Santa Claus may be the world’s biggest celebrity this time of a year but this season, he’s getting help spreading holiday cheer from the world’s most famous hippo, Fiona.
The beloved hippo sprang to fame in 2017 after she was born six weeks premature at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. Weighing just 29 pounds, she wasn’t expected to live. But thanks to the dedicated care of the team at the zoo, she beat the odds and not only survived — she now weighs more than 2,000 pounds — but captured the imagination and hearts of millions of Americans.
One of them was Richard Cowdrey. The renowned illustrator was born and raised in Cincinnati, and he fondly remembers visiting the zoo as a kid. So he was particularly interested when his sister-in-law and wife started sharing updates about the little hippo’s progress.
“Every time I’d get home from the studio, my wife would tell me how Fiona was doing,” he told TODAY. “It was just such a compelling story with her being premature and barely making it through.”
Cowdrey, 60, thought Fiona’s journey would also make a compelling children’s book. Everything came together quickly: he sent a few preliminary illustrations to the Cincinnati Zoo to gauge interest, found a publisher in Zonderkids, and last year, “Fiona the Hippo” became a bestseller.
Now she’s the star of the picture book “A Very Fiona Christmas,” which imagines Fiona’s first Christmas at the zoo. When she befriends the zoo’s newest resident, a timid little koala named Chloe, she realizes that Christmas is all about love.
Cowdrey relished creating images of Fiona sledding with penguins and a giraffe kissing the hippo’s cheek while under mistletoe. In the book, Fiona wiggles her ears and snorts when she gets excited, just like in real life.
He worked diligently to try to capture the sweetness of the hippo’s personality in her expressions, with careful attention to the eyes, which he framed with long lashes. His affection for Fiona shines through in the illustrations.
“Fiona is almost like a dog. Having been raised by people, she just lights up when you get near her,” he said. “I get to pet her on the head. She just loves to be around people. She’s a sweetie.”
In the spirit of the season, a portion of the proceeds from “A Very Fiona Christmas” will support the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, the second oldest zoo in the nation. Its doors opened in 1875.
“That’s important to me as a proud Cincinnati boy,” he said. “This is the zoo of my youth and I do believe in conservation.”
Meeting Fiona’s fans at signings around the country fills him with “hippo pride” for Fiona and the zoo that saved her.
“I think I take more pride in that than in myself or my drawings,” he said. “It is a very special place for me.”
Follow Fiona or watch past episodes of The Fiona Show on the Cincinnati Zoo's Facebook page.