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 Janet Winnett.
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 types.
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,