In-depth Written Interview
with Jan Brett
Jan Brett, interviewed from her studio in Norwell, Massachusetts on March 9, 2011.
TEACHINGBOOKS: You are the creator of many, many picture books. The most beloved among them is The Mitten. What insights would you like to share about The Mitten?
JAN BRETT: It is a book that a lot of people love. I heard the story originally from three teachers, and I dedicated the book to them. The book is 20 years old now, and I still keep in touch with those three teachers.
Here's what happened: I was doing a book signing, and they came in and said, "We have this story that we really love, and it's got animals and snow in it, and we think you must love animals and snow." I said yes.
I wanted to dig down to the roots of the story. I located Ukrainian books and discovered that they have a different alphabet. So, I got in touch with a Ukrainian woman, Oxana Piaseckyj, and she translated all the different versions of the mitten story. They really varied.
There was one that told about an old pot that was on the side of a dusty road, and the animals got in that. It was a summertime story. There was another one that told about a hunter that left his glove in the snow, and the animals got in. When he comes back to find it, all the animals are in it. He blasts it with his shotgun, and then he has dinner for his family. Not wanting to have my book end in violence, I didn't illustrate that version.
Every story had the following similarities: someone loses something, the animals crawl in, and then there is an explosion where the container can't take any more. Those are the three components that I kept.
TEACHINGBOOKS: The characters and setting of The Mitten have a very realistic feel to them. What kind of research did you do in preparation for creating the artwork?
JAN BRETT: I wanted to go to the Ukraine to research the book and see what a Ukrainian village looked like, but it was during the time when Russia was the Soviet Union, and I was told that I wouldn't get a lot of freedom to walk around and explore. So, I went to the museum in New York City. I met a lot of Ukrainian ex-patriots there. They gave me all of the information I would need for the book, but it wasn't the same as actually traveling to the Ukraine.
The curator of the museum was very helpful, telling me things like, "Put a stork's nest on the house and pots on the fence." If you look at the fence in The Mitten, you'll see upside-down terracotta pots. They are like welcome mats in the United States. It means that there's a spring behind that fence, and passersby can use one of those pots to dip in and get some water. The message is, "Welcome, use our spring."
The Ukrainian ex-patriots suggested I make Nicki's clothes too big for him because his family would have made them by hand and passed them down from father or older brother. He'd wear a belt to make his jacket fit closer around his tummy. The boots, too, might be a little big. He might stuff some newspaper in them or wear an extra pair of socks to make them fit.
They also suggested I include lots of bright red in The Mitten because that is a favorite color in Ukraine. So the door of the little house is red, a lot of the Ukrainian needlework motifs on birch bark are red, and Nicki's hat is red.
TEACHINGBOOKS: It seems that the relationship readers have with your books is interactive. You're giving them every possible prompt to create their own drawings from what they see in your books.
JAN BRETT: When I was little, I loved books that gave me lots of detail so that I felt like I could be transported to this other place, or, in the case of an illustration, I felt like I could walk into the page.
I especially loved Beatrix Potter, because even though her settings were in England, I could transport my feelings and thoughts and everything to another place. That's the wonder of books. I loved the way Potter described the wainscoting and all these different British words in a way that I could figure out what they meant.
Her illustrations were so alive that you felt like you could pat the robin and feel the warm sun on the roof. I always used her as one of my inspirations because she did not write or illustrate "down" to children. She recognized children for the emotional powerhouses that they are. Their senses are so attuned, and they have so much vibrancy and energy about the way they look at the world. She recognized that, and I always wanted to be like her.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What was your childhood like?
JAN BRETT: I had the most wonderful childhood. I grew up in Hingham, Massachusetts, which is right on the ocean. I was the oldest and very shy, and my parents were just wonderful about giving me lots of art supplies.
I had a best friend, Marla, and we used to draw together. She was a better artist than I. We would just draw and draw. My mother gave us a huge drawer underneath our kitchen counter that was full of crayons. My dad worked at a computer company, and he would bring home lots of scrap paper.
My parents would tell us to go outside and play or to do creative stuff, but television was very limited. So we used our own creativity to entertain ourselves. We were out in the woods a lot making huts and playing horses.
TEACHINGBOOKS: At what point in your life did you decide to become an illustrator?
JAN BRETT: I knew that I wanted to be an illustrator since I was in kindergarten. I can remember the exact day. The art teacher usually came to our classroom once a week, but she was absent that day. Instead, our regular teacher gave us each a huge piece of paper and crayons, and we could do whatever we wanted. My family had been planning to go to the circus, but it was canceled at the last minute. I was very disappointed, so I decided I would draw the circus on my paper.
We had an hour to do this, which is a long time for a kindergartner, but I just was swept away by this project. I drew all the things I thought I would see at the circus. It was probably better than the real circus. I imagined the stuff I would eat, horses (I loved horses), ladies with feathers on their heads, and more.
When I finished, I just said, "Oh, this is what I want to be when I grow up." When I was asked what do you want to be when you grow up, I would say, "I want to be an artist." And they would say, "Why don't you become a children's book illustrator?" In those days it was the kind of job a woman would do. They would also suggest I become a teacher.
I love children because that's a part of my life that was so happy, and I like to remember back to those days where everything is a discovery, and the world is so fresh. I loved being a child. If I do have a talent, it's not so much being an artist, but it's being able to remember back to that time.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Were you one of those kids that became the class artist anytime anybody needed something?
JAN BRETT: I remember kids used to give me a penny for drawing them a horse. I loved horses, but I couldn't have one, so I would draw a horse for myself. I would make it food and a blanket for it to wear and a place to live.
TEACHINGBOOKS: You grew up at the ocean on the East coast. Please share how that informed your book, Comet's Nine Lives.
JAN BRETT: Comet's Nine Lives is set in Nantucket. That's one of the places we would go on our big, old, wooden sailboat. Our whole family could spend two weeks on it.
Traveling the coast of New England in this boat, we would get to go to all these little islands. My father would put the anchor over, and my two sisters and I would jump overboard and swim to shore. There would be little seals, and it was really fun.
We'd dig clams, and when we'd go to a little fishing village, boys would catch some flounder, bring them over to our boat, and my dad would pay them. Then we'd have this feast of flounder and clams.
We would always bring books with us to read on the boat, and because of that, I've never gotten seasick. I'd always go down below because it would be too splashy to read up above. I'd just be so interested in my book that I didn't notice the boat going up and down. I would tell myself, "I can't get seasick. I have to finish my book."
TEACHINGBOOKS: Have you ever lived anywhere else?
JAN BRETT: No. This is the only place I have lived. My family has lived in this area for something like 300 years. There are roads named after my mom's side of the family, and there are a lot of houses with plaques bearing her family name.
My father's family can trace their ancestry back to the Mayflower. l like to think about my ancestors establishing themselves here, and I feel very grounded to this place. I like to run; when I do, I think about my ancestors working really hard on this land. It makes me feel really good.
I've found places that are just as beautiful as New England, but this is my home.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Your books represent a lot of different places that you've visited. Do you travel to research for specific books, or does your travel inspire you to create books?
JAN BRETT: Eve Bunting wrote the first book I ever illustrated, St. Patrick's Day in the Morning. I went to the library and looked at pictures of Ireland. I thought Ireland couldn't really look like this because it's just too idyllic: the little lambs, the green, and the stone walls.
So I borrowed $1,000, and I took my mom and my little daughter, Leah, to Ireland. It was even more picturesque and idyllic than the books. It was so beautiful, and I got to put all of that in the book. I was hooked because I realized there were so many little details that I could bring back from my travels and observations that I could put in my books.
After that I went to Norway. I did Trouble With Trolls in Norway, and I was just amazed at the folk art. I can even remember going to this museum in Oslo. It was a big barn, and there were all these beautiful, hand-made sleighs.
People lived in very rural places and had very hard lives, yet they had the time to carve these beautiful sleighs, and they would look like maybe a swan. I remember just sitting and just crying because there was something so touching to realize that we as human beings want to make things beautiful, and we want to make things whimsical. We don't just have utilitarian things. I was so struck by that.
Since then, I've been to Costa Rica to do The Umbrella. I went to Martinique to do The Owl and the Pussycat. I've been to Africa three times; I have three books set in Africa.
All of them have really added to my frame of reference, and it gives me a whole different bunch of colors to work from. The landscapes are all very different and inspiring. I've got a trip planned to Russia because I would like to do The Turnip, which is a folktale. I went to China to prepare for Daisy Comes Home. I learned so much from spending even a couple weeks there to do the landscape. It gave me lots of ideas.
TEACHINGBOOKS: The intricate borders in your books are all so culturally relevant and take in different colors, and images, and patterns, and shapes. It seems like that's where so much of the texture of your travels comes into play, in addition to the settings in the artwork itself.
JAN BRETT: When I go to another country, I try to be a big sponge and look at what the houses may look like and what colors predominate. I do not do research as much as just get ideas and ask people about things. For example, in Denmark I noticed that a lot of the houses were a beautiful, rusty yellow color. Sometimes it would get a little darker and be almost red.
I learned that in the olden days, the paint was made from crushed limestone. If they wanted the paint to be a different color, they'd put rusty nails in the paint and just let them sit there until the oxide would get into the paint. Then they would paint their house with it, and it would come out this beautiful yellow or this beautiful red, just because of the nails. That's the kind of thing that I ask people about. I incorporated that information into The Hat.
Another example is Noah's Ark. It's such an ancient story. I've always been fascinated that the ancient Egyptians used papyrus for paper. They would pound it and form it into paper. I sent away for a huge piece of papyrus, and copied it for the background of the borders.
For The Umbrella, we went to the rainforest in Costa Rica, so I have lots of beautiful epiphytes and plants of each. The epiphytes were these giant leaves that would come down from these beautiful, beautiful trees. I had to put those in the book; the border is formed by those beautiful, big leaves and has undulating lines like vines.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Why do you put borders in your books?
JAN BRETT: It just always seemed there was something I could add to the story by putting it in a border, such as foreshadowing what was going to come next. As a child, I loved to read, but I was one of these high-anxiety kinds of kids. I'd get very involved with the characters, then worry about what was going to happen to them next. So, I would read the last page. My teachers were not very approving of that, but I think the reason they were not approving was because they didn't think I would finish the book. But, actually, what I loved about reading was how it all fit together, and I didn't mind knowing the end ahead of time. I didn't like the suspense part. Now, when I do my drawing, often I'll just tell a little bit about what's going to come next. That's one of the reasons.
The other reason is to reflect part of the setting. For example, in Comet's Nine Lives, you can see all the beautiful shells that you would find on Nantucket Island. In the museum there, they have little shell pictures called sailors' valentines. In olden days, the whalers would make them when they were on the big whaling ships, and they had a lot of spare time. They would make pictures out of shells that they would collect in some of their ports. So I included some beautiful sailors' valentines in the borders.
In every book, I try to include something that is a little surprise. I think my favorite one is my book The Easter Egg because it starts out with pussy willows being very little. They get bigger and bigger and bigger, and then, finally, on the last page, you can see that the pussy willows have turned into little, fluffy bunnies. They form little ears, and then they jump off the branches on the last page.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Please share some examples of foreshadowing in your borders.
JAN BRETT: The borders in The Mitten show the next animal approaching. I included tracks and imprints in the snow in the borders as well. I used to love to look at animal tracks in the snow, and my grandfather used to show me things like where an owl swooped down. He would say, "There's the impression of its wingtips on the snow where it came down and tried to get a little mouse," or "Here's where a fox went by and sniffed this rock and stopped for a minute."
I love the idea that if you're really observant that you can notice things that will then tell you about the world around you, so I like to do that in my books.
I like to expand on that and put little hints about not only what's going to happen but more information about the time and place in my books.
TEACHINGBOOKS: There's so much going on in your borders that it seems like you must have a blast putting them together.
JAN BRETT: I do have a blast. The first book that I illustrated and wrote myself was called Fritz and the Beautiful Horses. I brought it to my editor, and it had borders on it. And the editor said, "Jan, we don't want any pretty little books. These are not greeting cards. These have to have emotional content because children have their own literature, and it's not supposed to be dumbed down for them, and it's not supposed to be pretty."
I said okay, and the book was published. Then the next time I still wanted to do those borders, so I put content in them. That was Annie and the Wild Animals, and my editor said, "Great, the borders tell a story." I had a lot of help from that editor to make sure the borders weren't just reflecting the environment but that they did tell a story. Some of my borders do it a little bit better than others, but I've always wanted to do it. It's almost like that's the way I see a story told, with these little sidebars.
TEACHINGBOOKS: How do you choose your stories? How do you make that big decision from among your many story ideas?
JAN BRETT: It's very complicated because each book has its own path. When I go for a run, sometimes I'll think of an idea. There's something about all that oxygen when you're running, that makes you get good ideas. Sometimes before I go to sleep I'll say, "I need the answer to this question." Then I'll sleep on it, and sometimes when I wake up in the morning, I've got the answer.
I have these ideas in my mind for a long time, and then they will come to me. Sometimes I'll have an idea that will be in my mind for 10 years, like The Easter Egg. I didn't have all the pieces together.
I ask children, "Have you ever seen a shooting star when you're out at night? All of a sudden you see this giant meteor going by that is maybe green and blue, and it lights up the whole sky? Ideas are like that."
Sometimes, I will pull an idea out of some other ideas that I've had, and it will just kind of evolve. Other times, boom! It will be like that shooting star. I'll just get the whole idea at one time, and it will just be like an explosion in my head. Each one is really different.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What kinds of stories do you like to illustrate?
JAN BRETT: I like to choose stories that have a sense of wonder about them, and I like them to have happy endings. I might discard some stories that I don't think are full of wonder.
I don't illustrate a lot of fairy stories because a lot of them have some gruesome parts to them. Even though I loved reading them when I was little, it's hard for me to illustrate them. And, I'm really bad at drawing dragons and monsters and stuff.
TEACHINGBOOKS: How long does it take you to complete a book?
JAN BRETT: The books take a year just to do the drawing. I will travel to a country to do the research and get ideas. Sometimes I don't travel to do research, but mostly I do. It takes a long time, but do I ever get tired of it? Not really. The characters kind of grow and evolve.
I just love to draw. It's very intense for me. The day will just go by like the snap of a finger. A lot of times I'll draw or paint late into the night. When I am really concentrating, I kind of lose track of what I am doing.
I'll go to bed, and the next morning I'll look at my artwork and say, "Wow!" It kind of took on a life of its own and directed me rather than me making conscious decisions for the art. It's almost like a force takes hold of me. I think it's a human condition, this ability to story-tell either with words or with drawing. It's just something that takes over and comes from your subconscious.
TEACHINGBOOKS: There are a lot of animals in your books. Did you have a lot of animals as a child?
JAN BRETT: When I was little, we had a big, gray barn filled with animals. We had a donkey, a horse, ducks, chickens, guinea pigs, cats, and dogs.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What animals do you have now?
JAN BRETT: We had hedgehogs for years. Now, we probably have 60 chickens and 10 ducks. I am crazy about chickens. I have a rooster that sits on my shoulder while I'm working. He's a very good boy. He even appears in The Gingerbread Friends.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Are all your book illustrations painted?
JAN BRETT: Yes. All of my books are painted with watercolors. I start out by painting a book dummy, which is like a cartoon version of the book. Then I layout my sheets and use pencil, and then color it in with my watercolors. I have very small brushes. The backgrounds are airbrushed by my husband Joe.
Joe is a bass player, he likes machinery, and he was a pilot for many years. He understands that a very small movement can make a big difference, so he does the airbrushing. It is very hard and cantankerous, but Joe is very good at it.
Often in my books the type will be over a background, so I want the background to be very even so can children read it.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What non-book art do you do?
JAN BRETT: I do lots of needlepoint; it's called Russian punch needle. Whenever one of my chickens wins a big show, I create their portrait, and I do a lot of cards for people, such as birthday cards.
My husband and I have been married more than 30 years, and I always make a painting of the most interesting event of the year at Christmas time. For his birthday in August every year, I create a book about him.
TEACHINGBOOKS: You show respect for your readers by giving them so many clues and stories and details. It's fun for the adult and the child.
JAN BRETT: A lot of times it's the child that sees something and not the grownup. I love that because, when readers get older, they start looking for the most important ideas in the story. They don't look at things in the same way anymore. Children haven't really learned to do that yet. They take all their great, intellectual skills, look at the full page, and appreciate all of the different things.
Also, a book is something that young readers can experience on their own time. They decide when to turn the page. They'll put their arm right on the page so you can't turn it because they're not ready to go to the next page yet. They just want to look at it again, or they want to read the book over and over because they really enjoy setting the pace themselves.
TEACHINGBOOKS: And that is success, right there. That's perfect success in creating a book for children.
JAN BRETT: I always feel like my book is a success when I see a child reading it, and they have their pointer finger out, and they kind of keep their place as they look all around the page. I've always been impressed by how children are so observant.
I have a story to tell about that. In Goldilocks and the Three Bears, I put a jack-in- the-pulpit plant in the foreground. In the tubular pulpit part, I included a little mouse. It's a wildflower that grows in marshy areas.
One time I was at a book signing, and a mother said, "I love the way you've got that mouse in the jack-in-the-pulpit." And her little boy said, "We have those in our backyard," and she said, "No, we don't." I said, "Well, you might… do you have a marshy place in your backyard?" And then they said yes. I said, "Well, it's a wildflower, and they really blend in. I bet he's seen one."
Then he looked up at me with a little twinkle in his eye, and he said, "Yeah, but we don't have a mouse in ours." He totally understood that I was playing around with the shape of the flower and how it would be just a great place to sit for a mouse.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What is enduring about books as a medium?
JAN BRETT: A children's book is the perfect place where young readers can understand the world because they can take a deep breath and look at it and imagine and contemplate while they're looking at. That's what I used to do when I was little. I really appreciated that. I used to wish I could talk to the illustrators because I wanted to discuss something about the books. With so many of the other art forms that children experience, such as movies and television, they don't get to control the pace.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What questions from children startle you?
JAN BRETT: It surprised me when a child asked me, "How do you know when you are finished with a drawing?" I think what they're thinking is my drawings look a certain way, their drawings look a certain way, and they are wondering what is it that makes my drawings look different.
I think they were wondering how I know when to stop—do I just keep working on the same drawing for weeks? The answer is, "Yes, I do spend a week on a double-page spread." I always tell them I feel like I'm finished when I get the feeling that I can walk into the page; that the reality of the place is really there.
Sometimes they'll say, "I really like the way you can stay in the lines." I think that just addresses the fact that I'm more realistic about my drawings. I like my drawings to really look like you can pat the feathers, smell the green things, or feel the wind. I really like to put all those things in my story.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Have you thought of doing books for older kids?
JAN BRETT: No, I create books for six-year-olds. I don't know why that time of my life was so important to me, but no matter what I draw, it always looks like it comes from a children's book. I can't resist. I'll set out to paint a serious picture then think, "Well, maybe there would be a little bunny in that corner." Or I'll draw a serious picture of a chicken then I'll think, "Maybe they could have just picked up a daisy in their beak." It's just a part of me that I can't push down or make go away.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What is a typical workday like for you?
JAN BRETT: I feed the chickens, make breakfast, work, usually go for a run or go to the gym in the middle of the day, then work. I like to cook and eat really healthily, so I prepare dinner. Usually Joe does the grocery shopping.
During the day, I listen to audio books, doctor radio, or NPR, but at night I like to listen to jazz or classical music.
Nighttime is my favorite because there are no phone calls or interruptions, I'm done with all my chores, and I can work until really late at night.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What do you do when you get stuck?
JAN BRETT: I don't usually get stuck, but I do procrastinate. Sometimes, I'll have too many ideas, and I have to narrow them down. I have an editor who really helps me with that. For example, for Three Little Dassies, I went to Namibia, and there were all these wonderful animals there. I wanted to put one of the animals that I saw or some of the beautiful rock paintings that ancient people had done on every single page.
My editor said, "You know, Jan, you could put those in there, but your story is going to be diluted somewhat because people will think too much about those other things and wonder if they are part of the story." So for me, it's not so much getting stuck, it's keeping to a steady course and not getting sidetracked by other things I'm interested in.
TEACHINGBOOKS: You get to talk to a lot of students. What do you like to tell them?
JAN BRETT: When I go to a school, I show them how to draw something. When I look at all their drawings at the end, each one will have so much individuality and pizzazz. I tell them how important it is that they have some way to use their creativity because it's such a treasure that each person in the world has this little box of traits and talents and experiences that is totally different from anyone else's.
I like to tell them about looking at their fingerprint, and how theirs is different from everybody else's. It's the same way when they draw a picture. I admire the way they'll present the same image that I'm presenting, but they'll put their own ideas into it.
For example, when they draw a lion, the mane might be totally fluffy, or a hedgehog will be pink or will have long eyelashes or will have big muscles in its legs. They just take things that they're interested in or are part of a story that's in their head, and put it into their drawings. I find that incredibly inspiring and hopeful about human beings.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What do you like to tell educators?
JAN BRETT: I say it's really important to give children art materials and not guide too much. My sister was a teacher, and I would visit her sixth grade classroom. Once she had a group of boys whom I imagined becoming authors or illustrators one day. I told her this—that one boy had a whole group of characters that he kept in his head that he would kind of journal about, and another one was a wonderful illustrator. It seems they had a secret life with these characters and drawings, because she said, "Those are the kids I hope will make it to be 21 years old because they have a lot of challenges in their life, and they are not very good students." But they had a secret life of creativity that was very wonderful.
I would like teachers to look deep because sometimes kids do have a faŤade that they put up because they feel vulnerable. Their creative truth may not be ready for their friends to see. Teachers have to respect the privacy of students' creative life, but at the same time give them a chance to express themselves.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Is there something else that you want to share?
JAN BRETT: I like to pretend that each book is my first one and last one, because it takes a tremendous amount of energy to do a book.
People may think that because I have illustrated and written all these books it must be easy for me, but it's not really easy for me. The drawing part is easy—I love doing it. But continuing to move forward is hard.
It's like an onion: I am trying to take off all those little skins and layers to get to what is truthful. Of all people, children are the ones that really understand when there's a truth there for them—an emotional truth. The characters really have to work. Children, as an audience, are very inspirational for me.
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