, I brought gifts when I came back, you know, to kind of mollify the whole situation. So, it’s like “I’m late, but I brought gifts”. 

NPM: I’ll tell you, you’re missing out. Chips are good but groundnuts are so good.

OGE: I am sure, my parents have some. But my aunt makes these really good plantain chips. So, whenever people are going for Christmas and stuff like that, my aunt will send some to me. And if she didn’t send some to me, she gets a call from me. 

NPM: Our goal at the NPM is to partner with parents to raise well-adjusted Nigerian children. Speaking to you, there is absolutely no doubt that you are well adjusted, So tell us a little about how you’re able to do the things you do and achieve all that you have achieved. How does your upbringing factor into all of this?

OGE: Something I really value that my parents did for me was I felt like I had the perfect balance between independence and support. You know, where they taught me that when I wanted something, I go and get it myself. But also just a lot of support, you know. I felt like they were just supportive of my dreams and wherever I was going. It was just the fact that whatever you’re doing, you just need to be committed to it. You need to be finding opportunities for yourself, find scholarships and things like that. And if you’re really interested in art, you need to research it and work very hard on it. But we’ll give you the freedom to kind of go for those opportunities when you see them. And so I really appreciate that. When someone is going from high school to college, there is a maturity gap sometimes where it’s just hard. You are away from your parents. And you’re trying to do everything and thinking oh, I have all the freedom. I felt like I already had a good degree of freedom. And so I felt like while I was at school, I was able to kind of really capitalize on all the opportunities that were around me and just kind of stay very grounded and focused. I knew from when I was at RISD that I have goals for when I’m here. And how can I do everything I can do to go after those goals? And even though my parents were really supportive, I don’t think, at least from Nigerian parents, I don’t think everyone’s gonna hear, “oh, yes I want to go to art school” and be like “yes, that’s what I wanted you to do”. No, my mom didn’t want me to go to art school.

NPM: True. For most people in your profession, it would not be the first choice for their Nigerian parents. But we do come around though, once you start doing well. Don’t we?

OGE: Right. My mom, she was like … “I got the doctor…” because one of my sisters is a doctor. Another runs a business. One is an engineer. So, she is like, “I got this”. So, when I am like “I am going to art school”. She was like “oh no!”. So, after we had conversations about it, she was ok. She had no real background in art. She was kind of confused how I came into it. But she was just like, “I trust you. So I’m going to just hold on to that. And if that is what we’re doing, I trust you’ll figure something out.” 

But , I feel like even for the parents where they’re hesitant about their kid coming into an art career, it’s because it really does come from a place of love. You come from Nigeria and you come here in the States, and you want all these opportunities for your kids. And they don’t want the idea of the struggling artists for us, obviously. So it comes from a clear place of love. So when I hear from other kids, because being a children’s book publisher, kids are always coming up to me, I just really tell them that you really need to have that discipline, that dedication to your craft because that’s gonna make all the difference. 

A family friend of mine, when I was in sixth grade saw me just doodling cause I was just always doodling and just kind of doing my thing, as I said, and she was like, “Oge, do you love to draw?” And I was like, “yeah, I loved to draw”. And she was like, “Are you sure?” And I was like, “yeah, I’m sure”. And she was like, “okay, if you are really sure you like to draw, I think I can get you a scholarship at the local art school for Saturday morning art classes. I’ve done this before for some other kids, but like they go to a couple classes and then they decide, oh, I don’t want to anymore. They don’t go to all the classes”. And she said, “if you could promise me that you’re gonna attend every single class, I’m gonna really see if I can make this opportunity happen for you”. And so I promised her that day I was gonna show up to every single class, and that’s what I did. And I ended up taking those classes until my senior year in high school. And I never missed a class. I always made sure that I went and because of those classes, that was how I was able to build a portfolio of artwork that really made me very competitive when it came time for art school. So it was like, just being very serious about that craft early on and just really doing the hard work time after time. And so it’s just like I think that if there are second generation kids like me and they’re really interested in doing art, then I think that you might just have to prove your passion to your parents and just go out there and be very serious about it. And that would be the way to convince them. 

NPM: Nigerian parents have come a long way and will support their kids when they see them being serious.

OGE: I think what’s been so great is seeing so many second generation Nigerian kids out here just in the creative space, really kind of showing the model for how you could be in publishing, how you could be a chef or a writer, whatever you’re really trying to do. And so, it seems like, something that didn’t seem like anything that you could conceivably like, something you could wrap your head around, is more of a possibility in a lot of people’s minds, which is really, really good. 

NPM: Your book Thank You Omu, is great. You talked about your grandmother and all the powerful women who shaped you. Can you tell us more about your grandmother and the influence on you?

OGE: Well, yeah. My grandmother, she was so funny. She and my mom have the same spirit in that way. She was a true light to be around. She’s just hilarious. Like you just won’t stop laughing. She was just a great dancer. Would always laugh because she loved a Ricky Martin – shake bombom. So funny. As like so many like Nigerian grandmothers and just women you know, she could give you the shirt off her back. She would just give it to you. Like without question. She just was a true person. She was just this caring, caring soul, always trying to feed people, always trying to make sure everyone felt comfortable and welcome and things like that. And she really embodied that sense of just not getting so wrapped up in what other people can do for you. But just what can you give to other people? And my mom just channels that in the same way and just passed that on to all of us. It’s just really how can I be in service to other people in the world? If you have gifts, how can you share them with other people? How can you inspire others and things like that? 

NPM: I am guessing that’s what inspired the book Thank You Omu. Because of the way she was cooking and feeding the public and everybody that comes in eats. Your grandmother inspired altruism?

OGE: Yeah, definitely. When we think about food, food has such a communal aspect to it. You know, when I think about my own memories of food or dishes that I’ve had in my life, I don’t think about the meals that I have had by myself. Part of the magic of a good meal is the people that you’re sharing it with. 

NPM: So it takes a lot of discipline and dedication to get to where you are today. So we were wondering, how did you develop such discipline and work ethic?

OGE: I would say, probably from my sisters. My mom worked a lot when I was a kid. So she was always in and out, just trying to provide for everybody. And so, my sisters were also kind of mom figures for me. There is a natural, nurturing spirit when it comes to your mom, you know. But with your siblings … your siblings don’t cut you any slack. They really don’t. Crying and trying to get your way does not work with your siblings. It really doesn’t. They really kept me honest. They would remind you that you need to think about your grades. You need to pay attention to what you’re doing, do your chores, stay focused and things like that. But they were also just really great role models. If you are seeing a lot of disciplined people, what else will you know other than this way of doing things? My siblings were always the type of people to just search for different opportunities and different ways of doing things. We are very determined. 

One of my sisters has this thing where she would tell me that I am not working on the right mindset when I keep talking about things I cannot do. And so, they’re always really pushing me in that way. And I’m grateful for having that mindset and being able to bring it into an art space, because I think sometimes when people come on to more creative spaces, where they go wayward is there’s this idea of, oh, you’re in a creative space and you don’t have to care about these normal things, that you just kind of you look out the window and you just wait until, inspiration hits you or things like that. But no. Being in the creative space takes a lot of that hard work, takes a lot of that discipline. And so, you have to have a degree of practicality when you’re in that space to really go farther. Like a lot of people don’t know that for art schools, it doesn’t matter in one way, what grade you get in math or what grade you get in science. But they look at GPA at these art schools because they really care if you know all the different theorems in geometry. But more so, they’re using that as a way to grade your work ethic, your sense of discipline. Because when you are in the spaces, are you gonna be able to have that time management in order to get your projects done? As an illustrator myself with different deadlines from all the kinds and things like that, that’s also very important. 

NPM: I think we will be remiss if we didn’t ask a little bit more about your background. So what part of Igboland do you come from?

OGE: My dad was originally from Enugu Agidi near Onitsha and my mom is from Onitsha.

NPM: What is the name of the art school you went to?

OGE: I went to the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island. 

NPM: So let’s return to your professional life. I heard you love the book, Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold. Is it true you met her somewhere?

OGE: I love that one. I did. I met her my senior year in college.

NPM: How did that happen?

OGE: It was wild. I think she had come for… RISD does a special celebration for Martin Luther King week. They do all these special celebrations for a week. I believe she was the speaker of that year. And there was a dinner that they were inviting students to. I wasn’t actually invited to that dinner, but one of my friends who was the president, the student council president at the time, was invited to this dinner to meet with her directly. And I was a big fan. So I had my copy of Tar Beach and I was like, “hey Ulitsa”, who’s my friend? I was like, “”can you get this book signed for me? Can you get her to sign this while you’re at dinner? Like squeeze this in for me?” And she was like, “you should come”. I said “oh, no, I wasn’t invited. Just get my book signed. That’s all I need”. She was like, “no, come”. Once she had invited me twice, it would have been remiss of me not to go. I thought maybe I can sneak my way in there. That’s kind of what I did. I just kind of showed up. It was like, technically you weren’t invited but you know everybody who’s there and most people probably just assumed you were supposed to be there. But I was not supposed to be there. But I’m so glad I got to hear her talk about her life on an intimate level. 

And afterwards I just went up to her and told her how much her work meant to me and how she had been an inspiration in my life. Because, you know, being in the children’s book space she is one of the very few black women in that space. So growing up to know that there was someone who looked like me who was writing stories about her childhood and talking about her family and things like that, it really meant a lot. And so, that’s essentially what I told her. I was like, “thank you so much for being this role model for me. I actually signed up two book deals”. She was like, “congratulations”. She signed my book and I have a photo of us together, and it was just a really, really magical thing. And what was really amazing was my book Thank you Omu, which was my first book, ended up winning the Caldecott award, which is kind of like winning the Oscars for picture books. It also won one of the Coretta Scott King Awards – the John Steptoe Award for New Talent. It was just really wild that that happened because Tar Beach also won the Coretta Scott King Award. I also won the Ezra Jack Keats Illustrator Award for Thank You Omu. So it was just the wildest thing that my favorite book ever, a book that has meant so much to me… that I am sort of connected to her via this legacy. And it was just the coolest, coolest thing.

NPM: So with all these awards and all the successes, do you have any plans to mentor upcoming Nigerian children who would want to look up to you and follow in the same direction as you’re going? 

OGE: Oh, of course. I don’t think that I have a direct mentee at the moment. When I first came into publishing, since I came into it very early, some of my friends who I went to college with are now starting to get book deals and things like that, but I was a very early person, and then I just didn’t really know a lot. I lived in Providence. Everybody lives in New York. And so I really didn’t have an agent at that time, but I was signed, so I was very detached, I felt, when I was first starting out in the publishing world at large. And so I felt like I had a lot of questions about things. How do I do this? How do I take care of that? But I didn’t really have a mentor at the time to help me along in that sort of space. So, now, kind of being a little bit more established, I definitely would like to help others. Whenever someone has a question or whenever a kid is interested in things like that, I always try to make myself available. I know what it feels like to be entering a space like that and not know where you fit in. I have not met any aspiring Nigerian illustrators. If they are out there, they should definitely contact me.

NPM: Great. In your book, Thank You Omu, you talk about food, and I think we touched on this a little bit, but I want to explore that a little bit more. Nigerian dishes. You’re raised by a grandmother and I am sure she cooks up a storm. In that book you talked about the red stew. Tell us about that. There’s got to be goat meat in that stew.

OGE: I don’t know about you but I have had all kinds of meat in stew. I would say that goat meat is my favorite. You cook it nice and the meat just falls apart. Whenever my mom or my grandmother would be preparing goat meat for the stew, they always have to hide it. They would have it in the pot and we would all keep coming over and snatching it. She would be like, if you keep snatching it, I won’t have any to put in the stew.

NPM: Let’s talk a little bit about childhood memories. So one of the things a lot of children who are born here struggle with is trying to balance cultures. You have Nigerian parents with their own ways of doing things breathing down your neck, yet you are an American kid. My daughter tells me it can be confusing. Tell us some of the struggles you have had as a child born here growing up under Nigerian parents.

OGE: I definitely think I have some connections with your daughter, you know. I think growing up, especially growing up where I was in Columbus. It was not a large Nigerian population of people there. It’s always kind of like we’re on our own little island, where most people, unless it was like a couple of my parents’ friends, weren’t like in that specific area. And so it’s like you are always balancing where like … am I Nigerian? Some people, they interact with you and they’re like, “you’re not American, you’re Nigerian”. You interact with other people who are like “you’re not Nigerian, you’re American”. And you are like, “which one am I?” If you say, “oh, I’m just American”, it’s like you’re denying being Nigerian and that is not right. But just to say I’m just Nigerian feels like you deny your Americanness. So, something I struggled with when I was growing up was feeling that I was pulled in two different ways. I didn’t really know how to identify myself. I really struggled with that for a very long time, almost even into college. And it was actually as I was writing a story, something about it felt really right because, you know, it’s not just American story. And it’s not just a Nigerian story. It’s in that in-between. And, as I was writing it, I was just like, “oh, I’ve finally found a space in-between that just feels right”. When I think about how I identify or how it was growing up, I felt like I had to choose a side. But then I realized, you know, having grown up now, being an adult that I don’t have to choose a side, I get to have the beauty of both, you know. 

NPM: So what would you like the world to know about the great Oge Mora. Is there anything that we have not asked you but which you would like to put across? Any book deals coming up?

OGE: That’s a really great question. I am definitely working on writing another book. You will see what I end up with. But I’ve been drawing and thinking about that. I have a book that came out this past January called How Mary Walker Learned to Read. It’s about this woman named Mary Walker who learned to read when she was a hundred and sixteen. I love going to schools and telling them about that because you can see how their brains sort of explode when they hear that. I have another book coming out, probably in the Fall of 2021 called Everybody in the Red Brick Building. And that’s the book that I just illustrated. 

When I was just writing a book and I turned the artwork in, and I sent it to the publisher, the experience of actually having that book out in the world. And so, it’s different from being just an author and illustrator and being an illustrator who has readers. That’s a totally different thing. As I said, I have been drawing since the sandbox, and I went to art school. You would think that I would be prepared for this kind of experience. But it really took being in that experience, to just see my true lack of preparation for that. Like going to a book event and someone coming up to you in tears and telling you, “you wrote my story” or thanking me on emails and just talking about “I saw your book in the mailbox, and I was having a really bad day, and it just brought me so much sunshine. Thank you so much for what you do”. Or “I made stew for my family and it was just this really beautiful moment. And I wanna thank you for sharing the story”. Or, “I’m a single mom, and your book Saturday just really resonates with me. And I share it with my daughter and it means so much”. I have been in a book event and just shared a hug with people I don’t even know. But I know what you are kind of feeling. And I think the thing that continues to bewilder me or just fill me with all this awe and wonder about the work that I do is that it’s like you make a book and you put it out into the world. And the best thing about it is that it just doesn’t belong to you anymore. It belongs to all your readers. And the way that people, kind of, take your work and they put it in their hearts or like they put it in their lives and they cherish it. It really is amazing. It’s a really amazing feeling. Especially in our world today, my stories comfort me too. 

NPM: Thank you so much, Oge. We could talk to you forever. It’s such a pleasure to talk to you and we appreciate your taking the time to speak with us at the Nigerian Parents Magazine. Do come again. 

OGE: Thank you for having me.

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