Meet Lakeland’s Author “Power Couple”
By Christy Swift
Photography Courtesy of the Koehlers and Jaunyce Priester
The Artist in the Coffee Shop
If you hit up Mitchell’s Coffee House on North Kentucky Avenue in Lakeland, you can get a tasty cup of coffee… and you can get it for cheap if you keep a cup on the wall.
That’s how author, artist, entrepreneur, and Sebring native Fred Koehler used to get cheap coffee when he was a college student at Florida Southern 15 years ago. He’d run up a “bar tab” with owner Mitch Harvey in exchange for illustrating the posters in their windows, then sit down to a nice breakfast and a coffee while he people-watched and got inspiration for his writing and art.
Eight years later, Koehler is a staple of the Cen- tral Florida children’s author community, and he still loves to draw and write amidst hustle, bustle, and the rich scent of roasted coffee beans. In fact, the idea for his first picture book, “How to Cheer Up Dad,” was conceived at Mitchell’s. It’s a story about a charming- ly oblivious little elephant trying to help his dad feel better after a bad day. Koehler still remembers the day he sketched the illustration that would eventually turn into a starred review picture book:
“I remember I had my young son, who was two at the time, at the coffee shop with me. I was sketching in my sketchbook, and I wanted to be that cool, artsy dad who had his kid with him, and he was literally having none of it. He was dumping out the salt and pepper shakers and drinking the hot sauce. I remember being frustrated, pacing up and down, and when I got home, I saw I’d done this sketch of two elephants trunk to trunk, staring each other down.” That sketch became the cover of the book.
Fast forward eight years, and Fred now is author/illustrator of three books and illustrator of numerous others, including “One Day, the End,” a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award winner (basically the Emmys of children’s books). He volunteers with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCWBI), helping other artists turn their doodles into children’s books. And he developed and runs a program for authors trying to break into traditional publishing called Ready Chapter 1.
But life, just like a good story, is better with a romantic subplot, and Fred’s started seven years ago when he decided he wanted to write a novel.
A real-life fairytale
Once upon a time, there was a math teacher living in Virginia. Her name was Sarah McGuire, and she was the soon-to-be published author of a fairytale retelling of The Brave Little Tailor entitled “Valiant.” A shy person, she had also joined her local SCBWI chapter and signed up as a volunteer. “I found that volunteering gave me a script, gave me a way to interact with people,” she says.
She had applied for a scholarship to an intensive novel- writing program out in Hood River, Oregon run by well known author and literary agent Donald Maass. There were two scholarship recipients— a first place winner and a second place winner. She was the first place winner. Guess who took second?
“We never have to argue who the better writer is,” Fred jokes.
Sarah was the good student in the front row and Fred was “the cool guy in the back with his sketchbook,” Sarah recalls. It was love in the first person. Every couplet rhymed. It was a meet-cute for the books. By the time the trip wrapped up, they both were ready for the next chapter. But there was a plot twist! Sarah had signed up to be a math tutor on the Semester at Sea program. It would take her over land and ocean for months.
But Fred was a traveler, too. He’d lived in West Africa as part of the Peace Corps and knew it was an opportunity Sarah couldn’t pass up. In fact, while she was sailing the coasts of Vietnam and Morocco, Fred traveled from Lakeland, Florida to Lakeland, England for a backpacking tour to study the structures and ships he was illustrating for his next book, “Flashlight Night.” When Sarah disembarked in Southampton, England, Fred was there to meet her (grand gesture, anyone?). They were married the following March, and Sarah got to add her own coffee cup to Mitchell’s wall.
Oh, and Sarah’s second book, “Flight of Swans” (the one she was writing in Hood River) was named a New York Public Library Best Book for Kids, received a Kirkus starred review, and is an Oklahoma Library Association Intermediate Sequoyah masterlist selection. Fred’s novel, “Garbage Island (The Nearly Always Perilous Adventures of Archibald Shrew)” also came out of that session to top ratings and a starred review.
These days both Sarah and Fred continue to work on children’s books, volunteer with SCBWI, and help support the writing community in Lakeland and beyond. Fred is the illustrator coordinator of SCBWI and Sarah manages the technical equipment for conferences and workshops. Fred is running the very first Ready Chapter 1 Novel Academy, an intensive online course for authors writing or trying to publish a novel. Both of them speak at author workshops and show up to support other authors during book signings at Pressed, a local indie bookstore. They travel. And sometimes, on Saturday mornings, they head over to Mitchell’s for a cup of coffee.
Get to Know Fred
Books authored and illustrated:
How to Cheer Up Dad; Super Jumbo; Garbage Island (The Almost Always Perilous Adventures of Archibald Shrew)
Books illustrated: One Day, The End; Puppy, Puppy, Puppy; This Book is NOT About Dragons; Flashlight Night; What if? Then We…
Where you might find him:
Mitchell’s Coffee House, Black and Brew, Pressed
Favorite book as a kid:
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis Other passions:
Favorite place visited:
Lake District (Lakeland), England
Website, for authors: www.readychapter1.com
Get to Know Sarah
Valiant; Flight of Swans (under the name Sarah McGuire) What she writes:
Fairy tale re-tellings and fantasy for school-aged kids
The Discworld series by Sir Terry Pratchett; The Last Cuentista, by Donna Barba Higuera (not an exhaustive list)
Favorite place visited:
The Isle of Skye, Scotland. (The Stanley Glacier hike in Canada takes second place)
What she tells her students when they’re scared to try something new:
“It’s okay. This is what an adventure feels like.”