Saturday, December 8, 2012

SpeakWell, ReadWell Interview with Jim Averbeck

It was another rainy week at Redwood Elementary, at least it began that way, and by Wednesday the students were feeling a bit squirrely – too much time indoors – so when I asked a kindergarten teacher if I could share a book with her class during my lunch break, she jumped at the opportunity. A roomful of five year-olds who have been cooped up all morning can be a challenge to engage but when I pulled out, OH NO, Little Dragon! I had them captive. My motives weren’t entirely selfless; I enlisted the students to help me interview the author and illustrator, Jim Averbeck.

Welcome Jim. My students and I think Little Dragon is adorable. We’d all like to know, what inspired you to write his story?

I began writing the story while I was traveling in China to see a solar eclipse of the sun. Our Chinese guide told us his name was Frankie. But I knew he only said that to give me a name easy for me to pronounce.  I asked him what his real Chinese name was and he told me it was Xiao Long, which he said meant “Little Dragon.” I thought that would be a good name for a book.  He also told me that in imperial China it would have been illegal for him to have that name, punishable by death. Only the emperor could bear the name “Dragon.”

No wonder there aren’t many dragons left in China! How long did it take to create the book -from initial inspiration to publication?

The eclipse happened in July of 2009. The book was published in August of 2012. So it was three years from first inspiration to published book.

That may sound like a long time to my students but it sounds like a speedy turn-around to me. Will Little Dragon make an appearance in future books?

Right now I am writing a story about Little Dragon’s relationship with Papa Dragon. Little Dragon likes to sleep in Papa’s bed, but when he “phooshes” during a bad dream and burns up the book Papa is reading, it’s time for him to get a big boy bed!

What a clever idea! When did you first become interested in writing and illustrating children’s books?

I lived in Cameroon in Western Africa from 1990 – 1994. During that time I had a sort of dream that inspired the first story I ever wrote. It was a visual story, so I knew it needed to be illustrated.

Wow - you’ve seen a lot of the world! What were some of your favorite books from childhood?

I was just thinking about that the other day. I remember loving “Bread and Jam for Frances.”  It was the book I had to have read over and over, until it fell apart from use.


Bryson asked, “How hard was this story to make?”

Harder than making your bed but easier than making up for lost time.

Peter didn’t have any questions but he wanted you to know he loves the story.

That makes me very happy Peter. Every author wants someone to love his story.

Leo wondered, “How did you make the dragon?”

Little Dragon is made up of basic shapes. His head is an oval. His body is a circle. His tail is a big triangle and he has thirteen small triangles that run from the top of his head to the tip of his tail. After I draw those shapes, I trace over them and add arms, feet and a face.  Then Little Dragon is ready to face the day.

Skylar had no questions although she wanted me to tell you she has a pet dragon and a little baby fish.

Oh my! What does she feed her dragon?  Mostly they eat princesses and warriors, but some are vegetarian and others like hamburgers. I hope her pet dragon doesn’t eat princesses.

Skylar said he eats chips and dip. April liked all of the illustrations and she asked, “How did you draw the bathtub?”

I looked at a lot of pictures of bathtubs.  I liked the old ones with feet best.  I decided a dragon would have a bathtub with feet made out of bones.

The kids spotted the bones right away and a few wished they had similar tubs. I shared the book with a first grade speech group and Jared asked, “Why do dragons really have hats with horns on their bathtubs?”

Dragons often fight with Viking warriors.  When they win, there is nothing left of the Viking except for a hat with horns and possibly a badly dented or melted sword. Dragons get to keep these things. They are called the “spoils of war” and dragons use them to decorate their homes.

Joden informed me that dragons are half-bird and half-fireplace because they fly and have flames. He wanted me to tell you that he writes stories for his little brother and they are about dragons too.

I think Joden must be right about that. I think they have a little bit of dinosaur in them too. If Joden could be half-boy half-something-else, what would the something-else be?

Joden was happy to answer your question. If he could, he’d be half-boy and half-fireplace so he’d be the only fire-breathing boy.

Malachi wants you to know he ate peppers and his eyes didn’t water but flames blew out of his mouth for two years. He wants to know if you ever ate hot peppers and did a lot of fire come out of your mouth?

When I lived in Africa, they had peppers so hot if you breathed out you would catch the trees on fire. That’s how the Sahara Desert was created.

I'm glad I wasn't there at the time! Jared asked, “Did you use crayons to make the hot red flames?”

Actually I used a computer program called Photoshop. The flames have many different layers- one for the yellow, one for the white, and so on.  There were over 15 different layers. How many can Jared count?

Jared counted only four – he was surprised by all the layers. Hailey wanted me to mention she writes every day and she wondered why you don’t. I assured her, there is every possibility that you do too, but we don’t get to see everything you write. I think she was implying, she wants to see more Little Dragon stories. Would you like to comment?

I try to write every day too.  Sometimes I can’t though, because I have to walk the dog or visit a school to speak to a class. But I try to write every day. 

My students wanted to share some of their artwork. Esmeralda, who did the blue dragons kissing, wanted your opinion on her art.

All the art is beautiful. The dragons kissing makes fine use of a monochromatic palette, which means it used only- or mostly- one color. In this case blue. Please tell Esmeralda that the most famous artist in the world, Pablo Picasso, also went through a time when he used mostly one color. It is called his “blue period” and his art is worth a million dollars.

Here is an example:

Ariel, who created the yellow dragon wanted me to tell you she is an artist too.

The yellow dragon I also like a lot, because he is yellow like fire.

And I like the dragon in the bathtub. This is an example of a contour line drawing. Tell Zayd, that Picasso, that famous artist I mentioned, also had a time when he did line art like this.

Here is a Picasso camel:

And here is a Picasso wiener dog:

I like the brown dragon too, but he scared me a little because he is so fierce!

Do you have any last words of advice for future writers and illustrators?

The best way to learn to write and illustrate is to read a lot of books. Read every day. Read, read, read, read, read, read, read!

What good advice, and you’ve given children a great place to start with OH NO, Little Dragon!

Thank you, Jim Averbeck!

I received more artwork from Mrs. Douglas’ kindergarten class after the interview so please take a look below.


  1. I love this post. I'll have to share it with my Kindergarten teacher/writer friends.

  2. Fabulous interview. Thank you for sharing the interesting "how it came about" and the sequences of the origin of your picture book.
    Love it. I loved hearing how long it took from the origin of the idea to the publishing year. It gives the public that a picture book writing is not a whim.

  3. Thank you, Janet, it was a fun post to put together. And Sandy, thank you for your kind words. Jim did an amazing job responding to all the questions.

  4. What a fun full of the kindness of the talented artist-author and of the sweet mindedness of the children! Touching. And a gift to us all!

  5. I love the interview, the questions the kids asked, and really, most of all, the art. It was fascinating. Is fascinating!

  6. Thank you Beatrice - it was a fun interview to do. I appreciated Jim's answers and the kids loved knowing that a "famous" author/illustrator cared enough to answer their questions.

    Suzanne, thank you for your encouraging comments. I'll share your words with my students.

  7. I am so impressed by the childrens' questions! They are brilliant and talented, all of them.

    Also I loved Jim's responses, that combination of encouragement and humor is wonderful.

  8. The kids are as impressive as their questions.

    This morning I shared some of the comments with the students and they were thrilled! They also loved seeing their artwork on-line.

  9. What a delightful blog! Made my day. Betsy

  10. Thank you, Betsy, and you just made mine!

  11. I love your classes' drawings of dragons! And, I think it is wonderful that you are engaging your class in learning about authors and literature! Thanks for joining Great Books for Kids. I hope that we will see more of your posts there. : )

  12. What a great idea on how to engage your classroom with a book by letting the kids ask some of the questions and then do a picture of the dragon! How adorable! They must have totally enjoyed that. Visiting from the Great Books for Kids Google group.

  13. Thank you Bethany - I love their drawings too.

    You are right, Renee - the kids loved being part of my "interview team".

  14. Wonderful, fierce dragons and graet interview!