Sophia, the protagonist of Jim Averbeck’s newest picture book, One Word from Sophia, is precocious and charming, to say the very least. Her “One True Desire” is for a pet giraffe, and she launches a campaign to convince her family to give her one for her birthday. But “the four problems were,” as Averbeck writes, “Mother, who was a judge, Father, who was a businessman, Uncle Conrad, who was a politician, and Grand-mamá, who was very strict.”
Sophia has her work cut out for her, but she rises to the occasion with thoughtfully and carefully presented cases for her wish for such an unusual pet. But, says her mother, her argument is too verbose. Her business plan is unsound, says her father, and her presentation is too effusive. Her report is too loquacious, says her uncle. “No,” Grand-mamá says emphatically, before Sophia can get one word in, “and do try to get to the point next time.”
Finally, she resorts to a simple “please”—I guess it only takes one word after all—and ...well, let’s just say there’s a happy ending.
I talked to Jim and London-based illustrator Yasmeen Ismail, who is also an animator, via email about this story, both entertaining (Sophia and her speeches are a force of nature) and warm.
Jim, how did this story first come to you?
There were two sources of inspiration for this story. Each year my critique group, The Revisionaries, puts aside anything we’ve been working on and writes a story to a “theme”—a sort of one- or two-word writing prompt. (My book Except If was from the theme “Baby Book.” Yuyi Morales' Caldecott Honor Viva Frida was from the same theme.) One year, the theme was “One Word,” which could have been a book that was one-word long, or in which one word was often repeated, or about the word “one” etc. (Another year the theme was “Bad Uncle,” and I have a darkly comic manuscript by that name making the rounds. Any slightly twisted editors out there should contact my agent!)
The other source for One Word from Sophia was my childhood desire to have a pet gorilla à la Mighty Joe Young. Though I consistently pestered my mother to get me one and threw many coins in many fountains wishing for one, I was denied—even after I promised to be the one who would take care of it. Can you believe it?
As someone who is a fan of juicy, big words in picture books (where fitting)—I guess I should say that the opposite bothers me, when people dumb down words for children—I love the vocabulary choices in this book. It flows so well, too. Did you get any pushback on using such words?
“Loquacious” (used in the book), along with “copacetic,” were two words I learned from my sister’s boyfriend. When I was a kid, I loved knowing these big words. It made me feel grown-up. In fact, when my friends and I used to greet each other with “How ya doin’?”, the correct response was “copacetic.” It was like a code or our own secret language, hidden right there in English vocabulary. If you knew the response, you were in the “copacetic club.”
I think kids who read the book will be of the same mind. The glossary will help. I didn’t get any pushback from my editor, because she knows the secret language too.
Yasmeen, how does your work in animation influence your illustration work, if at all?
I was an animator for over 10 years, and I trained as a 'classical' or 'traditional' animator, which basically meant that I learned about movement in great detail. I was taught how to exaggerate a pose or when to hold back in my drawing to get the most impact. We also did loads of life drawings during my degree, which helped with understanding about the body. In addition, I was taught to draw repeatedly and accurately with nothing but my eye to guide me. Your arm develops a sort of muscle memory when you draw sustainably like that for a long time. It gives a real confidence in the line. Also, with all that learning about what makes-things-go and how to make pictures move, I know how to get the most energy out of a single image.
Having transitioned into illustration, I was delighted that people would commend me on the energy of my pictures. I was taught that! And it comes naturally now. How very fortuitous.
Can you talk about bringing Jim's text to life with your illustrations? I love Sophia's distinctive look, especially her big ponytail. Were you given direction on the look of the art, or were you free to do as you pleased?
The first time I read Jim's text, it was very easy to say yes to illustrate it. Jim's story is pretty perfect. I am very glad to have been part of it.
Working out the pictures was very joyful….There was no art direction in the words. It was very pure and allowed a lot of freedom with the pictures. I took the little clues from the book and used them as the basis for creating Sophia. Obviously, she loved her ballet class. And I imagined that Sophia's enthusiasm would reach beyond just wanting to go to class: She wanted to wear her tutu 24/7. Not only that, but every which way she moved was a dance for her. In my mind, she wanted to embody ballet. Sophia is confident, assertive, and graceful—and her ponytail balances lightly on her head! She was very fun to draw. I was very free to do what I wanted.
My art director, Ann Bobco (Simon & Schuster), was great. She had the right balance when it came to letting me do my thing and dropping in advice every now and then. Like illustrating any book, it was a team effort.
Jim, what was it like for you to see Yasmeen’s artwork for the very first time?
I saw her art in sketch form and liked it, but I was completely blown away when I saw the finishes. So gorgeous! I was surprised by the multi-racial cast, because it wasn’t evident in the line sketches. But I was also completely delighted, since I actually believe that #WeNeedDiverseBooks.
Plus, the multi-racial family in the book reflects my own family, to whom I’ve dedicated One Word from Sophia. I wondered how Yasmeen knew that.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
Photo above left: Yasmeen Ismail photographed by Olivia Hemingway Photography.
ONE WORD FROM SOPHIA. Copyright © 2015 by Jim Averbeck. Illustrations copyright © 2015 by Yasmeen Ismail. Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, New York. Illustration here reproduced by permission of Yasmeen Ismail.