Interview with Jim Averbeck
I raised my hand.
This was all without having read, or even seen, Jim's book and, you know, that always feels like going out on a limb. I didn't need to worry, though. When I got the book and opened it, the first seconds of relief (that the book was good) quickly gave way to utter delight that I really loved the story. Alice could be me, many years ago, if the blue was purple. She could be half the children I watched my son go through preschool and early elementary school with, who insisted on pink or orange or Buzz Lightyear or light-up sneakers. And Jim's story doesn't stop with that familiarity, but takes Alice and her mother and all of us on a warm, comforting, lovely bedtime ride.
The interview was fun. Jim has clearly thought a lot about the work he is doing, and he shares those ideas generously. If you haven't read the book yet, I think his answers to my questions may send you right off to the bookstore. Or you can go over to Susan Taylor Brown's blog and enter her contest for one of three signed copies.
And on to the interview!
BL: Congratulations on the publication of In a Blue Room. I was so happy to get my copy and open it. I was even happier to find out how much I liked the story.
JA: Thanks so much.
BL: I've read that you started thinking of the story as a "concept book," about colors. I love that, because it goes so much beyond the typical concept book. For one thing, Alice is such a true child, in her absolute need for that one, special color. Did this come from memories of yourself as a child? Or from a child you know today?
JA: Both, really, and memories of children in between. When I was trying to sell In a Blue Room to a publisher, I had a little tag line: "The obsession of a child, the understanding of a mother, and the magic of a midnight sky." Okay, so it sounds a little like a perfume ad, but I think the word obsession aptly describes how children sometimes relate to the world. When I was a child, my favorite name was "Tommy." I named everything I could "Tommy." The bird was Tommy. My stuffed animals: Tommy. The wild squirrel my grandpa had trained to take peanuts out of his hand: Tommy.
Years later, I was with a much younger cousin. Her doll, her toy pony, every vaguely female figure she drew: all named "Shell." Fortunately, most kids are only obsessed for a week or two and then they move on, or we'd have a lot of exasperated parents on our hands. And we don't...um...do we?
BL: You didn't decide to write until you were thirty. What made you pick children's books?
JA: I figured if Madonna could do it, anyone could...ha!
Seriously, I think children's books picked me. Long before writing In a Blue Room, I was living in Cameroon and I had a sort of vision of a book. It was very visual. I saw the pictures first, then a few words. So when I wrote down what I had seen in my head, I naturally thought of a children's picture book. Then the stars (in the form of three kid lit courses offered by Berkeley extension) conspired to lead me to the right places to learn how to write books for children. And here I am.
BL: In your interview on Imaginary Blog, you talked about holes in writing--revealing and filling in the holes of your story. I've always thought, though, that picture book writing is also about choosing which holes to keep--for the artist to illustrate and the reader to fill in with their imagination. Would you say this is true? And can you talk a bit about the process of making these choices?
JA: Brilliant observation and absolutely true. I'm scheduled to speak on picture books at the North Texas SCBWI workshop in September. I've proposed speaking on writing illustratable stories, and what to leave out is a part of that. I think when you first start writing, in order to leave room for the illustrator to do her work, you need to be very conscious of not using too much description of the setting or characters, including too many specifics or--God forbid!--including illustration notes. As beginning writers, we often over-write, which is okay because that is what revision is for: to remove all the excess. Eventually writing for illustration becomes second nature (I hope!).
There is also a group of folks who go the opposite direction and don't write anything at all. They turn in an "idea" that they'd like the illustrator to draw: lots of illustration notes and directions on how they "see" the story in their heads but don't have the skill to draw. These folks always puzzle me. If you can't write and you can't draw, perhaps being a creator of picture books isn't your true calling.
Another thing a writer can do is focus on the non-visual senses in his writing. So describe how something feels, tastes, smells or sounds, rather than how it looks. I literally do this in In a Blue Room. Of course, I also describe the colors of the items since the book is, at its most basic level, a color concept book.
BL: From a reader's point of view, I think Tricia Tusa did an amazing job of illustrating your story. What do you think Tricia's art brought to the book?
JA: When I first wrote In a Blue Room, I thought I had created a lot of layers for the story. It was about the relationship between a mother and child, a color concept book, a concept book about the five senses, a bedtime book, a book with a surprise twist. I even saw the offerings Mama brings as a metaphor for the parent opening up a world of experiences to the child, and the way the room turns blue as a metaphor for those experiences, at first upsetting for the child, eventually become a part of her safe, accepted environment.
Then Tricia added about a hundred more layers.
She brought the story from a personal level to a universal level by zooming out at the end and showing the whole Earth. One can't help think that there is a world of Alices all settling down in their respective blue rooms. And that last image also conveys a subtle environmental message, that the blue room we all share is the planet Earth.
And Tricia fleshes out Alice's character. If you look closely you'll see that Alice is a little artist; her room is full of crayons and paintbrushes. No wonder she is obsessed with color.
Tricia also sets up a little mystery that drives the story forward. I've had many comments from readers that the child read to asks why the room isn't blue at first. It intrigues them and then feels, as Publisher's Weekly put it, "like a promise kept" when the room turns blue. And, of course, since the Earth is the universal blue room revealed at the end, we see that Alice was in fact in a blue room the whole time.
And the details Tricia showed while maintaining simplicity! Did you notice the toys abandoned on the roof? Or that Mama wears blue under her robe? And that the dolls sport rather dismayed or alarmed expressions when Alice is causing a commotion at the beginning, but are smiling once she settles down?
I could go on and on about all that Tricia brought to the book. But the thing that is most wonderful is that the words and the pictures work so well together, which is the very definition of a picture book.
BL: You've been very involved with SCBWI for many years. Would you say the group has helped you with your writing and/or with your success in getting published? What benefits of being in SCBWI would you recommend to other writers and illustrators?
JA: SCBWI has definitely contributed to my success (such as it is).
First through inspiration: I remember at the first conference I went to, I watched David Wisniewski give a wonderful talk and I said to myself, "Someday I'm going to be up on that stage." I even picked out a title for my talk: I was an SCBWI poster child. Well, I did get up on that stage, but it was as a Regional Advisor, not a speaker, and I got to say only one word. Well...the dream lives on.
Secondly, through information: From the publications on nuts and bolts for beginners, to the Annual Market Survey, useful to all, to the regional offerings geared for seasoned pros. I just don't think there is another organization that offers so much for seventy-five dollars a year. Even if you valued your own hours at a low minimum wage, it would cost far more than that in time spent researching just a tiny amount of the information on the craft and business of writing available at your fingertips as an SCBWI member.
Thirdly through interconnection: That's the closest "i" word I could think of for networking. I remember at my second SCBWI conference, I was at the hotel restaurant eating lunch with five or six other new-found writer friends. Who should come over and join us but Arthur Levine. This was just after Harry Potter had become the book of the century and he was a superstar (for that and other accomplishments). It was sort of surreal. Like if Robert De Niro or Michael Jordan were to just happen by and join you for lunch. SCBWI conferences, both national and regional, are great places to meet your fellow authors and illustrators, as well as editors, agents, art directors and anyone else in the industry.
BL: Who are some of your favorite picture-book authors writing today?
JA: I loved Eve Bunting's Smokey Night (illustrated by David Diaz) and Kevin Henkes' Kitten's First Full Moon and Doreen Cronin's Click Clack Moo (illustrated by Betsy Lewin) and anything by David Wiesner (Is he an author with wordless books? I'd say so.)
BL: Are there any upcoming readings or signings you want to tell people about?
JA: As a matter of fact, I am having a traveling launch party for In a Blue Room at three Bay Area locations. All are welcome. I even set up an evite so I can get enough food. To see the evite for the Peninsula/South Bay party on June 7, from 1:00 pm to 3:00 pm, at Linden Tree Books in Los Altos, click here. To see the evite for the East Bay party on June 8, from 3:00 pm to 5:00 pm, at The Polka Dot Attic in Danville, click here. To see the evite for the San Francisco party on June 10, from 4:00 pm to 6:00 pm, at Alexander Book Co. in San Francisco, click here.