Every month on the first, I stop what I’m doing to be in touch with all of you who are interested in the profession of an author illustrator, or anyone who is curious about how children’s books are made. It is highly individualized, and perhaps that’s why I am so intrigued by my work. Not only does every author have their own approach, but it seems like every book I do is different.
I am almost half of the way through the finishes for THE TURNIP, a Russian folktale that I have retold and modified a bit. At the moment I am coming back from a week in Okinawa, Japan where I was visiting with my daughter, son in law, and two young grandchildren. I did bring some artwork with me to do at odd moments and during breaks in the travel. I need to use every minute available to get my book done on time. Because of my very detailed style it takes me at least a week of steady work just to complete one page. Sometimes I even bring a page in the car and paint as we travel, but I only work on simple designs.
Okinawa is a beautiful tropical island in the Japanese archipelago where the ocean is never far away. We took advantage of the nice weather and water conditions to do some snorkeling. There are accessible coral reefs everywhere and it was wonderful to see the colorful reef fish, sea creatures and coral. The big excitement for us that day was a giant bristly maroon hermit crab with teal spots, teal being one of my granddaughter’s favorite colors.The kids have seen an octopus, a colorful moray eel, a lionfish and some brightly colored sea slugs. Another highlight was a huge baby blue sea star. Okinawa has one of the most celebrated aquariums in the world, and it was quite something to see many of the creatures in the wild, and then be able to take a closer look in the aquarium, besides seeing some of the rarer creatures such as their two beautiful whale sharks. The whale sharks are graceful and stunning with their milky white ventral side and blue dorsal side with a white tic tac toe pattern that is unique. All I could think of was the incredible beauty and variety of the color patterns. It made me feel daunted but inspired too.When we got home I drew some of the fish and my granddaughter, Torynn colored them in. I am on the lookout for a set of the sparkley gel markers which will help the fish look more realistic. Nothing can really capture their beauty.
I am looking forward to being home and doing my artwork full time, although I will miss my family. I can’t wait to see Little Snow the bunny we got last June. Kim, the woman who takes care of my chickens when I’m away, has kept rabbits for many years, and Kim and her son have been giving Little Snow lots of attention while we were away. He will probably be going on the book tour with us.
When I reflect on my job, in some ways it seems so simple.I sit down with a big piece of paper and paint. But the results are all a part of my experiences and time commitments. I don’t think I’ll ever figure out a formula for how much time and effort I should spend with all my loves and interests. One thing is very important to me though, I greatly look forward to meeting all the book lovers that will want autographed books on the book tour that will be coming up this December. My husband, Joe, and I were thrilled at how many readers have entered the Lunch on the bus contest. We’re looking forward to that chapter of our lives!
Happy Reading, drawing and creating,
I’m Jan Brett, and this is my August Hedge a gram – my letter to friends named after my mascot, Hedgie.
I was recently asked by Scholastic to name my favorite teacher and draw a picture of he or she. My favorite teacher was Mr. Anderson who taught us English literature in high school. I drew a picture of Hedgie to personify my affection and gratitude for Mr. Anderson. He would read aloud for hours from great works of literature, from Moby Dick to the plays of Shakespeare to poems by E.E. Cummings. He was forthright and funny and thoughtful just like I imagine Hedgie. Hedgie also serves as my alter ego. When I write my newsnotes for each new book, Hedgie often makes an appearance. His role is to make sure I don’t sound like a know-it-all. One of my least favorite character traits! I got thinking about what a useful role a side-kick or alter ego character is. It’s a great way to liven up a story and give it a different perspective. I am currently illustrating and retelling a folktale, THE TURNIP. It’s pretty straightforward and simple. In Russia where the story originates, the fun comes with the character’s names which form a tongue twister as they are repeated as the story progresses. Since I’m writing in English and couldn’t use this device, I put a little rooster character in the story to make it interesting. He is looking for a new home because he was being chased by someone looking for dinner. When he appears at the farm where the turnip is being pulled out of the ground, he is the last one to try. It’s funny to see the rooster go flying thought the air with his beak holding the turnip top. In the same painting you can see that a hibernating mother bear has just jettisoned the turnip from below. I’ve always liked stories that have a curious twist - in THE MITTEN the bear sneezes the lost white mitten into the sky where Nicki can see it. In THE TROUBLE WITH TROLLS, Teeka escapes with her dog on skis, because the trolls don’t realize the skis enable her to schuss away. Normally the way I know a story is ready to become a book is when I figure out a curious twist in the plot that will solve a problem. One of my favorite ones I’ve never illustrated. It’s an Aesop’s Tale about a thirsty crow. He comes across a jug full of water that he can’t reach even with his long beak. He solves the problem by dropping pebbles into the jug. The pebbles displace the water until it rises to the brim and the crow can quench his thirst.
On my husband Joe’s and my road trip across the country in June we stopped in Hot Springs, South Dakota to visit an amazing mammoth site museum. I’m fascinated by the animals that lived in the Pleistocene and I would love to write a book about a mammoth. I’m hoping I can find a good plot idea to make this happen. When I saw the incredible, tusked skeletons of the mammoths at the Mammoth site, my imagination covered them with fur and made them do all sorts of elephanty things. Baby elephants are the cutest ever.
Right now, I’m immersed in my badger family that populates THE TURNIP. Besides the Badger family my story has a hedgehog, goat, rooster, and horse character. Luckily, on my run route, I pass a farm that has a pasture with three rams. Now that I carry my cell phone on runs, I can take photos that will give me character studies for my book. They are similar to goats I saw in Russia, and I can combine the body language of the “Berkshire” goats that live near us with the physical characteristics of my Russian goat photos. It makes for an interesting to do list.
Good luck with your writing, drawing and creating.
Your friend, Jan Brett
- Lastly, we just got a mockup of the design they will put on our tour bus this year for THE ANIMALS’ SANTA. the bus tour is planned for late November and I’ll be posting all of the dates and cities soon.
The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota
This is Jan Brett with my monthly hedge-a-gram, the time I take to let you know what is happening in my book world. Since its our country’s birthday, I’d like to thank all of our service men and women in the Armed Forces, and their families. I have a son-in-law and daughter in the Marines. I know how hard our military works and about the changes their families make in their day to day living. My husband and I are very grateful. When I raise the flags in the morning I remember you all and send good vibes as best I can, and remember our service members lost and those wounded. Happy Fourth to all the Marines and Air Force on Okinawa! My daughter and her family live there currently and we are looking forward to visiting once again in September.
Since my last hedge-a-gram my husband and I took 9 days to travel from Boston to LA in our all electric Tesla, following a route where we could charge up at the ultra fast chargers. In South Dakota we stopped at The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs. My imagination has been in overdrive every since. We happened to stop there because one of the scientists stopped by at my book signing last fall and very generously gave me his book ICE AGES about the era when many of the skeletal remains of the animals were found. His book is fascinating, and is non fiction but reads like a fascinating story. Also paradoxically, it is scholarly and a well researched addition to world knowledge, but any nature lover or child 3rd grade or up I suspect would find captivating. I can’t wait to send it to my 4 1/2 year old granddaughter and 2 year old grandson. They will be fascinated by the great photos and illustrations.Illustrations! That is a subject I have more to say on. Many letters and emails I receive concern “how to get an idea for a book?” Often a compelling idea will start the process. This museum, which I would highly recommend is built right over the site where 25 years ago while excavating for house lots, a giant tusk was unearthed. Experts were called including Larry Agenbroad the author of ICE AGES. It was so skin prickingly, goose bumpyingly riveting to see these perfect skeletons. There was even the scull of the short faced bear (now extinct). I am enamored of the Wholly Mammoth, I think because if its long hair and vaulted scull. All I could think of is bringing these creatures back to life in my illustrations. When I was on a long run yesterday I was musing back to our trip to Botswana, and visiting Jabu, Marula and Thembi, three semi habituated elephants that live in the bush with their partners Doug and Sandy Grove. If you go to Chiefs Camp it can be arranged to go and visit them for a day and have a lot of personal time and learn about them. I remember being fascinated but slightly wary of the elephants. They were highly intelligent but quite mischievous and full of themselves. They appeared to me unlike any animal I’ve spent time with. Like horses,dogs or cats. Probably the closest to them are whales and dolphins that I admit I only know about from my reading. The elephants have very species selective behavior and many behaviors relating to their hierarchical social structure. It couldn’t be too much of a leap to make Woolly Mammoths into characters given the large number of animals that have ancient counterparts for example the Przewalski horse and todays horse, the Auroch and our cattle, the Wolf and its ancestor the Dire Wolf. Also everybody’s favorite the Smilodon or Saber Toothed Cat. And people lived at the same time. On my long runs I’ll be thinking of a plot worthy of all these great characters. I’ve published a children’s story a few years ago called THE FIRST DOG. I was fortunate enough to experience an exhibition at the National History museum in NYC called Bright Visions. It focused on art created by early man. I feel every molecule vibrate when I see this art first hand from the elegantly carved ivory from 40,000 years ago depicting animals that radiate spirit to the rock paintings and petroglyphs I’ve seen in Namibia and Zimbabwe.
In the meantime, I am totally emersed in the world of a Russian Badger family and their friends in my retelling of the TURNIP. The artwork is coming alive and I love revisiting all my Russian books that I bought in St Petersburg for CINDERS.
In keeping with our 4th of July celebration I saw a magnificent Bald Eagle yesterday. I was coming home from my run when I saw he/she heading straight across our lake toward my chicken house. The chickens are all safe in there nice outdoor pens with roofs .On the subject of wildlife I heard a flock of crows screaming their heads off in the woods.When I went to investigate a young fisher-cat scampered across the forest floor and hiked itself up a big pine tree which was a big effort for it because it would hike up a foot make a double grunt and then look around at me and the crows with its cute triangular face. I think I spotted the mother tearing across our walkway yesterday. I’ve seen the adults on my runs and they are definitely not cute or charming, especially when I know they have an eye on my chickens and ducks. I must recheck the hardware cloth on their pens. Happy creating and reading! If you’re in South Dakota check out The Mammoth Site for a fun and profound experience.
Your friend Jan Brett
The Animals’s Santa
It’s June, and I’ve just come back from the United State’s largest book fair, Book Expo in New York City. I saw my 2014 children’s picture book, The ANIMALS’ SANTA for the first time. I was very impressed with the printing of it. The pages seemed to glow and the images looked almost three dimensional. That’s because my publisher oversaw the printing and made sure the quality was top notch. I hope you agree when you see it next fall in bookstores. The advantage of working for an excellent publisher, is that the art department is the best. It is responsible for the art direction which includes the design of the book – especially of the jacket, the display type of the jacket, and the type. Not only does Marikka contribute her talent, but I feel her energy and love of design very strongly, especially after working for a year on the interior of the book and I’m tired.
It’s fun to go into a bookstore or library and become aware of how much jacket design informs what is inside a book’s covers. One of my favorite jackets was for The Goldfinch, a novel by Donna Tartt. The jacket illustration imparts mystery and intrigue, the novel’s ties to the art world and the beleaguered innocence of its young boy protagonist. My jacket shows a young snowshoe rabbit, shrugging its shoulders as if curious but questioning. Marikka chose a display type that suggested old fashioned signage that makes the viewer feel that the story would journey back in time.
Today my husband and I traveled to the Finger Lakes region of New York state for a poultry show. There is always an area where people sell their chickens. As we were perusing the area we saw a group of baby bunnies. Among them was a little boy bunny that looked exactly like Little Shoe, the main character of my new book. After much discussion we bought him, and he is ours. I hope we can provide a loving home for him.
I have several pages finished of THE TURNIP, my retelling of a Russian folktale, and I can’t wait to dedicate my time to this challenge. I love painting the wonderful Russian old fashioned clothes on the badger family and on the mother bear character. When I went to Saint Petersburg three years ago. I brought back a suitcase full of books about clothing, architecture and crafts from the last century. I have the books propped up all over my art studio. It will be my most colorful book ever, although now that several pages have been done, I’m backing off on the bright colors of the borders as they compete with the main story a bit.
Recently I visited the school my sister Sophie teaches at in Hollis, New Hampshire. I was once again taken by how much the children loved to draw, and how much they wanted to learn about it. Sometime the only thing between a person and a wonderful drawing is just making the time to do it. It’s a good ambition, and one I have as a goal for myself, making artwork!
Happy reading and creating, your friend,