I am turning cartwheels with enthusiasm about starting off with my latest book project. Every month, I tell about what is going on in my life as an illustrator, I call it my hedge-a-gram, and this month is unique because I’m underway with THE TURNIP.
My contact with my publisher is for a children’s book every year, this yearly work cycle is really ingrained in my mind, since this is my 36th book. What I really would like to express is how powerful and confirming a creative project can be. There always hurdles, and it is easy to be impatient, but the rewards are like nothing else. Please give it a try. I’ve always struggled with the irony that my most satisfying way to tell a story is with drawings not with words. For me words tap into another world where a story carries you, and I wish I was an inspired writer. I’ve always been incredulous when after reading a work of fiction, I feel I’ve been in some of the places described, and that the characters are alive somewhere. I don’t feel the magic when I am writing as much as when I’m drawing, I wish I could.
It doesn’t matter how you are creative, but that you use your imagination in some medium. It may be that with all the knowledge children are learning in school in order to do well in tests, it will be up to the parents and friends to encourage kids to write fiction and draw and paint. My sister, who was taught for as long as I’ve written books, says in 2014 children are still bursting with creative ideas. I don’t doubt her. Sometimes a big success for a child, say actually writing a small book or creating a poster can resonate later and lead to more and more creative projects. I remember in high school I illustrated GREY’S ELEGY IN A COUNTRY CHURCH YARD for a favorite English teacher. I hope there will be time for this in the classroom, but if not it’s good to carve out some time at home.
I was once given a beautiful, simple carved wooden toy from Russia of three people and a bear pulling a turnip out of the ground. I thought it was charming and I remembered the story it went with, THE TURNIP. The premise, of finding a giant vegetable really tickles my fancy. I have an acquaintance who grows giant pumpkins, over 900 pounds, and I’ve been to the pumpkin patch. “It could happen”, I said to myself.
When I traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia, 2 years ago to do the research for CINDERS, I had in my mind that I would like to retell and illustrate THE TURNIP in a few years. Although we passed through farmland on the way to Novgorod, I didn’t see any small farms like we have in New England. Instead I relied on the Russian Museum of Ethnography and their vast collection of books about life in the olden days. The clothing and buildings in the old villages were very artistic and colorful. The printed cloth fabrics of the garments were lovely and each one, with its trim and embroidery seemed a work of art. I knew I would be very happy to paint the combinations of color and design, especially when a turnip would be the central image, purple and yellow.
My Russian family in the book are European Badgers. They are rolley, comical, strikingly colored animals that cry out for a story behind their mischievous expressions. From what I’ve heard and seen on the Internet, they are naturally playful and social. The other main character is the Russian bear. In my story she’s a mom with her hands full getting her cubs into their den to go to sleep for the winter. Unbeknownst to the badger and friends who are trying to pull the turnip up, beneath them underground, the turnip has grown into the space that would be the bear’s bedroom. When mother bear gets fed up, and gives the turnip the one two… The animals topside are in for a big surprise.
I’ve taken quite a few folk tales and given them a new twist in past books. My husband, Joe, who is a classical musician, often plays works that are theme and variations, or reworking of an older piece of music by a master. My favorite is Brahm’s Variations on a theme by Haydn. I think I feel happy using this device in my picture books because my grandfather, William Thaxter was a great storyteller. Every time he told a story he embellished it in a slightly different way. We children loved listening, and even if we knew the end from before, we reveled in the telling. For me, that’s something to aspire to.
Happy storytelling in your own special way, your friend,
I’m greeting you this month with lots of positive thoughts. You may already know that every month I take a snapshot of my work in progress – a children’s book, but also the many other activities that go along with it. I have just finished THE ANIMAL’S SANTA and the original art will be on its way to the printer in China to be scanned and printed in a test run so it can be color corrected by the art director. I am always urged to be timely, so bound books will be ready for Book Expo where I’ll be signing in May. The folded and gathered copies will also go out to the Penguin sales force to be shown to book buyers. We are also blocking in dates for next fall’s book tour.
It is wonderful to be writing in my art studio with almost all of my new book, THE ANIMAL’S SANTA, including the jacket, up on my bulletin board. It takes up one wall of my room, and like most picture books, there are 32 pages. Once I finished the last page I can go through all finished artwork, color correcting the backgrounds, and making sure all the character’s clothes and details are consistent.
I love how the snowy setting matches the 2 feet of snow outside my window. It makes me think back to last summer when the hot weather, green leaves, and hummingbirds at the flower boxes made my winter scenery seemed very far away. In a way, the last month I work on my book is the most fun of all. I have a deadline so I hole up in my art studio, and say “no” to almost all other activities. One of the challenges of being an illustrator that works from home is the constant interruptions that a normal life brings, but that are not easily put off like if I were in an office somewhere. A gorgeous Flicker woodpecker just came to my studio window where there is a bird feeder. That’s a perfect example of why I wouldn’t want to trade my work place.
I’ve been reading Ann Patchett’s new book of collected essays, and I felt all my inner bells chiming in sympathy when she described her writing process. I highly recommend her essay which is a response to aspiring writer’s questions on how to begin and work.
While I’m working, my mind has been drifting back and forth to book projects I have to choose from for next year’s book. The day after I sent in my final page of art, I begin writing my new story. I have vied back and forth between a gingerbread story and THE TURNIP, a Russian folktale and finally decided on THE TURNIP. I have a really good idea for the border. This will sound silly, but I raise chickens and every year I bring up about 60 babies to adulthood. They get colored leg bands so I can keep track of who’s who, but they also receive names on a theme. That way, when the ones I keep for myself grow old in my mixed flock I’ll know how old they are by their name. For example, my hen Sugar Pie is from the year I created GINGERBREAD FRIENDS and Thule is from the year I did THE 3 SNOW BEARS. My hens went broody early this year, so I had to give them hatching eggs to set on. Those babies will appear in 3 weeks so I better be ready with names! I used every Russian name I could find for CINDERS, so I’m trying to think of another category for them that will relate to THE TURNIP and I’ve crossed off vegetable names. I don’t want chickens named Potato and Brussels Sprout!
I’m always enthusiastic about new beginnings, and ways of improving myself, but this year I haven’t come up with a New Year’s resolution. I think now that I’m thinking about it, my goal for 2014 will be to use more color in my new book. THE TURNIP is the perfect place to start because number 1, it is set on a farm in rural Russia in the olden days, where brightly patterned clothes were worn, and number 2, turnips are the most beautiful of vegetables, with golden yellow bottoms and pinky purple tops! Maybe I will name my chicks after colors.
Good luck using your imagination and storytelling to create a unique story this January!
This is Jan Brett with my monthly update on my book illustrating I call my hedge a gram after my favorite animal the hedgehog. I’ve just come back from my national two and a half week book tour. If you joined me on one of my stops, thank you from the bottom of my heart for being there. I so enjoyed my interactions with all of the dedicated teachers and librarians as well as the families that came and brought their children. I have a very isolated profession, and I spend hours and hours working on my books. Our children are grown, so it is a great pleasure to see so many children excited by books and love drawing and writing. I’m always stunned by the explosion of incredible artwork I see on my tours. When children bring me their drawings, I’m often in awe about our innate artistic ability. I hope that when I do my drawing lesson at the signings, everyone goes home feeling they would also like to draw and color. This tour was a little different because I brought four of my chickens, ones that starred in the book I was signing, CINDERS. They were on TV four times! Cinders, my silver Phoenix pullet jumped right out of her box when it was time to present her to the assembly! She really like showing off! It was fun having the chickens on the bus. When Joe and I finished our evening signing, we would stop to buy a takeout dinner, which we would eat on the bus, and then Cinders would come out of her box and socialize. There is nothing like riding on a beautiful bus with a cozy chicken riding on your shoulder. They had an exercise pen so they had nice outings on green grass almost every day.
I’m back to working on my book set in northern Canada, THE ANIMAL’S SANTA, although I’m doing it in an unexpected place, Thailand. We are visiting with our daughter, her husband, and two grandchildren who live in Okinawa Japan. Our Thailand trip is our holiday time to be with them, although I will work on my book every day. I’m on the last few spreads of my book which is due in January. The jacket art has been completed, but we are in talks with my publisher’s art designer and my editor about the display type. The display type is the sometimes fancy lettering that forms the book title, and is done, not by me but by a very talented designer who works at my publisher.
I’m also thinking about next year’s book. I may do a gingerbread baby story, unofficially called THE GINGERBREAD DANCE, in which I give the wiley gingerbread baby another chance to outwit his arch enemy, the hungry fox. Or, I may retell THE TURNIP, a Russian folktale that I have always loved.
My thoughts return again and again in appreciation to all of you who have come to my signings. I’ve had the rare opportunity to see children from many parts of the US with their amazing artwork in tow. It is especially electrifying to not just to see ability and talent, but some of the children bought their unique vision to their art work which is like a miracle of creativity to me. My dearest wish is that children experiment and enjoy their creative skills, and make it a habit that will stay with them their whole lives.