This is Jan Brett, and this is my September
hedge a gram. This month I want to talk about my hobby, breeding and showing
chickens. When I illustrate my children's books, I like to use real models. In
1999, I had a book idea with a hen and a hedgehog as characters. Remembering
back to my childhood with a big old barn filled with animals, I knew that if you
handled young chickens they became very tame. I bought feed store chicks,
Silver-laced Wyandottes, who became excellent models while I became entranced by
their beauty and by their lovable antics. It wasn't long before I went to my
first poultry show and met some of the intriguing and welcoming fanciers that
would become admired friends. I fell headlong into the exhibition poultry world.
New England where I live is famous for its egg laying
industry, and credited for some of the world's most famous breeds, Road Island
Reds and Plymouth Rocks, to name two. At the poultry shows I attended, I met
judges and breeders that grew up in the tradition that sent prize birds to huge
poultry shows in Madison Square Garden, and had bloodlines dating back
generations. I started trading artwork for trios of White Crested Black Polish
bantams, and Silkies, very aware of how lucky I am to be on the receiving end of
30 and 40 years of breeding by expert breeders Joel Henning, Rick Poor, and
I chose the Polish breed for their beauty, ancient
roots, and head turning looks. I'm often asked, "is that a chicken?" I marvel at
the chicks that appear from the pairs I put together as I try to reproduce the
images in the Standard of Perfection. Although I only keep 2 or 3 out of 50
chicks that I hatch, one of the favorite parts of my hobby is placing the birds,
in their prime, with 4H'ers and young people that are seriously showing. To me a
happy day begins with an e-mail from one of my buyers who has just won a big
prize at a fair or show.
All of my chickens have names, and they're coded by a
yearly theme that coincides with the theme of the book that I write and
illustrate each year. "Neptune" was hatched in 2005 the year I wrote an outer
space book, HEDGIE BLASTS OFF!, "Sugar Pie" is a 2007 bird from the year I wrote
GINGERBREAD FRIENDS, "Singita" in 2009 for an African book THE 3 LITTLE DASSIES,
and on and on.
Polish are a non-setting breed, but all my babies are
brought up by Silky mothers, another astonishing exhibition breed.
Every time I visit my birds in their cozy coops, I'm
struck by how I'm entering an alternative world with personalities out of a
novel or maybe a wacky musical. There is the young pullet who seems to know how
pretty and beguiling she is, the feisty cockerels who come out of the cast of
WEST SIDE STORY, the wise old grannies, and the regal but grizzled John Wayne
My favorite is an old male, "Handsome" who no matter
what I'm doing always appears at my feet ready to be picked up and fussed over.
He is Gregory Peck from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.
Poultry have been an inspiration for my books, but I
doubt many of my readers could guess I spend many a night painting away with a
favorite rooster on my shoulder.
Look at the world around you - your family, your pets,
and your friends. You might just find a character that will appear in your next
story or picture.
Happy reading, drawing, and writing, your friend,