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
Happy New Year! I am hard at work finishing the last pages of GINGERBREAD CHRISTMAS. As I do every month in my hedge-a-gram I’m taking some time to be in touch, and tell about how things are going in my life as an illustrator – author.
Every year I have to work extra hard to finish my book before the deadline in mid January. Even though the book won’t be published until next fall, the artwork and the final text must be ready now. Although working faster doesn’t help, I can put more hours in every day. To put the most optimistic perspective on it, perhaps small daily decisions I make painting the art work are easier, because I know I don’t have time to change my mind, and do something over. The designer at the publisher will need my artwork finished so she can set the type on the pages, and together we can change the text to accommodate any places the art has infringed on the area assigned to the type. Hopefully there won’t be any!
Probably the best part of this time is seeing the whole book up on my bulletin board. I can correct for balances in the color or gauge how the art reflects the story. For example, one double page spread shows the old cast iron stove. Its black color really dominates the page and looks a little heavy. I will go back in with white gouache, an opaque watercolor paint and change some of the large areas to dark grey, over-painting on the white gouache, as if it looks like it is in sunlight. There is another area showing the garland covered bandstand. I deepened the green to make it look further away and more remote in contrast to the close-up of it when the gingerbread band plays. I may also feel Gingerbread Baby’s rascally character needs to be amped up. I wrote a taunting little song for him to sing and I will see if I can fit it in. The wiley trickster is a character found though the world’s folk tales and myths, and that’s how I see the Gingerbread Baby in my story. I want him to be funny and loveable too.
As I work, my thoughts go back to the long November and December book tour. It was very tiring because I wanted to do my best job on my presentation about THE TURNIP and my drawing of Badger Girl I did for the audience. At first, after the signing I would curl up on the bed at the back of the bus and not wake up until we were almost at the next signing. After a few days I got my equilibrium and it wasn’t so overwhelming. I so much enjoyed seeing the children’s artwork and the families that hold reading and books dear – more so that ever before. I don’t have an answer for the cause, if it is because book lovers are rallying and devoting their time to books because electronics are so popular, of if people are accepting there are many ways to tell stories and books can’t be replaced. I was excited to see so many vibrant libraries with many in the town or city involved with them.
Probably the most surprising happiness is when a family tells me they’ve adopted a quote from one of my books into their families playful at home dialog. I see myself as more of an artist so it makes me feel proud to have my words take on a new life.
My two Dutch Bantams, Reuben and Rilke, a rooster and hen behaved beautifully during the tour and my show and tell at every stop. They were on TV three times and twice I sat with them on a white couch. The couch stayed pristinely white, I’m happy to say! They were mailed home from California, after the tour, Express Mail! They travel in a special cardboard mailing box with lots of air holes covered by special filter paper. They got lots of treats and they seemed perky and peppy when I opened their box when they arrived home, although the postman said Reuben was very vocal in the mail truck. I don’t now if it’s my imagination, but my chickens do seem to sense when we are nearing home when I take them home from poultry shows.
When I’m working the long hours during the race to my deadline, I listen to audio books and the radio. I have really enjoyed Edmund DeWaal’s book, THE WHITE ROAD. I am a big fan of THE HARE WITH AMBER EYES, by DeWaal. Both books talk about obsession among other things, a subject I like to contemplate. My other favorite is THE OLD WAYS by Robert Macfarlane. The book tells about the paths and trails on land and sea of the British Isles.
I also heard a wonderful interview of Stephen King and I was launched into a soaring state as Stephen described the writing process, because his words ring so true. His book is called ON WRITING, I highly recommend it to anyone who feels writing is their calling, even if they do it in pictures, like I do. I wanted to end with that “hats off” to Stephen King, because I hope you too feel that wish to create as we enter the New Year – always a good time to access our goals and life paths.
Happy New Year!