When publishing rep Andrew Weiner isn’t reeling in new accounts, he can often be found in the pristine rivers of Wyoming, Washington, Oregon, and Montana.
“The great thing about fly fishing,” says Weiner, who works for Abrams Books and lives in Albany, California, “is you get to be in the most beautiful places. When you’re actually in the water, you feel like a part of that environment, and it wipes everything else out of your mind. You become very focused on where you are, what you’re doing, and the possibility that, every time you cast that fly, you could catch a fish. This might be the one.”
After decades of promoting others’ stories, Weiner’s idea for a fly-fishing picture book turned out to be “the one.” Down by the River: A Family Fly Fishing Story, illustrated by April Chu, is the triumphant debut: “an authentic, heartwarming story with a focus on family and togetherness,” Kirkus writes in a starred review.
In Down by the River, eight-year-old Art embarks on a fly-fishing trip with Grandpa, Mom, and the family dog.
“They climbed into the car—Mom behind the wheel, Grandpa beside her,” Weiner writes.
‘I started taking your mom fishing when she was just a young girl,’ Grandpa said to Art as Mom drove.
“Mom smiled. They were heading to the river. It was Art’s favorite kind of day—a fishing day.”
After they arrive, the family gears up: poles, vests, waders. Mom, a natural sportswoman, hooks a fish right away, but Art’s first cast lands in a tree. Grandpa offers gentle encouragement and sets an example of mindful appreciation of nature, urging Art to look, listen, and learn.
“The only sounds,” he writes, “were the rustle of the leaves in the breeze and the gentle rippling of the stream as it flowed beneath overhanging branches and around rocks, curving around bends above and below where they stood. It was nearly as clear as a glass of water, and they could see the stones that lay below its surface.”
The sensual details resonated with Chu, an architect and illustrator, whose books include Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine and In a Village by the Sea. Bay Area-based, she met Weiner at a party for children’s authors and illustrators hosted by a mutual friend.
“It’s a really endearing sweet story about a boy and his grandfather, about family and nature,” says Chu, “and it really evoked a nostalgic feeling in me. It brought up memories of my childhood, the summers that I spent with my family and friends outdoors, and those quiet moments [in which] I was able to focus all the sights, sounds, and even smells of nature. So I was thrilled to be asked [to illustrate] and felt like I could bring something to the story.”
Chu’s thoughtful illustrations are drawn in charcoal pencil on paper, digitally colored in Photoshop, subtly suggesting the splotches and strokes of watercolor painting.
“I wanted the reader to hear the bugs humming in the air, the sound of rushing water, and wind blowing through leaves,” she says. “I wanted [to evoke] the smell trees and grass.”
Complementing the main narrative is illustrated backmatter that defines the sport, introduces equipment, and advocates sustainable practices, like catch-and-release and the observance of local laws.
Endpapers portray nearly 80 types of popular flies, with names like “Conehead Rubber Bugger” and “Bunny Leech.” They represent an above-and-beyond effort from Chu, who was given just 24 flies to work with—and is one of Weiner’s favorite parts of the book.
“I’ve been involved in books since I was in high school,” he says. “My mother is a book person, my family is a book family, and over the years I’ve been involved in so many children’s books—I’ve worked at Penguin and Random House, Chronicle, Abrams—that I’m really picky and judgmental. To see the way the book came out, to see the art that April created, to see the care the Abrams art department put into the creation of the book satisfies every hope I had.”
Megan Labrise is a Kirkus staff writer and cohost of the Fully Booked podcast.