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!
This is a busy month for me in my life as a a children’s author and illustrator. My deadline for this year’s book is coming up in late December, so every day I am painting the finished spreads. I want so badly to create a certain look for the pages. I accomplished this some of the time in the two previous Gingerbread Baby books. The idea that this cookie comes alive is whimsical but he is fragile too. I do want the surrounding gingerbread and frosting to make it feel like it is from this strange world – a little bit old fashioned Switzerland, a little bit a funny gingerbread character who is a little rascally, and very snowy, wintery and festive place. The activity mostly takes place outdoors and the white snow makes a nice contrast with the orangey brown of gingerbread. I have a giant bulletin board and I put the finished spreads up so that whenever I walk into my art studio, in the morning sun just getting up, or late at night, I can gauge the mood the book projects. Sometimes the colors will seem too heavy or just the opposite, not substantial enough. Then I will try and adjust them by changing backgrounds or even subtly changing the shade of green. Because each page has a decorative border, I can add details that are fun or curious in their own right. Each window in the border is shaped like the musical instrument, the double bass. It was a natural to choose because it’s a beautiful shape perfect for outlining a scene within the story. My husband, Joe plays the double bass in the Boston Symphony and I hope he thinks it is funny that the bow is a peppermint stick and the musical notes are jelly beans. I tried not to use very modern candy like candy corn or name brand candy bars, because I would like my story to go back in time. Thanks to the Internet, I found that jelly beans were invented in 1861 in Boston by Mr. Schraft. There is also a confection that was similar, popular in France that has been enjoyed since the 1600’s. The idea being that the outside is a certain hardness while the center is soft and chewy. I used to experiment often making candy when I was a teenager. I loved heating the sugar and seeing it harden in a glass of cold water in order to find out if it was in the correct “stage” that signified it was time to take the candy off the stove. It was always “molasses pull candy” out of the Joy of Cooking. It was a big hit, but difficult to clean up!
The most intriguing candy that I find very hard to find, are lollipops that have a picture formed by the different colors. The picture is usually of a flower, a fruit, or an animal face. I used to always find one in my Christmas stocking, but haven’t seen these lollipops in a long time. When I was in Europe especially Switzerland I was hoping to find some beautiful old fashioned candy, but I saw mostly the same offerings we have in the States. I did love to see how powdered sugar was sprinkled over a stencil to create a design on a darkish cake. My mother loved making soft, chewy and dense gingerbread cake, and she used a paper doily to create a design with the confectioners sugar. I used that technique for a little variety in my borders, using paints of course. I wish I could turn back the clock in order to open up the box of Christmas cookies my mother-in-law, Meta Hearne, would give us at Christmas. There were many varieties and you couldn’t choose just one, they were too tempting. My favorites were always, the thumbprint cookies with brilliant red jam, intense and gummy from the cooking.
Besides the art being in full swing, I am starting to plan for the eighteen day cross country book tour. We pack up the bus Thanksgiving night. I’ll be bringing markers for drawing demonstrations and an easel. A fun show and tell will be my birch bark shoes from Russia that are just like the ones my badger characters wear in THE TURNIP. I have to chose some special clothes for my talks. I want the children to notice the colors I’m wearing and connect them with my book. Hopefully they will use my ideas in their own ways to help them to create their drawings and stories. I will be bringing one of my models, but it is a secret for now. I also will pack my art supplies and special lamp that shines with a full spectrum bulb so I can work on GINGERBREAD CHRISTMAS on our days off. When the bus is moving though, it’s too bumpy to work, so I have a little vacation and I do needlepoint – I’m making a purse, and a knitting project – a Fair Isle sweater by designer Alice Starmore. The yarn is from The Hebrides Islands and is very beautiful. I will also bring some books, particularly about poultry genetics. I raise chickens for show. The color patterns of chickens are carried in their genes and it is difficult for me to understand. My solution it to keep reading the books and looking at the photos. I’m hoping sometime in the middle of the night my unconscious will go “click” and I’ll wake up understanding. All chicken colors come from only two color pigments, black and red, White is the absence of pigment, but some colors are diluted, so you can get grey, brown and orange.
I’m excited to meet all the book lovers at our stops. It is very uplifting to meet children that love to draw and communicate with their creativity Next month, I’ll write my “Hedge-a-gram” from the road!
Your friend, Jan Brett