Meet Gus Roberts. Gus is a normal 11-year-old going through the normal things 11-year-old boys go through in their lives. He loves going camping with his family, but his favorite pastime is fishing–and he’s pretty good at it. Ideally, in a few years, Gus will go on to become a tournament-winning, professional angler scooping up thousands of dollars for a win. Of course, this is all part of a fictional series, but it’s loaded with realistic personal experiences, imagination, surprises, and a message to kids about the enjoyment and protection of the outdoors.
The author of the Fish On Kids Books series, K. J. Houtman, ran the Masters Walleye Circuit for years, working 60 to sometimes even 90 hours a week running the tournaments. Houtman, a fishing and outdoors enthusiast, spent lots of time around anglers during those years and started wondering about their childhood past. “I was really taken with so many anglers accomplishing a lifelong goal or a lifelong dream in winning a tournament,” Houtman said. “And so when I crafted my character I really want to embrace all those guys and gals that I met that were 30, 40, 50 years old that had accomplished their lifelong dream. What were they like at 11? A lifelong dream like that doesn’t just crop up for you when you’re 28, I don’t think…so that’s what I created in Gus.”
In 2009, Houtman’s older sister was nearing retirement and musing about her soon-to-be boredom. After some time, she challenged Houtman to accomplish some of those things set to the side by a career of running tournaments and working in the advertising and marketing field. A few workshops and lots of encouraging words later, Houtman had successfully self-published the first book, A Whirlwind Opener, in 2010.
“I wasn’t sure if it was going to be good,” Houtman said. “I wanted to wait and see what kind of feedback I got on the first one before I did anything. I got so much encouragement. People were really excited about what I was doing that I was very encouraged to keep going with my vision for this series.”
People saw it as a good, wholesome story about a child in a very formative stage of his/her life and that it filled a niche. They are meant for young readers, perhaps 8 to 10 years old, and it gives them exposure to new activities to experiment with and try.
Each book progresses forward in time by just a few weeks or months. In A Whirlwind Opener, Gus spends some much-needed time on the water during a May fishing opener while getting away from a school bully. The second book, Driving Me Crazy, is a chance for Gus to spend cherished time camping with family where he can swim, fish, bike and hike and explore the area with his new friend Drew, but that takes a rocky turn when Drew and Gus embark on an unplanned adventure. Books three and four, Spare the Rod and Duck, Duck Deuce all involve similar outdoor themes, but toss in exotic visitors, family bonding and thrilling summer adventures.
“[The Roberts are] a really avid outdoors family. Gus is pretty serious about fishing and is good at it,” Houtman said. “His friends look up to him, for his skill. But some of his other family members, particularly his grandfather, Pops, might not be as impressed as Gus is with his own set of skills. So there’s always that person that isn’t impressed, there’s always that person that’s a little hard to reach with a compliment.”
The fifth book in the series is set during Labor Day Weekend in September, the month that Gus turns 12, and it will also give a focus to fall outdoor activities. Houtman lives in a house of hunting enthusiasts and hunts pheasant for a favorite recipe, pheasant wild rice soup, shoots trap, sporting clays and just bought a bow for the first time to hunt whitetail next year.
Having grown up in an outdoorsy family, Houtman had to give homage to the many life lessons hunting and fishing teach us. “I think we need to reach [kids] with a positive message about taking care of the outdoors and that it’s a resource for us,” Houtman said.
“It’s also food for us and I think that’s a message that sometimes gets lost…I love being able to go out and catch some crappies or walleyes for dinner. That’s just part of my maybe more casual approach to fishing and my Minnesota heritage of eating fish. Statistically, I know that if kids enjoy the outdoors, they are far less likely to get into trouble. It’s just a life-long passion. You can fish and hunt your entire life and I’m not so sure if it’s the same if you’re into wrestling or competition swimming or downhill skiing or different kinds of sports. [Those were] a part of my kid’s world and I loved them at the time they were doing them, but they just aren’t going to keep doing those things. And so the outdoors component is something that stays with you.”
As a female outdoor writer describing what are commonly perceived as male-dominated sports, Houtman’s had some interesting encounters with unfortunate stereotypes. She recalled an especially awkward situation when a radio host had a young family member read a passage from one of Houtman’s books on-air. The radio host asked the reader, “who do you think K. J. Houtman is?” The young boy replied, “an old man with a white beard and maybe a little tobacco spittle on the beard.”
Even though the “author behind the mask” may not precisely be whom some expect her to be, the series nonetheless provides a positive outdoors and fishing message for all youth. Houtman expects there will be about 10 to 12 books in total by the time the series is complete.
To find out more about Houtman’s books, visit her website, www.fishonkidsbooks.com.
Images courtesy K. J. Houtman