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,
With my doublebassist husband, Joe Hearne, our son Sean and his wife Catherine in the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Bejing, just before concert time
This is Jan Brett and this is my May hedge a gram, the time I take to tell you what’s happening in my life as an author/illustrator. I’m in China right now traveling with my husband, a double bass player in the Boston Symphony. The orchestra will perform in three cities in China, then Tokyo, Japan and afterwards we will stop in Okinawa, Japan an island far to the south, to visit my daughter and her family. I will visit historical sites and try to absorb as much of the culture as I can, in hopes that a future book idea will happen. I have done a book set in Guilin, China, DAISY COME HOME, starring a little girl who loses her pet chicken. Guilin is a particularly picturesque part of China and a wonderful place to set a book. The mountains, which out of the earth like jagged teeth are covered with green and look like silhouettes of animals. The Li, or crystal river, is home to cormorant fishing. The fisherman pole bamboo rafts out onto the river with a flock of cormorant, duck like birds that are trained to dive for fish and bring them to their master for a reward. Although the fishing is now mostly staged, it makes one feel like you are back in the olden days to see it.
I’ve just spent weeks on my letter to children about my latest book, THE ANIMALS SANTA, I call my news notes. It tells tidbits about the book which will be out next fall in time for Christmas. We will send out 80,000 of my four-page full-color letter to friends and also have it available to download online. I usually try to make one page an interactive activity and because it’s a Christmas book, the last page is a Christmas card I created for my friend’s use. It can be downloaded and copied at your local copy shop or used as it is. The idea behind my book is that people have a Santa, but how about the animals? My answer is “Yes!” In a remote village in northern Canada a group of animal friends find mysterious presents on Christmas morning. They think they could be from Santa, but no one knows for sure until snowshoe rabbit sets a trap. Santa is a snowy owl, and my card is from him. I imagine people sending it from their pet, to their friend’s pets. Or, if you don’t have a pet, it could be sent as a whimsical Christmas card. Usually I use a somewhat simpler art style, but because the card was intended to be used by my friends, I use my best effort and employed my “book style”. I’ll have it up online in plenty of time for the holiday season. The project took a long time.
Because I spent so much time on my news notes, I’m now trying to catch up with the current book, THE TURNIP. I set the book in Russia, in the area around St. Petersburg, where I visited two years ago to do research for CINDERS. I will have to spend some of my time painting in my hotel room during this trip, instead of sightseeing, so I can at least finish one page.
I have loved the turnip story for years, but is unique because in Russia much of the fun is in the telling. The names of the different characters rhyme and make the word a tongue twister. Since my English counterparts are not tongue twisters, I had to create a new surprise element to keep the story lively. As the animals, in this case badgers, line up to pull the giant turnip out of the ground, a bear’s den lies underneath. In fact, the giant turnip has taken up the Bear’s bedroom! Can you guess what event will finally unearth the turnip? Hint, the bear wants that turnip out of her bedroom!
So far, I’ve written the text and have just received some samples of the type, both of which I love. But one stood out as having just the right qualities to enhance the artwork. It’s slightly old-fashioned and European in quality, but if letters could evoke humor these would. Marikka Tamura, the designer at my publisher who I have worked with for many of my books, is responsible for finding some interesting choices of type. She will send me my story in the new type face and then it’s my job to leave room for it in my artwork, which is harder than it sounds. Artists are notorious for wanting all the page space for their art! In the end though, I think illustrators love the look of type and art together and that is one reason why we choose this medium, a children’s book.
I have my book dummy that I use as a guide as I work on the finished pages. It’s my favorite part of the process, and I tried also tried to leave a little mental energy to bring new life to my pages as they are transformed from the cartoon-like book dummy.
Signing off from Asia, your friend, Jan Brett