Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Kevin Sherry

h1 June 17th, 2014 by jules

That really should say six questions over breakfast. And no Pivot Questionnaire, which my visitor today, author-illustrator Kevin Sherry, opted out of. This is fine. He’s a busy guy, because as you can see here, he doesn’t just create books. He also dons his big blue bear head to entertain crowds of dancing children, guitar in hand (which you can read about below).

Kevin’s got a brand-new book out. Let me say first: If, by chance, you aren’t familiar with his books, I’ve got seven words for you. (Wait, that is not half as dramatic as something like two words for you, but moving on …) I’m. The. Biggest. Thing. In. the. Ocean. Those are the seven words and the title of his debut picture book, which is a favorite of mine and such a superb story time choice for the wee young crowd. (I’m lookin’ right at you, story time librarians.) The starred Kirkus review for this book says, no less, that “waves of exuberance” emanate from this book, and it’s true. This debut was in 2010, and ever since then, I watch his new releases with interest. Also, I’ve wanted to interview him since then. Better late than never!

The new book is Turtle Island (Dial, May 2014). It’s about friendship and community, and not surprisingly (for fans of his debut book), opens with “I’m a giant turtle, and I’m as BIG as an island.” For this new story, Sherry penciled, inked, and then painted with watercolors. Oh, and his upcoming new chapter book about cryptids (image below) looks mighty fun, too.

As for our breakfast today, Kevin works morning shift at a restaurant, “so I ended up eating a lot of pieces of baguettes, and I found myself feeling a little sluggish, so I started eating oatmeal with apricots and toasted almonds, ’cause we got the apricots and almonds in the restaurant, and I feel myself feeling better and not being hungry for a while.” I like how he said that in one breath. It might be hard to keep up with him this morning, but I’ll give it a try.

I thank him for visiting and sharing lots of his art.

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Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Kevin: I studied Illustration at school (MICA), but I was always telling stories, and there’s no one else on the cover, so Author-Illustrator.

Jules: Can you list your books-to-date?


Jules: What is your usual medium?

Kevin: I used paper cuts and watercolor for my first, but now for Turtle Island [pictured below] and Yeti, it’s just pen and watercolor. But everything, no matter if it’s a screen print or a t-shirt or a book, always starts with pencil and eraser. Even with the eraser, I always draw the thing seven times over.

“And the sea didn’t seem so big anymore. Until …”
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[Ed. Note, Speaking of Medium: I would like to point out that the copyright page note for I’m the Biggest Thing in the Ocean says the following: “The art was completed in three layers, each separated by glass that was pried from the windows of shipwrecked pirate ships. There is a watercolor layer background, then a cut-paper level, and finally, an ink layer consisting of 100% fresh squid ink.”]

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A tattoo or two
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Mmm. Coffee.Okay, that was quick. He is to the point. I like this. We’ve got more coffee, and it’s time to get a bit more detailed with six questions over breakfast, and we’re just going to have to imagine his responses to The Pivot Questionnaire. I thank Kevin again for visiting 7-Imp.

1. Jules: What exactly is your process when you are illustrating a book? You can start wherever you’d like when answering: getting initial ideas, starting to illustrate, or even what it’s like under deadline, etc. Do you outline a great deal of the book before you illustrate or just let your muse lead you on and see where you end up?

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Kevin: The books get six to ten re-writes.

To brainstorm for books, I go to the basement of the Enoch Pratt Public Library here in Baltimore. That’s where the kids’ section is. It’s got this great vibe and this cool fountain. I scour the shelves and get a huge pile of books. I take it back to a table and I pour over the pages, jotting things down in my sketchbook. I’m listening to positive electronic music, like Dan Deacon or Daft Punk or Ratatat. So, I get my brainstorming engine going like that. I also hit Barnes & Noble to see what books they’ve chosen to display. Something that took me a while to learn, but now has made my life easier, is that you have to make books that the public wants. You want to make something that is emotionally-fulfilling and a valuable product at the same time.

Working on The Yeti Files: Meet the Bigfeet
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And I always have my sketchbook with me, always. You have to capture ideas when they flutter through your mind, because they aren’t there forever. For the kids’ books, I fold rectangles of paper in half, to make [them] like a book spread. And then I plan it out, in terms of making a story in 16 or 20 spreads. It starts with the writing then, and then a loose sketch, and then six more times, drawing it and improving the drawings. For the longer, 144-page Yeti book, it started with writing the different plot lines separately on index cards. Then I figure out how I’m going to intertwine them. Then I draw it out a bunch of times, until it’s good and ready.

2. Jules: Describe your studio or usual work space.

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Kevin: My studio is in my house. It used to be most of the downstairs, but I scaled it back, because I had to get a renter in, and I didn’t want the studio to encroach too much in what is usually a common space. So, I don’t have all the walls covered in art, but wherever my studio is [and] wherever I am, the walls are covered in art, because I need to look at the stuff I’m working on all the time. I got the TV on and maybe some music or maybe Netflix on the projector and COPS on mute on the TV. I like to listen to the TV more than music when I’m doing my drawing and actual physical artwork. I like the talking.

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3. Jules: As a book-lover, it interests me: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?

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Kevin: The first book I read that blew me away and got me hooked on books is Matilda by Roald Dahl. It was the thickest book I had read so far, and it was like, “If I can read this, I can read anything!” And my biggest influence ever was Quentin Blake. He did Dahl’s younger stuff, so I guess you could say the illustrator lead me to reading novels and stuff. And then Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions ushered me into the Orwell, Kafka, Burroughs part of my life.

But artists: Maurice Sendak, of course, big-time. The Simpsons, big-time. Of course, Quentin Blake, Ralph Steadman, Shel Silverstein.

4. Jules: If you could have three (living) authors or illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose? (Some people cheat and list deceased authors/illustrators. I won’t tell.)

Kevin: I would have a cup of coffee with Bill Watterson and really ask him why he is still in hiding, why he won’t share his talent with the world. I get it that he doesn’t like “the man,” but he had such an intelligent, brilliant voice in American culture and was able to communicate huge ideas to a huge amount of people. And I get that you can do whatever you want with your life, but also with great power comes great responsibility.

5. Jules: What is currently in rotation on your iPod or loaded in your CD player? Do you listen to music while you create books?

Kevin: Dan Deacon, Future Islands, Ed Schrader’s Music Beat, Daft Punk, Ratatat, Lightning Bolt, Chester Endersby Gwazda. Cool stuff.


6. Jules: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Kevin: I cook as a day job. It’s frustrating sometimes, but you gotta do what you gotta do til you go over. I’m a puppeteer as well. I do a variety of shows in this awesome place, Black Cherry Puppet Theatre, here in Baltimore. Also, I have an act where I wear a bear head I made and play guitar pop songs to preschool kids and birthday parties.

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All artwork and images are used with permission of Kevin Sherry.

3 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Kevin Sherry”

  1. What a terrific chap!

  2. I think we sometimes forget, in the “shock and awe” phase of admiring artists just how frenetic a pace some of them have to keep to hold it all together — cooking, doing kids’ gigs with energy and verve AND doing great art – the combination means he probably has little time for pivot questions, sleep, and other things. And yet: the art’s still awesome. Impressive.

  3. What incredible creative energy.

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