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
The children’s book I am working on, GINGERBREAD Christmas is set in Switzerland. A few years ago I traveled to Zermatt to do research for the setting for GINGERBREAD BABY And GINGERBREAD FRIENDS. I’m back, in Lucerne, Switzerland, looking in bookstores for books about the traditional clothing “trachten” for the many children that I will imagine for the book. At the concerts I have been going to in this part of Europe many of the elegant ladies are wearing their dirndls, and the men, traditional jackets.
In my mind, my story took place in the not so distant past, and certainly a time when gingerbread cookies could come alive when the oven door is opened too soon! So there is a large amount of fantasy as well. Many Swiss towns look unchanged from the olden days if one edits out signs, cars and telephone wires! This is especially true when wandering through the “old town” section. Many restaurants will be filled with antiques and be made of stone hundreds of years old. We loved one called THE SWAN that overlooks Lake Lucerne. Old fashioned metal steamships, I think now outfitted with diesel go back and forth. My favorite has a beautiful wooden gilded rooster on its bow. In the center of Lucerne a covered footbridge crosses the Reuss River. Its covered with flowers in summer and greens in the winter, and it is charming with its carved wood beams and railings. To top if off, when you stroll across, there is a tower completely surrounded by the river in the center. I painted a shorter version in my book, and reimagined when I created THE GINGERBREAD BABY.
The hunt is never over for the kind of details that will make a book seem grounded in my version of reality. One other source for inspiration are the many bakeries with windows bursting with fanciful concoctions. Many of the cakes are of a distinct style for example “king’s crown torte”, Lizentorte ( flavored with raspberries), and many others. I have 16 double page spreads in my book and each is decorated with swirls of frosting. I hope to find a cooking book with old fashioned designs at one of the antique bookstores.
Most of the cities have a Christmas festival, and I was lucky enough to travel to Germany in December. There are hundreds of stalls where Christmas decorations are sold, many of them handmade. My favorites are the colored glass birds with silken tails, and the one’s created from straw. Whenever I find a bird’s nest fallen to the ground where it could never be used again I bring it home for our tree and perch one of the glass birds with silken tails on it. the second to last page of my book will have a huge fold out decorated Christmas tree where the Gingerbread Baby hides. I can’t wait to start painting it.
One of the images I carry back after a trip to Europe is people carrying their small dogs about… in knapsacks, in the backs of bicycle even at the tables in restaurants. The dogs seem very happy about it. I have been making notes on all the dog transporting. So far my favorite was the double lidded basket with the dogs head peeking out and looking very interested in the world. Most of the dogs have been different varieties of Dachhunds and Jack Russell Terriers, and some fluffier breeds that I’m not sure of. I promise you they will end up in my book. They will definitely add a little tension because dogs would love a bite of a gingerbread!
Although I have completed my book dummy I still have time to add things to my book. Because the element of time is so important – the magic only happens when Mattie doesn’t wait the full eight minutes, I thought it would be fun to put some magical looking cuckoo clocks on the end papers. Those are the decorated papers that attached the signatures (sewn pages) onto the cover and back. Many artists like the end papers to be a solid color, but recently I have been painting decorated ones.
Happy writing, illustrating and creating,
Your friend Jan
This is my June Hedge a gram, the time I take every month to talk about what is going on in my life as an author – illustrator of children’s books.
We have just been to NYC to Book Expo, the largest book convention in the US. My publisher Penguin/Random House has a large booth, and I was able to see my new book, THE TURNIP which will be out next fall. It was the first time I’ve seen it as a bound book which is always a mixture of elation, gratitude and a twinge of worry. After the intensity of finally wrapping it up under pressure, I worry that I will have missed something. That being said, if my deadline were to be extended I would probably perfect and change things to the detriment of the book! I have seen the printed pages, but it looks and feels differently when it is a bound book with end papers.
In NYC I had a meeting with my editor, Margaret. We looked over the first two pages and it went well. Because I have done two Gingerbread stories previously, the characters will remain somewhat the same and the setting will still be Switzerland. I haven’t started to make Gingerbread as yet, but I’m looking forward to creating some of the characters. The borders will be in the shape of musical instruments with a double bass shape, the largest of the stringed instruments in a symphony orchestra. I also have added a slurry of musical notes and luckily I asked my husband, a professional musician with the Boston Symphony Orchestra if I had painted them correctly. The answer was “no”, so I corrected them. I used to play the clarinet in school and I was surprised at myself for not knowing which way the staff on a note goes. In the third floor of our house I have a big airy room with a balcony for a library. It’s stuffed with books, especially big, heavy art books. All the novels and non-picture books are in other bookshelves downstairs. Occasionally I feel a little guilty about 45 years of books collected, but this week I have had nothing but happy thoughts!
I have made numerous trips to Europe, following my husband and the Boston Symphony and doing research. I never return without books from museums, outdoor museums and tourist spots, filling at least one suitcase. I rediscovered one book with Alpine interiors and lots of furniture and people in traditional clothes. Even though I have the Internet at my fingertips, I feel like worlds open up when I open my books, even if they are in a language I don’t speak. It is one of the ways I can create an atmosphere in my books. This summer, I’ll travel again to Europe and hope to discover more of the little details that give authenticity to my frame of reference.
When I was a child, we had family friends, Jean and Bob Hoss who had antique German glass ornaments for their Christmas tree, hundreds of them. Around the base was a white sparkley cloth with a village and figures. The best part was that there were small candles in antique holders, weighted by lead stabilizers. After eggnog and delicious cookies made by Mrs. Hoss, several of the parents stood by around the room with fire extinguishers. The house was a wooden New England Cape filled with antiques and much was flammable.
When the clock chimed, the tree was lit. It was a beautiful and unique sight, glowing in the darkened room. We sang O Tannenbaum (Oh Christmas Tree) and many other carols until we ended with Silent Night. In some years snow fell outside the windows, but I will never forget family and friend’s faces lit by the flickering candle light, the scent of evergreens and wax and the feeling of gratitude for this sweet poignant gathering. In my book, I will be able to recreate a beautiful Christmas tree. It’s something I’ve done before, but it still fills me with admiration. I admire the idea that we would take a tree, so beautiful but not exalted and make it a focal point. It’s a lovely custom that never fails to set the season apart.
I hope you will take an idea and add your research and memories and create a painting or story. It’s a way to keep the past alive and to anticipate the future!