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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

positive

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

alternative

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,

Princeton,

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

emphatic,

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

water-based

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

depicting

hens, flowers, and other motifs from the text. Centered in most

borders

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

"innate

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

lifestyle

have stocked her mind with patterns, designs, specifics. Both a

traveler

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

kimonos

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

seacoast

town close to where she and her husband live now, Brett was the oldest

of three sisters. Although "not Sunday painters," but a

pre-school

teacher and a sales engineer, both her mother and father could draw

and enjoyed the visual world, she says. The three girls took for

granted

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

bassist

with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Brett enjoys a blended family

life. Between BSO tours and her own book tours, the couple are

seasoned

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

well,"

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

Gingerbread

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

website

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

"Chicky-Chain;"

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

Surprise."

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

"treasure

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

masks,

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

Book-a-Matic,"

a questionnaire that suggests a book title based on a child’s

selection

of favorite things and special interests. This is a perfect

destination

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

author-illustrator,"

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

Jan Brett, Jazams, 15 Hulfish Street, Princeton,

609-924-8697. The children’s author and illustrator signs copies of

"Hedgie’s Surprise." Free. Thursday, October 26, 6 to 8

p.m.


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