Kevan Atteberry, Illustrator & Writer
With just a few bright strokes of his pen, illustrator and children’s book writer Kevan Atteberry brings his delightful and funny characters to life. Whether it’s a child, an animal, a monster, or some other creature, the characters’ emotions are infectious. You can’t help but smile when you see them happy or frown when they’re sad.
The illustrator of seven children’s books, including the award-wining Tickle Monster and Frankie Stein, Kevan is both writer and illustrator of his latest book, due out in January 2015 (HarperCollins), called BUNNIES!!! In addition to children’s books, Kevan has a long history of creating editorial illustrations and greeting cards, all which bear the mark of his sweet, and sometimes twisted, sense of humor. His stint in the software industry led him to create perhaps his most famous (or infamous) character, Clippy, the early Microsoft Office assistant. To see more of Kevan’s work and find out about upcoming books and projects, visit his website at KevanAtteberry.com.
Kevan spoke with Constellation617 about his path to become a children’s book illustrator and writer, how he keeps his creative ideas flowing, and his upcoming projects. The interview took place on March 5, 2014 in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle.
C617: You do illustration, animation, graphic design, and writing. Have I left anything out?
Kevan Atteberry: Anything for a buck. [Laughs.] That’s pretty much it.
C617: What did you start with first?
Kevan Atteberry: One of the earliest memories I have is related to art. I was four years old, in bed with the mumps. I had a Felix the Cat board game and my crayons, and I was trying to draw Felix the Cat. When you have the mumps, you’re in isolation, so what the hell else was I going to do with a board game? As a kid I always knew I wanted to draw.
When I went to college, I thought I’d be a math major, but when it came time to sign up for classes I said screw this. I’ve always known that I was going to go into the arts, as long as I can remember. My major became fine art, but I quit after a couple of years when I realized that a degree in fine art was not going to make me a fine artist.
Then I drove a forklift and faked my way into a graphic design position with the company I was working for, and worked my way from there.
C617: What was doing graphic design like at that time?
Kevan Atteberry: This was before computers, in the late ’70s, early ’80s. At that point, graphic design was all done with cameras and by hand. I think every older graphic designer will know about wax and having things professionally typeset, and laying them out on board and then photographing them with high-contrast cameras. It was all very laborious as far as taking the type, taking the photos, and putting them all together on boards. If you messed something up, you had to start from scratch. You didn’t just hit Command-Z.
It was a great job. I learned a lot. I was still always more illustration-oriented, but the graphic design was in the same ballpark as far as using my creative abilities. I was laid off after about four years there and started my own design company, and with all the work I brought in, I tried to sell clients on adding illustration or making it more illustrative.
C617: What’s the difference between graphic design and illustration?
Kevan Atteberry: Graphic design is more lettering, logos, creating brochures, signage, cereal boxes, movie titles. Whereas illustration is more creating a literal image of an idea you want to convey. I like the story aspect of illustration. A successful illustration is evocative and provocative. It makes you think and wonder.
C617: Where did you get your sense of humor?
Kevan Atteberry: I don’t know. I think humor is a huge part of all my illustration. The important thing for me is to evoke a feeling, whether it’s happiness or sadness. I want somebody to feel something when they look at my work.
I guess I’ve always been kind of a smartass. Also, humor sells. I had a greeting card company in the late ’90s and early 2000s, and I created humorous greeting cards. I got a huge amount of joy whenever somebody laughed at my work. I felt like I really accomplished something. The beauty is that with greeting cards, and illustration in general, the image is generally produced in multiples. With greeting cards, they might print up to ten thousand of what I designed. So, if all of them sold, that means at least twenty thousand people saw the card—the person giving it and the person getting it. And if I entertained twenty thousand people with this one image, how cool is that?
Maybe it’s that I like to entertain, and this is the best way I know how to entertain, with illustration and humor.
C617: And, of course, you do that with your children’s books.
Kevan Atteberry: I absolutely love entertaining with the children’s books. It’s not high art or something that anybody is going to hang on their wall, but I’m creating these great images that thousands of kids will see and be entertained by, maybe once, twice, six, or a dozen times in the lifetime of that particular book. And hopefully, there’s tens of thousands of them. I don’t get to witness it, but I know it is happening. I get chills thinking about it, that around the country, people are picking up something I made and being entertained and feeling good about it.
C617: How did you make the transition to working on books?
Kevan Atteberry: Books, and children’s books in particular, have always been a passion of mine. Beginning when I was the target audience for them, I wanted to draw pictures for books. It was always something I worked on in the background. I joined an organization in the ’90s, the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators, and started working on their advisory committee, and I’m still on it today. I pursued illustrating children’s books on the side, but that’s hard money to come by, so you’re always doing other stuff to generate income.
It just clicked in the past nine or ten years. I’ve started being asked by publishers to illustrate particular manuscripts, and I eventually came to write my own. My first book that I’ve written and illustrated will be out in January. I’m very excited about that. Having only illustrated other people’s books I’ve never felt real ownership of them. But this book really feels like mine.
I try to tamp down my enthusiasm a bit because I know, when I’m talking to other people, and they’re talking about real estate deals or whatever, that nobody is going to get as excited about a book on bunnies as I am. And that’s the name of my book that will be out in January. It’s called BUNNIES!!!, with three exclamation marks.
I always wanted to do a book on bunnies so I could say that I draw bunnies for a living, and that’s my first book. I just think it’s funny to say.
C617: When you wrote BUNNIES!!!, did you have the characters in mind first and then write the story or was it the other way around?
Kevan Atteberry: I’ll tell you exactly how it happened. In October 2011, I decided I was going to draw a monster a day, from scratch, for the month of October, and I did. Every day I drew a monster, and they turned out pretty nice. People liked them. I posted them on Facebook and was held accountable by people looking for the new monster every day.
Then I did it again in 2012. One of the monsters had half a dozen bunnies or so with it, and the monster is exclaiming, “Bunnies!” I thought it was interesting the way people responded to that one. Half the people thought that the monster was going to eat the bunnies and half thought the monster was excited to see the bunnies. I found that fascinating, that this one image could evoke such opposed interpretations. It might say more about the people who commented on them! I got great comments on all the monsters, but I thought it was really interesting that people didn’t get that one and were confused by it.
C617: So which one was it? Did the monster want to eat the bunnies or was it just excited to see them?
Kevan Atteberry: Well, you’ll have to wait until the book comes out.
In November, there’s a picture book challenge to come up with a picture book idea a day, kind of like NaNoWriMo but it’s PiBoIdMo. (None of these are easy to say!) So you have one month and you come up with thirty picture book ideas. Well, one of my picture book ideas was the bunnies and the monster one, because I thought there was a story there.
In December, I was trying to figure out what idea to work on, and I thought, I’m going to do the bunnies one. I sat down, and honestly, I wrote that in two hours. I had it all dummied up in another two hours. I thought, this is brilliant. This is a great story.
I showed it to my critique group and they liked it. I said to myself, this is so good that I’m going to fire my agent in January and try to sell this myself because I didn’t want it to languish. I wanted it to be out there right now. So, I did. I fired my agent and I started shopping new agents. I decided if I didn’t have any luck, I was going to submit it myself. But I got picked up by an agent immediately, a really great agent who I love. And she sent it out and had four or five publishers interested in it in the first couple of weeks, and we finally settled on HarperCollins for a two-book deal.
Now I’m frantically trying to write the second one.
C617: That’s the dream, to have a story that just comes to you like that.
Kevan Atteberry: It was magic. It came so easily and was so flawless. When we did sell the book to HarperCollins, the editor there added just one word. That was the total editing. It was that perfect. Now I’m just laboring over this second one. I don’t want the sophomore slump. I want it to be just as good as the first one.
C617: When you were doing your monster a day, how did you inspire yourself to come up with a new and different character every day?
Kevan Atteberry: The whole reason for doing that was to have an exercise in discipline, to challenge myself to create something new every day. I was really conscious of not making them look the same. If the one yesterday had horns, the one today didn’t. I literally started with nothing each morning. I did not reference old sketches or anything like that. I just sat down and started drawing a shape until something started to happen. I think each and every one is dramatically different from the others of the month. I worked really hard at that.
My challenge in 2013 was to make each monster evoke some kind of emotion. I worked hard to make that happen, and I think succeeded. There’s an obvious emotion or feeling happening with each monster rather than just a portrait of a monster. Without much of a background environment, it’s really got to be done with facial expressions and body positions.
C617: What do you look at to inspire you? How do you visually create emotion?
Kevan Atteberry: I absolutely reference other illustrators. I’m in awe of so many illustrators, especially in the children’s book world.
There are so many cliché types of solutions that work to convey emotion. If you want to convey anger, tilt the eyebrows in. For sad, tilt the eyebrows out. It’s simple things like that we as humans recognize as generic emotions. It’s not just in humans, though. We can see it in our dogs. Maybe cats not as much. But other animals, we can definitely see emotions in.
Some emotions are harder to portray, like confusion or remorse. You almost need a prop for an emotion like remorse. You need to hint at why something is remorseful. But your basic emotions like happy or sad are pretty easy. If you ask any kid to draw a happy face and a sad face, they immediately go to those default features.
C617: Do you still draw by hand? What was it like switching to computer?
Kevan Atteberry: I always have a traditional sketchbook going today. When I switched over to drawing with computers, it was catastrophic. It was horrible. Initially, I was drawing with a mouse but eventually moved over to a digitizing tablet and finally, a Cintiq. It took me years and years to get good at drawing on a computer. Now I just love it. I think it’s one of the greatest tools in the world. Although, at the same time, I miss the tactile qualities of drawing or painting with traditional mediums.
I still try to take my sketchbook everywhere I go. I was told to do that by a cartoonist, to at all times have your sketchbook and a pencil and to draw. If you’re sitting in a doctor’s office, you can read a magazine or you can draw. If you’re sitting at dinner and it doesn’t bother anyone else, you can draw while you talk.
It’s something I always try to do, and I don’t do enough of it. I’m trying to figure a way to use more traditional mediums. I’ve been doing drawings just to send to people out of the blue, whether it’s just on the envelope with a note inside that says hi. It’s a good way for me to test myself, because if I’m just sketching for myself in my sketchbook, I might give up on it and not care about it as much as if I’m sending something to somebody because I want them to like it. Again, the entertaining thing. I want them to be entertained. So, that’s also being held to account.
C617: That’s something that impresses me about you, how you are always making things not for money but just to make them.
Kevan Atteberry: It’s fun. If I can make something and show it to you and you like it, it’s totally worth it to me. I know that ninety-five out of a hundred things that I draw are not going to make any money, but I get enjoyment out of it, and maybe I can give it to somebody and they get enjoyment out of it. I just love giving what I have to people. It’s probably a terrible way to do things in a business sense.
C617: But now you can say you draw bunnies for a living!
Kevan Atteberry: It’s true. I draw bunnies.
C617: Any new projects you’re excited about?
Kevan Atteberry: Everything I’m working on now is in the publishing industry. I’ve got three books in the hopper that I’m trying to get in a format to give to my agent so she can try to sell them. These are books I’ve written and dummied up. I haven’t illustrated them yet. And then I’m doing a lot more writing. I’m enjoying writing, as difficult as it is. Writing is so hard.
C617: Are you writing other things in addition to children’s books?
Kevan Atteberry: Not much, other than contributing to some blogs about writing and illustrating. And occasionally I still write greeting cards. It is such a fun, quick industry.
C617: Before we finish, I have to ask you about one character you’ve created that might be your most famous. You were involved in the software industry, right?
Kevan Atteberry: I designed Clippy for Microsoft back in the ’90s. I first worked on a project for Microsoft called Microsoft Bob; it was a huge, huge failure for them. But the technology in it had little animated helpers and they decided, as Bob was folded up and put away forever, to take the technology they developed for the helpers in Bob and put it in Word.
I was doing contract work for Microsoft at the time, and we came up with about two hundred and sixty characters that were tested and retested by social psychologists from Stanford. Eventually, Clippy, which was one of mine, became the default character because he was the most endearing and trustworthy.
C617: That’s a lot to put into a paperclip.
Kevan Atteberry: That is a lot to put into a paperclip. And people loved him or hated him. It didn’t matter to me as long as they knew who he was. He’s opened a lot of doors for me through the years. I’ve been lucky that way.
Visit Kevan Atteberry's website at KevanAtteberry.com.
Watch a fun Evening Magazine piece on Kevan Atteberry about creating Clippy for Microsoft.