“I really love to stop and think about beauty three times a day… I get energy from it.” — Jan Brett
At last count she’s run the Boston Marathon 14 times. She is one of the few people you’ll meet who has a pet hedgehog and scores of exotic chickens. Her travels de ella have taken her to all points of the compass and those foreign lands become settings for her children’s books de ella. To date 41 million copies of her works have sold worldwide and new releases often spiral to number one on the New York Times bestseller list.
Jan Brett is doubtless our country’s most popular children’s book creator and through March 6 you can view her work, memorabilia and interviews at Stockbridge’s Norman Rockwell Museum.
“I just like to color and draw and spend my life imagining these books,” the artist said during an opening night interview. “It all revolves around my system.”
Spend a few minutes with the illustrator and you’re struck by her modesty, easy laugh and good cheer.
Over a span of four decades, Brett has been responsible for the creation of 49 books, almost half of which she has authored and illustrated. The remaining 22 stories are retold or for which she provided artwork. Her original books by Ella require one year to complete and each page of images can take a week or more to finish.
“They take so long,” she said. “I’m always late (for deadlines). If they gave me 10 years, I’d still be late.”
Early in her career, editors explained that she would meet with more success if she authored, as well as illustrated, stories.
If you’ve had a traumatic experience working in watercolors, your final images may have looked like a pizza or the surface of Jupiter. Brett works in the medium and her art by her is exquisite. She relies on vivid watercolors.
“Acrylics are kind of icky,” she said. “They’re made of plastic so they’re just not as fun to paint with, or as malleable … I’d tried oils one time and it wasn’t immediate enough for me.”
Painting in oils requires patience, waiting, “turpentine and too much cleaning of brushes,” she said.
Brett is enamored with the “translucent” quality of watercolor, allowing layering.
“If you could see with an electron microscope, you would see these molecules of color that kind of play against each other in a depth of field,” she said.
Stephanie Plunkett, the museum’s deputy director and curator of the exhibit, had known of Brett’s work from reading her books to her own son, then in elementary school.
“Her style is really fantastical, but realistic,” she said. “Ella She has a very fine watercolor technique that she uses and her images of her are filled with details.”
Brett received training at the venerable Boston Museum School, affiliated with the Museum of Fine Arts. In her early years as an illustrator, she was cautioned not to place borders with images on her illustrations of her. Brett was told that they didn’t enhance the work and were a distraction. There was a quiet rebellion.
“She’s found a way to create an almost independent narrative with the borders so they become an integral part of her storytelling,” Plunkett said.
The borders can foreshadow the story line or provide detailed portraits of animals and characters.
“She expands the story within each panel,” the curator said.
When reading tots, adults can often discover new lands.
Brett’s 2005 book, “Honey…Honey…Lion!” takes an obscure fact and creates a new narrative. The “honey guide” bird of Africa will lead humans to bee colonies in hopes that they will harvest the honeycomb. After the humans depart, the bird will feast on the remaining sweetness. This co-evolution may date to the Stone Age. In the story, a honey badger is mischievously revenged by a honey guide. The illustrations provide a Who’s Who of African animals, all nobly rendered from guinea hens and warthogs to zebras. Ella’s Brett and her husband have frequently traveled to Botswana, where she researched the animals and the landscape.
Fans of Brett’s work are familiar with “Hedgie” the hedgehog, a hero of many of her books. The animal is so named due to its vocal squeaks, similar to a pig. While traveling in England she hoped to see the tiny, and spiny, creatures and traveled to Saint Tiggywinkles, an animal rescue hospital 50 miles northwest of London. At the entrance she was told that it was not for the public, otherwise the hospital would become “a zoo.”
The illustrator noted that she’d never seen a hedgehog and the staff relented.
The hospital, England’s best idea since the chocolate Cadbury Crunchie, at any given time is treating 1,600 animals and birds and is well-known in the kingdom.
“Hedgehogs walk across the road not knowing about cars and their needles serve as bubble wrap,” Brett said. When threatened, their defense is to roll into a ball.
When wild animals are injured, or the bubble wrap isn’t quite enough, caring residents place them on a train with the instructions “to be delivered to Tiggywinkles.”
In the ensuing years, the 24/7 hospital, relying entirely upon donations, has created a website, visitors’ center and gift shop.
One can now visit virtually with a hedgehog anytime.
Growing up in Hingham, a harbor town south of Boston, Brett recalls an idyllic childhood. Her family de ella lived near a dairy farm and each winter they cared for a horse and chickens were a part of the landscape. Her parents of her limited the amount of TV that she and her siblings of her were exposed to.
“In our house, it was ‘Use your imagination!’” the illustrator said. “We were outside all the time, playing games or drawing. It was a wonderful way to grow up and very unusual, I think, when I talk to other people.”
At age 5, Brett decided to become an illustrator. Among her influences on her was the work of English artist and author Beatrix Potter (1866–1943), best known for the “Peter Rabbit” books.
“She was my mother’s favorite,” the illustrator said, “and I loved the fact that she would use big words in her stories … and she wasn’t sticky sweet.”
Potter was a brilliant colorist and observer of nature. Her botanical illustrations of her remain in use today.
Other inspirations arrive from a house often filled with music provided by her husband, Joe Hearne, who plays double bass for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. “When you’re listening to music your thoughts go to places you’d never expect,” she said in a 2013 interview. The two first met when in their 20s, when Brett was learning to fly gliders and Hearne was an instructor.
You would also find Brett in places you’d never expect because for some 18 years she traveled in a colorfully painted tour bus to visit bookshops, sign her works and tell stories.
It’s not all roses and sunshine. When her book “The Three Snow Bears” debuted in 2007, a librarian wrote an open, public letter criticizing the retelling of the Goldilocks tale. The bears wore classic Inuit clothing and the letter writer took exception to the cultural appropriation of the attire. Other voices chimed in and one writer railed against “the dehumanizing factor of animals wearing people’s clothing.”
These plague years have also altered the book business and expos, where authors, publishers and readers could pow-wow, have suffered. Last year Scholastic, a multinational children’s book publisher and distributor, reported a fiscal year revenue decline of $187 million, or 13% largely due to the shuttering of many book fairs.
She described the current vogue of Zoom meetings as “horrible, because I like to see people face to face. I’ll be glad when I can see the publisher.”
“The thing that’s wonderful about being a children’s book illustrator is that it’s very one-on-one and personal,” she said. “Everything revolves around the book.”
Now a grandmother with several grandchildren, Brett shows no sign of slowing down.
As she noted in an interview several years ago, her driving force is to create tales for young people “6, 7, 8, when everything is an adventure. The world is full of wonder… It’s wonderful… to think like a child.”
“Jan Brett – Stories Near and Far” continues at the Norman Rockwell Museum through March 6. Proof of vaccination and photo id required for those over age 18. Admission $20; Age 18 and under, free. Closed Wednesdays. Open Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays. Fridays, 10 am to 4 pm Saturdays and Sundays, 10 am to 5 pm Visit https://www.nrm.org/ for details.