Every month I write about the book I'm working on and any other happenings in my life as a children's book illustrator. My hope is that it will be a window into my profession for people who are interested in exploring it for themselves.
I am working on the jacket of THE NUTCRACKER. I am illustrating the NUTCRACKER SUITE by Tchaikovsky, recalling music I have heard many times as a child, at the ballet (the score for the ballet has similar elements but is longer) and best of all in Symphony Hall here in Boston at the Christmas Pops with my husband playing the double bass. The NUTCRACKER, for me, is the most magical and indelible of all classical music. Even though Schubert is my favorite composer, this work of Tchaikovsky is pure genius and listening to it is a wonderful way to spark the imagination. The short story by E.T.A. Hoffmann forms the storyline for the music. It tells of the fantastical adventure of a 7-year-old girl and the nutcracker soldier gift she is given for Christmas that takes place in a dreamlike winter landscape on Christmas eve. Like many dreams there are elements from Marie's own life that appear in strange and wonderful ways. In our times, using a dream as a vehicle for a story idea is considered a clich?and I have never used it as a plot device before, but because the story is considered a classic I have free rein. It is freeing to interpret the story because every version of the ballet is presented in a different way.
Because of the dreamlike flow of scenes in my vision of the story I decided to make the jacket a snow-covered wreath with characters and images from the book among the wreath?s branches. It almost looks like a portal, and Marie stands to one side breaking the wreath's image as if she is about to step in and the Nutcracker doll is facing her from the other side. I haven't sketched the back jacket but I'm thinking it will be the scene of the enchanted snowy landscape with the Gingerbread palace in the distance. I have always loved the idea of a portal since I was young and read ALICE"S ADVENTURES THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS and Alice fell down the rabbit hole. ?Falling down the rabbit hole? is still my favorite expression.
I am so happy with the first few spreads for NUTCRACKER. It was hard to stop the flow of the story and work on the jacket, which is needed early on by the publisher. The text is quite simple, but the illustrations are very detailed and packed, even for me. When I was a child and was surrounded by books at home and was exposed to many more at our welcoming town library, I sought out books that had illustrations that would fire my imagination. The illustrations would take me to places that seemed more real than the places around me sometimes. That is what I hope to accomplish in my illustrations, with the help of the memories of my young self as muse. Beatrix Potter was one of my mother's, my sister's, and my favorites. I clearly remember having a moment of recognition with the author's intent when we were read SQUIRREL NUTKIN by Potter. If I remember correctly, the squirrels sailed to an island where hazelnuts grew. They got there on stick rafts using their tails as sails. In order to gather the nuts, they first had to appease the owl that lived on the island, which they did by bringing dead field mice to him. Our cats always brought in dead mice and lined them up on the doorstep to be admired. We thought it was gross, but she did eat them and rid our barn of mice. I loved that Beatrix Potter allowed dead mice in her books. Her books always ended with a hopeful loving tidbit that soften the parts that were true to life, but were unsettling. One of the places I hope to someday see is Beatrix Potter's house in England where she lived and worked. It will be interesting to compare it to the place I have stored in my mind that arises from my earliest memories of her illustrations. My fondest hope is that my illustrations will carry that version of reality that combines our beautiful curious world with human imagination.
Bye for how, your friend, Jan Brett