Archive for category Jan Brett Posts

January 2015 Hedge a gram

Japanese SerowJapanese Serow

Happy January!

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.

Happy reading,

Jan Brett

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December Hedge a gram


On our way home!

Happy December!

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

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September Hedge a gram

little_spoo400Little Spoo our pet rabbit

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,

Your friend,

Jan Brett


August Hedge a gram


Happy August!

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.

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July Hedge a gram


The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota

Happy July!

This is Jan Brett with my monthly hedge-a-gram, the time I take to let you know what is happening in my book world.  Since its our country’s birthday, I’d like to thank all of our service men and women in the Armed Forces, and their families. I have a son-in-law and daughter in the Marines. I know how hard our military works and about the changes their families make in their day to day living. My husband and I are very grateful. When I raise the flags in the morning I remember you all and send good vibes as best I can, and remember our service members lost and those wounded. Happy Fourth to all the Marines and Air Force on Okinawa! My daughter and her family live there currently and we are looking forward to visiting once again in September.
Since my last hedge-a-gram my husband and I took 9 days to travel from Boston to LA in our all electric Tesla, following a route where we could charge up at the ultra fast chargers. In South Dakota we stopped at The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs. My imagination has been in overdrive every since. We happened to stop there because one of the scientists stopped by at my book signing last fall and very generously gave me his book ICE AGES about the era when many of the skeletal remains of the animals were found. His book is fascinating, and is non fiction but reads like a fascinating story. Also paradoxically, it is scholarly and a well researched addition to world knowledge, but any nature lover or child 3rd grade or up I suspect would find captivating. I can’t wait to send it to my 4 1/2 year old granddaughter and 2 year old grandson. They will be fascinated by the great photos and illustrations.Illustrations! That is a subject I have more to say on. Many letters and emails I receive concern “how to get an idea for a book?” Often a compelling idea will start the process. This museum, which I would highly recommend is built right over the site where 25 years ago while excavating for house lots, a giant tusk was unearthed. Experts were called including Larry Agenbroad the author of ICE AGES. It was so skin prickingly, goose bumpyingly riveting to see these perfect skeletons. There was even the scull of the short faced bear (now extinct). I am enamored of the Wholly Mammoth, I think because if its long hair and vaulted scull. All I could think of is bringing these creatures back to life in my illustrations. When I was on a long run yesterday I was musing back to our trip to Botswana, and visiting Jabu, Marula and Thembi, three semi habituated elephants that live in the bush with their partners Doug and Sandy Grove. If you go to Chiefs Camp it can be arranged to go and visit them for a day and have a lot of personal time and learn about them. I remember being fascinated but slightly wary of the elephants. They were highly intelligent but quite mischievous and full of themselves. They appeared to me unlike any animal I’ve spent time with. Like horses,dogs or cats. Probably the closest to them are whales and dolphins that I admit I only know about from my reading. The elephants have very species selective behavior and many behaviors relating to their hierarchical social structure. It couldn’t be too much of a leap to make Woolly Mammoths into characters given the large number of animals that have ancient counterparts for example the Przewalski horse and todays horse, the Auroch and our cattle, the Wolf and its ancestor the Dire Wolf. Also everybody’s favorite the Smilodon or Saber Toothed Cat. And people lived at the same time. On my long runs I’ll be thinking of a plot worthy of all these great characters. I’ve published a children’s story a few years ago called THE FIRST DOG. I was fortunate enough to experience an exhibition at the National History museum in NYC called Bright Visions. It focused on art created by early man. I feel every molecule vibrate when I see this art first hand from the elegantly carved ivory from 40,000 years ago depicting animals that radiate spirit to the rock paintings and petroglyphs I’ve seen in Namibia and Zimbabwe.
In the meantime, I am totally emersed in the world of a Russian Badger family and their friends in my retelling of the TURNIP. The artwork is coming alive and I love revisiting all my Russian books that I bought in St Petersburg for CINDERS.
In keeping with our 4th of July celebration I saw a magnificent Bald Eagle yesterday. I was coming home from my run when I saw he/she heading straight across our lake toward my chicken house. The chickens are all safe in there nice outdoor pens with roofs .On the subject of wildlife I heard a flock of crows screaming their heads off in the woods.When I went to investigate a young fisher-cat scampered across the forest floor and hiked itself up a big pine tree which was a big effort for it because it would hike up a foot make a double grunt and then look around at me and the crows with its cute triangular face. I think I spotted the mother tearing across our walkway yesterday. I’ve seen the adults on my runs and they are definitely not cute or charming, especially when I know they have an eye on my chickens and ducks. I must recheck the hardware cloth on their pens.   Happy creating and reading! If you’re in South Dakota check out The Mammoth Site for a fun and profound experience.

Your friend Jan Brett


June Hedge a gram

The Animals’s Santa

Happy June!

It’s June, and I’ve just come back from the United State’s largest book fair, Book Expo in New York City. I saw my 2014 children’s picture book, The ANIMALS’ SANTA for the first time. I was very impressed with the printing of it. The pages seemed to glow and the images looked almost three dimensional. That’s because my publisher oversaw the printing and made sure the quality was top notch. I hope you agree when you see it next fall in bookstores. The advantage of working for an excellent publisher, is that the art department is the best. It is responsible for the art direction which includes the design of the book – especially of the jacket, the display type of the jacket, and the type. Not only does Marikka contribute her talent, but I feel her energy and love of design very strongly, especially after working for a year on the interior of the book and I’m tired.
It’s fun to go into a bookstore or library and become aware of how much jacket design informs what is inside a book’s covers. One of my favorite jackets was for The Goldfinch, a novel by Donna Tartt. The jacket illustration imparts mystery and intrigue, the novel’s ties to the art world and the beleaguered innocence of its young boy protagonist. My jacket shows a young snowshoe rabbit, shrugging its shoulders as if curious but questioning. Marikka chose a display type that suggested old fashioned signage that makes the viewer feel that the story would journey back in time.
Today my husband and I traveled to the Finger Lakes region of New York state for a poultry show. There is always an area where people sell their chickens. As we were perusing the area we saw a group of baby bunnies. Among them was a little boy bunny that looked exactly like Little Shoe, the main character of my new book. After much discussion we bought him, and he is ours. I hope we can provide a loving home for him.
I have several pages finished of THE TURNIP, my retelling of a Russian folktale, and I can’t wait to dedicate my time to this challenge. I love painting the wonderful Russian old fashioned clothes on the badger family and on the mother bear character. When I went to Saint Petersburg three years ago. I brought back a suitcase full of books about clothing, architecture and crafts from the last century. I have the books propped up all over my art studio. It will be my most colorful book ever, although now that several pages have been done, I’m backing off on the bright colors of the borders as they compete with the main story a bit.
Recently I visited the school my sister Sophie teaches at in Hollis, New Hampshire. I was once again taken by how much the children loved to draw, and how much they wanted to learn about it. Sometime the only thing between a person and a wonderful drawing is just making the time to do it. It’s a good ambition, and one I have as a goal for myself, making artwork!
Happy reading and creating, your friend,

Jan Brett


May 2014 Hedge a gram

     With my doublebassist husband, Joe Hearne, our son Sean and his wife Catherine in the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Bejing, just before concert time

Happy May!

This is Jan Brett and this is my May hedge a gram, the time I take to tell you what’s happening in my life as an author/illustrator.  I’m in China right now traveling with my husband, a double bass player in the Boston Symphony.  The orchestra will perform in three cities in China, then Tokyo, Japan and afterwards we will stop in Okinawa, Japan an island far to the south, to visit my daughter and her family.  I will visit historical sites and try to absorb as much of the culture as I can, in hopes that a future book idea will happen.  I have done a book set in Guilin, China, DAISY COME HOME, starring a little girl who loses her pet chicken.  Guilin is a particularly picturesque part of China and a wonderful place to set a book.  The mountains, which out of the earth like jagged teeth are covered with green and look like silhouettes of animals.  The Li, or crystal river, is home to cormorant fishing.  The fisherman pole bamboo rafts out onto the river with a flock of cormorant, duck like birds that are trained to dive for fish and bring them to their master for a reward.  Although the fishing is now mostly staged, it makes one feel like you are back in the olden days to see it.

I’ve just spent weeks on my letter to children about my latest book, THE ANIMALS SANTA, I call my news notes.  It tells tidbits about the book which will be out next fall in time for Christmas.  We will send out 80,000 of my four-page full-color letter to friends and also have it available to download online.  I usually try to make one page an interactive activity and because it’s a Christmas book, the last page is a Christmas card I created for my friend’s use.  It can be downloaded and copied at your local copy shop or used as it is.  The idea behind my book is that people have a Santa, but how about the animals?  My answer is “Yes!”  In a remote village in northern Canada a group of animal friends find mysterious presents on Christmas morning.  They think they could be from Santa, but no one knows for sure until snowshoe rabbit sets a trap.  Santa is a snowy owl, and my card is from him.  I imagine people sending it from their pet, to their friend’s pets.  Or, if you don’t have a pet, it could be sent as a whimsical Christmas card.  Usually I use a somewhat simpler art style, but because the card was intended to be used by my friends, I use my best effort and employed my “book style”.  I’ll have it up online in plenty of time for the holiday season.  The project took a long time.

Because I spent so much time on my news notes, I’m now trying to catch up with the current book, THE TURNIP.  I set the book in Russia, in the area around St. Petersburg, where I visited two years ago to do research for CINDERS.  I will have to spend some of my time painting in my hotel room during this trip, instead of sightseeing, so I can at least finish one page.

I have loved the turnip story for years, but is unique because in Russia much of the fun is in the telling.  The names of the different characters rhyme and make the word a tongue twister.  Since my English counterparts are not tongue twisters, I had to create a new surprise element to keep the story lively.  As the animals, in this case badgers, line up to pull the giant turnip out of the ground, a bear’s den lies underneath.  In fact, the giant turnip has taken up the Bear’s bedroom!  Can you guess what event will finally unearth the turnip?  Hint, the bear wants that turnip out of her bedroom!

So far, I’ve written the text and have just received some samples of the type, both of which I love.  But one stood out as having just the right qualities to enhance the artwork.  It’s slightly old-fashioned and European in quality, but if letters could evoke humor these would.  Marikka Tamura, the designer at my publisher who I have worked with for many of my books, is responsible for finding some interesting choices of type.  She will send me my story in the new type face and then it’s my job to leave room for it in my artwork, which is harder than it sounds.  Artists are notorious for wanting all the page space for their art!  In the end though, I think illustrators love the look of type and art together and that is one reason why we choose this medium, a children’s book.

I have my book dummy that I use as a guide as I work on the finished pages.  It’s my favorite part of the process, and I tried also tried to leave a little mental energy to bring new life to my pages as they are transformed from the cartoon-like book dummy.

Signing off from Asia, your friend, Jan Brett

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April 2014 Hedge a gram

Hedgie and Jan Brett greeting the students at
Oakview Elementary School, in  Simpsonville, South Carolina.

Happy April!

This is Jan Brett and this is my April Hedge a gram.   It’s the time I take when I stop my work on my book, take a breath, and try to communicate what I’m doing in my profession.  When I was young, I desperately wanted to be a children’s book illustrator, and I wanted to know what it was like to live that life.  I’m hoping that by describing all the activities we’re doing, it may give some insight to future artists, writers, and teachers of children’s literature.
I am in beautiful Greenville, South Carolina, at the historic Poinsett Hotel.  Yesterday, I spoke and meet all of the children at Oakview Elementary School.  This school won the school and library visit contest last year.   The Upcountry History Museum in Greenville is having an exhibit of artwork from fifteen of my books and last night my husband Joe and I went to a reception.   It’s a fascinating museum specializing in the history of Northwestern South Carolina.  The museum mounted not only my illustrations, but also a superb collection of student artwork from Oakview School.  Two pieces of art from the student’s exhibit were given to me.  They will have a place of honor in our house.  The children used some of my techniques, such as using details, and borders and animal characters.  Then they took their art to another level using interesting mediums such as torn paper, and collage and metal work plus their own soaring imaginations.  It was very inspiring for me to see such talented ingenuity.  Please, please, please, take some time to create your artwork, or write down your thoughts.  The world becomes a vibrant and exciting place when one is surrounded by creativity and beauty.  I spoke to every child at Oakview School and asked them about their interests.  Almost every child not only had a creative interest, they loved reading but also did a sport.   When I asked them what their dream vacation would be, I was impressed by how many want to go somewhere exciting and interesting and different.   And answers were as varied as Hawaii, Miami, Russia, India, China and Dubai.  I felt I was among kindred spirits because I have found travel has helped me create my books.
My school visit to Newfoundland two years ago, definitely influence my decision to set my fall 2014 book, THE ANIMAL’S SANTA in northern Canada. The animal characters are from northern Canada, Arctic Fox, Porcupine, Moose, Lemmings, Red Squirrels, Snowshoe Hare, and Snowy Owl.  The borders are inspired by Native American Porcupine quill embroidery that I first started collecting on a trip to Canada.  I’m currently working on my newsletter to children about how I got the idea for my book.   It includes descriptions of the beautiful first people’s native embroidery.  The letter tells about the Snowy Owl, which remarkably was very visible in my area of Massachusetts this winter.  The Snowy will travel southward when the Lemming and Snowshoe Hare populations are sparse.  We even had a Snowy in the next town to us, Scituate.
I have done one page of my 2015 book, THE TURNIP and have sent it to my editor to see.  We are still working on the manuscript because it will be set in an appropriate typeface and I will know how much room to leave in the artwork.  When I first send the page, it is always a bit of a wrench because we are still trouble shooting at this point.  I have to steel myself  for  any criticism and be honest with myself and be open to the fact that the criticism might just be right.  I say this because it is easy to think a book just flows like a fountain of creativity and there are  no mis-steps.   I have an editor who I really trust and I also listen to my husband, Joe, who although he is a musician has very straight forward and helpful opinions.
It turns out that my school visit has come at a perfect time, because after seeing how much Oakview School strives for excellence and has succeeded, I want to do so as well.
Have fun being creative and keeping up the high standards we all so admire.

Your friend,

Jan Brett

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March Hedge a gram


Happy March!

I am turning cartwheels with enthusiasm about starting off with my latest book project.  Every month, I tell about what is going on in my life as an illustrator, I call it my hedge-a-gram, and this month is unique because I’m underway with THE TURNIP.
My contact with my publisher is for a children’s book every year, this yearly work cycle is really ingrained in my mind, since this is my 36th book.  What I really would like to express is how powerful and confirming a creative project can be.  There always hurdles, and it is easy to be impatient, but the rewards are like nothing else.  Please give it a try.  I’ve always struggled with the irony that my most satisfying way to tell a story is with drawings not with words.  For me words tap into another world where a story carries you, and I wish I was an inspired writer.   I’ve always been incredulous when after reading a work of fiction, I feel I’ve been in some of the places described, and that the characters are alive somewhere.  I don’t feel the magic when I am writing as much as when I’m drawing, I wish I could.
It doesn’t matter how you are creative, but that you use your imagination in some medium.  It may be that with all the knowledge children are learning in school in order to do well in tests, it will be up to the parents and friends to encourage kids to write fiction and draw and paint.  My sister, who was taught for as long as I’ve written books, says in 2014 children are still bursting with creative ideas.  I don’t doubt her. Sometimes a big success for a child, say actually writing a small book or creating a poster can resonate later and lead to more and more creative projects.  I remember in high school I illustrated GREY’S ELEGY IN A COUNTRY CHURCH YARD for a favorite English teacher.   I hope there will be time for this in the classroom, but if not it’s good to carve out some time at home.
I was once given a beautiful, simple carved wooden toy from Russia of three people and a bear pulling a turnip out of the ground.  I thought it was charming and I remembered the story it went with, THE TURNIP.  The premise, of finding a giant vegetable really tickles my fancy.  I have an acquaintance who grows giant pumpkins, over 900 pounds, and I’ve been to the pumpkin patch.  “It could happen”, I said to myself.
When I traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia, 2 years ago to do the research for CINDERS, I had in my mind that I would like to retell and illustrate THE TURNIP in a few years.  Although we passed through farmland on the way to Novgorod, I didn’t see any small farms like we have in New England.  Instead I relied on the Russian Museum of Ethnography and their vast collection of books about life in the olden days.  The clothing and buildings in the old villages were very artistic and colorful.  The printed cloth fabrics of the garments were lovely and each one, with its trim and embroidery seemed a work of art.  I knew I would be very happy to paint the combinations of color and design, especially when a turnip would be the central image, purple and yellow.
My Russian family in the book are European Badgers.  They are rolley, comical, strikingly colored animals that cry out for a story behind their mischievous expressions.  From what I’ve heard and seen on the Internet, they are naturally playful and social.  The other main character is the Russian bear.  In my story she’s a mom with her hands full getting her cubs into their den to go to sleep for the winter.  Unbeknownst to the badger and friends who are trying to pull the turnip up, beneath them underground, the turnip has grown into the space that would be the bear’s bedroom.  When mother bear gets fed up, and gives the turnip the one two… The animals topside are in for a big surprise.
I’ve taken quite a few folk tales and given them a new twist in past books.  My husband, Joe, who is a classical musician, often plays works that are theme and variations, or reworking of an older piece of music by a master.  My favorite is Brahm’s Variations on a theme by Haydn.   I think I feel happy using this device in my picture books because my grandfather, William Thaxter was a great storyteller.  Every time he told a story he embellished it in a slightly different way.  We children loved listening, and even if we knew the end from before, we reveled in the telling.  For me, that’s something to aspire to.
Happy storytelling in your own special way, your friend,

Jan Brett

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February Hedge a gram

blogThe Animals’ Santa Endpapers

Happy February!

I’m greeting you this month with lots of positive thoughts. You may already know that every month I take a snapshot of my work in progress – a children’s book, but also the many other activities that go along with it. I have just finished THE ANIMAL’S SANTA and the original art will be on its way to the printer in China to be scanned and printed in a test run so it can be color corrected by the art director. I am always urged to be timely, so bound books will be ready for Book Expo where I’ll be signing in May. The folded and gathered copies will also go out to the Penguin sales force to be shown to book buyers. We are also blocking in dates for next fall’s book tour.
I have such mixed feelings about sending a book off. Number one thought is I’ve still got so much more to add and polish. I’m always reeling with the litany of fixes and corrections. And I have to listen to them all because sometimes they are right (this is my editor and art director) and sometimes they save me when I have lost my concentration and reversed the stripes on a character’s sweater for example. It’s really unprofessional to have inconsistencies in the art, and language as well for that matter. Throughout the year that I’m working on the book I am constantly trying to get the images right, the best that they can be. But the danger is, that once I’ve experimented with let’s say a costume change, I have to go back and change all the images of that character. This sounds logical, but I definitely have bursts of creative energy that I want to utilize, and doing the simple changes is time consuming, and I would rather use that feel good time to work on the more important aspects that key into the nature of the story. So the menial changes get put on the back burner.
For the last three months I’ve been working more intensely on my book as the deadline got closer, and here’s another dilemma. When it comes to time management, I just work on my book. My husband Joe is very supportive of this. But, if I work super intensely, the downside is I don’t get to run when I can clear my head or put my mind in another place like at a Symphony concert to gain perspective.
The other difficulty is criticism. If at the beginning of a project, there is too much criticism, I feel like my book is getting sullied, and I get mad. So its better if I have a longish period to work on my own until the story firms up. But then I have a momentum going and I find it unproductive to listen to the criticism then. If I wait to almost the end, then I may have to change other elements as well because I’ve gone in a direction that’s not working, then the back sliding is discouraging. Because of technology, I can complete a page at midnight and send scans to my editor and the art directors for them to see first thing in the morning the next day. I am still working on this one. I need large tracts of time without negative input.
Happily, the day I sent off the end papers, with mistakes corrected, I started writing my 2015 book THE TURNIP. It’s based on a Russian folktale that is sequential. People all try to pull a giant turnip out of the ground. In the original Russian the fun of the story is that the word for turnip in Russian rhymes with Grandfather, Grandmother, etc. so it makes it into a tongue twister. For years I’ve been trying to find an element that would replace the tongue twister fun with something just as appealing, preferably in the borders. I finally figured out what that something would be, when on one of my runs I imagined a bear entering her den for her winter deep sleep and finding the root of the turnip in her bedroom. She gives it the boot, and all the characters topside are amazed when it comes flying out of the ground.
Even though it sounds a little intellectual about the choice of this story, my main reasons for retelling it is that I can paint the turnip, with its purple/magenta top fading to cream, and then to a marigold yellow. And, ever since we visited the Museum of Ethnography in St Petersburg, I have wanted to paint the everyday rural dress, including the woven birchbark shoes, tools and carved farm implements I saw there.
When I was visiting our friends Gudrun and Elof in Sweden on the family farm I was fascinated by the badger dens. I never did get to see one, only one badger’s pelt. But the European Badger is a very unique looking animal, perfect for a children’s book character, with a mask like our raccoon and a big black round nose. I can’t wait to draw them all, and I am starting on thumb nails. Then I will revisit my first draft which has been given a thumbs up, then on the the dummy. I brought suitcases full of books back from Russia, and although I can’t read most of them they have lots of pictures of exactly what I’m looking for to create my scenes. So I am in the blissful, excited part of my book process.
Good luck with all your creative endeavors,

your friend,

Jan Brett

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