March Hedge a Gram
This is Jan Brett, with my March hedge a gram, the time I take to give an overview of my work as an author illustrator. I hope that all of you who are considering being an illustrator, or would enjoy a creative writing project for children will find my words helpful.
I'm focused on my turtle story, MOSSY right now, since HOME FOR CHRISTMAS I've completed with the exception of my "news notes", the letter for kids that I write that goes along with every book.
I've written the mossy story, and my editor Margaret has read it and offered some suggestions. I think one of the biggest differences between a professional and a beginner is the ability to take instructions from one's editor. The hard part is finding the right editor. A great editor like my editor Margaret, has a sixth sense about what the author is thinking, what motivates them, and how hard they are willing to explore their creativity. Margaret combines a sensitivity with a forward-looking practicality, which really helps me. For example, in my book the main human character is the biologist and director of a little Victorian museum. In the borders, and later, as the force that frees Mossy the turtle, a little girl makes an appearance. Margaret has asked me to think about bringing the little girl more into focus. This may seem like a small change, but Margaret knows I come alive when drawing the child/animal connection. I think I remember that part of my childhood with a lot of emotion and happiness. She is so smart to pick up on this.
I'm reading a book I picked up in Africa when I was there last month called THE ELEPHANT WHISPER by Lawrence Anthony and Graham Spence. I was really put off by the overused "whisperer" in the title, though the book surprised me by being illuminating and covered fresh material. It's about a man who runs a private game reserve in Kwa-Zulu Natal, Africa and was suddenly given the opportunity to save a herd of displaced and traumatized elephants. Mysterious events unfold that reflect on the hidden intelligence and communication skills of the elephants, as he fights for their lives. A similar theme unfolds in one of my favorite books, ALEX AND ME about the parrot that stunned the scientific world with his abilities, by Irene Pepperberg. When I write and illustrate my books I like to think that there is always a subtext that "more is going on beneath the surface." Certainly in our interactions with the animal world, the more respect you can give whatever creature you are with, the more the animal responses back. I raise exhibition chickens, meaning I breed them for certain traits, vitality and physical attributes rather than for food. I raised about 50 last year, and I kept the four best ones. All the others I placed with new owners. I've kept all of the cockerels (male under one year) in a huge pen. The pullets, there are about 10, have another pen. When I sell the pairs, the cockerels have never been with a pullet. You'd think by their behavior -- always roughhousing and being tough with one another, that they would be bossy and rough with a pullet. But no! It was so sweet to see the two of them, standing beak to beak just staring at each other. The cockerel, if I could have put a thought balloon over his head, would be thinking, "Oh you are the most beautiful thing I've ever seen!" He then found the food dish, offered her food, and later when I looked in, he was in the corner, having found a thick patch of shavings, and was sitting down making a nest for her, talking all the time. Most people think chickens are dense and the males overly bossy when they obviously have a courtship ritual if given a chance. It really made me stop and think about my role as their caretaker since they are so powerless to change their own day-to-day environment. Sometimes I think that the same scenario that of giving others respect and opportunity, can help me think about the children I write for. I don't really think about teaching in my books, but I like to stand outside myself, and judge what I've written with those thoughts in mind.
My favorite places to go when I was little were the museums outside of Boston where I grew up. We went to the Museum of Science, Museum of Fine Arts, the Boston Aquarium, and the Peabody Museum. In my mossy book I want to show my love for those collections that entranced me so much as a child. I love that feeling of being astounded that a particular bird or insect really exists when seeing it for real. I remember the first time I saw a Pangolin, a creature that is hard to describe but looks like an animated pinecone. In the next few weeks I'll be doing thumbnails and a book dummy of Mossy. I haven't written down my goals until now, I'm eager to get started, but I'm also daunted by the task. I do know I would like my story to have depth, embodied in the curiosity and perception of the little girl, and I would like the borders to reflect the fascination one feels at a field museum.
I hope you will be working on a longtime creative project of your own. Sometimes it's good to have a philosophy first, then sometimes it's better to go ahead and let your motivations reveal themselves while you're forming your project. I think that's what so attractive about writing and illustrating, there's always a new route to try.
Happy reading, Jan