Marcus Pfister obviously takes great joy in creating picture books. Otherwise, why would he have a copy of each of his books, from the first to the most recent, displayed on a large wall in his studio? Also featured on the walls are letters and drawing from kids who love his books. Marcus enjoys visiting schools where he can offer drawing lessons and tell students how he creates books. He does this in Austria every March and also does 5 to 10 school visits in his home country each year. You might think his favorite sport was skiing given where he lives and his March travels, but it is actually basketball and he is also quite fond of soccer.
His home is located outside of the Swiss capitol of Bern and he and his family have lived there for some time (the oldest of his four children is 20 and the youngest is 4). Marcus told us that he attended what would be called a normal school for nine years and then he had to choose between a college or specialization path. For him it was one year of specialization—art and then four years in an apprenticeship.
While we were sitting in his studio and enjoying a delicious cup of tea and cookies together, Marcus told us he worked as a graphic artist at a Zurich publishing agency prior to becoming a book illustrator. He was working with photos at this job and was feeling frustrated that he could not use original illustration in his work.
At the time his wife was a kindergarten teacher and he began to think about illustrating books. He toured the United States for six months and when he returned to Switzerland in 1984, he went back to work half time at the agency so he could spend time figuring out what type of art to do. He really wanted to look for a job in California but that was not to be. Eventually, he presented his first book, The Sleepy Owl, to four or five publishers and it was Brigitte Sidjanski at North-South Books who recognized his talent. It was published in 1986 and thus began a long and close relationship with the publisher and the family that owned the company. Economically, it did well enough for him to continue. When the illustrator for a Christmas story was unable to complete the project for North-South, Marcus was asked to take on the task. He had just three months to create the illustrations, and he was working part-time in advertising at the time.
In 1992, The Rainbow Fish was published and changed his life. As noted in an interview on the publisher's site "... people were fascinated by the effect of the holographic foil, but, then, they liked reading the story and related to its moral. This book became very popular at schools and in religious educational institutions. I guess I was able to 'translate' complex social themes into easy, childlike language." From 1994 forward Marcus was able to devote all his time to illustrating, and he was able to stop working as a graphic artist. He really loved that work and noted that he would not mind doing it again. One very important fact was that during his time with North-South, the publisher had established business relationships in the U.S. which opened a huge market for Marcus and his books. The demands on his time increased and he began to do tours, including two in the United States.
He talked to us about his technique in creating a book and how he has moved to acrylics (a fast drying medium used by quite a few illustrators). First, he creates a small layout, and then he enlarges it with a copier. Modifications are made on this image. He then copies the image onto transparent paper and eventually to opaque paper. Part of this process involves covering the backside of the drawing with graphite (would you believe from his own pencil sharpener) and that is what transfers to create the lines on the paper that he has chosen for the final painting. With the "Rainbow Fish" books there is also the additional concern for the holographic portion of the image and blocking that appropriately. While Marcus uses realistic creatures as his models, the ones he creates are not true to life.
While he is probably best known for the "Rainbow Fish" series, Marcus has created other book characters and storylines as well, such as those featuring Pit and Pat and Penguin Pete. Marcus had seen a documentary about penguins on TV and thought they moved in a very funny way. He began to visualize illustrations and wondered if he could turn them into a book.
The success of Rainbow Fish has meant that he is free to create and work on other techniques and characters. Nevertheless, Marcus still has new books about Rainbow Fish coming out. In 2009, Rainbow Fish will go into the deep sea and meet special animals. One of his newest characters is Bertie who was inspired by his youngest daughter Sophie and the warmth truly comes through. His illustrations are created on canvas and you can see the texture in the artwork and the finished illustrations --a different look than found in most of his books.
Marcus writes in German and then the books are translated into other languages. Is he pleased with the translations? Usually, but not always. If he had known how a translation would read, there are times when he would have written the book a little differently. Marcus told us that he averages about a book and a half a year. Interestingly most of his books were printed in Europe except for Rainbow Fish. The holographic technique was better handled in Asia. Lao, the dye cuts for his books are done in China.
Many book illustrators sell their original art, but he said it is not as common in Europe as it is in Asia. For example, he had a Korean editor who bought the entire Rainbow Fish original art. Collectors in the U.S. tend to be both individuals and museums devoted to children's picture book art such as the ones in Massachusetts (Eric Carle Museum) and Ohio (The Mazza Collection).
We asked him what is it like to have his studio in his home? Marcus replied that it is very enjoyable to have his children around while working at home. He puts in a regular day --8 to 5 Monday through Friday. "I have time with my children at breakfast. They come down to read the stories and to see what I am creating." He wouldn't have that opportunity if he had to leave home to go to work.
It was quite evident to us as we sat in his studio and as the children came home and greeted their father that they have a very close relationship. One son is in the military, daughter Nina is in college and has musical interests, his other son is going to the same school his father attended and Sophie of course is the preschooler who was out for a swimming lesson the day we visited. Marcus' current wife is Italian, and she is working hard studying German twice a week. Even though she is from the region near Bologna—he did not meet her at the book fair. They both seem to manage quite well in English.
When asked who were the artists who influence his work, Marcus was quick to note that all artists who live in Berne, Switzerland are influenced by Paul Klee. Children's book artists whose word he admires are Helme Heine, whose works have been translated into thirty five languages; Paul McKee, probably most well-known in the U. S. for his illustrations of the patchwork elephant, Elmer; and Ivan Gantschev whose technique in acrylics is fantastic. Among Gantschev's most current books are Santa's Favorite Story: Santa Tells the Story of the First Christmas and The Rabbit and the Bear: A Christmas Tale.
We asked Marcus if he had anything special he would like to say to parents. His response was, "Read to your child. It is the most important twenty minutes of the day, and look into their eyes as they are looking at you reading the book." He practices what he preaches and spends time with his family telling or reading stories.
He hopes he has created books that will bring parents and children together and that they will lead to family experiences like his own which makes him feel great.
Contributors: Sharon Salluzzo and Marilyn Courtot
Aaron's Secret Message
Translated by Marianne Martens
With the jewel-like tones familiar to readers of The Rainbow Fish, Pfister illustrates the story of Aaron, a young boy living in Bethlehem. For a few days, he has noticed a special star in the sky, a star that seems to be getting brighter. One night he has a dream about following the star to a stable. The next day--dream forgotten--he ventures to the market to watch all the people arriving for the census. By the well, he meets a man and a pregnant woman and pets their donkey. Later, as he sees the couple turned away while seeking shelter, he understands the meaning of his dream. He leads them to the stable and is one of the first to witness the new baby in the light of the special star. The book's cover is cut out as if Aaron is peering through a window at the stable; the window is framed with holographic gold patterns reminiscent of the scales in Rainbow Fish. Children accustomed to that book may be disappointed to learn that the gold shapes do not recur in this story. Despite this caveat, the story is well told and the illustrations are evocative. 2005, North-South, $15.95. Ages 4 to 8. Reviewer: Dr. Judy Rowen (Children's Literature).
Bertie at Bedtime
From suppertime to bedtime, Bertie keeps Daddy on his toes. Dad attempts to cajole Bertie into eating his supper and going to sleep. In between, he plays with Bertie, gives him a bath and has him brush his teeth. Bedtime is the most challenging, however, for procrastinating Bertie. In fact, the joke is on Daddy, who falls asleep before his son! Young children will see themselves in Bertie's actions and reactions to his father's requests. Parents will recognize the stalling tactics of the very young. There is plenty of humor and a great deal of warmth in the illustrations. Father and son delight in one another's company. Indeed, some adults may feel that Dad is far too lenient with Bertie. The drawings in which we see the hippos' legs, feet and toes just make me want to laugh. The brief text makes this suitable for young children. While it is doubtless best as a bedtime read, it is also a good choice for a preschool story hour about bedtime or daddies. 2008, NorthSouth Books, $16.95. Ages 2 to 4. Reviewer: Sharon Salluzzo (Children's Literature).
Charlie at the Zoo
Translated by J. Alison James
Full of curiosity, Charlie, the oldest of five ducklings, goes off each day in search of new discoveries. On this particular day, he goes from the water, where he sees an "odd green animal" (a frog) to the meadow, where he encounters "a brown monster with an enormous tongue" (cow). This animal talks about the "zoo hat" on the ground near Charlie, and that is just the impetus Charlie needs to find and explore the zoo. There, he learns about hippos, orangutans, chameleons, sea lions, and leopards. The dye-cut on each page gives a small glimpse of the next animal Charlie is going to see. Factual information about each animal is included, such as what it eats, its life span, and if it is endangered. Small maps indicate each animal's native habitat. Right from the cover, Charlie seems to beckon the reader to join him on his journey. He has the wide-eyed innocence of a child. Each of the zoo animals is pictured in its natural setting. Its mix of realism and anthropomorphism serves to inform while keeping the tone light. This is a good title for beginning a discussion of animal habitats or animal types (e.g., wild, farm). It is also a good choice for a "visit to the zoo"-themed story hour for 4- to 7 year-olds. The occasional question aimed at the listener will keep preschoolers engaged in the story. The final endpapers present a map indicating where each animal is found in the zoo. Unfortunately, part of it is hidden by the book jacket. Nonetheless, this is a fun introduction to the zoo and its typical animals. 2007, NorthSouth Books, $17.95. Ages 4 to 8. Reviewer: Sharon Salluzzo (Children's Literature).
The Christmas Star
In this board book, the main attraction is the foil stamping used to make the stars that shine on each of the muted pages. They shine to lead the shepherds, the three kings, and the wild animals to the stable in Bethlehem where the Holy Child lies. It is a retelling of the familiar Christmas story with an added gimmick--silver foil objects such as the palace turrets, crowns, and the chests that the three kings have lashed to their camels. One quibble, the text refers to all of the stars merging into one magnificent star, but they never do in the illustrations, which are a group of little stars that form the larger star. 2004 (orig. 1993), North-South, $6.95. Ages 3 to 8. Reviewer: Marilyn Courtot (Children's Literature).
La estrella de Navidad
The story of the Nativity is told in Spanish for a young reader. While the language is more complex than the usual board book, it also captures some of the elegance of the traditional retelling with child-pleasing illustrations. Watercolors appear to have been executed on wet paper so that the lines of the animals seen in the nighttime have a pleasant fuzziness. Pfister also uses foil to good purpose in creating the shining guiding star and the clothes and gifts of the wise men it guides. A pleasant version to read with a three-year old and a nice way to use the pictures to tell the story in your own words to a baby. 2004 (orig. 1993), NorthSouth Books, $6.95. Ages 1 to 3. Reviewer: Susan Hepler, Ph.D. (Children's Literature).
The Friendly Monsters
For children with lively imaginations, monsters in the closet and under the bed can be downright scary. Pfister addresses that fear in this lift-the-flap book. All four monsters appear on the title page, with one waving hello as the reader pulls the flap forward. Luke and his sister Sophie are looking out the window when Sophie begins to describe the monster she sees at the top of the hill. Luke protests but finally sees it. The reader does, too, as it pops up from the page. Big Green Monster, who is composed of the trees and shrubbery, introduces the children to the monsters in the house. First there is the closet monster, then the under-the-bed monster, and finally the cellar monster. Look carefully, let your imagination run free, and you can see how each monster is well suited to its abode. Do you think those are just clothes, a hanger and suspenders? Open the flaps and you will see how they make up the Closet Monster. Slippers, a hot water bottle, and some under-the-bed odds-and-ends become the Under-the-Bed Monster. Ski boots and a vacuum cleaner stuffed under the basement stairs are part of the Cellar Monster. This light-hearted, imaginative approach with lift-the-flaps and pop-ups is just the thing to assuage a child's fears whether or not it is accompanied by further discussion about monsters. 2008, NorthSouth, $18.95. Ages 5 to 9. Reviewer: Sharon Salluzzo (Children's Literature).
A Gift from the Rainbow Fish
This gift book emphasizes the importance of friendship and sharing. "There are lots of ways to share," says the Rainbow Fish, who proceeds to offer examples. Some are basic and concrete, such as giving a safe place and food. Others are more esoteric, such as sharing wisdom. The Rainbow Fish glitters on each page, and he finishes by offering a glittering paper scale to the reader in a pop-up on the final page. The illustrations have all appeared in previous books. Those familiar with all of the Rainbow Fish books may want to find these images in the original stories; it would be an interesting exercise for young children to look carefully at the illustrations. Given this book's small size, it will work best as a little gift to a special friend or as one that is read by parent and child rather than as a library book. 2008, NorthSouth Books, $9.95. Ages 3 to 7. Reviewer: Sharon Salluzzo (Children's Literature).
Henri Egg Artiste
Translated by J. Alison James
Pfister offers an introduction to art masterpieces in this humorous tale of a rabbit who is a "professional Easter egg painter." Henri's wife, Henrietta, has brought in the eggs, but Henri complains that, as an artist, he is sick of painting the same old eggs. Henrietta worries about the disappointed children while Henri seeks inspiration for something different. As he finally begins to paint his new "masterpieces," Henri produces a series of eggs in styles ranging from ancient Egyptian to contemporary modern. Finally, instead of hiding them, he puts them on exhibition. Despite Henrietta's concern, the children are quite pleased, gazing in wonder. The appropriately-dressed anthropomorphic bunnies are painted in scenes filled with contextual details, from the cottage and barn to Henri's studio, which is cluttered with small sketches, a messy worktable, and loose paint brushes. When he shows his eggs, those in the know will be delighted to see many art masterpieces viewed through Henri's inventive artistic eyes. A foldout at the back has small reproductions of the paintings used to model the eggs, along with a few lines of information about each artist and work. 2007 (orig. 2005), North-South Books, $15.95. Ages 3 to 10. Reviewers: Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz (Children's Literature).
Translated by J. Alison James
Mole brothers, Tim and Matt, decide that it is a perfect day to create something good. Matt wants to make a huge hill so he can climb to the top, look over the tall grass, and see what the world is like. Tim objects; he favors digging a really deep hole because that will help him become big and strong. The argument ends with a shoving fight and the two brothers head in opposite directions. Tim begins digging a hole. It is hard work and no fun at all. Matt gathers some clumps of dirt to begin his giant hill, but the work is lonely and tiring. Finally the dejected moles each decide to check on the other's progress. They make an amazing discovery. By working together, they can have both a large hole and a high hill. With renewed energy, they shovel and scoop and pile and pack. When they finish, Matt climbs the hill and surveys the world by moonlight, while Tim takes a nap in his deep hole. Large colorful illustrations feature moles with distinctly human traits. Tim wears a yellow neck scarf and Matt has tiny eyeglasses perched on his long nose. This tale of brotherly love and cooperation, first published in Switzerland, has a universal message and an appeal for young children. 2006, North-South Books, $16.95. Ages 5 to 9. Reviewer: Phyllis Kennemer, Ph.D. (Children's Literature).
Somos como somos (Just the Way You Are)
Traducido por Ariel Almohar
Written for the young, but meaningful for anyone at any age, this book by Swiss artist and writer Marcus Pfister is a delight--from its cut-out cover to its final two-page spread of fantastic creatures. In the tale, which loses nothing in translation, one jungle animal asks another whether he is going to a party that evening. Each feels the need to put on the best feature of another animal-friend before attending, and the author/illustrator imagines each odd hybrid by using overlapping, die-cut images that are convincing and sure to tickle any funny bone. When the animals finally gather for the fete, they admit their mutual admiration for one another and laugh at the strange pictures their self-doubt conjured up. Each vows to the other, I will appreciate you "just the way you are." Painted, as they are, on textured, cloth-like surfaces, these watercolors are warm and wonderful with the look of fine tapestry. The animals' obvious merriment, the enjoyment they take in one another, their innocent but mischievous eyes and their free-roaming imaginations will pull the young reader irresistibly in to share caring, happy friendships. One of those rare reads that can be equally savored by the reader and the one read to. 2002, North-South Books, $15.95. Ages 6 to 12. Reviewer: Earlene Viano (Children's Literature).
The Rainbow Fish
Translated by J. Alison James
A beautiful fish swims proudly through the sea, its shiny scales the envy of all. When he realizes how lonely he is, he decides to share some of his precious scales. This story of sharing and friendship is beautifully enhanced with rich watercolors that sparkle and glitter. Abby Award 1995. 2002 (orig. 1992), North-South Books, $18.95, $18.88 and $25.00 (big book). Ages 5 to 8. Reviewer: Marilyn Courtot (Children's Literature).
- Recommended Literature: Kindergarten through Grade Twelve, 2002; California Department of Education; California
- Christopher Awards Winner 1993 Ages 5-8 United States
- American Booksellers Book Sense Book of the Year (ABBY) Award Winner 1995 United States
- Texas Reading Club, 2004; Texas
- Texas Reading Club, 1998; Texas
Rainbow Fish and the Sea Monsters' Cave
Translated by J. Alison James
Marcus Pfister's famous Rainbow Fish with the beautiful holographic foil scales returns in this new title. Rainbow Fish and the little blue fish bravely enter the Sea Monsters' Cave, the most dangerous place in the entire ocean. They must go there to help cure the "bumpy-backed fish" whose only hope is the red algae that grows on the other side of the sea monsters' hideout. The dreaded Sea Monsters' Cave is believed to be the home of giant rock monsters, the five-eyed globefish, and the horrible creature with a thousand arms. Rainbow Fish and the little blue fish discover that by confronting their fears it is possible to overcome them. They realize that after closer inspection the dangers really aren't dangerous at all. This is a wonderful book to share with a child who might be facing monster fears of his own. 2001, North-South Books, $18.95. Ages 3 to 7. Reviewer: Julie Eick Granchelli (Children's Literature).
- Books About Trauma, Tragedy and Loss, 2002; Children's Book Council; United States
Rainbow Fish to the Rescue!
Translated by J. Alison James
Rainbow fish meets a striped fish who doesn't have a shiny scale. He asks to join their game but is rebuffed. Rainbow Fish remembers how sad he felt when he had no friends. Then when a shark threatens the striped fish, Rainbow Fish and his friends know what they must do. Another story about the little fish with the shiny scales, presented in board book form, with a lesson that will not be lost on kids. 1998, North-South Books, $9.95. Ages 18 mo. to 4. Reviewer: Marilyn Courtot (Children's Literature).
- Children's Choices, 1996; International Reading Association; United States
- Notable Children's Trade Books in the Field of the Social Studies, 1995; National Council for the Social Studies NCSS; United States
Where is my friend?
A very cute porcupine is searching for a friend. He asks a prickly cactus, chestnut, hairbrush, and pincushion if they are his friend. Finally, he encounters another prickly ball and it turns out to be another porcupine. The back cover shows them contentedly sitting back to back enjoying each other's company. Pfister of Rainbow Fish fame manages to put plenty of humor and expression into these simple pictures. Kids will chuckle at porcupine trying to find another just like him. 2001 (orig. 1986), North-South, $4.95. Ages 2 to 4. Reviewer: Marilyn Courtot (Children's Literature).
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