Every month I give a progress report on my latest children's picture book. I create one book a year. I am so anticipating the future book that I forget to count the books I have created in the past. I think there are just shy of 40 books that I have written and illustrated. When I first started on my career, just out of the Boston Museum School, I only wanted to illustrate children's picture books. When I made the rounds to publishers with my portfolio I was given encouraging interviews, but advice that I would have to wait until the right manuscript came along. The editors have a special talent for the correct mix of writing and art. Once a duo makes a successful book together, they will often continue to work together. One of the common misconceptions of children book writers is that they need to provide illustrations for their submitted manuscript. The editor is very good at pairing the two talents and generally like to do that themselves. When I showed my work to the editor Walter Lorraine at Houghton Mifflin he suggested I try and write a story myself. I had never thought I was a talented writer, but I would admit I did like to tell stories. With his encouragement, in 1979, I wrote FRITZ AND THE BEAUTIFUL HORSES. When I submitted the idea in the form of a book dummy ( a smaller, cartoonist version of the future book) it had borders. I had just seen an inspiring exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City featuring the Hapsburgs and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I loved the manner of dress and the livery of the horses. I decided to set FRITZ there, and I could intensify the atmosphere with borders depicting the period. Walter Lorraine liked the dummy and decided to publish it. He thought the story would work better without borders, saying the world didn't need PRB'S (pretty little books) that instead, children deserved a high standard of literature with a full range of emotion and subtlety and not an extended greeting card. I agreed with him and went ahead, especially since I was just grateful to have a book published. I loved borders though, they reflected my storytelling by showing how different threads of the narrative could be woven together to meet at the end, giving a little surprise. The reader could follow along, getting foreshadowing along the way. When I submitted my new manuscript the following year ANNIE AND THE WILD ANIMALS I included borders, but they were not just decorative, they told part of the story. Walter thought they added to the book.
Even though I did not know it then, I was establishing a style that I would use in all the books that I wrote myself from then on. That was probably the best piece of advice I ever received. I had to push myself to receive a good result, but I think many artists realize that raising the bar for themselves is part of the creative process.
In the beginning of this month I am visiting the two schools that won the school visit contest. After I speak to the two assemblies, I have question and answer sessions with smaller groups of children at their libraries. The children often ask me about how I get ideas for my books and are curious about the borders. They are writing stories and illustrating themselves. It is also in my mind because I have turned in the endpapers for THE SNOWY NAP. It was the last piece of artwork. There was a little discussion about skipping the illustrated endpapers, the glued paper that attaches the cover of the main book body and using a sparkle blue manufactured paper. I had done a birch bark design, but was late on my deadline. Much of the images we see in 2018 are dominated by computer generated ones, I like to have a crafted feel to my books. I think it is more personal and warm. I am pretty sure they will work hard to accommodate and I will get to have my hand painted birch bark endpapers.
I am now free to start my Tiger book, set in western Asia and influenced by a trip we took to India when we saw a tiger in the wild, an extraordinary experience. I had this book idea in mind when we went and several unexpected experiences will be included in the book. We did a lot of birding in one of central India's vast game reserves. I was on the lookout for the Red Jungle Fowl, the ancestor of the domesticated chicken. I breed fancy chickens and wanted to see the jungle fowl, and we did. We also saw many, many wild peacocks, marching in bands through fields, in pairs in the underbrush, and roosting high in the trees at night, probably staying safe from tigers! We were able to film our tiger sighting, a very large male which put up on our website. I hope to create an exotic garden for my story and I will put peafowl in it. When we were in India we were captivated by the decorated commercial trucks. They were everyday commercial trucks, but the grills in front were festooned with garlands and tinsel swags, even handprinted flora and fauna. The best part though, were the female eyes with long eyelashes, mascara and eyeshadow. The main character in my story wears a pair of handmade slippers that have an eye embroidered on each side. My friend Beckie Lim ( one of the three teacher friends who gave me the idea for THE MITTEN sent me a child's hat and slippers that also had guiding eyes sewed into the design. I have always loved the idea of eyes on inanimate objects since my childhood when my mother read us THE STORY OF PING that featured a fishing boat in the Yanzye River with "wise eyes" painted on its prow. It is amazing how much the mix of childhood memories and travel to far away places enrich the stories I would like to tell.
During the month of March my goal is to create the book dummy for my tiger story, starting with a basic manuscript and revising from there with my help of editor and art director. A children's picture book is equal parts writing and illustrating but the more intertwined they are, the more genuine the book seems to be for me.
Good luck with you creative projects, and happy reading,
Your friend, Jan Brett