February 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Hand in Hand: Kathryn Otoshi on Her Collaboration with Bret Baumgarten for “Beautiful Hands”

Kathryn Otoshi and Bret Baumgarten

Kathryn Otoshi and Bret Baumgarten

Kathryn Otoshi, best known for her striking concept books, One (2008), Zero (2010), and Two (2014), partnered with Bret Baumgarten, a father and husband battling cancer, to create the timeless and affecting new picture book, Beautiful Hands (2015, all KO Kids Bks.). SLJ asked Otoshi to share the story behind the book.

How did you first meet Bret?
Bret and I met through Brian, a close mutual friend of ours. Bret had mentioned to me before that he always wanted to do a children’s book. When he was diagnosed last year with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, I remembered this. A week later I went over to his house and asked Bret if he wanted to do a picture book together for his children, Noah (age nine) and Sofie (age seven). He was really excited and loved the idea. Thus the collaboration began!

How did the words come together?
It was just last spring that Bret told me he would hold his children’s hands in his every day and ask them, “What will your beautiful hands do today?” This question sparked the rest of the book for me. Little hands can do so many wonderful things—TOUCH… LIFT…STRETCH…REACH. When Noah and Sofie were just babies, he would marvel how their tiny hands would reach out—they could barely squeeze a single finger. But soon they were holding his hand. And before he knew it, their hands were drawing, playing the piano, and creating all these amazing things! As a parent, you watch in wonder as your children grow, not just physically, but as they come into their own as individuals into this world.


Kathryn Otoshi assembling a Spirit Bird from the many handprints.

Otoshi assembling a Spirit Bird from the many handprints.

Tell us about the process for creating this artwork. Who was involved?
I work with symbolism in my stories. For Beautiful Hands, I saw there could be wordplay between the tangible and the intangible—TOUCH hearts; LIFT spirits; REACH for love. Since this was a legacy book for his family, I thought it would be nice to have Noah, Sofie, and his wife, Deborah, to be physically engaged in the book’s process as it all came together. So all their handprints, including Bret’s and my own, are in the story.

Tells us about some of the other hands that are part of the artwork.
Beautiful Hands embeds the handprints of over 100 loving family members and friends, both young and old, who are now in the rainbow art at the end of this book. Even Mocha, the Baumgarten’s dog, got in the book. She’s family too!

How did the art go from initial paint on paper to final artwork as it appears in the book?
At the party, we had trays of different paint colors with huge stacks of large poster-sized paper. Each person’s hands was painted with varying thickness of paint. It’s amazing to see how everyone’s fingersprints and handprints are so unique! All of these handprints were scanned in to the computer and overlayed together to create the art. Hand textures, thumbprints for the wings of bees, hand drawn type—every part of this book is somehow hand-done.

How has Bret’s family reacted to the finished book?Beautiful Hands
It’s been fun involving his children and family from the first initial sketches to the final book launch. I’ve been going to schools across the country in Bret’s memory, making these Spirit Birds out of hundreds of children’s hands. I talk about how we can use our hands to take action and do something creative and loving for others. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about Bret. We all miss him—his big heart and encouraging message will always live on in the pages of this book.

“My hope that this story empowers love, creativity, compassion, and a
connection to you and yours, in the fulfilling and remarkable way it has for me” 

~ Bret Baumgarten, 1970–2014

Kiera Parrott About Kiera Parrott

Kiera Parrott is the reviews director for School Library Journal and Library Journal and a former children's librarian. Her favorite books are ones that make her cry—or snort—on public transportation.

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  1. Cindy Moriarity says:

    I met Kathryn at ALA Midwinter last January, and she told me the story of her beautiful new book. I was deeply touched then, as I am now that I have a copy of it in my own hands. I hope my library patrons understand how special this book is!