Brett, Jan

Jan BrettWhere in the world is Jan Brett?

Jan Brett will go anywhere to make sure she gets the story right–from the Ukraine to Costa Rica, from China to Botswana, from Nunavut to her own backyard. While you might think that last destination may not represent a journey, the process of taking a piece of ground and converting it into a pond irresistible to turtles does indeed represent a journey of sorts.

“Joe and I bought the property next door that included this little stretch of land with a spring,” recounts Jan Brett. “We thought it would be so cool to have a pond–Plymouth County has 365 lakes from when the glacier retreated.” So when the idea for Mossy, an Eastern Box Turtle with a veritable garden growing on her carapace, came along, Jan had the perfect reason to construct and study turtle habitats. The author was adamant that she did not want a caged turtle and turtles are independent creatures that are often on the move. Luckily, the study and work paid off when a baby snapping turtle decided to make the patiently constructed pond–with a depth to ensure comfortable hibernation– his or her new home. Jan especially enjoys the longevity of turtles: “They get to be so old–they can be older than people.” Jan points to an example of a turtle found in Martha’s Vineyard that had the date 1905 carved into its carapace.

Mossy’s beginnings can be traced to the days when a young mother living in Boston discovered the fascinating exhibits at natural history museums. Jan also has a collection of natural history books that reveal the changing patterns of feathers, the root structures of plants and much, much more. “I found a fossil when I was a little girl,” she recalls. “The unstated lesson is that if you look and you observe, you can find amazing things in nature.”

Jan Brett is constantly on the lookout for settings that fit her stories. For Cinderella Chicken, the idea came first and then the thought of placing the action in Russia followed. The author loved “The possibilities of the traditional costumes in Russia, the Winter Palace, and that the heroine could have a sleigh in the winter.”

Nunavut, that most northern part of Canada, also has a pull on Jan Brett. She seems to have a predilection for snowy settings and it’s hard to get much snowier than a land where igloos are the norm. She would love to live there but that would entail giving up her chickens (acquired during the research for Daisy Comes Home).

Those who revel in Brett’s work should be glad that she did not go to Africa early in her career. “There is a sense of melancholy there. If I had gone when I was a young girl when I was in college, I would not have come back. I would have become married and settled down.” Most of all, “I love the people there–they are so warm.” The advice from an author who has literally traveled all over the world? “If you could go on one trip anywhere in the world, go to Botswana.”

Even so, it’s nice to know that Jan Brett can also find a whole world in her backyard.

As Jan’s books provide a doorway to many worlds, she also has seen the power of picture books for even older kids at first hand. Jan’s sister Sophie was a sixth grade teacher for many years and would always reserve Fridays for picture books. “She would treat them as a template for the students’ own writing, showing the beginning, middle, and end of the story in a simple way,” explains Jan. Perhaps even more important, “She knew they enjoyed being little kids sometimes, in sixth grade they don’t know if they want to be children or young adults, and the simplicity of the stories can be reassuring, but, at the same time, they are layered with meaning like a poem would be.”

Jan enjoys when children also notice the layers in the illustrations. When she visits classes, often the students have been drilled before her visit to the extent that they ask only the expected questions such as where she gets her ideas and how old was she when she began drawing pictures. The booksignings provide those opportunities for one-on-one interactions that Jan most remembers.” Kids will blurt out something that they want me to know and the most interesting and illuminating comments come when they take the book being signed, turn the pages and point out something they have observed. They will give me a look that says ‘We know about this–the rest of the world doesn’t.'”Jan Brett revels in these conspiratorial moments: “My heart bursts when that happens.”

Jan BrettAs a child, Jan Brett decided to be an illustrator and spent many hours reading and drawing. She says, “I remember the special quiet of rainy days, when I felt that I could enter the pages of my beautiful picture books. Now, I try to recreate that feeling of believing that the imaginary place I’m drawing really exists. The detail in my work helps to convince me, and I hope others as well, that such places might be real.”

As a student at the Boston Museum School, she spent hours in the Museum of Fine Arts. “It was overwhelming to see room-size landscapes and towering stone sculpture, and then moments later to refocus on delicately embroidered kimonos and ancient porcelain,” she says. “I’m delighted and surprised when fragments of these beautiful images come back to me in my painting.”

Travel is also a constant inspiration. Together with her husband, who is a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Jan Brett visits many different countries, where she researches the architecture and costumes that appear in her work. “From cave paintings to Norwegian sleighs, to Japanese gardens, I study the traditions of the many countries I visit and use them as a starting point for my children’s books.

Jan Brett lives in a seacoast town in Massachusetts, close to where she grew up. During the summer her family moves to a home in the Berkshire Hills.

          – Courtesy of G. P. Putnam’s Sons and Puffin Books.

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