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