Welcome To The Spotlight – Jim Averbeck and Little Dragon!


As promised, I’m spending time in good company by putting the spotlight on some great picture books and picture book authors/illustrators! I’m thrilled to start this week off by interviewing Jim Averbeck. Today is the release day of his newest picture book OH NO, Little Dragon!  (Atheneum Books) Stayed tuned for a chance to win a signed copy of this book (see below)!

Little Dragon loves Phooshing fire while playing at home, until during dreaded bath time he swallows water and Poof, his flame goes out! What will he do? And what if Mama won’t love him anymore? Adorable story! I absolutely love the artwork with bright blue (and oh so cute) dragon playing among a gray-tone background of his castle snorting a realistic flame from his snout. Brilliant and fun!

Spotlight on Jim Averbeck:

What was the initial spark (ha ha) behind OH NO Little Dragon?

I went to China to see a total eclipse of the sun whose path would pass close to Shanghai.  Naturally I planned a lot more travel there to see more of the country at the same time.  We had a guide in Beijing who told us his name was Frank. It’s common practice for the guides to take on a “nom de tour” from the country of the people they are guiding. I asked him what his real name was and he told me Xiao Long, which he translated as “Little Dragon.”  It sounded like the name of a picture book character to me and so I started thinking about what the story for “Little Dragon” might be.  I bought a notebook made from brown paper and started scribbling ideas and sketches.  While taking a shower in a slow draining bathtub there, I realized that bath time would be even more disliked by a dragon child, who, after all, would be most proud of his fiery super-power.  That was the origin of the story.  After I got back from China, I realized that Chinese dragons aren’t fire breathers, so I revised with Little Dragon now being of a more Nordic ancestry.

Little Dragon is playful and imaginative. Is he based on anyone you know?

I think writers base most characters on some aspect of themselves. Little Dragon is no exception. When I was a kid, I was a full tilt boy, tearing through the house and yard. In fact, one year I broke my arm three times.  The police investigated my mom to make sure she wasn’t abusing me!  When I was in fifth grade… Well… I shouldn’t really tell the story because it sets a bad example, but let’s just say a hook and ladder truck was involved and I spent an uncomfortable afternoon in the hands of the local authorities.  My parents are unquestionably saints and would no doubt recognize Little Dragon’s more impulsive tendencies.  On the milder side, I also loved to draw like Little Dragon does.

I love the artwork! How did you make decisions for the illustrations for this book, like the gray tone background, the colors for dragon and his mother, and particularly, his flame. How did you create Little Dragon’s flame?

Since it is a story about a dragon, it all started with the fire.  I knew I wanted the fire to pop off the page. In early sketches, the fire was more cartoonish.  It didn’t look like real fire and I felt that it made the whole book kind of flat and un-special.  So I decided to try a more realistic look for the fire, and to juxtapose it against the flatter, stylized images of Mama and Little Dragon.  Since I wanted a high contrast between the hot fire and everything else in the book, I decided pretty much only the fire would be portrayed with warm colors (red, orange,yellow.) That left blues, greens and purples for the characters of Mama, Papa (who appears in LD’s drawings) and Little Dragon himself.  The Dragons were made using Chinese mulberry paper to give them a slight texture. I just went through dozens of shades until I found the papers I liked.

The backgrounds were originally a mix of deep purple and grey. I wanted to portray a dark castle, where the Dragons live.  The dark background also helped the flame pop.  But my editor and art director, in a carefully worded, diplomatic letter said, essentially, “Yuck!”  This was after I had turned in final art.  So it was back to the drawing board.  I was in a panic trying to figure out what to do. I had another project due and no buffer time.  I was showing my critique group various possibilities for background colors on my TV (I had hooked up my computer to do so.)  None of them seemed right.  As I flipped through the art, I came to a spread that was unfinished.  There was no background color (thus it was white) and the line work for the stones was grey, as it had always been. My friend Maria van Lieshout, who is an excellent designer, pointed out how cool that looked and how it brought the focus onto Little Dragon and his antics. The flame still didn’t “pop” against the white. After a while I realized where there is fire, there is smoke, and I added the sooty black smoke behind the flame to emphasize its brightness.  It also made more sense to have a smoky flame, since it is the soot that requires Little Dragon to bathe in the first place.

The flame and smoke were made in Photoshop. I created several brushes that were puffy for the smoke and flame-y for the fire. Then I built the smoky fire layer by layer, using different settings for transparency and different blending options for each layer.  One weird thing about the process is that one of the fire layers is green.  But when it sits on top of the layer below it, with the selected layer blending options, it appears bright orange.  Then I added all these sparks and embers and used special layer options to make them glow. Each bit of flame is probably a minimum of fifty layers in Photoshop.

WOW! That’s amazing!

Little Dragon doesn’t like bath time. What is your least favorite time/thing to do?

Paperwork.  I wish I could breathe fire and make it all go away.

What are you working on now?

I just finished my first middle grade novel, tentatively titled A HITCH AT THE FAIRMONT.  My agent will be looking for an editor for it soon.
I also just finished a sequel to OH NO , LITTLE DRAGON!
I am starting a YA novel.
Can you tell I really like writing?

Jim Averbeck is the author of the Charlotte Zolotow Honor Book, In a Blue Room (Harcourt, 2008), the illustrator of Newbery-winner Linda Sue Park’s A Long Walk to Water (Breakfast Serials, 2010), and the author and illustrator of except if (Atheneum, 2011),  Oh No, Little Dragon (Atheneum, 2012) and The Market Bowl (Charlesbridge, 2013.)  He studied writing and illustrating for children at UC Berkeley. He was the Regional Advisor for the San Francisco chapter of The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and is a member of the Revisionaries, a dynamic group of San Francisco children’s book creators.

You can win a signed copy!!!

Jim has generously donated a signed copy of Oh No, Little Dragon to one lucky and randomly chosen winner from this blog! Just follow the rules and you could have Little Dragon Phooshing in your house!

1. Comment on this post, and for fun, let me know what chore or task you would like to eliminate by breathing fire on it. My answer is: Filing!

2. Leave your comment by midnight EST Friday, August 17th. Winner will be announced on this blog and will be contacted by email on Tuesday, August 21st. Late entries will not be included in the drawing (sorry).

3. Entrants must have a U.S. or Canada mailing address.

Good luck and thanks for stopping by!


12 responses »

  1. Loved loved loved In a Blue Room and can’t wait to see this little blue dragon! Interesting how he got the idea for this story — perhaps I need to visit Beijing and take a bath :).

    As for breathing fire on a hated task = DUSTING!

    Thanks to both of you for the lovely interview :).

  2. My baby is 13 now, I wish he had all your books when he was 2, he would have LOOOVED Little Dragon – a boy after his own heart. Appropriately, I hate cleaning the tub! So, before putting the water in, Little Dragon could just incinerate all that yuck that is impossible to scrub off!

  3. Never thought a dragon’s face could spark so much compassion! I would ignite the piles of clothing and toys that my kids have outgrown so we wouldn’t have to argue over what CANNOT be given away!

  4. I would love this book! I would have to breath a little fire on those messy bathrooms. I have 3 men in my house ‘nuf said.

  5. Great interview, Deb and Jim! I’m so excited to see Little Dragon out in the world. I’d love to borrow Little Dragon to defrost my refrigerator and breathe fire on the…umm…expired date contents.

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