Joy Fisher Hein had been a painter for decades, but what she really wanted to do was illustrate children’s books. Only she didn’t know how to go about it.
“I did it blindly,” she says. “I would submit work to publishers and it would get rejected. I made a lot of mistakes. I sent originals, which I later learned you are not supposed to do; I decorated my envelopes … I was trying to say, ‘Hey, look at me!’ but they sent back a form letter.” Things started to change in 1990 when she discovered and later joined the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators. At the group’s conference, Fisher started learning the ins and outs of the erratic publishing business. It has not been all smooth sailing since, but today she is the proud illustrator of several books, including the award-winning Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers, written by Kathi Appelt and published by HarperCollins in 2005. Two other books, Sam Houston – Standing Firm and David Crockett – Creating a Legend, followed, both released by Bright Sky Press.

All three are handsomely produced shiny hardcovers with large illustrations that are as important as the text. Although Fisher gets the story from the writer, she nevertheless has to do her own research to make her images reflect the historical period and the famous personages who are the subjects of these books. Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers won several awards, including the Teddy Children’s Book Award and the Growing Good Kids Award and was a finalist for the Children’s Crown Award in 2006. What’s more, Mrs. Johnson herself loved it and sent a thank-you note to Fisher, while her daughter Lynda Robb purchased five of the original paintings that served as templates for the book’s images. Three of those adorn Robb’s own residence, while two hang in the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin. “I was just floating,” says the artist, who had to overcome a series of setbacks and wait six years to see the book published. That story began auspiciously enough one day in 1999 while Fisher was minding her parents’ antique store in Brenham. An already established artist at the time, she was busy writing invitations to her upcoming exhibit opening, when a customer walked in and started chatting. One thing led to another, and Fisher confided to the lady her dream of becoming an illustrator. “Oh, you must meet my sister-in-law!” said the woman. The latter turned out to be children’s books author Kathi Appelt, who eventually became Fisher’s friend and mentor. Together, the two women submitted a proposal for the Lady Bird book to Appelt’s editor at HarperCollins.

“They said it was perfect,” recalls Fisher, “but no contract materialized. After a year and a half I was still waiting. And by that time I had three boxes of sample drawings I had done.” Then just when her friends were about to pull some strings on her behalf, Appelt called with bad news. The publisher no longer wanted Fisher on the project because she didn’t have “a nationally recognized name.”

“I was devastated,” says the artist. “I thought, ‘That’s it!’ I don’t want to see another children’s book in my life. I decided to become a park ranger.”

What followed was an incredible sequence of events that included Fisher’s husband’s heart attack, Appelt’s refusal to do the book with any other illustrator, the death of the HarperCollins editor, the closing of another publishing house that had shown interest in the book and the move of its editor, Rosemary Brosnan, to HarperCollins. There, she inherited the projects her deceased predecessor was working on, and lo and behold, the Lady Bird project was back on. Some would say it was meant to be; for Fisher it was a major turning point. It was also an assignment that fit her talents to perfection. An avid gardener and Texas Master Naturalist in addition to being an artist, she shared Lady Bird’s famed love of wildflowers. Her illustrations positively explode with the rioting colors of Texas blooms while also depicting the former first lady’s interest in beautification in a fresh, child-friendly way.

Fisher’s current project, Bloomin’ Tales: Texas — Seven Favorite Wildflower Legends, will also be abloom. Charmingly written by Cherie Foster Colburn, the stories are essentially folktales from different cultures about how certain flowers came to be. This time, it was the publisher who called her. “They love my wildflowers and they wanted me to illustrate this book,” notes the happy artist.

Self-taught artist and nature lover
In the Fisher-Hein home in rural Medina County, vases of wildflowers are seemingly everywhere, pretty but unobtrusive and somewhat overshadowed by artwork and collections of antique toys. Looking at a bouquet on the dining table, Fisher gives us a quick lesson, pointing to different species: red salvia, pigeonberry, black-foot daisy, Turk’s cap, ponyfoot, mealy blue sage. She knows her flora! Fisher’s love of nature dates back to her childhood spent visiting the grandparents’ farm, camping and exploring the woods. As a young girl, she had a garden of her own to tend, something she continued to do throughout her life. Since both her parents were amateur artists, young Joy also experimented with art from an early age. And she loved books despite being handicapped by dyslexia. “What made me curious were the illustrations,” she explains. “I looked at those, and I wanted to know what the stories were about.”

At 25, Joy Fisher married Frank Hein, then an art professor at SAC, now retired. The couple have three adult children, one of whom, Holly Hein, is a professional artist. Though she kept painting during the ‘70s and ‘80s, Fisher’s career didn’t really take off until the ‘90s, when she began exhibiting at a number of galleries and winning awards. By 1995, her work was also appearing in children’s magazines, textbooks and special books commissioned by nonprofits, such as the Bereavement Center of South Texas. The new century brought her still more visibility. If you visit the Walker Ranch Park in north central San Antonio, you’ll see a handsome display of 10 panels arranged in a semicircle facing West Avenue. They describe the land’s geology, history and natural history in words and pictures, the latter created by Fisher to be as accurate and educational as possible. She was also selected to design the poster and all promotional materials for the 2009 Texas Reading Club sponsored by Texas State Library & Archives Commission. Describing herself as self-taught, Fisher employs a multistep process to create the original versions of her illustrations. She first draws the basic outline of the image on tracing paper, enlarges it using a copy machine and slips a sheet of transfer paper underneath. She then tapes the combo on illustration board. Once the drawing is complete and transferred onto the board, the artist applies acrylic paint directly to the board.

These days, the now established illustrator is in demand as a speaker in schools and libraries and as a seminar presenter. Remembering her own love of books, she hopes to inspire a similar devotion in the children she meets. “It’s important for me to connect with children and to encourage them to read and be creative in all the arts,” she observes. “And I want to help everyone appreciate this wonderful planet we share. Nature is amazing, and we are fortunate to live in a such a rich, biodiverse environment.”

Joy Fisher Hein’s books can be purchased wherever books are sold.