There is a new picture book swimming about in the world—
And it’s called Fishtastic!!
The subtitle is, “A Tale of Magic and Friendship” which is extremely apropos. Because, you see, this book is written by my very dear friend, Tess Weaver, and I had the privilege to illustrate it.
Tess and I both live in Iowa City and have been part of a critique group for close to 20 years. We have swum together through life’s calm and stormy waters and like the characters in Fishtastic, we have formed a magical friendship.
Iowa City is home to Hancher Auditorium, an extraordinary arts venue for our community. When the director approached Tess and me with the vision to create a picture book that would inspire young people to express their creativity and celebrate the magnificent fish sculptures recently installed in Hancher’s Wellspring, it felt like a dream come true.
Tess has written a universally relatable story that appeals to all ages everywhere.
Today, I’ve asked her to tell us a little about writing this whimsical fish story.
Jennifer: Tess, what were some of the challenges you faced in order to write a story within such… um… challenging parameters? And how did you come up with this creative and clever idea?
Thank you for that wonderful introduction, Jennifer. I can’t believe we’ve known each other for nearly twenty years! How is that possible? Creating a book is fun but hard work too. I feel very fortunate to have you as one of my critique partners, and to call you friend.
So back to those parameters—What I remember most about our meeting with Chuck Swanson, the director of Hancher Auditorium, is that he was incredibly effusive about his hope that we could create a picture book that Hancher could use as an outreach tool to encourage literacy and to foster a connection to our community. I had always dreamed that you and I could work together one day, but I never considered fish characters—though I have nothing against fish! I felt excited and challenged and stretched. “Fish coming to Hancher” was a very loose guideline, and somehow confining too. He did say “whimsical,” though. That gave me a boost.
After our meeting, I read more information about Hancher’s artistic goals. Then I looked up photographs of Colette Hosmer’s other sculptures to get an idea of her work. I have a habit of walking when I’m trying to think of ideas or put phrases together. About two weeks after our meeting with Chuck, I was walking around my neighborhood, and I kept having visions of a trunk bobbing up to the surface of the Iowa river, then being shoved up onto the riverbank but sliding back into the water. That got me thinking: What was in that trunk? Who was shoving it? Why? Asking those questions led me to my main character and to the entire Fishtastic crew.
Jennifer: You have written many amazing books for children and your ability to create endearing characters is truly a gift. Such as my personal favorite, Alma, the singing cat in the award-winning picture book, Opera Cat. What traits did you want to instill in Etta, our little fishy protagonist?
I’m not sure that I decided much about Etta; she seemed to show up pretty fully formed. She was tiny and talented, but she was missing one special ability that the rest of the Fishtastics shared. This didn’t stop her from being kind or resilient. When the Fishstastics went off on their theatrical adventure, I wanted Etta to play a key part. I was hoping that her caring nature would lead to an unexpected outcome, and it did. That was satisfying for me as a writer.
Jennifer: Your Author’s Note at the back is incredibly profound and moving, whether you are familiar with Hancher and the fish or not. Was it difficult to write and research?
That is very kind of you to say. Actually, it was an honor to write the Author’s Note. My only qualm was doing justice to Colette Hosmer’s vision of her work as symbolizing connection and inclusivity. I interviewed Chuck for some of the technical details. Then, I spoke with Colette a few times. The fish were still being sculpted at that point, so I was writing about the installation based on her description. Colette was very inspiring and answered all of my questions thoughtfully. It took several drafts before I finished the final version of the Author’s Note. Even at the end, I was counting words and deleting sentences. Still, it was a joy to write.
Jennifer: What message(s) would you like readers to takeaway after reading our book?
Everyone will love your gorgeous illustrations, Jennifer! Thank you again for bringing the Fishtastics to life and imbuing their watery world with such a feeling of fun, flowy magic.
I hope readers will enjoy Etta’s adventure, her resilience, and her caring. I see two possible ways a reader can interpret her path to enchantment, but I’ll leave that up to each reader. I will just add that I believe acts of self-forgetfulness or selflessness can lead to surprising rewards.
Jennifer: Is there anything that you wish that I had asked you about?
We didn’t speak about the difficulties or the joys of working in a pandemic, or about how very fast this book was produced. I think we were both shocked when we met Chuck in late December of 2019, and he asked if we could have a finished book by August of 2020! Well, we couldn’t get the book finished that quickly, but we did agree to work on a tight timeline. For me, that meant conceiving of an idea, writing, and editing the manuscript in about three months. You didn’t have much time to work on your illustrations either. Everything we did was very compressed, so that was an additional pressure I had never worked under before. Added to that was the pandemic, which was new and frightening. I think one reason Etta came to me in this caring way is that I was searching for a bit of light as the world felt so threatened. Etta, Bloop, and Marvel are all good-hearted characters. They showed up right when I needed them.
Thank you, Tess, for sharing Fishtastic’s creation story with us today. I will always be grateful that we were able to make this very special book together.
Me too! Thanks, again, Jennifer. This project was heaven-sent.
Want to learn a little more about what this Fishtastic book is about? Watch the book trailer!
For more information about Tess Weaver, visit her website at https://www.tessweaver.com and be sure to follow her on Instagram @TessWeaver!
And, if you would like to win a copy of Fishtastic! Please leave a comment below and we’ll pick a random winner. Check back at my next post to find out if the winner is you!
The winner of Be a Tree, written by Maria Gianferrari is Jennifer Dieleman!!! Congratulations, Jennifer— Maria asks that you please email her.