Illustrators often bemoan how long it takes for an idea to become a finished book. But few titles will ever rival the prolonged gestation of Arrivederci Crocodile, a sequel to the late Fred Marcellino’s award-winning I Crocodile, which will be published in September 2019, exactly 20 years after the publication of the original book. An unusual deal, recently brokered by Marcellino’s agent Holly McGhee, involved working with two publishers, recruiting a new artist to finish the illustrations, and winning approval from Marcellino’s family.

“We could not be more delighted,” said Jean Marcellino, who manages her late husband’s estate with their son, Nico. “We continued to have hope that it would see the light of day in some fashion, but after all this time it still feels like a great surprise.”

Fred Marcellino, who died in 2001 at age 61, already had a storied career designing book jackets when he turned to illustrating children’s books in the 1980s, beginning with Tor Seidler’s A Rat’s Tale (FSG, 1986). He won a Caldecott Honor for Puss in Boots (FSG, 1990), and I Crocodile, the first book he wrote and illustrated, was named a New York Times Best Illustrated book in 1999.

Though his first eight children’s books were collaborations with writers or adaptations of classic stories, Marcellino wrote I Crocodile himself, inspired by a story about a crocodile kidnapped in Egypt by Napoleon that he found in The Public and Private Lives of Animals by the French caricaturist Gérard J. J. Grandville. The croc, accustomed to “the horizontal life” among the muddy banks of the Nile, was decidedly displeased by his relocation to Paris.

“Fred always felt that he was incapable of writing until he found this little tale,” said Jean Marcellino. “But after he discovered his crocodile, he was off and running.”

He had hoped to do a series he’d dubbed “The Crocodile Chronicles,” with Arrivederci Crocodile planned as the second installment. He set the crocodile’s further adventures in Venice, a city that the Italian-American Marcellino adored after spending a year there in the 1960s as a Fulbright Scholar.

But barely into his new career as a writer, Marcellino was diagnosed with inoperable colon cancer. He finished I Crocodile while undergoing chemotherapy. He completed the text, a sketch dummy, and some finished watercolors for Arrivederci Crocodile before his death on July 12, 2001. The book was already under contract, acquired by Joanna Cotler, who subsequently left HarperCollins.

“There was a lot of discussion about what to do with it and feelings were very raw,” said McGhee, creative director at Pippin Properties. “Everybody was grieving and the question was, do we publish this as is or find someone to finish it? Then Joanna left Harper, too, and the book just languished.”

“For years, when the book was at HarperCollins, they tried to come up with a scheme for getting it published,” Jean Marcellino recalled. “But the conclusion was if we got someone else to finish the art, it might look like a mishmash. And before Fred died we asked him, ‘What do you want done with it?’ and he said, ‘It’s up to you and Nico, but whatever you do, please don’t let some hack finish it.’ ”

Caitlyn Dlouhy, now publisher of her own imprint at Atheneum, was at HarperCollins when Marcellino was publishing books there with Michael di Capua. “I had always been a huge Fred fan,” Dlouhy said. I Crocodile was a particular favorite. “I could wax poetic about how much I loved it and how it was my favorite book to read aloud because I would do it in a very posh British accent.” She knew a sequel was under contract at HarperCollins at the time of Marcellino’s death. “Part of the heartbreak of losing Fred was that it never got finished.”

Earlier this year, she contacted McGhee about two of Fred’s other books – The Steadfast Tin Soldier (1991) and The Pelican Chorus and Other Nonsense (1995), both originally published by di Capua, and both now out of print. She wondered if there would be interest in reissuing them at Atheneum under her imprint. McGhee had a different question in response: Might Dlouhy also be interested in taking on the very complicated job of finishing and publishing Arrivederci Crocodile?

Dlouhy was equal parts interested and intimidated. Publish a new Fred Marcellino book: Who could say no? Find someone to finish the artwork? “It seemed like a very daunting assignment.”

She and art director Ann Bobko compiled a wish list of about eight illustrators and asked Jean and Nico to come to the office to weigh in. It turned out to be an easy decision: everyone agreed that, if the French illustrator Eric Puybaret was willing, he was the right choice. Dlouhy had worked with him on the artwork for Suite for Human Nature, an illustrated edition of the song by Diane Charlotte Lambert, which was published in May. “The art is so breathtakingly beautiful, it’s like a dream to live in the world he created,” she said. “And there was something about his use of color and light and his way of rendering figures that were both whimsical yet almost realistic that we all agreed was very close to Fred’s style.”

Bonus: Puybaret was a Marcellino fan. He’d read Fred’s picture books, translated in French, to his own children.

McGhee worked out a deal that will allow Marcellino’s estate to use the advance from Dlouhy to reimburse HarperCollins. “Harper had paid a very large advance and at some point really couldn’t pour more into it,” McGhee said. “But if you wait a decade, people, are much more malleable. It was a weird situation so we had to find an ingenious way to make this happen.”

The next question – and a big one – is what the finished book will actually look like. Puybaret is currently busy with an exhibition of his non-picture book work in Paris. “Right now he is doing samples for us,” Dlouhy said. “We’re not sure what style he’ll use, whether he’ll pay homage to Marcellino but not try to mimic his work, and how we interweave the art Fred had finished is going to depend on where Eric ends up.” The Marcellinos know the final product may bear the credit, “Begun by Fred Marcellino, finished by Eric Puybaret.”

“We don’t know everything at this point but I say, ‘Go for it,’ ” Jean Marcellino said. “I think Fred would be thrilled.”