Every month I take a little time to write an update about what is happening in the process of writing and illustrating a children’s book. This January I am finishing the last double page spreads of THE TURNIP. During December I was on a book tour across the US, and I took a page with me to work on. This Christmas we visited Durango,CO to see my husband’s family, and I added another double page spread, went on to Nagano, Japan to meet my daughter’s family, and I finished another spread. Its not very prudent to be carrying artwork through airport lounges and various conveyances but I have a strict deadline. My New Year’s resolution this year is to finish next year’s book earlier so I am not as pressured. I have yet to decide on a story for next year, but I have several ideas I’m working on.
Many of my books are in a snowy setting and the Happo valley in Nagano is one of the snowiest places I’ve ever been. The trees and houses are covered with billowy mounds and mounds of snow. It almost looked like a cartoon of a place that received a tremendous snowfall. The tall evergreens have beautiful, smooth, chestnut colored trunks, and graceful needles that look like hands. The snow covers them like blobs of whipped cream, and they soar into the sky. Some of the houses are practically hidden under six feet of snow on their roofs, and the yellow of the lights coming from within are sometimes the only evidence that there is really a house under there. The roads are very narrow and have walls of snow on either side. One night as we had dinner, people called out to look at a creature in the snow. It was a fat and fluffy weasel like creature, creamy red, with tiny ears and a long thick neck. It scampered over the drifts stopping to eat snow. It was the size of a small dog and is called the Kamaitachi. We also saw fox tracks, and were told they were from a red fox. We were amazed to hear about another forest animal that was regularly seen outside our lodging. It is called a Japanese Serow and looks like cross between a tiny goat and an antelope. It is buffy white and grey with a very,very fluffy and long coat and tiny horns. Its legs are delicate and I can’t imagine how they survive in that deep snow. I woke up at 5:00AM to go to the window where they are seen but I missed them.They generally are about at dawn and dusk. It would be nice to put these animals in a book, set in Japan, but it is a big challenge for an American to be familiar with Japanese culture to do.
I have a huge bulletin board that takes up half my art studio, where I hang up all my finished artwork. I try to balance the colors and images. What I really need to do, and it takes a lot of work, is photocopy all the pages, tape them together, and create a book. A book has a certain rhythm that shows as each page reveals itself. As a child looks at a book, each spread is a world of its own until the page is turned and a new image is exposed. I can fine tune my work when it is presented in this way, in a finish dummy.
In all honesty, there is a wonderful crescendo of feeling as a book is getting finished. I feel very free, in that I can subtlety change things at the 11th hour. On the other hand, I wish I could have another month to work on the paintings!
Good luck with all your creative endeavors! If you are a teacher, I applaud your encouragement to all the children that are looking for a creative way to express themselves.
On our way home!
I am writing from my book tour bus. We are going across the country in a beautiful “star” coach that is arranged by my publisher. We have 24 stops starting in New York State and finishing in Washington State. I have our bunny who is the main character in my book, THE ANIMALS’ SANTA aboard. His name is Little Snowshoe, and although he is a domesticated bunny, one half dwarf and one half dutch, he looks like a Showshoe hare in that his coloring is similar, pure white with black tips to his ears and a darkening on top of his little bunny nose! He is a boy, because I wanted to reflect my character. He is sweet but can be grumpy and is definitely mischievous like my character. Today he had the run of the bus, but he can’t be left alone for a minute or he will chew our computer cords. He is smart enough to know if there is an opportunity to do so! He loves to climb onto our laps and explore any chewing opportunities. He has lots of delicious smelling hay and a few treats like just for bunnies dried papaya and fresh basil leaves. He also has chewable rabbit toys made of wood, bark and rope.
While not at my signings, I am pondering the book I will start in January. I have one idea about a Gingerbread Baby Band that is also a fox love story. I love the Gingerbread Baby’s personality of pep and creativity. My other idea is about a Wooly Mammoth, but I need to work on the plot. I go to sleep thinking that I will wake up with a good idea. When I speak at the booksignings, I answer my most asked question. How do you get ideas for books? It’s somewhat like looking for shooting stars. First you have to be looking upward into the heavens at night. It must be clear. Some nights are just right for this activity because earth is passing through a comet’s tail or meteor showers are predicted, like the Perseus meteor shower in August. Sometimes, though quite out of the blue I’ve seen a huge, bright meteor that lights up the sky and leaves a florescent white/yellow/green trail. That’s how it is with book ideas.
Sometimes I am excited by an incident involving my pet animals, or I am intrigued by a fun fact involving animal biology. A few of my stories are a version of a story I’ve loved since childhood, and I wanted to illustrate them my way, like THE GINGERBREAD MAN. I never liked that the mischievous little guy was eaten be a fox, so I switched things around in my story. I often work on ideas when I’m running practice runs, they are often three hours long. My daughter thinks ideas get juggled around and fall into place like a jigsaw puzzle. That’s stretching it, but no doubt I have gotten some good ideas running. My husband Joe, plays the double bass in the Boston Symphony, and I have honed many an idea listening to music. I rarely get ideas watching TV, movies or on the computer, I think those forms capture too much of my attention.
Good luck with your story ideas, and embellishing the things of this world that fascinate you with stories.
Your friend, Jan Brett
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.