One of the challenges of children’s books, says local author Susi Gregg Fowler, is the lack of control the writer has over the final product, particularly in terms of the illustrations. Authors and illustrators, usually selected separately by the publisher, often have no interaction at all during the creative process.
“I think that besides parenting, being the author of children’s book texts is the best exercise in life for working on the issue of letting go,” Susi said with a laugh. “Because really, once it’s out there, it’s just out there. Anything could happen -- with the illustrations, the marketing, the way somebody envisions it. It really is truly a collaborative process.”
With her first children’s book, “When Summer Ends,” Susi didn’t see the illustrations that would accompany her text until she received the advance copy of the final product in the mail; she never met or even spoke to the artist, Marisabina Russo (whose work she loved in the end).
For her latest release, however -- and for most of the other titles she’s published since that first book -- any anxiety over the illustrations has been allayed by the fact that she’s known quite a bit about the illustrator: it’s her husband of 37 years, local painter Jim Fowler.
“Arctic Aesop’s Fables,” just released by Sasquatch Books, is the couple’s seventh collaboration and their first release in 12 years.
Jim Fowler, who has illustrated 14 children’s books in total, said the couple’s collaborative process goes on regardless of whether or not a book project is a joint assignment.
“Even if I wasn’t working on this book, I would have had comments about it and vice versa,” he said. “It’s never a clean break where her part stops or where her involvement in it ends. She’ll look at the illustrations and make comments and I’ll read her text and comment.”
“He’s usually my first reader on things,” Susi agreed.
Though they rely on each other for feedback, they’ve learned to respect eachothers boundaries. For example, they each have their own private work space -- Jim in the basement and Susi on the second floor. And they try to give each other mental space at the very beginning of a project, when ideas are still fluid.
“With one of the books we were doing together, at a certain point I was dying to see what he was doing with the art, and I said ‘Can I see how its coming and what you’re doing?’” Susi recalled. “And Jim said ‘Can you look without commenting?’ and I thought about it and I said ‘No, I don’t think so,’ and went back upstairs and waited until he was ready.”
Both said “Arctic Aesop’s Fables” was a fun and unusual project that came together pretty quickly. In it, Susi retells 12 tales credited to Aesop, a man who may or may not have existed in the 6th century BC. The hardest part of writing the book, Susi said, was deciding which stories out of the hundreds of fables that have been passed down through the centuries would lend themselves to the kind of book she wanted to create. Though there is some “tooth and claw” action in the book, Susi steered away from the fables that were too dark or very bloody, so that younger listeners wouldn’t be too upset (or perhaps inspired, Jim added).
Also important was the choice of animals, and along with that, behaviors that accurately reflected those animals’ natures.
“I had a couple parameters that mattered to me,” Susi said. “I wanted it to be Arctic animals, animals who would be in the same region. And I wanted the actual information to be accurate.... and then the easy part, in a way, was writing them.”
Susi, a third generation Alaskan, relied heavily on the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s “Wildlife Notebook Series” -- which Jim helped illustrate -- for any questions about behavior or habitat, as well as the web sites of the National Wildlife Federation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“I’ve been in the Arctic but I don’t know the wildlife like I would in Southeast,” she said.
In her version, the Tortoise and the Hare has been reimagined as the Porcupine and the Arctic Hare, the Lion and the Mouse appear as the Mosquito and the White-Fronted Goose, and the Gnat and the Ox become the Butterfly and the Caribou.
For his part, Jim said he started his drawings out of his head to avoid too much reliance on a particular wildlife photo.
“I start playing around with ideas and when I start tidying them up I’ll refer to photographs. I’ll use three or four – and start piecing things together.”
Trusting in her illustrator partner, Susi said she had very little involvement in how the illustrations came together -- but she is thrilled with how they came out. The book will be officially released Feb. 5 but Hearthside Books will be hosting book signings on First Friday downtown and on Saturday in the Valley.
The couple first met in 1973 at a local cafe formerly located off Seward Street called Gandalf’s, shortly after Jim arrived from Oklahoma. Susi grew up in Juneau, and spent a lot of her time at her grandmother’s bookshop, Baranof Books.
“I really grew up in there, I worked there, my siblings worked there. Lots of people in Juneau still talk about it. People remember what a magical kind of place it was. It was kind of a center of the community.”
The shop was originally located in the Baranof Hotel, and then moved to several different locations on Seward Street before coming back to Franklin Street. It last occupied the space where the old Capitol Theater was located, and was eventually replaced by Big City Books. Susi said her grandmother’s love of books was hugely inspirational.
“She had a passion for books,” Susi said. “She worked seven days a week, except Sundays in the summer, when she fished. There wasn’t a lot of difference between her work-life and her life-life.”
Listening to the Fowlers talk about their work, the same seems to hold true for them. Surrounded by four generations of family in the flats downtown, including their two grandchildren, Callahan and Cedar, the Fowlers’ home is both busy and calm, packed full of books and art. Susi is currently happily working on a novel for middle readers, and has had her recent poems and essays published in the Christian Science Monitor and Cirque Magazine. Jim, an active fine art painter, just finished up a solo show at the Rookery and plans regular trips up north to do his plein air work. When speaking about their projects, both Fowlers make it clear that they have followed their passion. Moreover, they help eachother get better at what they do.
“I don’t know about her, but I learn,” Jim said. “I hear her talk about different things and it changes what I look for. And with the books I’m reading too.”
“I feel like I’ve learned a lot that I wouldn’t have learned about picture books, and about writing them, from him.”
The Fowlers will sign copies of “Arctic Aesop’s Fables,” Friday at Hearthside Books downtown from 4:30 to 7 p.m. and in the Valley from 1 to 3 on Saturday. Saturday’s event will include an art table for kids, a reading of some of the fables, and balloons.