In Okinawa Japan with my grandson Brian
Although summer time usually includes a vacation for many, for me, I am gearing up with the illustrations for my new book. This July it is THE MERMAID AND THE THREE OCTOPUS. Every month I pause for a time to talk about where I am in the process of my book in hopes that you may share my interest in creating books and drawings for children.
What I’ve accomplished so far is a retelling of the classic Goldilocks and the Three Bears story, and I’ve created cartoon-like illustrations in a 32 page book dummy. I completed the dummy and then went back and reworked the ending, changing the images after completing the first version. I wanted a final spread showing the mermaid with her new and old friends swimming away through the beautiful coral reefs. But to get the full effect of the undersea gardens I wanted a double page spread. The book actually ends on a single page. For the last page, page32, I show a happy ending for the octopus family, especially baby octopus who after a big commotion and confrontation finds herself with a gift from the mermaid, a beautiful pearl and coral tiara. The beauty of working on a dummy is the ability to change things when they become clear In the language of pictures, before too much time is spent on the finished spreads. I make the dummy with typing paper cut to about 2/3rds the size of the trim dimensions in the actual book. The trim size is one of the first things I, the editor, and the art director, decide on. Since I have done two “Goldilocks” books in the past each with a different trim size, I chose a size that would leave room for my border idea. In the original story the three bears go for a walk while their porridge cools. In my undersea version they go for a stroll but the baby octopus is unhappy because her parents make her wear a peculiar and she thinks, ugly, hat. In the borders she tries to lose the hat. That makes it an especially happy ending when the baby octopus ends up with a gift from the mermaid, a beautiful tiara. I find that children enjoy a little humor and I am hoping they will think its funny that the baby octopus is given a live hat.
I have always loved porcupine fish. They remind me of ocean going hedgehogs. It seemed natural that the mermaid would be traveling with a friend, and that the friend could move the story forward by prickling the grumpy octopus. I had to walk a fine line between making the octopus mad by having their things eaten and played with and just being curious. The funny looking porcupine fish makes the scenes kind of funny. I have a reference book called FISHFACE and it is full of very expressive fish faces, although its anybodies guess what the fish are really thinking. I have been to the New England Aquarium twice since starting my book, and it is easy to get lost in the world of fish in the central tank, and in the reef fish exhibit. Sometimes I am amazed I have a job where its important to look at fish! The trouble is like iridescent birds, it’s impossible to capture their beauty. I have an invitation to see the aquarium’s octopus from the aquararist’s side but a date hasn’t materialized yet. I have seen Anna the octopus twice from the public’s side, but she is remaining very shy. Apparently octopus have very individual personalities, and for now, Anna is settling in. I’m very glad I saw a baby octopus in the wild in Okinawa while snorkeling. It was right beside a baby Lionfish. That is a beautiful but venomous fish that lives in the coral reefs in Okinawa. When reading the hard to find but wonderful A DIVER’S SCRAPBOOK by John Chandler he remarks that if a sea creature does not move away from you, ask yourself, “Maybe it doesn’t have to?” Luckily when I went snorkeling my son in law gave me booties and gloves along with the advice not to poke anything.
The fun part of painting the illustrations is reliving my underwater experiences, although they were fewer than I would have wished, knowing what I know now. Two of the adjustments I have had to make are how everything is almost weightless, as in the mermaid’s hair and how almost every view fades into deep blue. The other adjustment must be utilized in painting the fish. Almost every fish guide show the fish from the side, while in reality they are seen in all perspectives. Add to that, many sea creatures are iridescent and some, like the octopus change color and shape plus some are see-through!
Because I set my story in Japan I am very glad I lugged back lots of big colorful books about that culture. My story is set in the olden days, so I rely on art books too. On the twelve or so trips I’ve taken to Japan I have brought back toys, antique printed indigo cloth and folk art. If anyone has visited Japan they will recognize lots of references to Japanese culture. The octopus wear kimonos and Okinawan hats (except for Baby). Even the seashells and coral shards found on the beach I brought home have found their way into my pictures. Even if the child knows nothing about Japan, it is nice to think their frame of reference has widened a bit. I think that is why as a child I loved reading THE JUNGLE BOOK about India, ALADDIN AND THE MAGIC LAMP about Persia and THE STORY ABOUT PING set in China.
Happy armchair traveling, or even better, the real thing!
Your friend, Jan Brett
This is the time I stop every month to write some tidbits about my life as a children’s author and illustrator. If you know of me at all, you know that the illustration part of the process is the creative engine for my books. I am an avid reader, and I marvel at the level of nuance and creation of other worlds that authors can create. It never ceases to be a miracle that someone else’s mind can be seen via their books. And all the time, we readers are receiving those words and believing them or not believing them. It is so deeply satisfying when a writer’s words ring true and allow you to see a part of humanity, or part of the animal kingdom that has never seen the light of day in one’s own mind. I am reading the autobiography of Oliver Sacks, an author who’s work I deeply appreciate. The first book I read was THE MAN WHO MISTOKE HIS WIFE FOR A HAT. Sacks was a neurologist who described in an eloquent and loving way some of the bizarre mental conditions he has seen in his practice. One of my favorite books he has written though, is OAXACA JOURNAL, a book about a trip he took with the Fern Society. Anyone who goes to Mexico with the Fern Society to see ferns is walking an unusual path. I love ferns, but have never gotten further then buying a few books about them, planting a lot of varieties, and putting them in every book I can!
But Oliver Sacks always thinks in great depths about a subject. This last book though is rather shocking as I had him pictured as a curious, sedentary, friendly uncle type. He has a quote at the beginning of his book that was written by one of his teachers when he was of a young age. “Oliver will go far, but I hope he doesn’t go too far.” It reminded me of a similar remark a teacher made about a relative, “All geniuses are odd, but all odds are not geniuses”. Human being have such a large capacity to explore a subject, and let it become their whole world. I’ve known a few geniuses in my life and it is really interesting how they manage to come up for air when engrossed in their field of interest.
I am just finishing the first spread for THE MERMAID AND THE THREE OCTOPUS. We moved up to our summer camp (cottage) and I got to look through all the coral shards and shells I collected in Okinawa, Japan over the last 20 years. My daughter and her husband who are Marines were stationed there three times. Little did I know way back then how much my heart would be captured by that place and that in the future I would set a book there. A year ago I was snorkeling at one of the incredible dive sites where I saw a baby Octopus. By now it is probably huge, or been eaten by another sea creature. I love to sit at my work table and recreate my memories of the ocean there. I was astounded that so many people video tape their spear diving excursions. It’s as if you are swimming through the coral reefs as you watch YouTube. Of course I have to close my eyes when they spear the fish! I am in absolute heaven working on this book. The experience is going to get even more emotional when next month I will visit the New England Aquarium and visit their Giant Pacific Octopus. If you are curious about the natural world I would suggest THE SOUL OF THE OCTOPUS by Sy Montgomery. She has also written a children’s non fiction book, a companion to it called THE OCTOPUS SCIENTISTS.
Joe and I just drove from Massachusetts to Lucasville Ohio to a Poultry Show (not a fair) and for some reason an idea popped into my head about a house hedgehog. A friend, who I gave a chicken to, made the chicken into a “house chicken”. It watches TV with them and is a pet. I got thinking about how Hedgehogs hibernate and never are able to see the depths of winter. I love winter and all its beauty, so I’d like to write about a Hedgehog that gets taken in for the winter by a little girl and gets to see the loveliness of snow through the window. Obviously fiction but a great way to to paint winter scenes and especially a Hedgehog!
I hope the changing of the seasons is invigorating for you, and ideas pop like popcorn for new creative projects.
Your friend, Jan Brett
The Three Octopus – Mermaid Sketch
Every month I spend some time gathering my thoughts about some aspect of children’s bookmaking that I think might interest others involved with creative projects. All my books have been picture books. It is the form that involves the most illustration, which is what I love best.
A children’s book is a commercial project, and although I don’t think of my books quite in that way, it is important to know that I work with a publisher. When I think of a book idea, I discuss it with my editor. The editor makes the decision about if the idea fits their list. My publisher,Penguin Random House has been publishing my books for over 30 years, so they have a good idea of what to expect.
I became entranced with “mer-creatures” after visiting an elementary school while giving a school talk. The children had drawn pictures of mer-cats, mer-dogs and everything else you could possibly think of. At first I thought of doing an undersea version of “Old MacDonald had a Farm”, with the gardens being coral and sea anemones, but I didn’t feel it carried enough emotion for me. I work on a book for an entire year, and I try to find a story that will be fascinating, and keep me hopping for a full year and beyond. The curiosity and quest to understand somehow bubbles up through the artwork and makes it come alive. One of my favorite stories ever is Goldilocks and the Three Bears. I’ve always felt curiosity is the trait I admire most. I feel it overreaches into all cultures and times. When you are little, so many things you do are being done for the first time. Learning to skate for example, or staying overnight at someone’s house, eating certain foods,you name it. No one can promise a perfectly positive experience, but most of the time the experience is worth it. That bit of knowledge is exciting and makes us feel energized.
When I attempt a new book, first I will write out the story. Sometimes I have an idea for the borders, a little subplot that can add another dimension to my story. Often I’ll just begin and a second story will just make itself known, like a knock on the door. There is the Fed X man with a package, only the package is a new idea. In my undersea Goldilocks I thought that the baby Octopus (the three bears are Octopus in my story) would be made to wear a hat by her mother which she doesn’t like. At the end, the hat, which on closer inspection is a spotted ray gets set free, and the Goldilocks/mermaid gives her a beautiful Tiara. I’ve always loved coral and pearls, so the Tiara will be fun to design. When I was little I wanted a horse desperately, so I drew horses everyday, including the barns they would live in, fancy bridles and all the trappings. It was a very good second best. That’s what the Tiara will mean to me. There is a little childhood memory that is about the wearing of hats too. As children,we had to wear hats and gloves to church and to any trip to Boston, like when we would go to shop for back to school clothes. My sister and I loathed the hats. We sort of accepted a Scottish “fore and aft” hat with ribbons down the back and a pom-pom on top, but we were both tomboys and did not like being dressed up. In later years the “hat” was softened to an embellished headband which we barely tolerated. Many of the seemingly random ideas in my books have strong personal memories associated with them. The wearing of hats seems very funny now, but I think every child understands that feeling.
When I’m constructing my story, I am looking for a “down the rabbit hole” experience. After drawing and painting the dummy in a deliberate way, I am really just waiting for that moment when the story takes on a life of its own, and I loose that deliberate self consciousness. If I can let it happen, strange and resonant ideas will come like a visitation. It’s a very fragile thing and the least criticism or intrusion can break the spell. Sometimes I feel like I’m on a tightrope in the dark, not knowing what will come next. I tell children that telling a good story is equal parts preparation, a little bit construction and another part like digging for fossils. I love it when after I’ve finished a book I’ll realize with a start, that its a retelling of some significant event of my childhood.
Many artists and writers say they feel like they are a taken on a wild ride by their work, and in the best of times I can say I feel that way too. A great story or piece of music has a feel that it has always existed, curious as that might be, like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Although I don’t aspire to that level, I like to feel its a wonderful thing to at least give the creative force a chance to do its magic.
I hope all of you will find that moment when an idea takes you for a wild ride, and you take the leap to see where it leads you.
Happy Reading, your friend,
I am getting started writing and illustrating a new picture book. It’s based on the story of Goldilocks, the curious little girl who, finding a mysterious house in the woods, lets herself in. After trying three bowls of porridge, three chairs and three beds, she falls asleep. She is woken by a family of three bears who are equally curious about her.
Several of my interests came together to form the idea of an underwater Goldilocks. First, I have always loved the story because curiosity is one of the human traits that take us into the unexplored, and challenge our intellects. As children, almost everyday we are doing something for the first time. Children learn quickly that no one can guarantee a perfect experience, but having tried something new, it’s almost always worth it. It is how we learn.
My daughter and her husband have spent ten years living on Okinawa Island, a tropical Japanese island in the East China Sea. When I have visited I was charmed by the culture and architecture and wildlife. Because the island is fringed by coral reefs, many explore the wildlife in the ocean which is famous for its diversity and spectacular tropical beauty. Although I have never scuba dived, the snorkeling allows amazing glimpses into the rich marine coral gardens teeming with fish and sea creatures. When my granddaughter and grandson began snorkeling with their parents at six and three, I joined in and saw this undersea world through their eyes. On the east side of the island, the land underwater plummets down to great depths, and it is there that the Giant Pacific Octopus and Giant Squid have been seen. The first live Giant Squid was filmed only several years ago. When an occurrence like that happens along with sightings of other strange creatures like the Dugong, a large sea mammal, a Whale Shark, which is a peacefully beautiful but gargantuan shark, one’s imagination can’t help but conjure up what could also live in those unexplored depths.
Even though, I don’t believe mermaids exist, I do like to think they have a place in our imagination and in literature, along with Unicorns, Satyrs, the Phoenix and Centaurs (my favorite).
So now, I have a story of a mermaid who like Goldilocks explores a curious house, only hers is under the sea. It’s not three bears that live in it, but three octopus, surely one of our earth’s most fascinating creatures. They are highly intelligent, resourceful, change color and have eight arms complete with cheerio like suckers.
Even though they rank among one of the hardest creatures to draw for me, I am excited to learn all the ins and outs of the octopus. Hopefully, often the excitement of capturing an amazing animal will show in my artwork, and make my story even curiouser. It will be a chance to revisit beautiful Okinawa in my mind as well.
I hope you find creating stories, either by writing or illustrating as unexpected and fulfilling as I do, especially when parts of the experience make up a strange mix, just right for storytelling.
Best wishes, your friend, Jan Brett