July 2010 Hedge a gram

Happy July! This is Jan Brett and this is my July hedge a gram, my monthly communication about my work as an illustrator and writer of children’s books. I like to offer a progress report on the book I’m working on, and hopefully give you some insights about creating a storybook, with pictures of course. I separate the process into three parts. First, there is the idea for the story that involves a complete plot – the hardest part. I see the story told with a border idea that involves some kind of subplot, so that plot should be envisioned too, before I travel to a foreign country to get ideas. Sometimes the story will take 10 years
before all the pieces fall into place. The second part is writing the manuscript, which may go through two or three versions that I talk about with my editor, Margaret Frith. At this point I sewed together typing paper into signatures of four pages that will add up to a 32 page book, the usual number for a picture book. This is called the dummy. Then, after meeting with Margaret, I’ll begin the finishes. We will look for technical pitfalls — like putting a character too close to the center of the spread where it could be obscured, or we may talk about the color palette, or the age of the characters. Most importantly we will talk about the pacing and where I may choose to take out parts of the manuscript I can best describe by illustrating or places where I may want to explain in words when the action doesn’t seem clear in the dummy.  For me, I like the book to be loose and flexible so the illustrations can dictate the shape of the story as it progresses.

In Sweden for
     I’ve been tramping through the woods looking for pieces of birchbark, especially ones with interesting patterns of lichen. Several years ago, I found a huge, very heavy, scientific book about lichens. I have some sort of fascination with them.  On a previous trip to Scandinavia, I met Norwegian’s who collected flat stones with interesting map lichen on them. In arctic Sweden my friend Elof took a lot of photos of characterful lichen patterns for me to use in my book. 
     The decorative borders in HOME FOR CHRISTMAS I painted to look like birchbark. In the open air national cultural museum in Sweden, called Skansen, I was able to see objects made of birchbark, or carved from birch. I’ve always been fascinated by the paperlike quality of pieces of birchbark found on the forest floor. When I was little, I really wanted a birch bark canoe, but had to settle for writing letters on birchbark. The other intriguing plant I became obsessed with is the Lingonberry. I just had six Lingonberry plants put in around our turtle pond. Every time I go to the store I buy a jar of Lingonberry preserves. I love them on my homemade bread (toasted) or in yogurt. I will include my homemade bread recipe at the end of my hedge a gram. Be prepared, if you make it, that it is quite thick. I think it’s pretty healthy.

Lichen covered rocks in Arctic Sweden 

     The bread we sampled in Sweden was scrumptious – perfect for someone like me who likes things crunchy. In the olden days flat bread would be cooked in a circular form, flat as a pancake with a hole in the middle. The rounds would be strung on a pole up in the ceiling, and they would last the winter. Some of the fancy rounds would be covered with different kinds of seeds and coarse salt which I found delicious with a small amount of homemade butter. I will definitely put flat bread in the trolls house in my book!
     One of the decorative elements I’ll put in my story is the Rod Flugsvamp in Swedish and Fly Agaric in English, mushroom. You often see it pictured in fairytale illustrations. It is bright red, with white spots on that look like breadcrumbs. A bit down the stalk is a white ruffle or collar. This mushroom when fully mature is wide like a hat, but when it is first emerging it is called a button, and looks like a little red globe. This mushroom is highly toxic, and can cause visions and  hallucinations if eaten, and worse. I don’t know all the details, but I do know it is one of the mushrooms people should never ever eat.
     It makes me wonder if this mushroom was put in a fairytale to signal that something magical and weird might follow, like perhaps a troll. I plan to follow this tradition, and illustrate lots of red polkadotted mushrooms in the forest scenery. Rollo the troll, who goes for a walkabout in the forest, will eat only the edible mushrooms. I will be able to picture them accurately because I brought back a Swedish mushroom book. Even though the book is in Swedish, all the poisonous mushrooms have a skull and cross bones besides them, the universal symbol for mortal danger!
     Someday I would like to write and illustrate a book featuring dots. My favorite combination is white dots on a bright red background, and I collect red things with white dots. My favorite comic book when I was little was Dottie Dot, even though I wasn’t allowed to buy comic books, I could read them.
     I hope you find a way to be creative in the month of July, by writing your own comic book, by going on a nature walk and drawing and writing about what you see, or writing in the free association style, whatever comes to mind as one thought leads to another, like I have just done!
     Happy reading, your friend, Jan Brett

Lingonberries or cowberries

Rod Flugsvamp or Fly Agaric mushroom
  1. #1 by Judith Gosz on August 26, 2011 - 8:04 pm

    Dear Jan – Just a note to tell you how much I treasure your books and the thoroughly delightful detail you include in every one! My grandchildren and I love looking at your work . . . it makes them observe details in their own environment. I’ve also enjoyed the coloring pages taken right from your work that you share . . . the children are so excited about identifying the characters from your books. Thank you so much for all you do to form connections between the natural world and our children.

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