In a Blue Room-- Interview with Jim Averbeck

In a Blue Room, by Jim Averbeck, illustrated by Tricia Tusa (Harcourt, 2008)

This utterly charming picture book begins thus: "In a blue room Alice bounces, wide-awake past bedtime" and indeed, she is truly bouncing--in the second picture, when Mama comes in, all we see of Alice are her feet. "I can only sleep in a blue room," she says. (If you happen to be reading this out loud to a child, the child point out that Alice's room is yellow. Do not worry. All will be made clear). Alice's mother is an example to us all (making this a good one for a Mother's Day review). She does not say, "Oh for crying out loud get into bed." Instead, on each visit to Alice's room, she brings gifts to appeal to each sense, such as sweet smelling flowers and soothing tea. And as Alice drifts into sleep, her room is made blue by the light of the moon.

Simple, whimsical, sweet drawings well belanced with carfully chosen words make for a magical book. And one that leads nicely to light-turning out--"let's make your room blue too...."

I am pleased and proud to have interviewed Jim Averbeck last week:

Me: I know very little about how picture books are made. At what point in the process did you first see Tricia's illustrations? Were your words set in stone at that point, or were you able to make changes? If so, did you?

Jim: My editor, Sam McFerrin, and I had gone through two rounds of revision and sent the “final” product to Tricia. The first illustrations I saw were black and white sketches a few months later. I was thrilled with her interpretation. We did make some changes in the text at this point. They were very subtle, but helped the story and pictures work better together. Later, when I got the color proofs, we changed where the text was on certain pages- again very minor, subtle tweaks. Then at some point, I wanted to make one more tweak and Sam said, “Too late. It’s at the printers!” Most writers revise in their heads even after the book is out. We just can’t help it. Thank goodness the editor is there to stop the madness and get the thing on the bookshelf at some point.

Me: The five sense are all introduced in the book--sight obviously has to be last, so the room can be blue, but how did you decide on the order of the others?

Jim: I actually played with the order a lot. The first factor to influence it was logic. I thought it wouldn’t make sense for Mama to bring flowers in at the end. It would be too big of a disruption if Alice were already close to sleep. Same thing with the herbal tea, since it would require Alice to sip it. So, flowers came first, followed by tea.

Also, Mama says less and less as Alice drifts off. So when Alice objects to the flowers, Mama replies with three one-syllable words. When Alice objects to the tea: two. And so on until she says nothing at all. So I had to figure out which words felt the most soothing toward the end and followed this pattern, which affected the order of what Mama brings.

Me: (at least partly tongue in cheek). Did it ever occur to you that bringing a vase full of flowers into the room of a child bouncing vigorously on her bed might be a bad idea? Likewise a hot cup of tea. Unwise. And if all the children who fall in love with your book start demanding hot cups of tea in bed, with disastrous consequences, will you need insurance or is the publisher liable?

Jim: I blame my editor for this. You see, the lines about the flowers originally read:
“Time for bed,” Mama says, “and I’ve brought flowers in a heavily bottom-weighted, shatter-proof, magnetic vase for the metal table in your room.”
The editor rejected this as “too wordy.”
Likewise, the tea lines read:
Mama returns with a tumble-proof, “Mr Commuter®” mug of tea at a steamy, but safe, 104 degrees (Fahrenheit.)
Here my editor not only objected to the “wordiness” but also to what she called an “obvious commercial endorsement.”
Fortunately, the legal department has less rigorously literary standards than the editorial department. If you look at the inner side of the dust jacket, you will see clearly reproduced in 6-point, white typeface a disclaimer that indemnifies both myself and the publisher from any liability resulting from any “use or interpretation of the text or images in the book that falls outside included instructions” (also printed in white on the inner dust-jacket.

Me: Is there a question you've been dying to have asked, because you have the perfect answer all ready for it?

Jim: Q: We all know that picture book writers are grateful for their editors, illustrators, and publishing houses, but is there anyone else you’d like to thank.
A: Oh! I am so glad you asked. I’d like to give a shout out to Mrs. Skroki and Mrs. Meyer, teachers from sixth grade and high school (respectively) who got me interested in reading and art (also respectively.)
Also, John Schindel who taught me to write for children, and Julie Downing and Ashley Wolff, who taught me to illustrate for them.

Me: (referencing Jim's time in the Cameroon in the Peace Corps) Have you ever read Gerald Durrell's books about animal collecting in the Cameroon?

Jim: I haven’t. But I just requested one from the San Francisco Public Library. Looks fascinating. I have read a book called “Mango Elephants in the Sun” by Susana Herrera, who was a volunteer at the same time I was, and who wrote about her experiences in this book. She was the first person to read my first story and she gave me little exercises to improve it. (And we are all grateful she pointed me in the right direction.)

Me: I shall look for Mango Elephants!

Me again: What color is your room?

Jim: My current bedroom is “Bahaman Sea Blue” according to Benjamin Moore paint manufacturers. But I am in the process of moving; Mr. Moore tells me that my new room will be “Fairytale Blue.” How appropriate for a children’s book writer.

Me: Thanks so much! I really like your book lots. I have put it carefully away on a tall shelf, away from the grubby hands of my children, in case it goes on to win major awards.

Jim: Oh dear! You should buy a second copy for the children. (or as many as are required so each has his/her own. My accountant would like to encourage you to have a large family, if you don’t already.)

Me. Two children is plenty, thanks. But I do plan on buying a copy for my public library!

Here are other interviews with Jim, at The Well Read Child, at The Imaginary Blog, at Tales from Mount Rushmore, and at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. I'm happy to add anyone I missed!

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