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NEPM brings you interviews with New England authors of books young people may enjoy.

With 'Hector Fox' series, Astrid Sheckels urges kids to explore, ask questions

A scene from Astrid Sheckels' "Hector Fox" series of picture books.
Astrid Sheckels Art
A scene from Astrid Sheckels' "Hector Fox" series of picture books.

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 "Hector Fox and the Raven’s Revenge" — the second book in her popular children’s series. Two more installments are also planned. Sheckels told NEPM's Connecting Point that her interest in storytelling through pictures began with her family.

Astrid Sheckels, author and illustrator: I do come from an artistic family. My dad's a furniture maker and designer. I think our whole home was just filled with art and filled with books. I grew up without a television. I think there are probably lots of kids now that don't actually have a TV in their house.

But 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.

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

Zydalis Bauer, NEPM: 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?

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 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. Hector Fox is very he's kind and — he is smart — but he's kind and he's cultured 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. And then here, with this series, just being able to let my imagination kind of run wild was really fun.

Yeah, 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?

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.

You've also said that children are often the toughest critics. And so how does that challenge you as a storyteller and an illustrator?

Because 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 ring true. So I have to continually ask myself, "OK, is this ringing true? And is this something that would click for kids?"

When I was looking through the illustrations in your book, immediately it transported me back into my childhood and — 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?

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 just sort of keep an open mind and look for friends in unexpected places. 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.

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