When Jim Averbeck was a child in Ohio he watched a television show called Larry Smith and His Puppets, which included songs, cartoons, and art from young viewers. “Every day I would draw a picture [to send to the show],” Averbeck says. One time he created a shoe box diorama puppet stage. “I drew a picture of each of [Smith’s] puppets. I stood them up and glued them inside this shoe box.” One day a post card arrived to say that his puppet stage would be featured on an upcoming show. “I treasured that thing,” he says. “The corners got turned up on that post card. I had it for years and years and years.”
In spite of his creative streak, Averbeck received no formal art training. He remembers a “really cool” art teacher in high school, but there was no time for art in the life of a college chemistry/engineering major, and art was not considered a career option in his family.
During a stint in the Peace Corps in Cameroon, Averbeck reacquainted himself with creative pursuits. He remembers lying in bed, “trancing out” to drums in the distance. A fully formed story came to him about characters who interact with color to create a new world. A fellow Peace Corps volunteer and published author recognized a kindred spirit and gave Averbeck writing exercises to develop his craft. A couple of editors expressed interest in his story, but it remains unpublished. Always optimistic, Averbeck says, “I have hopes for it.”
Back on U.S. soil Averbeck shifted gears. He moved to San Francisco and enrolled in extension classes at the University of California, Berkeley—one writing class, and two illustration classes. “I really want to create something that outlives me,” he says.
His first published book, In a Blue Room, received The Charlotte Zolotow Award for the best picture book text. “I wanted to do a concept book that would have a narrative as well,” Averbeck says. “I knew I wanted to do a book on colors and the senses, and I would combine it with a bedtime book.” He remembered that blue was supposed to be a soothing color, so his text began, In a blue room. “When I think about expanding an idea, I always try to think about what’s the opposite, so I said what if I have a kid who’s really hyper.” Interestingly, Averbeck’s illustrations were not chosen to accompany his text. His style tends to be more graphic with hard edges, and the editor wanted a softer style.
Oh No, Little Dragon! developed on Averbeck’s trip to China to see a solar eclipse. His guide unwittingly started the creative machine rolling when he translated his name, Xiao Long, as Little Dragon. Averbeck thought, “Oh, little dragon, that’s a character for a book.” He bought a notebook to list ideas for a story about a fire-breathing dragon, but when he arrived home and did some research he realized that Chinese dragons don’t breathe fire, so his story veered toward Scandinavia.
Cut paper combined with digital wizardry best describes Averbeck’s artistic style. He used a crayon line of varying weight to create volume for his flat paper images in Oh No, Little Dragon! and Except If. Rather than become a slave to his X-ACTO knife to cut paper shapes, he has developed a multi-step, multi-layered digital process. For instance, in The Market Bowl he painted body parts onto paper (heads, arms, legs) and scanned them into his computer. Then he scanned papers of various colors and textures and overlaid outlines of clothes and backgrounds. Using a Hollywood-like green screen effect, he deleted everything he didn’t want and added the pre-painted body parts.
Averbeck’s upcoming middle-grade novel, A Hitch at the Fairmont, started at a writers’ conference. “[Newbery Medalist] Richard Peck said, ’We don’t write what we know, we write what we can research.’ And I thought oh God, research. It sounded dreadful, but then I realized that there are topics that I love that I research all the time in an informal way. One of them was San Francisco history.” So he considered writing a book set in San Francisco. “Then I stumbled across another book that talked about [Alfred] Hitchcock,” Averbeck says. “San Francisco history and Hitchcock sort of intersect. And I thought there are two things I really like. I could get into researching these.”
In an interesting twist on the usual authors’ critique group, Averbeck and his colleagues challenge each other with a specific writing assignment. “Once a year we put aside everything and we have a theme. From that theme we create a new story. We have a very short time to do it—just a couple of weeks.” A baby book was one of the themes, but Averbeck didn’t want to write about a baby so he shifted into brainstorming mode. “An egg is like a baby, but it’s not,” he says. And Except If was born.
Once as a child, Averbeck ran into a vacant lot overgrown with boy-sized weeds topped with black and blue flowers. As he barreled forward the flowers took wing and he was surrounded by a cloud of butterflies. “I went back [to the lot over and over],” he says, “but it never happened again.” Averbeck writes for his inner child. Perhaps that is why he makes books for children—to give them the same sense of wonder and joy he experienced in the vacant lot.