Every Story Is a Picture

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

"I start with words," says author-illustrator Susan Stockdale.

"Spiked fish, striped fish, sand fish, land fish, clownfish, round fish -- anything that comes out of my head. I want to hear what my book might sound like first."

Stockdale, a mother of two who lives in Chevy Chase, is explaining how her newest work, "Fabulous Fishes," came to be. Like her previous books, it's mostly for young children, but don't be fooled by the simple rhyming pattern. Every turn of the page reveals vivid paintings of exotic as well as common underwater creatures to delight all ages.

If the paintings are the feast, Stockdale's words are the dessert. And she selects them carefully.

"Words are always important, and they were really fun when I was growing up," she says. Her childhood was spent in Florida and Ireland, where her father was U.S. ambassador. Stockdale fondly recalls how her mother, a published poet, used words "creatively to enchant her five kids."

"Mom would make things up, right at the dinner table: 'Suzie, Suzie, strong and able, get your elbows off the table,' for example," she says, laughing. "Who can forget to keep their elbows off the table with such a line from their mother?"

Doing Her Homework

Words were just the beginning of "Fabulous Fishes."

"Once I had them down on paper I had to go right to the library because I didn't know what I was talking about," she says, laughing again. "Clownfish? Spiked fish? I made all that up in my head."

Apparently Stockdale hadn't seen "Finding Nemo," because it was at the library she discovered that "sure enough, there is a clownfish, a beautiful striped thing that lives among poisonous sea anemones. And there really is a spiked fish, the porcupinefish."

That was just the beginning of a year of hard work to produce the book. Scientific help came from experts at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.

Stockdale and her husband even took up snorkeling so she could be "right in the water with the fish." Her biggest thrill was when her snorkeling guide waved her over, pulled back a rock and there, looking up at her, was a porcupinefish -- the spiked fish of her story!

The porcupinefish, when frightened, puffs itself up so it won't fit in a predator's mouth.

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