INSPIRED by the ANTICS of CHILDREN
Lakeland Author and Illustrator Fred Koehler
BY LORRAINE BLOETH VALERINO
Lakeland author and illustrator Fred Koehler, 33, doesn’t remember a time when he wasn’t telling stories. During his youth, some of his decisions were based on the concept “what would make a better story?”
That idea has served him well from childhood into adulthood as his youthful exuberance seems to jump from the pages of his recently published book, “How to Cheer Up Dad” – which Penguin Books officially debuted in March and features an endearing character, Little Jumbo, who is trying his level best to please his father.
The author finds inspiration in the most unlikely situations. One afternoon, Koehler (pronounced “kay-ler”) was enjoying a cup of his favorite java at his long-time hangout, Mitchell’s Coffee House in Downtown Lakeland. His then 18-month-old son, Jack, was trying in earnest to get his father’s attention.
“I kept trying to get him to play with his toys, but he was determined to keep me from sketching,” said Koehler. “What then came to me was an image of two elephants – a father and son – staring each other down.”
The resulting children’s picture book chronicles the story of Little Jumbo, a young elephant who uses his ingenuity to try to bring happiness to his dad – something of a universal concept in personal relationships that can quickly tug at the heartstrings.
Koehler has been pleased with the early reviews of the book which has earned “starred reviews by Kirkus and Booklist – something extraordinary for a debuted book,” said Koehler. “It’s like hitting a homerun on your first at-bat as a major leaguer.”
“I was really at the right place at the right time to be picked up by Penguin,” said Koehler who has spent years honing his skills, learning more about writing and publishing children’s books through a number of seminars and conferences in Los Angeles and New York City that focused on the craft itself.
Often illustrators will send out postcards to help publicize their most recent work – knowing that many will find their way to the trash can. But one postcard image of Little Jumbo – tacked to a bulletin board – caught the attention of a Penguin Books representative and Koehler was subsequently contacted, receiving the initial book offer on Christmas Eve, 2011.
“I owe them one more,” said Koehler, explaining his contract with Penguin is a two-book deal. Little Jumbo’s adventure will continue in the second book with the hope the character will achieve “franchise” status. “I’ve actually submitted five manuscripts for the second book and they have all been rejected,” said the author, noting the sixth version is now being considered. “It’s a testament to just how hard it is to get published. A publisher is looking for the ‘right image.’”
Locally, the book has been well-received as was evident during Koehler’s book launch in early April at the Polk Museum of Art during which all 125 copies of the book were sold. His contract with Penguin prevents Koehler from selling books directly, but he tells interested patrons “‘How to Cheer Up Dad’ is available wherever books are sold.”
Throughout May, Koehler’s art has been featured at Mitchell’s Coffee House in a show entitled, “Sketches, Ideas & Other Stuff” and features prints of his original pieces – “3 Umbrellas” and “Bedtime Story” as well as canvas and giclée prints from the original sketches he pitched to Penguin.
Among the new books sold at the April book launch was one to Lewis Anna Woodbury teacher Jan Jackson, who read it to her first grade students. The result was Koehler’s first set of fan mail – complete with illustrations of their own and pint-size reviews – that drew a laugh from Koehler. “‘How to Cheer Up Dad’ was a fun book to read to my first grade students,” said Jackson. “The students were delighted with the story and it elicited some chuckles – particularly ‘when the kid was naked!’” as one student pointed out in his thank you note to Koehler. Out of the mouths of babes…
Growing up in Sebring, the son of Sherry Harter and Fred Koehler Sr., Koehler’s earliest memory as a writer and illustrator happened when he was about 6. “I wrote and illustrated my first ‘book,’ ‘Sammy the Shoestring’ which was about the life a young shoestring who, at the end – spoiler alert – discovers he is an identical twin,” said Koehler; who is now in negotiations with another publisher to illustrate other children’s books. His first book is dedicated to his own father, Fred Koehler Sr.
During his high school years, the aspiring author worked as a writer for Highlands Today newspaper. Graduating in 2001 from Florida Southern College in Lakeland – where he worked on the campus newspaper and served as editor of the FSC yearbook – Koehler earned a degree in graphic design.
He spent a couple of years working as a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa before launching his career in public relations – first with Polk County Schools and later at a local company. He then created his own company – The Fred Group LLC which handles “overflow work” for clients that include Publix Super Markets, Crisper’s, Palace Pizza Downtown and Mitchell’s Coffee House, among others. His team includes a full-time designer, a project manager and a copy writer. Located in the basement of the Downtown Bank of America building, The Fred Group LLC is one of a cluster of other local entrepreneurs in this office space, collectively known as Catapult.
Among his many creative friends is Nancye Blair Black, a local educational speaker, author and consultant who has known Koehler for more than 15 years. “We met at Florida Southern College, becoming immediate friends. We have known each other in our highest highs and lowest lows – and only sometimes he caused them,” said Black, laughing.
“While he likes to appear cool and casual, Fred is actually a richly emotional person. He profoundly feels insecurity, jealousy, loneliness and love; adeptly channeling that overflow into a quintessential moment that he captures as a globallyrelatable illustration. Because of that, it’s not the words on the pa ges of Fred’s children’s books that will capture your heart, it’s the stirring truth hidden in the images.”
“On the flip side, my favorite of Fred’s works is a fantasy novel he wrote about 10 years ago,” said Black. “It’s bold and thought-provoking, exploring the classic question of God’s goodness in the face of so much pain in the world. You might never see it on the shelf at a bookstore, and that’s a shame.”
Koehler continues to be inspired by the antics of children – specifically, his 6-year-old daughter Abigail and 4-year-old son Jack. “Fred loves his kids. His parenting style is traditional and fun, a surprising mix between Ward Cleaver and Willy Wonka,” said Black.
Currently single, Koehler enjoys being an outdoorsman with trips to the Tampa Bay area for salt-water fishing, spearfishing and snorkeling. “Fred is most at home on the water, whether sitting by one of our town’s many lakes or on a boat out in the bay,” said Black. “He fishes, but mostly I think he’s looking for peace amongst the waves. And aren’t we all?” In addition to the outdoors, Koehler has volunteered once a week at the Parker Street Ministries, following the lead of some college buddies. He’s also active with Strong Tower Church, a multicultural community that is part of Parker Street Ministries.
Always with a slight bent for the something non-traditional, Koehler enjoys West African food in addition to Thai food. And he’s bit of a prankster. As an April Fools Day joke this year, he joined in on a prank when a local friend published a fictitious story announcing a “Downtown Orangutan Preserve. I dressed up in a monkey suit and walked around. People were actually seeking out the Preserve,” said Koehler.
“If I look at the big picture, I’d really like to stay in Lakeland,” said Koehler. “There’s a lot of good stuff happening here. I’ve been surrounded by awesome people who have provided so much support. Lakeland has so much to offer – especially when raising a family. I’m really more of a country mouse – an introvert – so it would be nice to enjoy a successful career right here.”
When it’s all said and done, Koehler’s wish is that “Little Jumbo has a career of his own and I’m just the lucky guy who is able to see how he plays that out.”