Written by Adam Justice
Photography by Philip Pietri
Fred Koehler wants to tell you a story. And there are some people in high places who are betting you want to hear it.
Earlier this year, Koehler, a Sebring native and graduate from Florida Southern College, signed an agreement with Dial Books for Young Readers, an arm of the international publishing company Penguin Books. It’s an initial two- book deal, hiring him to write and illustrate two children’s books.
Several months later, he landed a contract with the North Carolina- based agency Adams Literary, who will represent him on future projects. Koehler’s first book, titled Dad ’s Bad Day, is scheduled to be released in 2014, with the second closely following in 2015. “Wow!” you might say. Wow, indeed.
In an age when the Pixar machine relentlessly cranks out family blockbusters, classic children’s literature is experiencing a sort of renaissance among the 30-somethings with kids of their own. Authors such as J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer are becoming rock stars in the young-adult stratosphere,
so setting out to be an author/illustrator may not sound surprising — or safe. Is Koehler deterred? Not a bit. In fact, it only energizes him more to create and fill the gaps he believes these myopic giants are overlooking.
“It all just seems too commercial these days,” Koehler says. This may sound a
bit ironic knowing that his day job is in advertising. But he masterfully equates his opposing roles as ad designer and author by explaining that any good advertisement at least implies a good story, as is evidenced by Pixar. But when you remove that story from the context of advertising, it becomes lost in translation. Koehler no longer wanted his stories to be dictated by marketing logic. So, his answer to the industry: heart.
If you ask, Koehler will quickly answer that he is foremost a writer, an illustrator second. He emphasizes the importance of the story and how it defines the illustration, not vice versa. He finds inspiration in authors who
he believes “told stories that made people’s lives better.” Writers like C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Jack London are especially notable.
Books he enjoyed as a child, many of which were produced by Penguin, seemed to be defined by a certain splendid simplicity and originality free from the influence of pop culture. They were more similar to works of art created by an imaginative person who could somehow capture and mesmerize a young mind. Their stories had substance without complexity and could be memorized and recited over and over again. To Koehler, those stories possessed a sense of timelessness that is often missing today. He wants to follow a similar direction by having his work reflect a more traditional literary form while keeping the message and the appearance fresh.
Koehler’s route to becoming a writer and illustrator was anything but mapped. He studied graphic design at Florida Southern College and admits to not having been completely enamored with college life. He realized the importance of a college education but didn’t feel it was essential to his formula.
Upon graduation, Koehler enrolled in the Peace Corps and served two years in the small nation of Togo in West Africa. His experiences there played out before him like a broad human-interest story and sparked his curiosity as an aspiring author.
He has since spent much of the last decade working as a designer at a local advertising agency, subconsciously writing stories with every ad he designs.
All the while, he leads a second life. Fred Koehler the writer emerges after the commercial designs are submitted. His time is spent sketching, writing, networking with other like-minded writers, and promoting his work at national literary conferences and on his blog. His laptop in hand, he can often be found in the local coffee shop, spending countless hours sketching and jotting notes for potential story concepts. These creative sessions are also occasionally spent with his two young children, who were immediately two of his most important inspirations and sources for an endless stream of ideas.
For an author of children’s books, parenthood would seem to be an obvious source of material. Koehler is especially influenced by his experiences as a father. He first dedicated himself to pursuing
a career as an author of children’s books after becoming a father. In fact, his first idea for a book, the idea that caught the attention of Penguin executives, came directly from his relationship with his son. This is the type of personal experience he feels is absent from the new publishing industry for children and young adults.
Perusing his portfolio of sketches, you’ll find that so many of his illustrations resemble his own kids or are related to his relationship with them. It makes sense that the best ideas for children’s books would originate in the mind of a child. An element of Koehler’s genius is how receptive he is to his
two kids and how he encourages their imaginations. It’s a win-win situation: His kids expand their imaginations with the help of a father who nurtures their young creative minds, while Koehler gleans inspiration and ideas for future projects while engaging with his kids.
The year 2014 will begin a new chapter for Koehler. After nearly a decade of carving his niche in the literary world, he will see his first book on the shelves of national retailers. But for Koehler it’s about much more than reaching professional goals. It’s about keeping the contemporary literary world genuine by reviving a renewed sense of imagination based on “stories that made people’s lives better.”
FRED’S TOP TEN FAVORITE CHILDREN’S BOOKS
Abel’s Island by William Steig
The Monster at the End of this Book by Sesame Street
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
Olivia by Ian Falconer
The Wrinkle in Time series by Madeleine L’Engle
The Sword in the Tree by Clyde Robert Bulla
Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears by Verna Aardema
My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel