Master Of Puppets: Kevin Sherry brings kids' imaginations to life

Kevin Sherry with some of his handmade puppets, including Brain Bear (on his head) and Blizz Richards (front).
Kevin Sherry with some of his handmade puppets, including Brain Bear (on his head) and Blizz Richards (front). (Audrey Gatewood)

Kevin Sherry describes a letter from Quentin Blake, illustrator of Roald Dahl’s many children’s books, as his “best possession.” It’s fitting for someone who is now in the business of producing self-illustrated children’s books, in particular “The Yeti Files” series, the first of which was released late last year.

Even in the third grade, when he sent a fan letter to Blake, Sherry knew he had a gift for art. “I was never funny or cool but I could draw Bart Simpson,” he says. He loved Roald Dahl’s books—“The BFG,” “The Twits,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox”—primarily because of Blake’s illustrations, and while the assignment was to write to an author, he couldn’t resist reaching out to Blake instead.
He grew up in southern New Jersey, about 20 minutes from Philly, and first came to Baltimore to study at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Freshman year he majored in general fine arts, but wanted better feedback. “I was already making mock-ups of children’s books,” he says, but everyone was doing such different things that they couldn’t critique each others’ work. So he switched to illustration.
When Sherry graduated in 2004, “everyone was moving to Brooklyn to work a shitty job and try to make it in New York,” but he elected to stay and make his home in Baltimore. He started working day jobs to pay the bills and pursuing his artistic work during his free time. “I’ve been working in kitchens for the last 14 years,” he says. “I finally was able to make the jump and can live as an illustrator.”
Along with his books, Sherry is a puppeteer and he makes all of his own puppets, including Brain Bear and Blizz Richards, the star of his “The Yeti Files” book series. He does puppet shows for both kids and adults—his twerking puppet was a hit at City Paper’s Dirty Love show in February—some of which can be seen at Black Cherry Puppet Theatre. He regularly appears at school assemblies and programs cool kids events around town, including the kids stage at Hampdenfest—if you saw an amped-up dude running around the Avenue in a homemade blue bear helmet (Brain Bear), you met Kevin Sherry. The shows fulfill a special purpose for Sherry. “All the other things . . . are commercial, [I’m] collaborating with the public,” he says. The puppet shows are something he does for himself.
Sherry practically vibrates with energy. He’s dynamic and lively, like his primary audience of children. Sherry says the decision to make children his target demographic was practical rather than sentimental. “I draw cute stuff,” he says. “I don’t feel particularly drawn to kids . . . I just know my audience.” He sets no stock by what others think of his work. “I don’t expect my peers to be impressed with what I do,” he says.
Sherry practically glows when talking about his interactions with kids. He tries to be real with students in the schools he visits, showing the drafts of his drawings, and the kids aren’t that impressed—until he explains that it wasn’t perfect the first time (or the fourth) and he had to redo them. “When I say that, they actually—” he gasps and groans. This reaction is part of Sherry’s message. He doesn’t want the students to think that they will automatically succeed at whatever career they choose, but to know that success rarely comes without hard work.
In his books, the messages are simple. “Acorns Everywhere!” focuses on one squirrel’s search for his buried acorns, and the message is that squirrels often forget where they hid their acorns. “Meet the Bigfeet,” the first installment of Scholastic-published “The Yeti Files,” preaches kindness and an open mind toward the unknown. It’s about a bighearted Bigfoot named Blizz Richards and his quest to save his cousin Brian from shame and his entire species from exposure. Maintaining the Bigfoots’ obscurity is important because, as Blizz says, “The secrecy keeps magic and mystery in the minds of humans. And we all know how important that is.”
Sherry considers himself blessed for the experience he has had with “The Yeti Files.” He had been going through a hard time in his life and decided to try not to dwell on the negative. Things got markedly better after that decision. He pitched “The Yeti Files” soon after, in May 2012.
The story itself is very focused on the illustrations; the writing consists more of words identifying objects in the illustrations than of full written sentences. It’s comparable to Jeff Kinney’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series and Sherry relates it to Dav Pilkey’s “Captain Underpants” series. “I didn’t go for any specific genre, but I would put ‘The Yeti Files’ as a hybrid of graphic novel and book.” It’s not the kind of book that one could listen to on audiotape.
However, his other stories, which include “I’m the Biggest Thing in the Ocean” and “Turtle Island,” are your classic square, full-color-page-with-giant-font picture books. The illustrations are bold multimedia; for the inside cover of “I’m the Biggest Thing in the Ocean,” Sherry says he “used paper collage and watercolor . . . and then layered the art on the biggest piece of Plexiglas that I could find.”
The illustrations are what it’s all about for Sherry. He recognizes the need for a storyline. “You gotta have a rising action and at least two gags where the whole rhythm of the book is turned on its head,” he says, but for him, “it’s more visual.”
Sherry is churning out professional work at a fair clip. “The Yeti Files 2: Monsters on the Run” arrives in September of this year, and the third installment, “Attack of the Kraken,” will follow in June 2016. Sherry expresses interest in continuing the series with some speed, because as soon as the kids finish reading one book they’ll want the next one. It’s good that Sherry has so much energy to go around—he’ll need it to keep up with the kids.