I’m so glad to welcome back to the blog the amazing Sandra Nickel, who is here to talk about her latest picture book, Big Bear and Little Fish. It was illustrated by Il Sung Na and published on September 6 by Carolrhoda Books/Lerner Publishing Group. Sandra is represented by Victoria Wells Arms.
Check out the book trailer:
El Space: Well, now, you’ve gone from nonfiction to fiction! Congratulations! Please tell us how this book came about.
Sandra: After you and I graduated with our MFAs in Writing for Children and Young Adults, I did an extra semester. This time, I focused on picture books, and had the great luck to study with Kathi Appelt, who as you know, is a Newbery Honoree and a two-time National Book Award finalist. During that semester, I worked on nonfiction, but I also wanted to understand how some of my favorite fiction authors did what they did. I was particularly fascinated by Arnold Lobel, who wrote stories with heart and humor, and a touch of philosophy.
I read every single one of Lobel’s stories. I read them slowly and repeatedly over a period of four weeks. After I finished, I didn’t have much time for the writing I owed Kathi Appelt. I was worried. But then, I opened my laptop and Bear and Little Fish tumbled out. I think Kathi was a little surprised when they landed on her desk. They were so different from everything else I had sent her. But there they were, all the same, a bear and a fish.
El Space: How did you shape this tale of friendship? Did you base Bear or Fish on people you know or did you start from scratch? Why or why not?
Sandra: I didn’t consciously base Bear or Fish on anyone. But I must admit that I’m a lot like Bear. I’m a worrier, as she is. I try hard to get things right, but so often don’t. So, I guess you could say, I’m Bear. And what about Fish? Thanks to your question, I’ve realized that Fish is a conglomerate of my close friends. She’s thoughtful, a bit of a philosopher, and wonderfully positive and upbeat. She’s a fantastic friend like my friends and the perfect counterpoint for the worriers of the world.
El Space: Kirkus called Big Bear and Little Fish a “lovely, gently humorous story,” and “a delightful tale.” I totally agree. What were the challenges that came with writing your book?
Sandra: There really weren’t any challenges. As soon as I opened my laptop after reading Arnold Lobel’s books, Bear and Fish were there. I had heard other authors talk about how their books wrote themselves. How characters showed up and talked to them. How the characters told their own story. But this had never happened to me, not until Bear and Fish. And what a joy it was to listen to them and write down their story! It was so much easier than my nonfiction books, with their months of research and just as many months of reducing that research down to a thirty-two-page story.
El Space: Il Sung Na’s illustrations are just perfect for your book. Do you have a favorite spread? If so, which one?
Sandra: I 100% agree about Il Sung Na being the perfect illustrator for Big Bear and Little Fish. I had this incredible wave of joy the first time I saw the final illustrations. That cover! The look on Bear’s face is so befuddled, you can’t wait to throw open the book and find out what is going on. And those endpapers! I laugh each time I see Il Sung’s vignettes of Bear’s different emotional states as she adjusts to the idea of a little fish being in her life.
As for my favorite spread, hmm, that’s a tough one. I really do love all the illustrations. But for you, L. Marie, I made myself choose one—well, two. I love the spread where Bear is bringing Fish home for the first time. Il Sung has given Bear an extremely worried expression and emphasized her emotional state by casting her in a purple shadow that is reminiscent of a dark fairytale forest. The combination of setting and Bear psychology is brilliant! Bookending this spread, toward the end of the story, is Bear after she’s walked through all the shadows and worry. Here, she’s on the other side of her discoveries about Fish, and more importantly, the discoveries about herself! She is surrounded by bright light, she carries Fish on her head, and is thrilled with her place in the world. The juxtaposition of these two spreads is inspired and so fulfilling for the reader.
El Space: Your book is so quirky. Are there any humorous picture books that inspired you? If so, which ones?
Sandra: You’ve already heard about Arnold Lobel and how he inspired me. During my extra semester, I also read other friendship stories. George and Martha by James Marshall and Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne. We’re all used to these stories now, having read them since childhood, so we may have forgotten how really quirky the characters in these books are. George likes to peek in windows. Martha loves looking at herself in mirrors so much that she wakes up during the night to look at herself some more. And as for the Hundred Acres Wood, it includes a piglet who is scared of nearly everything, an owl who is not as smart as he thinks he is, a donkey who has become synonymous with doom and gloom, and a bear who thinks he is empty headed but is, in fact, quite the philosopher. Each of these characters is fun and funny because of their utter uniqueness. When it comes to humor, the more the character is filled with foibles, the more fun it is.
El Space: How will you challenge yourself next? What are you working on?
Sandra: I just received an offer for my most recent nonfiction book, so I think I’ll turn to fiction again. Maybe a garden story. Or, one about friends. Or, one about ideas. Who knows? Maybe I’ll even dream up a sequel to Big Bear and Little Fish. Wouldn’t that be fun!?!
Yes it would! Thank you, Sandra, for being my guest!
Looking for Sandra? Check out her website, Twitter, and Instagram.
Looking for Big Bear and Little Fish? Look for it at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Indiebound, Bookshop, or your favorite local bookstore.
One of you will received a signed copy of Big Bear and Little Fish. Comment below to be entered in a drawing. Winner to be announced sometime next week.
Check out Sandra’s other books:
Author photo, Big Bear and Little Fish book covers and spread courtesy of the author. Illustrations by Il Sung Na. Author photo credit: Emo-Photo. Other book covers from Goodreads. Kathi Appelt photo from the VCFA website.