In Lakeland, many people know Fred Koehler as an artist and the founder of The Fred Group, a branding studio. But nationally, he has a growing reputation as an author and illustrator of whimsical picture books. On the eve of his latest book’s publication, Fred sat down with lkldnow and discussed his craft, how he hides bits of Lakeland (and fish) in his books and what inspires him.
lkldnow: Fred, tell us about your latest book.
Fred: The book that’s launching on Oct. 6 is titled “One Day The End,” and it tells stories the way that a little kid tells stories to grownups. For instance, if you were to ask a child, “What did you do today?” they might tell you, “Oh, I went to school and then I came home,” and that’s all the story you’d get as a grownup.
But what the illustration is doing — and what my job was — was to invent what actually happened in between “I went to school” and “I came home.” So for eight or so little vignettes like that, this book is filled with illustrations depicting what happened between “one day” and “the end.”
lkldnow: What was the inspiration for the book?
Fred: The author’s name is Rebecca Kai Dotlich. I didn’t get to speak her with that much before I started illustrating it. All I got to work with was these eight lines of copy like this: “One day I lost my dog. I found him. The end.”
lkldnow: It sounds like you had to do the heavy lifting.
Fred: I wouldn’t put it that way. I would have never come up with that concept for a book, so Rebecca did the genius-level work of having the idea and then it was my job to do the sub-genius-level work of fleshing it out.
lkldnow: Did she work with you on coming up with the concepts of what happened in between?
Fred: They sent me two versions of the manuscript: one with her art notes and one without. And I opted to do all of my sketching before I ever saw her art notes.
lkldnow: So how did the two mesh together?
Fred: Oh, not at all. (laughter)
lkldnow: Did she like what you came up with?
Fred: She loved it. The thing about this book is if you were to give a book like this to 10 different illustrators, you would get 10 completely different books. So this just happened to be my take on it.
lkldnow: What was difficult about doing it?
Fred: The challenge for me was connecting all of the different stories because for a continuous narrative you really need to have something carry over from one story to the next. So when you look at the illustrations, usually the last thing from one page jumps into the first thing in the next story. (He showed how the flower that ended one story showed up in the first illustration on the next page.)
lkldnow: It strikes me that this is a much different drawing style than the books you wrote and illustrated yourself, so how would you compare and contrast the drawing styles?
Fred: I found in this book that my character really needed to stand out as a whimsical sort of character — the type who would be likely to do 100 amazing things in one day and then only give you a one-sentence answer about it. And then the backgrounds — I decided to fill this one with a lot more color than I’ve used in my other illustrated books.
lkldnow: How did you get hooked up with the author to beginning to begin with?
Fred: The deal came through my agent. She was in communication with the publisher and the publisher was looking for an illustrator and she pitched to me. (Fred gives a more complete and humorous account on his blog.) With this particular publisher, I’m doing six books with them now.
lkldnow: Are these collaborations or are they solo books?
Fred: Four of them are ones where I’m the illustrator and on two of them I’m the writer and the illustrator.
lkldnow: Did you ever work with the author one-on-one, or was it all done remotely?
Fred: The thing about picture books is that once the author sells the manuscript to the publisher, they have to let go. And the publisher decides who the illustrator’s going to be. Once the illustrator gets hired, the illustrator decides how it’s going to be illustrated, and the author doesn’t have to love it — as long as the illustrator and the publisher agree.
lkldnow: Does she love it?
Fred: Yes! And in 99 percent of the cases, you find that harmony and you work until everybody is thrilled with the final result.
lkldnow: What was the fun part of doing this book?
Fred: All of the little things that I got to sneak in there. I’ve got a list of maybe a dozen things that I hid within the illustrations.
lkldnow: Can you give us a hint?
Fred: I sure can. I have always drawn a little fish symbol in my illustrations. In fact, it’s hidden in my other books as well. And I think the fish shows up 10 or 12 times in this book.
lkldnow: Is there a significance to the fish? Is it because you like to fish?
Fred: I like to fish. My dad was a fisherman and he’s no longer with me. So it’s sort of speaks to my appreciation and relationship with him. And it’s got religious significance as well.
Oh, here’s a good one on hidden things. You know we live in Florida and we’re all big fans of Publix. So if you look at the grocery items in the book, it’s all Publix-label items and they’ve got the Publix brand style.
lkldnow: Is there’s anything you would do differently if you could start from scratch?
Fred: You’re not allowed to ask that question. I would re-do all of it. As an artist, as soon as you’re done with something, you want to make it better, you want to re-do it. But the response has been wonderful.
lkldnow: What kind of feedback have you gotten so far?
Fred: It’s been absolutely phenomenal. The publisher (Boyd Mills Press) made it their lead book for fall 2015 for their entire publishing house. It’s the cover art of their catalog that gets sent out to all the bookstores. They flew me out to New York and San Francisco to do book festivals and have launch luncheons.
lkldnow: What age group is it aimed for?
Fred: This one is very cool because it works for as young as 3-year-olds because the text is so simple, but then the storytelling aspect works for kids as old as 7 or 8. They see this and they understand that they can also write their own story and illustrate it in the same format.
lkldnow: That reminds me of the Kirkus review that was basically positive, but it ended with that line that said, “It was a well-intentioned conceit that risks undoing itself.” What’s your thought about that?
Fred: Every reviewer’s going to have their own response; Publishers Weekly and Booklist liked the book a lot. But what matters to me is how the kids respond to it — and they seem to love it. They look at the art and they’re telling me the story of what really happened. The kids get it.
lkldnow: What led you to writing children’s books?
Fred: I grew up a reader, and have always loved the creative outlet of storytelling. When I was first looking for a job, the best way to get a job as a storyteller was in advertising because you’re designing, you’re doing p.r., you’re writing articles, you’re creating ads, and that’s storytelling.
I’ve always had a passion to tell stories that were relevant to a younger audience. So I started using all of my vacation days and extra money to go to conferences to learn how to do it. And it took five year, six years going to conferences and getting rejected and coming home with my tale between my legs before I got that first yes.
lkldnow: Why have you chosen Lakeland?
Fred: Lakeland became home after I graduated from Florida Southern College. I made so many lifelong friends, and they all stayed in the area. It’s an amazing place to raise kids, and I love how close it is to the beach. Lakeland is growing in terms of opportunities for artists.
lkldnow: Why Catapult? What draws you to base your business at Catapult? (Catapult Lakeland is the Lakeland Economic Development Council’s incubator for small businesses.)
Fred: We were with Catapult from the beginning. Before they even had a name, they approached me and asked if I would help with the logo. This place has got absolutely the right energy, the right vibe. Lots of hard-working creative professionals who are all at the hustle stage of their businesses, who are all going through the same grind.
lkldnow: What do you do when you’re not working or fishing?
Fred: I really enjoy being a dad and hanging out with my kids. Abigail is 8. Jack is 6. In fact, the character in the book is sort of a portrait of my daughter when she was about 5 years old.
lkldnow: How does it show her personality?
Fred: When I read the manuscript the first time, I didn’t know that I wanted to be the illustrator for it. I had never illustrated anyone else’s book before. But when I read the manuscript, it reminded me so much of my daughter that I had to say yes.
lkldnow: What does your daughter think of it?
Fred: She (pauses) she’s 8 going on 13. I don’t know if she loves it quite as much as she did when I was working on it initially.
lkldnow: When did you do the work on it?
Fred: I finished illustrating it at this time last year.
lkldnow: Tell us about your next book.
Fred: Lakeland is going to love the launch of “Super Jumbo,” which is the sequel to “How to Cheer Up Dad,” with the elephant characters. The very cool thing about “Super Jumbo” is that I used the city of Lakeland, especially downtown, as the backdrop of the whole book.
lkldnow: What kind of things will we see beside your view outside your spot at Mitchell’s? (Fred often draws at the counter overlooking Kentucky Avenue at Mitchell’s Coffee House, a scene that turns up in the book.)
Fred: Lake Mirror, Lake Morton, a number of downtown buildings. I didn’t get to sneak in the Spirit of Volunteerism.
lkldnow: What’s your take on the Spirit of Volunteerism: thumbs up or thumbs down?
Fred: I like art. (sly smile)
lkldnow: What events do you have coming up?
Fred: We have the book launch party Oct. 10 at the Polk Museum of Art, with free classes for kids. There will be writing and illustrating classes for kids age 6 and up. All you have to do is go onto the Polk Museum Art and register before they fill up. They’ll be at 1 and 3:30.
lkldnow: I believe you have a show coming up at Mitchell’s. Go into that a little bit.
Fred: The show at Mitchell’s takes a lot of art from the book, but it’s put together differently. It’s some of my favorite scenes rearranged. As well, it’s got a lot of my concept illustrations – stuff that hasn’t made it into publication yet. New styles that I’m experimenting with.
lkldnow: When will the show be up, and when is the launch?
Fred: The launch will be at First Friday on Oct. 2 at 6 p.m., and the show will be up for the whole month.
lkldnow: I’ll definitely see it because Mitchell’s is one of my offices. Would you tell us about your involvement with Parker Street Ministries and Strong Tower Church?
Fred: Sure. When I had the opportunity to find new housing, I wanted to get involved with a community that was actively working to improve itself. A lot of my friends — friends from college — were involved with Parker Street Ministries, and I looked around for housing in the neighborhood and I bought it and moved in.
lkldnow: What do you do in the neighborhood?
Fred: When I asked Tim (Mitchell,) the director of Parker Street, his question to me was, “Well are you going to put up a great big fence around yourself and stay inside the whole time?” and I said, “No.” “If somebody comes over and asks to borrow a cup of sugar, you’re going to let them have it.” “Yeah.” “Well, that’s all we want. We just want good neighbors because good neighbors look out for each other.” If you get enough good neighbors in a community, all the sudden the problems don’t want to be there anymore. And so a lot of it is just doing life there.
lkldnow: On your LinkedIn page, you call yourself Head Window Washer at The Fred Group. Why did you give yourself that title?
Fred: It goes back to the whole servant-leader vibe. I want to give everybody on my team an opportunity to succeed and I want them to shine. So if I need to take out the trash and wash the windows and all that stuff so my team members can be successful, I’m happy to do that.
lkldnow: I’m going to end this with a quote from another interview with Fred, when he was asked in a podcast to describe his ultimate project. Here’s what he said:
Fred: If the project that I work on — the art that I create — can inspire people to love each other, if it can inspire people to humility and gratitude in their lives, I think those traits will make the world an exponentially better place. So I just want to make sure that any project I do pushes people toward those realizations.