My Stop on the Dragon and Dangerous Princess Blog Tour

Way back in May of 2008, I interviewed Jim Averbeck on the occasion of his first book, In a Blue Room.  Even though I've moved on, since that time, to focus on middle grade sci fi/fantasy, I still have a soft spot in my heart for great fantasy picture books, and so it's a pleasure to welcome Jim back for a blog tour celebrating not only the release of his latest book, Oh No, Little Dragon, but the publication of Dangerously Ever After, by Dashka Slater (which I reviewed here)

First, the books:

Oh No, Little Dragon!  "With a PHOOSH and a Grrrrrr and a CANNONBAAAALLLLLL! Little Dragon tears through his day (and the house). But even when he gets a little too rambunctious, there’s no OH NO! that Mama’s kiss can’t fix."

Dangerously Ever After  "Princess Amanita laughs in the face of danger. Brakeless bicycles, pet scorpions, spiky plants--that's her thing. So when quiet Prince Florian gives her roses, Amanita is unimpressed . . . until she sees their glorious thorns! Now she must have rose seeds of her own. But when huge, honking noses grow instead, what is a princess with a taste for danger to do?"

And now, over to Dashka and Jim, talking about fantasy picture books and childhood reading!
JIM:  Hi Dashka.  This has been really fun touring the blogosphere with you. Mostly we’ve been interviewed by others, but here we have a chance for a little conversation. Charlotte’s blog focuses on fantasy and science fiction, and I think our stories fall under that heading, though for a much younger age group than usually considered for these genres.  So my first question for you is: Do you think introduction to fantasy themed books like DANGEROUSLY EVER AFTER or OH NO LITTLE DRAGON! lead kids to a lifelong openness or fascination with the fantasy genre?

DASHKA: I’m sure that there are people who read fantasy as kids and grew up to read nothing but annual reports and software manuals. But I think those people are the exception (at least I hope so). In my case, the books that I read as a child decorated the inside of my head with a landscape and a set of characters and an entire aesthetic that will be with me always. Once you begin to believe in a magical universe, it’s hard to stop.

JIM: What sort of books were your favorite earliest books? Do you see a connection between them and the stories you read as an adult?

DASHKA: I loved fairy tales of all kinds -- one of my favorite books was a picture storybook of Beauty and the Beast with Klimt-like illustrations by Hilary Knight and an afterward by Jean Cocteau. Spooky and cool (though my mother always insisted that the Beast was more attractive than the Prince.) I’m certain that the mixture of danger and absurdity present in that book influenced DANGEROUSLY EVER AFTER, as did the wry humor of E. Nesbit’s books, which I read over and over.

I was also raised on the Oz books, all 33 of them, which were conceived as being a new kind of quintessentially American fairytale. They were my father’s favorite childhood books and no child, grandchild, or even great grandchild of his is allowed to reach maturity without having read them. Having grown up reading books about magic, I was delighted to discover magical realist books like ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE and BELOVED as an adult, which in turn inspired me to write a magical realist novel of my own. I’ve never stopped believing that mysterious and inexplicable things can happen to ordinary people, and I’m always excited when I find other writers who believe that too.

JIM: The first Oz book was published over 100 years ago. Do you think DANGEROUSLY EVER AFTER reflects quintessential American values?

DASHKA: In DANGEROUSLY EVER AFTER, the main character, Princess Amanita, has reinvented the role of princess, which is a very American thing to do. She’s not bound by traditional ideas of who she should be and so she’s decided that she can be a bicycle-riding, broken glass-collecting, dangerous-plant-growing princess -- without giving up her stylish outfits or her ruby-studded wheelbarrow.

What about Little Dragon? Is he a quintessentially American dragon?

JIM:  I think so. In the opening  pages of OH NO, LITTLE DRAGON! we see pictures that Little Dragon has drawn. He has a very all-American family with strong ties to their own roots.  This is illustrated by the fact that they have their very own castle, right there in the middle of suburbia, complete with a skull-foot tub and a viking-cap shower. They have their little corner of America, to which they've brought their immigrant experience. I think Little Dragon himself is second generation American.

DASHKA: I’ve told you about my childhood literary influences, now I want to hear about yours. Are there certain childhood books that you feel formed your tastes as a reader or as a writer?
JIM: I think I must have been a pretty cheap child to bring up, at least when I was very young, because I don’t remember having a ton of books. The one I remember best, however, had 366 stories- one for each day of the year (plus an extra for leap year).  It was illustrated by Richard Scarry. If you know anything about his work you know that it’s mostly animals in waistcoats. I’m sure this early grounding in fantasy led me later to WATERSHIP DOWN and THE HOBBIT, both of which prominently feature talking animals. And, of course, THE HOBBIT  led directly to THE LORD OF THE RINGS, which I have read annually every year since I was 14. That’s 35 times for those who are counting. All of this is to say, I really like fantasy.

DASHKA: So we were both heavily influenced by fantasy -- which shows up in our fairy-tale themed books. What do you think makes fantasy and fairy tales such an enduring source of inspiration?

JIM: I’m going to have to stand with Dr. Carl Gustav Jung on that (as filtered through Joseph Campbell).  I think fairy tales trade in archetypes. The Big Bad Wolf is our shadow self, the wise woman a sort of anima, etc and they all reside happily in the collective unconscious.  Fantasy stories tap into that unconscious directly, so they have a feel of being at once familiar and new, and on some level completely right. So they inspire us.

DASHKA: Where else do you go for inspiration? Do you have any remedies for the days when -- like Little Dragon -- your creative fire has been snuffed out?

JIM:   For me, writing is a process of synthesis. I tend to pull ideas from a lot of sources, let them stew around a bit in my head and  come out as something new. I get inspiration from dreams, news articles, observation.  For picture books in particular, I get inspiration from form.  Picture books have fairly constrictive set of rules and I like figuring out how to tell a story within those constrictions. It's a challenge.

When I am feeling uncreative, I like to soak in a hot tub. It's important to relax to get the creative juices flowing. Hot tub writing is why so many of my manuscripts have blotchy smeared ink words on rippled paper.

By the way, I like what you said earlier: “I’ve never stopped believing that mysterious and inexplicable things can happen to ordinary people.”  Can you share a mysterious and inexplicable occurrence that happened to you?

DASHKA: I’ve had many inexplicable occurrences happen around my books, maybe because if you put that much effort into creating an imaginary world, a little of it can’t help but leak out into the real world. After my book BABY SHOES was accepted for publication, for example, I received a box of hand-me-downs that included a pair of formerly white baby shoes that had been splashed with all different colors of paint so that they looked just like the  “speckled, spotted, polka-dotted, puddle-stomping, rainbow-romping” shoes at the end of the book. To this day I have no idea where they came from or what the origin was -- maybe someone put their baby to work painting the house.

When, THE WISHING BOX, my novel for adults, came out, I gave a reading attended by a man who looked exactly as I’d always imagined the protagonist’s father, a ne’er-do-well named Bill Harris. He heckled me during the Q&A and then stormed out of the bookstore. I guess he felt I hadn’t treated him all that well in the novel.

It was one of the rare occasions when I got a huge kick out of someone hating one of my books! What’s your favorite thing that anyone has said to you about your books? What, to you, is the ultimate compliment?  

JIM: The ultimate compliment for me is when I see a child make a connection to my book. But sometimes they can surprise you.  OH NO, LITTLE DRAGON! has a repeated phrase "Oh, No!" which I imagined kids would call out when the book was being read aloud to them. Judging from the many school visits I've done with the book, it turns out that they love the sound of Little Dragon making fire: "phoosh."  They call it out whenever they see illustrations with fire in the book. I love that they are making this connection with the book and the character of Little Dragon.

DASHKA: I love that! To me, the way children can fall in passionately in love with a book is the reason that writing for them is the best job in the world. Thanks for inviting us to visit your blog, Charlotte!

Thank you, very much, Dashka and Jim, for stopping by!

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