The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Liz Garton Scanlon and Kevan Atteberry
Today, I get the distinct pleasure to interview both the author, Liz Garton Scanlon, and the illustrator, Kevan Atteberry, of a delightfully imaginative new picture book.
Liz Garton Scanlon serves on the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is a frequent and popular presenter at schools, libraries and conferences. She lives with her family in Austin, Texas.
She is the author of numerous beloved books for young people, including the highly-acclaimed, Caldecott-honored picture book All the World, illustrated by Marla Frazee (2009), and her debut novel for middle grade readers, The Great Good Summer (2016), as well Thank you, Garden (2020), One Dark Bird (2019), Kate Who Tamed the Wind (2018), Another Way to Climb a Tree (2017), In the Canyon (2015), Bob, Not Bob (co-authored with Audrey Vernick 2017), and several others. Be sure to check out the teacher’s guides for many of her books (here).
Kevan Atteberry is an illustrator/writer living in the Seattle area. He has been drawing since he was knee-high to a crayon. He has designed and illustrated many things including award-winning children's books. His biggest claim to fame is creating Clippy the paperclip helper in Microsoft Office which still annoys millions of people every day.
He’s the author/illustrator of Ghost Cat (2019), I Love You More Than Swamp Gas (2017), Puddles (2016), and Bunnies (2015) and the illustrator of, Dear Beast (chapter book series 2021), Halloween Hustle (2013), Boogie Monster (2011), Frankie Stein Starts School (2010), Frankie Stein (2008), Froonga Planet (2008), Tickle Monster (2007), and Lunchbox and the Aliens (2006).
Their newest picture book collaboration, I Want a Boat, releases tomorrow.
Welcome Liz and Kevan,
Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write/illustrate? How long have you been writing/illustrating? What is your favorite type of book to write or illustrate?)
Liz – I always loved language and I trained in journalism, studied poetry, and took a spin in the corporate copywriting world, but I started writing for children when I had children, when I re-discovered children’s books and became happily ensnared forever onward. My kids have since grown up, but I haven’t.
Kevan – I think I’ve wanted to make books since I could hold one. Seriously. As early as I can remember I wanted to make stories and pictures. So, I guess I’ve been writing and illustrating pretty much my whole life. And the picture book, naturally, is the thing I like to write most.
What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
Liz – I don’t have any shocking skeletons to share, but I think something that surprises folks when I talk about picture books is that I very rarely have a ‘vision’ for what I want a book to look like. I don’t have a particularly well-developed visual or spatial perspective, so instead of bringing a strong opinion and lots of illustrator notes to the page, I usually just share my text with curiosity, excitement, and fingers crossed. And then I’m rewarded by art like Kevan’s!
Kevan – Hmmmm…. The few things I can think of are things I’d like to KEEP that way. I’m mostly an open book, I think. I’ve been a birdwatcher for over 40 years…that’s something not everyone knows.
Probably a good thing not to have shocking skeletons! Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or what was your favorite book as a child?
Liz – Growing up I read all the Judy Blume and Nancy Drew books I could get her hands on, along with everything my grandfather got in his book-of-the-month club. My favorite picture books were Patrick Will Grow, by Gladys Baker Bond, and The Big Tidy Up, by Norah Smaridge.
Kevan - I don’t really remember favorite authors as much as I remember favorite books. Winnie the Pooh, Charlotte’s Web, My Father’s Dragon. And it is funny, I don’t remember any particular picture books, just that I loved them.
Those are all excellent books and many that I loved as a kid too. Liz, where did the inspiration for I Want a Boat come from?
Liz – This book is different than any of my others because it was based on a writing prompt of sorts. A friend of mine guides people through all sorts of journaling and self-exploration techniques, and she has an exercise where you write “I have…” and “I want…” over and over again as a way of revealing both gratitude and desire. It’s fun, and I wondered if I could use the same form to structure a picture book story. I started with a box, and it took off from there.
That sounds like such a fun prompt to play with. Kevan, what captured your attention or imagination with I Want a Boat?
Kevan – When I was first asked if I wanted to illustrate a book by Liz, the answer, of course, was an emphatic, “are you kidding me???” I knew Liz’s work and was thrilled to be asked and agreed to read the manuscript. For protocol only, I knew I would say, yes.
The manuscript was spare and lovely and it kind of scared me because I didn’t have an immediate idea how the story would actually unfold. I had to read it two or three times before a visual story came to me. And when it did, it came in, ahem, waves. “Oh! I can do this!” and a little later, “I can do this!” and then “What if this? And what about them? And how about if this happens?” When I started thumbnailing it out everything just fell in place. And I was very satisfied with what I had come up with. When I roughed out the sketches, Holiday House was, too.
That sounds like it was exciting! What is the hardest part for each of you about writing or illustrating I Want a Boat?
Liz – I think in this case, it was just that I had set up this very strict structure for myself and I had to work within those parameters but still tell a fully fleshed-out story. There were times part-way through that I thought no way would it work, no way could I sustain it. I’m really glad I stuck it out, stormy seas and all!
Kevan – For me, coming up with a style was the absolute hardest thing. After I signed on to do the book, our editor, Neal Porter, suggested I do it in a style that he had seen on my Instagram. It was a tiny encaustic piece that I had done in a class and not a style I really worked in. But I said I would try watercolor, which was most like the image he had liked. I experimented with a number of styles and techniques and was getting nowhere. I’m mostly a digital illustrator these days and my days of traditional media had slipped away. Still, I tried and sent samples off to Neal. He was kind but to the point and I remember one comment in particular he had for one of the pieces I sent him. “It’s adequate,” he said. Which was true. And he told me we want something more than adequate. Couldn’t agree more. I’m glad he pushed me till we finally got to the style I did it in, which I am happy with.
I am very glad you both weathered "stormy seas" to bring this book to life. It is so fun and imaginative. Liz, when you first saw Kevan’s illustrations did anything surprise or delight you? Which is your favorite spread in I Want a Boat?
Text © Liz Garton Scanlon, 2021. Image © Kevan Atteberry, 2021.
Liz – Oh, so much surprised and delighted me! The texture, the palette, the bedroom rug becoming the water of the world! But I think I was most struck by the structural tip-of-the-hat to Where the Wild Things Are – the illustrations growing and spreading with the child’s imagination. Amazing. And possibly because of that, my favorite illustration is the “I have the world, I want the sky” spread. It’s so completely immersive.
Kevan, many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in I Want a Boat? Could you share any few with us? Do you have a favorite Spread?
Text © Liz Garton Scanlon, 2021. Image © Kevan Atteberry, 2021.
Kevan – I did, but I won’t. Sorry! My favorite spread? Hmmmm….I guess the “I want some light,” spread. The one where our protagonist is rescuing her crew from the sea.
What's something you want your readers to know about I Want a Boat?
Liz – Just that we all have the ingredients and engine for great adventure in our own imaginations. Life is limitless.
Kevan – Hmmmm. If they haven’t read it yet, I guess I’d want them to know what a fantastic book it is, and if they have read it, they know everything about it already. [Ha! 😉]
Are there any projects each of you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
Liz – I have a middle grade novel coming out next year, and several upcoming picture books including several that celebrate and explore the natural world because that’s where I’m most at home myself. Would You Come, Too? invites readers to join me there!
Kevan – I’ve recently written the first draft of a graphic novel for the very young. I’m editing it and hope to pencil out the first go through with sketches to send to my agent soon. I’ve never done anything like this before but I love the genre and am excited to build these characters.
Ooh! I can't wait to see these projects. How have you both been staying, or trying to stay, creative over this past year? Anything in particular that you’ve found to be helpful?
Liz – I am very lucky to have a collaborator in my pal Audrey Vernick. When we’re not feeling particularly productive or inspired individually we’ll often mess around with something together! Our projects always end up feeling a little more like play than work, which was especially welcome this past year. Our next book is about wanting a class pet but getting a class plant instead, and the talented Lynnor Bontigao has signed on to illustrate.
Kevan – It has been incredibly tough and pretty unproductive past 14 or 15 months. Other than finishing books I was contracted to illustrate, I created nothing new. I tried to pour myself into other creative pursuits, collage, watercolor (go figure), dip pen sketching. Mostly to underwhelming results. But lately, I’ve gone back to another love of mine, rhymes. Nursery rhyme kind of rhymes. And I’m enjoying that. Not sure how to put it all together for anything worth pursuing in the publishing world, but we’ll see.
Okay, last question. What is your favorite animal? Or maybe a current animal you are enamored with. Why?
Liz – Oh, it’s a tie between a horse (huge, warm, and earthbound) and a bird (light, winged, and free).
Kevan – By far the crow. All corvids actually, but with a particular penchant for the crow.
Thank you, Liz and Kevan for stopping by and sharing with us. It was truly wonderful to chat with you both.
Thank you, too!
Be Sure to come back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on I Want a Boat!
To find out more about Liz Garton Scanlon, or get in touch with her:
To find out more about Kevan Atteberry, or get in touch with him: