When beloved children’s author and illustrator Jan Brett rolls into Memphis this month (December 4, from 5 to 7 p.m., at the Central Library), it will be aboard a rock-star style tour bus wrapped in the artwork from her latest picture book, The Animal’s Santa. Brett is in the midst of a 23-city tour, meeting fans and demonstrating her artwork.
Brett's bus carries many comforts from home, including some of her own decor. But there's also room for an entourage, of sorts. She's bringing Bunny, a rabbit (like Little Snow, the main character in her book) and Hedgie, one a mascot-sized hedgehog (fans look for a hedgehog Brett draws in each of her book), plus her husband, Joseph Hearne, a long-time bassist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO).
Brett, a Massachusetts native with more than 30 books to her credit, spends the summer months in the Berkshires while Hearne performs with the BSO at Tanglewood. In this beautiful setting, she enjoys spending time with family and working on her illustrations, often drawing late into the night. It was here that The Animal's Santa was conceived.
“It was the hottest night of summer and I was doing some rendering when I got an idea: We have Santa, so do animals?” she says. The more she thought about the concept, the more she liked it, envisioning a snowy owl bringing gifts to the woodland creatures. Excited, she emailed her editor that night. The response was encouraging, if somewhat pointed, “I needed a plot,” Brett says with a laugh.
Plots, she says, are the hardest part of a story to define. But thankfully, a conversation with some mothers about when (and if) they told their children about Santa gave her the answer. “I got the idea of setting a trap - one bunny that doesn’t believe."
Little Snow, the main character In The Animal Santa, wonders since he’s never seen Santa, can he be real? Little Snow and Big Snowshoe ask the other forest animals, an arctic fox, a moose, a porcupine, only to discover that while all have received gifts, no one really knows who the animal Santa is. Come Christmas Eve, however, their first glimpse erases Little Snow’s doubt.
Many of Brett's illustration ideas come from her travels. Take the animal’s colorful clothing; Brett says her influence was Native American garments she’d seen in various museums. The quill art, used as borders on each page, was also inspired by Native Americans porcupine quill embroidery she’d seen in Canada. In fact, her story takes place in northern Canada where these animals can be found.
Like many artists, Brett is a keen observer. One winter, she noticed the delicate, lacy patterns made in the ice. She wanted to incorporate that image into a story and so here it becomes ice chimes that Big Snowshoe uses to decorate the forest in hopes of it tinkling when Santa arrives. Brett says she particularly enjoys using snow as a setting, since it makes the rich details of her illustrations stand out.
Brett fills her pictures with details in hopes that children will spend time using their imagination as they read and explore each page. "It's so easy to think kids aren't nuanced thinkers but they are," she says. "When I do a character, I like to put in little clues about whether they are happy or sad. And kids will often tell me something about the picture that they saw and their parent did not."
Brett spent many hours of her own childhood poring over books and her favorite authors — Beatrix Potter, C.S. Lewis, and Laura Engalls Wilder — helped to shape her as an artist. “Books are more than entertainment. They offer a story and we all gravitate towards that,” she says. “I’ve done my job if a reader can walk into a page and be in a place.”
Brett also praises teachers who introduce children to books and authors they might not otherwise discover. "Teachers are the ones who are so valuable to our society, for putting books into kids' hands." She feels reading is of particular importance today, as children spend more time being entertained by electronic devices and less time doing the deep reading that broadens comprehension and critical thinking skills.
Jan Brett's book, The Animals' Santa, is published by G.P. Putnam's Sons, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group. It is available locally at The Booksellers at Laurelwood and on amazon.com.