Corrections or additions?
This article by Pat Summers was prepared for the October 25, 2000
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
In Touch With Jan Brett
There’s nothing sketchy or expressionistic about Jan
Brett’s art. Stick figures are not her style, nor is anything too
simple or merely suggestive. Readers of a Jan Brett book get their
money’s worth in illustrations, on top of what is invariably a
and charming story. That most of her books are directed at children
ages 4 to 7 really doesn’t matter, given the art they contain. Anyone
with a drop of esthetic sense can happily sit down and page through
a Jan Brett book, "reading" the illustrations for at least
as long as the tale might take.
Brett writes about, and paints, animals of all sorts — armadillos,
bears, horses and hedgehogs, dogs and cats. Regardless of subject,
she accompanies her stories with beautifully detailed illustrations
— multitudes of them — both on double-page spreads and within
the wide borders on each page. She is lavish with her art, and this
has become her signature. Who needs blank white margins if the
is still more pictures?
Take, for example, "Hedgie’s Surprise," Brett’s latest book
— her 34th, but who’s counting? — and the reason she will
be at Jazams Books (formerly Crackerjacks) on Hulfish Street,
on Thursday, October 26, from 6 to 8 p.m. The story is simple enough:
Every day, "Henny" lays one egg, which is taken, then cooked
and eaten by a hungry little "Tomten," a Danish barn-elf who
lives in a nearby hayloft. Once Henny learns that fluffy chicks come
from eggs, she sets her heart on raising a family. First, though,
the thieving Tomten must be stopped, a task neatly handled by her
friend and neighbor, Hedgie. Substituting one thing after another
for the daily egg, the hedgehog finally teaches the Tomten an
and pointed, lesson. And Henny becomes a happy mom.
But the story is only the beginning. All around it and behind it are
Brett’s illustrations that say at least as much as the words. The
double-page spreads show the hen and the hedgehog in their picturesque
farm setting, right down to individual flowers and pieces of straw
and wood-grain patterns. Brett uses a dry brush technique with a
medium to produce her detailed images. She may use gouache, too, and
often air-brushes backgrounds that will be overprinted with type.
The borders of this book are red and white needlepoint designs
hens, flowers, and other motifs from the text. Centered in most
is yet another picture, showing a detail or a different facet of the
story, or anticipating what might happen on the next page.
"I don’t like to be anxious. I like to know what’s coming next,
what’s happening off-page," Brett says of her own approach to
reading. That early realization about her own needs helped suggest
the thematically-linked borders that are part of all her books. For
children, "books are a medium that doesn’t hurry them along,"
she says. "They’re turning the pages by themselves," taking
their time, assimilating the words, the illustrations. She remembers
her own deliberate savoring of Beatrix Potter books, especially one
image of a slate roof with a chimney, and the inside view of it —
which at the time astonished Brett. "Kids insert their ability
to believe into what you’ve written," she says, citing their
ability to let book borders dissolve."
Today a Brett book without the colorful borders is unthinkable. But
it was not always so. The publisher of her first book, "Fritz
and the Beautiful Horses," essentially told her to "lose the
borders." At that time, the extra art seemed too much a frill,
and more like a greeting card than a children’s book, she recalls.
Only after Fritz’s success, without borders, did Brett gain the clout
to propose them again. And ever since.
Details are what Jan Brett’s art is all about. Her training and
have stocked her mind with patterns, designs, specifics. Both a
and a close observer, she often takes photographs of things she may
one day paint, and keeps files of images, ideas, details. Even now,
she can remember fragments of ancient porcelains and embroidered
she saw as a child, in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, when she spent
countless hours. They still reappear in her paintings.
Born in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, then raised in a Massachusetts
town close to where she and her husband live now, Brett was the oldest
of three sisters. Although "not Sunday painters," but a
teacher and a sales engineer, both her mother and father could draw
and enjoyed the visual world, she says. The three girls took for
they could make a mess in the interest of art, Brett says, and their
parents gave them materials and "the gift of time." It is
noteworthy that her great uncle, Harold Brett, had been a successful
illustrator in the 1930s.
Brett, now 50, always read and always drew. She attended Colby-Sawyer
College in New Hampshire and the School of the Boston Museum of Fine
Arts before publishing her first book almost a quarter-century ago.
From her first marriage, daughter and sometimes-model Lia, is now
grown, and with her husband, Joseph Hearne, a father of two and
with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Brett enjoys a blended family
life. Between BSO tours and her own book tours, the couple are
travelers. In fact, the orchestra’s tours often facilitate Brett’s
research on architecture and costumes for her books.
"From cave paintings, to Norwegian sleighs, to Japanese gardens,
I study the traditions of the many countries I visit," she says.
With "Hedgie" now a reality, Brett is already well into her
next book — "I must always have a book in the works" —
her first one to be set in Asia, and featuring a Chinese girl-hero.
Brett’s Chinese-American daughter-in-law accompanied her on a research
trip to China, and around Brett’s story and characters, still advises
her on clothes, colors, and traditions there.
Brett has also been encouraged in this new direction by her Putnam
editor, whose sensitivity she appreciates. Editors, she says, are
often the reason for an author’s connection, or disconnection, with
a publisher. "They have to support my books" — it’s that
simple. With writers, she explains, there’s "this creative balloon
that someone could easily pop, with an [editor’s] attitude of `why
are we doing this? it’s all so silly.’" Brett is pleased with
the "really interesting dynamic" that exists with her Putnam
editor: "She seems to know where I am with a book, and where I
need to be. She asks questions that save me from myself!"
Disarmingly candid during a phone-talk, Brett laughingly explained
why she seems to concentrate on long-ago and/or far-away subjects
in her books. It’s not that divorce and dentists don’t happen, she
says, or that good books for children couldn’t be written about such
subjects. Just not by her. "I choose subjects I can draw
she says. "If it’s contemporary, the wheels grind to a stop. If
it’s back in time, no problem!" So, her 34 books published in
the U.S. include 11 that she has written and illustrated, and whose
titles suggest their setting: "Trouble with Trolls," "The
First Dog," "The Wild Christmas Reindeer." In five more
books, Brett has retold and illustrated stories such as "The
Baby" (with a happy ending, by the way) and "Beauty and the
Beast." The 18 books by other authors that she has illustrated
include "The Owl and the Pussycat," "The Twelve Days of
Christmas," and "In the Castle of Cats."
With her husband, Joe, an active partner in the business of Jan Brett,
she produces a range of related publications and maintains a
that is not only a kid’s, but a school teacher’s, dream come true.
With her 1989 book, "The Mitten," Brett began her "All
About" publications comprised of one or two folded sheets with
a signed message from her, with appealing drawings, commentary, and
activities spinning off the latest book. For instance, the "All
About Hedgie’s Surprise" includes a summary of the story itself;
"Chicken Fact Farm," with informational tidbits about hens
and eggs; colored drawings and directions for making a paper
photos of Brett’s pet hedgehog, "Buffy," and her flock of
five laying hens, raised so she could draw them better. One page,
called "Artistic License" (and including that very document,
with a space for the reader to put her or his own name), explains
a few of the ways Brett used artistic license in "Hedgie’s
In other "All About" issues, Brett has shown how she converted
her drawing of a man’s head into a bear’s head, which she needed to
do for her book, "Berlioz the Bear," the story of a bear band.
In the one for "Comet’s Nine Lives," she includes a
hunt game" that’s actually guide questions for reading, and two
panels of sea creatures to color.
Sent to all those on her mailing list and available to book stores
requesting them, Brett’s "All Abouts" are only a part of her
self-financed outreach. Her website (www.JanBrett.com) is another
story. Seeming to lack only the Good Housekeeping seal of approval,
its home page displays a number of citations for the site’s quality.
Then begins the amazement, as the visitor’s cursor moves in a starry
stream among a multitude of choices: "Hedgie has 1,019 pages of
artwork and activities to share with you."
The options include videos, calendars, coloring pages, character
and projects, which in turn encompass 11 more possibilities, from
bookmarks and mobiles to needlepoint patterns. Want to know which
Brett book you might like to read next? Use "Hedgie’s
a questionnaire that suggests a book title based on a child’s
of favorite things and special interests. This is a perfect
on rainy days. Just stock the kids’ area with arts and crafts supplies
and steal away. Now and then, offer snacks.
With 34 books and the sobriquet, "beloved best-selling
Jan Brett must be doing something right. In fact, she’s doing plenty
that’s right. One small example: Describing the hedgehog’s ability
to roll itself up into a spiny, self-protective ball, she says it
"has a muscle like a drawstring purse." You’ve got to love
her for that observation alone.
— Pat Summers
609-924-8697. The children’s author and illustrator signs copies of
"Hedgie’s Surprise." Free. Thursday, October 26, 6 to 8
Corrections or additions?
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