It's classic Brett: peopled with personable animals and loaded with details that make a different culture come to life.
She has been to the Arctic to research The Three Snow Bears,and to the rainforest for The Umbrella.
In celebration of the 20th anniversary of The Mitten,as well as the publication of Jan Brett's Snowy Treasury,a compilation of four of her wintry tales, Brett is on a book tour that stops Saturday in Gadsden.
We decided to let children pose her some interview questions. Librarian Pam Ginn of Alexandria Elementary School arranged a meeting with representatives from kindergarten through second-grade.
When the kids were asked how long they thought Brett had been writing books, they guessed five years? Four years? Ten years? When told it was almost 30 years, their eyes got very big, and they said, "oooooooo."
When asked how many books they thought she'd sold, they guessed 100? 1,000? 1 million? When told it was more like 33 million, they gasped. "Oh my snot!" said Will Vice.
The kids love to draw and write stories of their own. "I wrote a story about three animals who get lost in the woods then find their way home," said David Turley.
"Me and my auntie are making a book about animals going on an adventure to see the ocean," said Tyshica Woodgett.
"I wrote a book called Battle Force 5," said Cody Knight.
The best part of the visit to Alexandria Elementary School was a chance to visit with the library's pet hedgehog — who looks just like one of Brett's favorite book characters, Hedgie the Hedgehog.
This hedgehog is named Gracie, and she lives in the library along with two bearded dragons, a fire-bellied toad, some snakes and a couple of chinchillas.
Here are the children's questions, and Jan Brett's answers:
What animal do you like best?
I have two. The first is the hedgehog. He's like my alter ego. I had two pet hedgehogs — Hedga and Pudge, but both have died. I love the way they look, how their little noses turn up. I like the way they can protect themselves. It's a wild animal, but one you can observe, because they don't run away or try to bite you like some wild animals.
I always put a hedgehog in my stories someplace.
Then, too, I've always loved horses. When I was little, I wanted to grow up to be a children's book illustrator — and a horse rider in the Olympics. But that one didn't work out.
That's all I drew when I was little: horses, horses, horses.
By the fifth grade, I finally got a horse.
How did you become so creative?
I think it was because my parents always made us go outside and wouldn't let us watch television. There are three sisters in my family. I'm the oldest. My little sister Jeannie Brett is also an artist and writes books. My middle sister is a teacher.
Where did you get the idea to put pictures in the border?
When I was little, I was really worried about what would happen to the characters in children's books. I started getting in the habit of looking at the last page. I wanted to know how it turned out. I got the idea that I would put pictures in the borders to kind of tell you what would happen next, what was happening offstage.
Where is your favorite place to visit?
Africa. The book I'm working on now is set in Africa. Honey. .. Honey . . . Lion! is set in Africa. For Noah's Ark, we went to Africa to do research.
Sometimes when I go to Africa it's like going to another planet. It's so different. It's like going back in time. The people live in villages and don't have many electronics.
All the animals are different. Some are dangerous. The birds are really beautiful.
For example, in southern Africa where I've been going, there are probably eight species of birds that, in the springtime when they're trying to attract a mate, grow this long, long tail. It's a bird that looks like a chickadee, but it will have a tail that's three feet long. And then it will do these special aerial displays with this long tail. It looks like they're going up stairs in the sky, then they come falling down to earth, and brake just before the ground.
We would also go out scorpion hunting at night. One of our guides was an expert on scorpions. He would take a black light outside at night. The scorpions have a phosperescent protein in their exoskeleton. The guide would shine the black light on a tree, and there would be all these scorpions, on the trees, crawling on the ground, and they looked like carved white lobsters.
What book are you working on now?
The Three Little Dassies. The rock dassie is a real animal. It's small, looks a little like a cross between a groundhog and a koala bear. But their closest relative is the elephant.
I'm currently drawing it. I'm about halfway done.
I get books on the animals and places that I draw. If you could see my office, there are hundreds of books in here. They're all African books. There's one on reptiles, one on Namibia, books on eagles, on birds flying, one of South African mammals, one on trees, one on landscapes . . .
I also have tons of objects. I have some little dolls that I got in Namibia. It's a handmade fabric, not quite like a quilt. I have them in my room so I can put that fabric on my rock dassies' dresses. So it won't look like the fabric we have here in the U.S.
I have a library upstairs, where I keep all the books that relate to all the books I've written. There are thousands of books up there in my library.
Sometimes I use the Internet to do research, but the Internet just doesn't have as much information. If I'm looking up, say, landscapes in Namibia, I can maybe get six photographs on the Internet. In a book, I can get hundreds. And someone has taken the time to put them together in a certain way.
And I like the quality of the page better, just having it on the page.
How about the books after that?
In the spring, I'll have a rabbit book out, called The Easter Egg.
The Three Little Dassies will be out next September.
The next place I'm going is Iceland and Sweden, for a book about trolls.
After that is a book about turtles. I'm building a turtle pond. It's pretty much done. I'm just hoping some turtles will come.
After that, I'm probably going to do a book set in Russia: The Turnip.
How many books do you write a year?
I just write one a year.
Does it take longer to write a book or draw a book?
It takes much longer to draw the pictures. It takes an hour to do an inch. It takes a looooong time.
When I write the words, it takes a couple of weeks, but I'm constantly revising it. Sometimes words are changed not to fix things, but to change the atmosphere. In Africa, for instance, English is not their first language. They eat different food, wear different clothes and have different expressions. I try to put those in the book.
What's your favorite book you've read?
When I was little, Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag was my favorite. As I got older, I really loved Beatrix Potter; my favorite story was The Roly-Poly Pudding. As I got older still, I was really interested in horses, so I loved books by Sam Savitt, Wesley Dennis and Mary O'Hara's Flicka books.
Is it hard to write books?
Yes, it's really hard to write books. It's not hard to illustrate them.
How did you learn to write in Spanish?
I don't know any Spanish. I had to get help from my editor for the Spanish words in THE Umbrella. One of my biggest regrets is that I don't know any other language besides English.
How do you stay in the lines when you color the pictures?
First I put it in pencil, so if it doesn't look right I can erase it. Once it's where I like it, I have a very small paintbrush with a little pointed tip. I can use the point to put the paint exactly where I want it.
I look very closely at it. Sometimes at the end of the day, my eyes are a little bit tired. I keep painting until I feel like I can walk into the page.
How do you get the clothes on the animals?
I like to put clothes on animals. That makes them into half people, half animals. It makes it easier to tell a story about them. Clothes tell you a lot about a person. Dirty knees means you've been playing in the dirt. A big, thick sweater means it's cold outside.
Do you write the words in one day?
No, but I always write the words first.
Before I write the words, I make sure I can draw what I'm going to write. I could draw a story about firetrucks, but I'm not good at drawing mechanical things.
I can take a picture and draw it, but it won't have the same life as something I love. With birds and animals, I think I know what they're thinking. I love them, so I can breathe life into them.
The following students at Alexandria Elementary School participated in this story: