Just Who Is Hotlips Triplefin? Or, A Visit with Author Kate Coombs with Art from John Nickle and Meilo So

h1 March 13th, 2012 by jules

“The couple so longed for a child that one day the man cried,
‘I want a son even if he’s half a hedgehog!'”

(Click to see entire spread)

“Rolling your belly like a tide, / sweeping the little fish aside, /
billow and swell of midnight blue, / you’re as grand as a planet / passing through.”
— From “Blue Whale”

I’ve got my best coffee mug out this morning for author Kate Coombs, who has two new picture book releases this year. The first release (January, Atheneum) is the re-telling of a classic Grimm tale, called Hans My Hedgehog, illustrated by John Nickle. The second, released this month from Chronicle Books, is a poetry collection, Water Sings Blue: Ocean Poems, illustrated in shimmering watercolors by Meilo So. Kate’s here to talk a bit about each book and what’s next for her, and I’ve got art from each title. (Meilo will also be visiting soon for a breakfast interview, and I’m looking forward to that, too.)

In Hans My Hedgehog, Coombs takes, as she notes in an Author’s Note, “some liberties with the retelling,” noting that Hans’ misfit status in the original Grimm tale is what really drew her to the story. Both Kirkus and Publishers Weekly have given it starred reviews, and Pamela Paul writes in the New York Times, “this twisty mash-up of ‘The Princess and the Frog’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’ introduces a spirited hero who handles his misfit status well, even if he does resort to a smattering of revenge.” Even this is slight revenge compared to the original Grimm tale in which Hans slaughters pigs and sticks the first princess with quills till she bleeds (not to mention the life-long curse he puts upon her).

Below, Kate weighs in a bit more on the story.

Water Sings Blue is a collection of poems about the seaside and the ocean, and it’s one of the most beautiful picture books I’ve seen thus far in 2012 (and it’s also been met with a starred review from Kirkus). In fact, the spread for “What the Waves Say,” pictured below, is my new reigning Favorite Spread of 2012, and we’ll see if another comes along to top it. More on this one from Kate below. (And here’s a link to a few of the poems that didn’t make it into Water Sings Blue, “because they were about ocean magic/sea myths,” said Kate.)

So, let’s get right to it, and I thank Kate for visiting.

* * *

Kate: Water Sings Blue started off a very long time ago with a poem about a jellyfish — I compared it to one of those old-fashioned glass cake dishes that looks like a ruffled bell jar. Eventually I decided to write a full collection of ocean poems. I came up with a very long list of sea creatures and wrote about 80 poems on everything from flotsam and jetsam to a fish whose name is really truly Hotlips Triplefin. I had actually sold a different collection to Chronicle, but when that project fell through, I sent Melissa Manlove the ocean poems and we got to work. We wound up with a mere 23 poems.

“The prim bell jar / with ruffled rim / my grandma used / to cover cake /
has learned to swim…” — From “Jellyfish Kitchen”

(Click to enlarge)

I should add that I’ve spent most of my life in Los Angeles, so I’ve been to the beach many times and love the ocean. I’ve also been known to hang out at the Long Beach Aquarium, watching the jellyfish.

I tend to like the wistful, imagistic poems best, but Melissa wisely encouraged me to include some of the funny ones, so I think we came up with a nice blend. Here’s a very small poem from the book, also about a jellyfish. (It’s secretly a haiku, but I didn’t stick to the traditional grade-school syllable count, so I left that out of the title, not wanting to get a zillion letters from students and teachers about 5/7/5!)


Deep water shimmers.
A wind-shape passes,
kimono trailing.

“Shimmer and run, catch the sun. / Ripple thin, catch the wind. /
Shift and splash, drift and dash. / Slow and gray, foggy day…”
— From “What the Waves Say”

(Click to enlarge spread)

When Melissa told me Meilo So would be doing the artwork, I was very pleased: I recognized her as the illustrator of three poetry collections by Marilyn Singer that were sitting on my bookshelf. I quickly got those out and looked at the art. Aside from a number of small images on the covers, a lot of the pieces were monochromatic and/or spot art. I wondered what Meilo’s art would look like when she did larger, full-color pieces. So I hopped on the Internet and visited Meilo’s website, where I found beautiful watercolor pieces in bright colors.

With that introduction, it wasn’t a shock to me when I saw the final galleys and they were just breathtaking — especially the jellyfish!

“The famous author hesitates / to pick his pen up. / He is shy. But wait! /
He autographs the water / with a single word — / good-bye.”
— From “Octopus Ink”

(Click to enlarge spread)

As you may have noticed, I had another book come out several weeks ago, a picture book retelling of a Grimms’ fairy tale called Hans My Hedgehog. The illustrator, John Nickle, had actually proposed the project. His editor, Susan Burke, took a look at the original story and concluded that it was “violent and meandering.” My editor at Atheneum worked down the hall from Susan and told her that I had a good fairy tale voice, so Susan asked me to do the re-telling. I knew who John Nickle was, not so much because of his well-known book, The Ant Bully, but because he had illustrated a book called Things That Are Most in the World by Judi Barrett that I used as a writing prompt with my students.

John’s style is very different from Meilo’s, so Hans has a different kind of beauty. Where Meilo creates an almost ethereal ocean world, using the properties of watercolor to perfect, watery effect, John uses strong acrylic images for his sturdy medieval characters. Art designer Debra Sfetsios-Conover made this story in the fairy tale tradition more striking and contemporary by setting off John’s parchment backdrops with black and red. John’s spot art is especially wonderful — the prickly little heart motif [pictured below] just slays me, especially when I see what he does with it on the final page. Well, that final spread is just utterly satisfying in so many ways! Happy ending, completely.

“The day of the wedding, guests came from near and far. Tables were piled high with tarts and trifles and turnovers, and little fruit trees were rolled in on carts. A dozen musicians played for the dance — but when Hans began to play his fiddle,
the other musicians put down their instruments to listen.”

(Click to enlarge spread)

I am in awe of Meilo and John’s work, and I am just thrilled to the core that I was blessed with two such incredible illustrators for these books.

I am also very hopeful about my next picture book with Atheneum, The Tooth Fairy Wars, which will be illustrated by animation artist Jake Parker. It will probably come out in 2014. In the meantime, I’m working on a middle grade fantasy novel set in Los Angeles (beach included), as well as a new poetry collection about mythological creatures.

Thanks very much for having me, Jules, and for showing off this amazing artwork!

* * * * * * *

HANS MY HEDGEHOG. Copyright © 2012 by Kate Coombs. Illustrations copyright © 2012 by John Nickle. Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, New York. Spreads posted with permission of the publisher.

WATER SINGS BLUE. Copyright © 2012 by Kate Coombs. Illustrations copyright © 2012 by Meilo So. Published by Chronicle Books, San Francisco. Spreads posted with permission of the publisher.

10 comments to “Just Who Is Hotlips Triplefin? Or, A Visit with Author Kate Coombs with Art from John Nickle and Meilo So”

  1. What is this, the year of the ocean book?? And each of them is so, so good. Water Sings Blue is just beautiful, and I can’t wait to snoop as you discuss it with the illustrator. So gorgeous!

  2. It is also the year of the Blue book! I am in awe of both those water poems and Meilo So’s watercolors.
    I remember reading Hans the Hedgehog as a child, in an old, thick, barely illustrated, collection of Grimm. I look forward to reading this one!

  3. I was moved by that line about shaping the want of a child to half a hedgehog, and followed it into those beautiful watercolors, which show the fluidity of water and its inhabitants with so much crazy life. I can see why it’s at the top of your stack, Jules. Thanks for showing!

  4. Thank you so much for bringing these new books with the lush illustrations to our attention. I can’t wait to see them in “person”.

  5. Fascinating. That hedgehog picture is almost scary.

  6. I’m always happy to see poetry books for children that don’t feel forced, but instead offer beautiful word pairings that reach all ages. I hadn’t heard of “Water Sings Blue,” but now I can’t wait to run out and read it. Plus the illustrations are so lovely. I’m glad Meilo So will be featured on here, too.

  7. I love the ocean — it’s in my blood — and Meilo So is a favorite illustrator, so I can’t wait to have this book. I love the series of wave pictures too and I bookmarked the page to come back to when a need a breathing time. Until I have the book, that is. Thanks for featuring.

  8. Thanks, all …

    Hi, Laurina! Waving from Tennessee!

  9. Lovely illustrations – I especially love the way Meilo So uses the wet watercolour “sploshes” (for lack of a better term” in her underwater scenes – so free and colourful. Thanks for sharing as always Jules!

  10. […] Meilo’s illustrated picture books over the years, it was her work in this Spring’s Water Sings Blue (Chronicle), poems written by Kate Coombs, that made me up and ask her about an interview. (I […]

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