Maggie and Melody tell a fish tale

CLAREMONT – A first-time children's book author and a first-time children's book illustrator – Maggie Kemp and Melody Zahn Russell – teamed up to produce “Sam: Fisherwoman-- The Reel Story,” which will be presented Wednesday at 3 p.m. at the Fiske Free Library in Claremont. 

Although Kemp and Russell have known each other for 20 years, the project took that long to take shape. 

“I started over 20 years ago,” said Kemp, “but I was raising children. I was distracted by a lot of things. Melody taught my children art classes; her son and my daughter were in kindergarten together.” 

Kemp lives on Long Pond in Lempster, where she kayaks frequently. She's an avid nature-watcher whose love of the outdoors began in childhood. 

The germ of “Sam: Fisherwoman” was something that really happened to her, that became a funny family story. 

When Kemp and her two brothers were kids, they spent a lot of time at their grandparents' place on Deep Creek Lake in Maryland. The youngest of three, and the only girl, Kemp tried hard to keep up. 

Although she didn't like to bait her own hook, she resisted playing “the girl card,” she said. “I wanted to prove I could do everything the boys could do.” 

“We would hike around in the woods, and we would fish every morning,” she remembered. “One morning I was the first one that got up, which was unusual. I was sleeping on the sun porch.” 

Young Maggie decided she would go fishing by herself, without waking anyone up. She collected her gear, put on her life jacket (as strictly required by her mother) and went down to the dock. 

“Everything went okay until I dropped the pole in the water,” she said. 

However, she still had the hook. She reasoned she could pull on the line until she pulled in the pole. 

“I did that and I was not paying attention at all” to the line gathering on the dock behind her, she said. Without noticing, she amassed a huge tangle of fishing line on the dock and pulled all the fishing line off the reel. 

“In my family it's kind of a legend and it's funny,” said Kemp. When she grew up, she became a physician, which was also an unusual thing for a girl to do at the time. But, after her career was ended by illness, and then many years of raising children passed, she decided to take the funny story about the fishing mishap and make a children's book with it. 

She asked Russell if she would illustrate it. Russell specializes in potato prints, having started doing it  “almost as a joke”  to earn tuition for graduate work in the art of Eurythmy in 1986. Her website,, sells her potato-printed “Celebration of Life” cards and offers a potato-printer's biography, complete with pictures of Russell making potato prints over the decades. 

Kemp loved her work and insisted on choosing her as an illustrator when she decided to do the book. She joined a children's book writing group, who helped her decide how to write her story. Luckily, one member of the group suggested she write the book with a different ending – not the one where young Maggie went to bed embarrassed and fish-less. 

“Sam gets her fish,” said Kemp. “It changed everything when I realized I could write to the ending that Sam caught a fish.” 

“Interestingly, when Melody did the pictures I learned more about my character,” she said. “She didn't put any expressions on the faces of the father and daughter in the end. Her father is in total shock. Is he happy? As a parent you might react one way or the other. Is she happy because she has a success? It's up to the reader to decide.

“It's a story of determination and perseverance on the part of this girl,” said Kemp. “She's victorious.” 

In real life, Kemp's fishing pole sank in the mud off the dock until it was retrieved 30 years later, when her son dropped his fishing pole off his grandfather's dock. But that's another story. 

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