Growing up in the hills of Western Massachusetts, Astrid Sheckels always had a knack for telling and drawing stories – and she’s managed to turn those skills into a full-time career. 

Now an award-winning author and illustrator, Sheckels recently released the second installment of her popular children’s series entitled Hector Fox and the Raven’s Revenge

Sheckels joined Zydalis Bauer for a conversation about her career and discusses what she enjoys most about this line of work.  

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: Growing up in the hills of western Massachusetts, Astrid Sheckels always had a knack for telling and drawing stories and has managed to turn those skills into a full-time career.

Now an award-winning author and illustrator, Sheckels has recently released the second installment of her popular children’s series entitled Hector Fox and the Raven’s Revenge.

Sheckels joined me for a conversation about her career and discusses what she enjoys most about this line of work.

Astrid Sheckels, Author/Illustrator: I grew up without a television. I think there probably lots of kids now that don’t actually have a TV in their house. But I grew up without a television, so we did spend a lot of time reading. I was read a lot to out loud when I was little, and I loved books, especially picture books.

I had difficulty learning to read, with dyslexia issues. So, I gravitated naturally to books where the illustrations told the story, where you could just look at the book and the illustrations really carried the narrative. So — and also when I was little, I was always drawing and telling stories through my drawings and my dad would draw with me. My mom very patiently would listen to all the stories I would tell.

So, it was just something that was nurtured and developed while I was young, and I just kept going with it.

Zydalis Bauer: How great is that that your parents were able to nurture that, and you really followed a career to that pathway? And now, here we are talking because your recent second installment of your popular Hector Fox and Friends book has been released, which is entitled Hector Fox and the Raven’s Revenge. I know that you also mentioned that you felt right at home when creating this series.

So, how was that so, and where did the idea come from for this four-part installment?

Astrid Sheckels: Along with drawing, I have always loved animals, so being able to take and create this world for a group of anthropomorphic animals that just go on these adventures just felt really…it did feel like coming home and it, I guess, just developing characters that sort of break the stereotype.

The main character is a fox and he’s not the typical storybook fox, you know, mean and about to eat everybody and — and kind of creepy and had sort of a slyness to him. Hector Fox is very — he’s kind, he’s — he is smart but he’s kind and he’s cultured and he loves books and has paintings on his walls and just gets along really well with a whole group of animals. Many of them in the natural world would be his prey, but they get along really well.

It’s very much from my own imagination. When I was first starting out doing books, everything was very realistic. So, if you look me up on — see a book list of my earlier works, they are much more…very grounded in reality. And then here with this series, just being able to let my imagination kind of run wild was really fun and took me definitely in new places and just trying to see how I could get characters in these — or I guess characteristics in these animals to really come through.

Zydalis Bauer: Yeah, it’s kind of — it’s just like the child inside of you that imagines you’d be in the forest and all these animals would be your friend and they talk to you. So, I totally get that. And I know that your books are catered to young readers.

So, what is it that you enjoy most about writing and illustrating for children’s books?

Astrid Sheckels: So, I love being able to share these fun, imaginative stories with children, especially through the illustrations and really letting the illustrations do the telling. With this kind of picture book, you really want the text and the artwork to work hand-in-hand. Like, if you take the illustrations away, the story isn’t going to work.

And I would hope that this would encourage children to go outside and go exploring. And when they come across a tree say, “Hey, that could be Hector’s tree!” Or in the case of this new book, “Oh, there’s a feather. What does this feather actually mean? Is there some meaning behind this feather I’ve just found?”

And ask those kind of questions, those kind of “what if…” and then let your imagination go.

Zydalis Bauer: You know, it was really interesting that — that makes me think of a point that you brought up. So, I know that you said one of the first books your dad read to you was “Winnie the Pooh,” and it was the first book you read that had a map in it.

And when I opened your book, that’s the first thing I noticed. And it immediately hooked me, too. And I’m like, “What is it about this, you know, inner child that just a map immediately draws our interest?” And I think it’s that sense of adventure.

Astrid Sheckels: The sense of adventure, and also that it’s a real place. I mean, as adults, we can look and say, “Oh, that’s make believe.” But for kids…it is a real place.

And I feel like when I’m working on a book like this, I need to try to find…I guess, block out that adult side of me and to say be free to not be so…logical about everything. And just like everything has to make sense.

Why can’t there be a group of animal, imaginary animal friends who decide and start questioning, “You know, are fairy tales real?” And then they go on an adventure to try to find it. And a logical adult brain says that doesn’t work. Why would they be?

Zydalis Bauer: Yeah! And you’ve also said that children are often the most — the toughest critics.

And so how does that challenge you as a storyteller and an illustrator?

Astrid Sheckels: I guess it really challenges me to stay true, because children will totally pick up if an adult is preaching at them or talking down to them and — or if there’s something that doesn’t, yeah, it doesn’t ring true.

So, I have to continually ask myself, “Okay, is this ringing true? And is this something that would click for kids?”

Zydalis Bauer: The illustrations in your book are just absolutely breathtaking, and I know that you describe your style as classic realism and whimsy.

Has that always been the style that you were drawn to, and why is that something that has piqued your interest?

Astrid Sheckels: That’s a good question. I, at first, was doing a lot of very realism. I have a — I have a fine art background. So, some of that does come in, which is why my illustrations are extremely detailed.

As a child, I really loved illustrations where the longer you looked at it, the more you saw, where you could stay with it for quite a while. And I really wanted to do that with my illustration. So, it’s imaginative, which is where the whimsy comes in. It’s imaginative.

It’s actually really hard to do a whole — create a whole world that’s purely from my imagination. It takes a lot more work than just being able to look at a reference photo and be like, “Oh yeah, tree, okay.” But to make a tree that rings true for Hector’s world.

I think one reason Hector’s world…it does have a familiar feel to it because we walk outside into our backyard or into a park or something, and you will start seeing the trees that are around him or the swampy areas or even stone towers around this area — you can come across a stone tower in the woods — or even just like an old foundation or something.

But it does ring true and does have this New England feel, and I wanted to make sure that was coming through, so sometimes I do — I spend a lot of time going around looking in the woods and bringing that inspiration into my artwork.

Zydalis Bauer: Yeah. I was going to say when I was looking through the illustrations in your book, immediately it transported me back into my childhood. And I honestly, I had this like sense of this carefree feeling that you really only truly have when you’re young.

So, as an artist, what do you hope that readers see and feel when they’re engaging with your work?

Astrid Sheckels: Well, I really hope that they will do what I’ve been doing and what the characters in the books do, is go out and go exploring. And I also hope that it will be this kind of carefree, safe feeling.

As in, when the characters are together, it doesn’t really matter if they encounter a giant or if there’s some kind of mystery, they’re needing to solve that’s maybe a little scary, but it’s not because they’re together. And together they are in a safe place, and they can have these really fun adventures.