116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Last winter, while walking the Hancher Auditorium grounds, I noticed a striking addition to the handsome landscape design — 30 granite fish sculptures standing strong and resolute, yet also with a flair toward frolic. Little did I know then that a delightful children’s picture book was well underway to celebrate these sculptures as well as to integrate Hancher’s mission of learning, creativity, community and a commitment to the arts, and that the author/illustrator duo were none other than Iowa City’s own Tess Weaver and Jennifer Black Reinhardt.
Chuck Swanson, executive director of Hancher, commissioned Weaver and Reinhardt to write and illustrate a book that would inspire young people to express their own creativity as exemplified in the magnificent fish installation created by New Mexico artist and sculptor Colette Hosmer. Entitled, “Wellspring,” the installation captures both the essence of Hancher and where it sits along the Iowa River as a special place where creativity flows from its source.
Weaver and Reinhardt happily accepted the picture book offer and challenge, eager to help Hancher, and eager to embrace a long-hoped for, but seemingly out of reach, opportunity to collaborate on a project together. After 20 years of critiquing, cheerleading, and supporting each other’s work, these two friends never dreamed of being able to create a special and beautiful book together, but this April, “Fishtastic: A Tale of Magic and Friendship” (2021, University of Iowa Press, $15, ages 3 to 5) was released. All proceeds benefit Hancher Auditorium to help keep the world-class caliber of the Arts coming to Iowa City from, literally, the far reaches of the world. Signed copies of “Fishtastic!” are available for sale at Sidekick Coffee and Books in Iowa City
Sculptor Hosmer’s vision of Iowa Trout leaping all around the grounds came to fruition from the far reaches of the world also. China, to be exact. There, Hosmer’s smaller-scaled fish sculptures were copied, carved, sanded and brought to life from huge blocks of granite. After a long journey over the Pacific Ocean, they eventually found their way to Iowa City, even during a pandemic, and triggered Weaver’s colorful imagination to create the magical tale, “Fishtastic!”
In the book, the Fishtastic Theater Troupe is excited to be invited to Iowa City’s Hancher Auditorium for a performance. The teensiest fish in the troupe, Etta, designs their fabulous costumes and is a friend to all, especially her best friends, Marvel and Bloop. If only her amazing design talents extended to also possessing the same magical ability to breathe out of water like all the other members of the Troupe so she could enjoy their performance and finally see her lovely costumes sparkle on the stage.
Marvel and Bloop try to help and, when all fails, they remind her of how wonderful she is, but this is of little comfort to Etta. Defeated, she gives up her dream of breathing earthly air and seeing the performance, but travels with them to Iowa City as a good friend would. In all of the excitement, when their trunk ful of costumes is forgotten in the river, it is Etta’s unwavering care and love for her friends that saves the day and spurs just the magic needed for a happy ending.
In the blog Picture Book Builders (picturebookbuilders.com), Reinhardt is a regular contributor and conducts an interview with Weaver, who explains the process of how Etta’s story came to her:
“I have a habit of walking when I’m trying to think of ideas or put phrases together. I … kept having visions of a trunk bobbing up to the surface of the Iowa River, then being shoved up onto the riverbank but sliding back into the water. That got me thinking: What was in that trunk? Who was shoving it? Why? Asking those questions led me to my main character and to the entire Fishtastic crew,” Weaver said. “Added to that was the pandemic, which was new and frightening. I think one reason Etta came to me in this caring way is that I was searching for a bit of light as the world felt so threatened. Etta, Bloop, and Marvel are all good-hearted characters. They showed up right when I needed them.”
As the illustrator, Reinhardt’s witty details, trademark humor, and fanciful flourishes can be admired on every page. Only a skilled illustrator can give Iowa trout individual personalities, and, of course, Reinhardt has done it. From Etta’s pincushion hat, the inventiveness of the wonderful costumes, the ripples of the Iowa River, and, most special of all, Reinhardt’s distinctly recognizable rendition of Iowa City’s newest iconic building, Hancher Auditorium, each page delights, sparkles, and conveys Weaver’s story in a glorious way.
Wendy Henrichs is a children's author living in Iowa City.