I’d like to tell you all about the children’s book I’ve been working on. It is called the Animal’s Santa, and it tells the story of a snowshoe rabbit that is very sceptical about Santa. His older brother knows that the forest animals are receiving presents on Christmas morning, and he wants his little brother to join in the fun of Christmas. He is pretty sure that Santa is leaving the presents, but he just doesn’t have any proof. My story is how he traps Santa.
I set my story in North America, in the north of Canada, because it seemed possible that the animal’s story could take place there. The animals that live in the North woods are somewhat reclusive and mysterious. There is an Artic Fox vixen, Raven twins, a Porcupine and the Snowshoe Hare brothers. A Polar Bear, Moose and Badger also make appearances when the animals describe who they think Santa might be.
I’ve worked on my book for many months now, and its beginning to have a momentum of its own. I start with a dummy, or cartoon version that is 32 pages, the same length as the book will be, so I can refer to it, but I always wait for that moment when the story starts rolling along. The sketches serve as a road map, but I try not to let them get in the way of new ideas that crop up.
When I lived in Boston as an art student and a young mother, I spent many days at the Peabody Museum at Harvard. My young daughter and I spent hours looking at the taxidermied animal specimens that had been collected from all over the world. The museum also has an extensive collection of Native American arts and crafts, and it cast a spell on me. I was very intrigued with the porcupine quill work. One of the reasons I set my book in North America was so I could paint quill work in the borders. I didn’t copy any of the quill work from the museum, but tried to imagine the forest family in my book as an undiscovered native people, with their own esthetic. Most of the materials I used are typical of the materials used by First Peoples.
Today I’ll be working on my book’s jacket. My editor and I have been giving a lot of thought on what the title should be. We both love “Who is the Animal’s Santa?” But it takes up a lot of room on the jacket, and restricts the art. The publisher is afraid there will be confusion about the title, and people won’t remember the title. So right now the title is “The Animal’s Santa” I show the question being asked in the body language of the main character, “Little Snow”.
I just received my authors copies of “Cinders”, about three weeks before the publisher’s release. I am just thrilled with the way it is presented. It is a wintery fairy tale, and there are subtle sparkles on the jacket, and on the display type. Marikka, a very talented designer at G.P.Putnam’s Sons (Penguin) created an extraordinary jacket. Not wanting “Cinders” to look like one of the more commercial offerings, she added copper foil to embellish my name, which is a bold choice when paired with the ombre pink and white lettering of the display type. The effect is very nuanced and ethereal, and represents the kind of subtlety that children can appreciate when they are exposed to it. As electronic games and movies become more available, children’s books are becoming more defined. They seem to have the potential to fully realize the human imagination in a very personal and intimate way.
I am looking out my window into a beautiful early fall landscape, but even more real to me at this moment, is the winter palace peopled by gorgeous poultry in their finery, and my north woods tribe of animals, in their snowy woods. Maybe now is the time for you to realize a complex world of your own making. It’s an exercise puzzle in creativity and discovery that leads to unexpected places.
This is Jan Brett telling you about what’s happening in my life as an author-illustrator of children’s books.
I am halfway through my 2014 picture book,WHO IS THE ANIMAL’S SANTA? I love working on the finishes, and embellishing my original ideas and adjusting the text to enhance the story. It’s probably my favorite part of the process. The art takes a long time, and there are many steps backward when I decide to change the character or adjust the color of the skies for example. There’s a great deal of pressure from the publisher to get my book finished in a timely manner, but I don’t want to rush and miss an opportunity to make the book better with a different image idea.
My book is set in northern Canada, and the animals show the winter coats for which they are known – the Arctic Fox, Lynx, and Snowshoe Rabbit especially. In my book the animals exist in a tribe culture and their natural predator-prey relationship is suspended – it being Christmas! I wanted a neutral element to construct my borders like the Birch bark in THE MITTEN and HOME FOR CHRISTMAS and I chose quillwork, a native American, or first people’s art that uses porcupine quill’s to create designs on clothing and ornaments. I have collected quillwork boxes over the years, because of their beauty, and have designs of feathers, a great blue heron, chickadees, of beaver, a star and the four directions. When I researched these designs, I was struck by how the art of the first peoples is often story driven and how the image contains a strength focused from the artist’s mind. I’ve always loved stories and storytelling and it’s not only my job, but is the way I stay connected with my humanness. I love to think that generations before me created images that gave them beauty and significance and how they have lasted for hundreds and even thousands of years. I’m about to visit my granddaughter in Japan where she lives, and I’m already thinking of stories to have on the ready when she asks. Some of them are from my childhood and I love to think she is included in the family’s history by knowing them. Like the time Madame our cat stowed away on our sailboat, the time we were not allowed to swim off the boat in the ocean and then two huge fins swam by. The time I ran away, because I didn’t want a splinter taken out and got into big trouble. The time Richard our golden retriever brought home a wallet and money blew all over our backyard. Now that my granddaughter’s four, I’m hoping she’ll have some stories for me. When my daughter was growing up we had a read aloud time every night, even until she was in junior high school. I remember WATERSHIP DOWN, GONE WITH THE WIND, and M.A.S.H. as being great favorites. Communication between us was meager during that time, and books were great life-raft for informal chats.
My sisters are a little dubious about my stories, and I admit a good story takes precedence over the facts. I would even go so far as to say sometimes a story takes on a life of its own, and the teller goes along for the ride. Our minds are complex and rich and we never fully aware of what they’re capable of sending out.
Your friend, Jan Brett
This is Jan Brett, and this is my August hedge a gram – the time I take on the first day of each month to keep in touch with friends about my children’s books.
There are many aspects of my profession that I’m enthusiastic about doing, but none so much as painting away on the final pieces. The book starts as an idea that I discuss first with my husband Joe and then with my long time editor, Margaret. Come to think of it, my husband is long time too! Joe is a musician by background, and is familiar with the creative arts. He gives me a practical opinion and is very familiar with all my other books. Margaret is a towering talent, who really understands how a book unfolds.
Sometimes a book sketch will change and morph into quite a different story than my original idea. Last summer at about this time, on a hot night, the idea of an animal’s Santa sprang into my head with no warning. It was a big surprise. My idea was to describe in a poetic way how a Snowy Owl Santa would bring presents to the animals in the wild woods. The owl has long been associated with mystery, knowledge and human-like roles in stories. Its large eyes placed on the front of its head and its beautiful plumage have made it a marvelous creature to draw. The snowy owl nests in Arctic regions, and then some travel quite far South in winter. We have a population that frequent Logan Airport in Boston, as well as the beaches of Cape Cod. They’ve always fascinated me. The snowy owl seem to be just waiting to become a Santa character. I knew owl’s feathers have a soft leading edge that enables them to fly without sound and that furthered my inclination to make him the animal’s Santa. I e-mailed late at night my longish poem to Margaret the same night it came to me. The next morning she wrote back that she loved the idea and she has questions. That is Margaret’s nice way of saying that she thinks the story could be developed more. In all honesty, I felt my story was ready to go so I had to settle my thoughts and think about it. For several weeks I would turn over the story in my mind choosing certain characters to have expanded roles. I needed to create more in the story line department and give the book some emotion and tension. I’ve always been excited about how the common element H2O, water, has transformative powers. It can be a gas, a liquid, or a solid. I remember a story I read about a boy escaping pursuers across a huge frozen lake because he was the only one with skates. The Inuit built tall towers out of rock by using snow to lift them to higher levels as they placed rock upon rock as the snow got deeper. I decided to make use of the fact that ice can produce a tone when hit to make a chime. That would be how the animals would discover who the animal’s Santa could be. They set a trap for him, with warning bells made of ice, so they could see for themselves who was leaving presents.
As a child I remembered being in the upstairs bedroom I shared with my sister straining to hear the sound of reindeer hooves on the roof or maybe reindeer bells. All those years ago people didn’t have snow tires, so to create traction on the snowy streets they put special chains on their tires. The chains made a pleasant jingly sound, especially late at night when the lone car drove past. I’m sure I wasn’t the only child who heard the jingle and thought “reindeer”!!
As I worked on my manuscript I really felt like I was just going through the motions until finally the story became something else. I don’t like to admit it took another person to push me, but that’s what happened on this book. I am grateful to work with an editor who I can trust. Now, that the hardest part is done, I can enjoy painting the illustrations.
If you’re working on a creative project you know it is hard to juggle your ideas and be open to constructive criticism too. The important thing is the goal of a good book, and to me that’s the important goal.
Happy reading and happy creating,