When it first appeared on bookstore shelves in 1992, Marcus Pfister’s The Rainbow Fish, the tale of a proud and lonely fish who finds happiness when he learns to share his iridescent scales, captured the fancy of children and parents alike. That story spawned a series of Rainbow Fish books across a variety of formats, which have been translated into 80 languages and have sold 30 million copies worldwide. Last October, NorthSouth published the seventh original Rainbow Fish title, Good Night, Little Rainbow Fish, and February brought Pfister’s Penguin Pete, first published in 1987, back into print. Due out this month is The Yellow Cab, which centers on an anthropomorphic New York City taxi that takes action on discovering that a construction vehicle is flattening the Amazon rainforest. Pfister, who lives in his native Bern, Switzerland, spoke with Bookshelf by phone about his various book projects.
You now have 49 books to your credit. What first inspired you to launch a career as a children’s book author?
My first wife was a kindergarten teacher, and she had a lot of picture books at home. And while I was at the Art School of Bern, I came to know about all the major Swiss children’s book illustrators. The other students and I would talk about how nice it would be to illustrate children’s books. At that point it was a dream, and only a few guys tried to realize this dream.
How did you go about making that dream come true?
I worked for a couple of years in graphic design at a publicity agency. There I did a lot of work in typography and photography, but not much in illustration. Then I became an independent graphic designer and had my own clients, and I had some free time. I used that time to do some illustration, and created my first book, The Sleepy Owl, which came out in 1986. I showed it to four or five Swiss editors, and NordSud [NorthSouth’s parent company in Zurich] was interested in publishing it.
And how was it that Rainbow Fish came to be?
Well, I had published some other books after The Sleepy Owl – there were some Christmas books and Penguin Pete – but Brigitte Sidjanski, founder of NordSud, had always liked my first book, and suggested I do another book similar to that. So I thought that if a new book was to have something in common with that book, the character should resemble an owl. But I really didn’t want to draw another bird. Then one day, I had a copy of The Sleepy Owl by my desk, and I looked closely at that character, and I realized I could create a fish character that would be quite similar to the owl. So the feathers became scales. And then I began thinking about the story, and I came up with the idea of a colorful fish.
Colorful indeed! What inspired your use of holographic foil stamping to create the book’s shiny images?
I had this idea of a colorful fish sharing his beauty, but I had a problem. If he shared only yellow, blue, and red scales with the other fish, they’d all be colorful like him, but not particularly beautiful. So I had to find something to make it clear that he was giving away something very special. I knew the technique of holographic foil stamping from my profession as a graphic designer, so I decided to combine that technique with watercolor.
So that was an artistic departure for you?
Yes, it was a first for me, and a first for my editor at the time, Davy Sidjanski [Brigitte's son]. We had to decide if it was possible to produce this book, which took quite a bit of time to figure out. The expense was a big issue. Because of the foil, each copy of the book cost double the amount of the normal price of producing a book. With the cost, it was quite difficult for Davy to decide whether to do the foil. So we decided that I’d get only 50% of my usual royalties for the book, and only that way was it possible to make it work.
As it turned out, that was a wise decision.
Yes, but of course in the beginning, we didn’t know it would sell the way it did. The important thing for me was to see the book with the foil stamping, and I was very happy to see that first printed book on my desk! The effect of the stamping was so nice that all the bookshops here in Switzerland put it in the windows, and I know that a lot of people bought extra copies to give away.
Were you surprised by the book’s extraordinary sales success and longevity?
Yes, of course. But I guess different things came together to make it work – the story itself and the holographic stamping. My earlier books had sold between 5,000 and 10,000 copies in the U.S., but after five months, we had to print 100,000 more copies there, and then printed one million more after 12 months. And it’s nice to see that it is still in stores after 20 years. In today’s market, that’s a long period of time.
It’s a long leap from a shimmering fish to a city taxi. What inspired The Yellow Cab?
There were two inspirations. The first was New York City. I love that city and have been there four or five times. The other inspiration was the rainforest. I love to photograph rainforests, and I’ve traveled several times to Brazil, Costa Rica, and Peru to take photographs there.
The story delivers an environmental message, with the cab acting to prevent the destruction of the rainforest. Is this an important cause to you?
Yes, it is. Of course I don’t think we can change everything with a picture book like this. But what’s important to me is that this becomes a topic of discussion between parents and children. It is important to show everyone the beauty of nature, and hope that they will do something to preserve it. At the end of the book, I include some ideas about little things we can do every day to protect the environment. We need to change our behavior and be conscious about what we can do to help.
Why choose a cab to be the hero of this story?
Sometimes it’s easy to explain how I come up with the idea for a character, but this one is a difficult question to answer. The yellow cab just came into my mind one morning, and I started to do some scribbles of a cab. I’ve illustrated nature and plants, but never technical things, so it was quite an adventure for me to illustrate the city and a cab.
So along with this new and different project, you’re also welcoming the return of Penguin Pete. Is it gratifying to see that early book back in print?
Yes, I was very happy to see that. And I’m told there is already going to be a second printing for the book. It’s great to have new books come out, but it’s always nice to see titles that are 20 years old or more come alive again.
The Yellow Cab by Marcus Pfister. NorthSouth, $17.95 Mar. ISBN 978-0-7358-4111-6
For PW’s review, click here.