Authors & Illustrators
FRED KOEHLER’s real-life misadventures include sunken boats, shark encounters, and getting caught in a hurricane. Whether free-diving in the Gulf of Mexico or backpacking across Africa, Fred’s sense of adventure and awe of nature overflow into his characters’ stories. He won a Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor Award for his illustrations for One Day, The End. He is the author-illustrator of How To Cheer Up Dad, which received three starred reviews, and he is the illustrator of This Book Is Not about Dragons; Puppy, Puppy, Puppy; and Flashlight Night. Garbage Island is his first novel. He lives with his wife and two spirited kids in Lakeland, Florida. Visit ilikefred.com.
An Interview with Fred Koehler
Q. What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, how was it formed, and what can we do about it?
A. We’ve all seen trash someplace it shouldn’t be. Sometimes it makes its way into our oceans. Researchers have discovered that floating ocean garbage collects in a number of swirling “gyres” created by ocean currents. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch contains two separate gyres that can be found in the Pacific Ocean between the western coast of the Americas and the eastern coast of Asia.
For the book, I wanted to be sure to provide the most accurate information I could. After concluding my own research, I spoke with Laurent Lebreton, an oceanographer with the Ocean Cleanup Foundation (www.theoceancleanup.com) who studies the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. He explained:
“The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is formed by currents and winds at sea, which transport plastic trash from all over the world into the area. The best thing to do about it is to use less plastic and be sure that we carefully place our plastic trash into recycling bins. Even when we litter in the streets, plastic can make its way down . . . drains and rivers and eventually end up in the oceans where it accumulates in places like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”
Q. Are there really animals living on garbage patches in the ocean and, if so, how did they get there?
A. Animal life exists all throughout the ocean, and different types of animals seek out structures, depths, and temperatures where they are most comfortable. Floating garbage is often mixed together with floating seaweed, so you would expect to see the types of marine animals that congregate around seaweed patches—migrating ocean birds, pelagic fish, sea turtles, barnacles, shrimp, etc.
Laurent Lebreton adds the following:
“It’s important to remember that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not one big island, as the trash is spread over wide areas of oceanic waters. Plastic debris can act as floating rafts where marine organisms can live and be transported over large distances. This can include algae and invertebrates or mollusks, such as mussels or oysters. Also larger objects like abandoned fishing nets found in the garbage patch can trap and harm fishes, sea turtles, dolphins, or whales, representing a real danger for these animals.”
But what about the terrestrial (land-based) animals that appear in the book? This question was one of the big “what ifs” that led me to write this story. The concept is called biological vagrancy, and basically it means that sometimes animals show up outside of their normal habitats. Pets escape or get released where they don’t naturally live. Flocks of birds get blown off course by storms. Insects and small mammals stow away on boats. It seems unlikely that so many terrestrial animals would be found together in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but the possibility fired my imagination, and I created a place where these vagrant animals might find themselves marooned, and I called it Garbage Island.
Q. This book has lots of different types of opponents for the citizens of Garbage Island: a shark, a rat, spiders, big fish. If animals naturally eat one another, can any of your characters really be villains?
A. If you’re anything like me, you learned about the idea of an “opponent” at a very young age—perhaps the first time another kid raced you to the front of the line or snatched a favorite toy right before you could reach it. By definition, an opponent is someone who acts in opposition to someone else’s plans or goals. The hallmark of a villain, however, is someone who acts with cruelty, intending harm or destruction. So an opponent isn’t necessarily a villain, but they can be!
For example, the citizens of Garbage Island have loads of opponents. Their goal is to survive and thrive as a community. Many other characters in the ocean stand (or swim) between them and their plans. But that doesn’t make them villains. It just means that these opponents have different wants and needs (which often include eating the citizens). If you told the story from the perspective of the Big Eye Tuna in chapter one, the islanders would be the fish’s opponents because they stopped the him from getting his dinner (even though his dinner was supposed to be Archibald).
The first real villain that arises is the Spider Queen. When Archie and Mr. Popli land on her island, she could have let them go without any negative consequences. She had food, water, and shelter, but that wasn’t enough. She was willing to be cruel to Archie and Mr. Popli, needlessly hurting or killing them to get what she wanted. That’s why I think she’s a villain, but readers may disagree.
What about Colubra? She’s cunning and angry and, by the end, attacks the citizens regularly. Is she a villain? I leave that question to you. What do you think? I would love to hear your responses.
Q. Archibald and Mr. Popli have very different ideas of what would be best for their society. Which one of them is right?
A. Archibald. Definitely Archibald. No—wait, Mr. Popli. No—actually . . .
When I started writing Garbage Island, I thought Mr. Popli would be the hero and Archibald would be the goofy sidekick. The deeper I got into the story, the more I discovered that Archie is in many ways the cleverest and most creative of the citizens. He has so many great ideas, but he has a hard time working with others.
Mr. Popli, on the other hand, does a really good job of getting animals to work together. But even though he’s creative, Mr. Popli doesn’t have the imagination to invent bizarre, useful contraptions like Archie.
It takes Mr. Popli and Archie most of the book to figure out that neither one of them is completely right all the time. But when they learn to work together, wow! They’re unstoppable.
Q. This adventure is set on the open sea. Have you spent a lot of time around the ocean?
A. There’s a story about me as a tiny baby that my mom likes to tell. My dad, an avid outdoorsman, had taken the family out on a little boat and got caught in a storm. As they’re fighting the wind and waves to make it back to land, my dad’s trying to steer the boat with one arm and has me tucked under the other like a football. My face is toward the sky; rain is pouring over me; thunder and lightning are crashing all around.
The way I figure it, I must have looked Mother Nature square in the eye that day and (in my baby brain) said “THIS IS AWESOME!” I’ve been a waterbound adventurer ever since. Growing up and now living in Florida, I spend lots of time in the ocean—diving, kayaking, fishing. Everything about it feels like home: the steady pulse of the waves, the way light moves through the water, even the salty taste and smell of the coastal air.
Q. What’s next for Archibald, Mr. Popli, and Merri?
A. This is the best question of all! I’m already working on the next adventure and here are some super-duper-top-secret things I’m allowed to tell you.
- Mr. Popli and Archie will argue and get into lots of trouble.
- One character will take a big risk and leave the island on a dangerous journey.
- Something unexpected and perilous will crash into the island.
- The citizens will have to build something they think is impossible—if they want everyone to survive.