What a way to kick off a new month: a joint Friend Friday post from two gifted creatives, Liz Garton Scanlon and Kevan Atteberry. Liz reminds us that the creative work we do depends on play and Kevan reminds us that our play can have its ups and downs. If you want to hear even more from these talented book creators, head on over to Instagram/IGTV to watch the replay of our Write Space with Kirby Larson and Friends conversation. I am so pleased to celebrate their first collaboration and newest picture book, I Want a Boat!, (Neal Porter Books/Holiday house).

The Imagined Reality of I Want a Boat!, by Liz Garton Scanlon and Kevan Atteberry

Liz: I like to think of writing a picture book as imaginative play, as an act of exploration and adventure the likes of which we undertook as kids on a daily basis. It’s not that every moment of the work actually feels like that, but I’m pretty sure it serves me and, I hope, my readers, if I bring that spirit with me. 

This book – I Want a Boat! (Neal Porter Books/Holiday House) – is kind of a manifestation or illustration of that kind of play. Just as I always start with a blank page, the child in this book starts with an empty box – and then has to figure out what to do with it. I remember that sensation so vividly – in my bones – of what can this become? Where should we go? Who shall I be? 

Art is really that – taking what we’ve got (a snippet of an idea, some skills, something to aim for) and making a risky, wobbly, audacious leap toward it.

Kevan: When I was asked by my agent if I’d be interested in illustrating a picture book by Liz Garton Scanlon, I immediately and enthusiastically said, ‘yes!’ even before reading the manuscript. I knew Liz’s work and knew I would love this story and was thrilled to be asked to work on one of her books. And I was not wrong.

Liz: An author’s and illustrator’s work is similar, I think, in terms of that imaginative play, except that when we authors hand off the box, we’ve already put some stuff in it, making it a tighter squeeze and a trickier proposition for the illustrators. They have to play the ultimate improv game, saying, “Yes, and…” to what we offer up!

When our editor, Neal Porter, said he’d gotten a yes from Kevan for this project, I was thrilled. I knew the story was in courageous, masterful, and yet still-so-playful hands. 

Kevan: Working on I Want a Boat! was unlike any other book I’ve illustrated. For one, I don’t draw humans as often as I draw, say, monsters. I Want a Boat! is only the second book I’ve ever illustrated that didn’t have monsters in it.

The manuscript was spare and lovely. I had to read it number of times before I began to get an idea how visually it would play out. And I am very happy with how it did. 

There is no reference in the script as to who the first-person narrative is from, but I envisioned it as a young girl. There is mention of a crew for her boat, and I took that crew to be made up of her plush toys. And finally I added some peripheral characters: a turtle, a fish, an orca, and some seagulls to help me bring the story to its fullness. I got an okay for all the sketches and was ready to start the actual illustrations.

Liz: The game the little girl in the book plays – a back-of-forth of I have, I want (I have a box, I want a boat… I have a sail, I want the sea… etc.) is one many of us play all the time, in life and work. Striking a delicate balance of satisfaction and striving, taking stock of (and being grateful for) what we’ve got, and then yearning for, leaning into, dreaming up the next big thing.

Kevan: Neal suggested I try and do the illustrations for I Want a Boat! in traditional media. For years now—decades, actually—I’ve worked digitally almost exclusively, but he had seen a painting in my Instagram account and thought it might be a good way to bring the book to life. Unfortunately, it was a small painting I had done in a class and not a technique I actually do on a regular basis. And certainly not at the size I would need to do it for the book. But I tried. I tried a good number of techniques with watercolor, acrylics and pencils. After sharing some of them with the publisher, it became clear that none of them really worked. 

Early Attempts

I was becoming a bit hopeless, self-doubting, questioning whether I was the right person for this job, you know, the usual insecurities, when Neal asked about another traditional media illustration of mine he had seen. And I thought, yes, I can do that—at least at I was pretty sure I could. It was a style/technique I’ve worked with for many years. Still not at the scale of a whole book, but I felt comfortable jumping in and creating samples. I was happy with the results, Neal was happy with the results and so thus began the creation of the actual illustrations for the book.

Liz: When I send off my work, it’s a bunch of text in a Word doc. It’s basically still a box, albeit one with the cargo of dreams. Can you imagine what it’s like to send off a box like that and have a boat come floating back? 

Inevitably, each box becomes its own particular brand of boat, unlike any other, because of the alchemy of ideas, words, art, and the people bound together in making something imagined quite real. I couldn’t be happier about the making of this boat, both the process and the end result. I love it. I think it’s sea worthy.

Kevan: To be honest, the illustrations weren’t done TOTALLY using traditional art, rather a traditional and digital hybrid I developed for this book. A technique I’ve become very happy with and continue to use and further develop since.

I Want a Boat! is a book I’m incredibly pleased to have had a hand in. I think it is a lovely lesson in escape from the mundane. I love our protagonist’s moxie and determination and most importantly, her imagination.

I Want a Boat Written by Liz Garton Scanlon and Illustrated by Kevan Atteberry

Kevan is a writer/illustrator of award-winning children’s books including the 2020 Crystal Kite Award winner, Ghost Cat. He spent decades running a graphic design studio, a greeting card company and a few dalliances in the dot.com nuttiness before breaking into picture books. His books include,  Bunnies!!!, Puddles!!!, and I Love You More than the Smell of Swamp Gas. Among books he has illustrated for others are Halloween Hustle by Charlotte Gunnufson, Tickle Monster by Josie Bissett, and Frankie Stein by Lola Schaefer. 

But Kevan’s biggest claim to fame may be creating Clippy the Paperclip, the Microsoft Word helper. At one point it was annoying hundreds of millions of people a day. He finds an odd kind of pride in this…

Liz is the author of many beloved books for kids, including the recent Thank You, Garden and One Dark Bird, as well as the Caldecott Honor book All the World, and many others. She’s also co-authored several books with her pal Audrey Vernick, including the hilarious Bob, Not Bob. Her debut middle grade novel The Great Good Summer will be followed by a second novel in 2022 and her poems can be seen in numerous anthologies. She serves on the faculty of the Vermont Faculty of Fine Arts, but lives in Austin, Texas, most of the year. Find more on her life and work at  www.LizGartonScanlon.com