NORWELL — Award-winning children’s author/illustrator Jan Brett has traveled all over the world, from Arctic Sweden to Namibia, Costa Rica to China. And the charming, light-filled house she shares with her husband, Boston Symphony Orchestra bassist Joseph Hearne, is filled with treasures she’s accumulated along the way.
But Brett’s acquisitions are not just intended to spark fond memories. They inspire and enrich many of the 43 books she’s written and/or illustrated over the past three-plus decades, making her one of the country’s foremost children’s authors. Her eye-catching storybooks invite readers to linger over brightly colored, intricately detailed illustrations that pop from the page. From facial expressions and vibrant clothing to architectural features, furniture and linens, even landscape elements like exotic plants and ground cover, Brett’s illustrations include vivid, authentic nuances.
“She studies the traditions of the countries she visits and uses them as a starting point for her exquisite books,” says Karla Szekeres, marketing and membership coordinator of the Oshkosh Public Museum, which sponsors a traveling exhibit of Brett’s illustrations. “They really transport kids and their parents to the magical world of far-away places and bring culture and nature to family storytime. Kids and parents often comment that the colorful graphics jump off the pages, making it feel like they walked right into the story.”
Most of Brett’s travels mix pleasure with serious research. She returns laden with books and artifacts, which are meticulously replicated, and often imaginatively repurposed, in her illustrations. The decorative elements of an antique pitcher from Germany turn up on a ceramic bowl, and springerle molds from Germany and Switzerland are replicated on the endpapers and borders in her “Gingerbread” books. She transformed freshly shed moose antlers found in the wild of North Sweden into an impromptu toboggan in “Home for Christmas.” “Now those were tough to get past customs,” Hearne interjects with a grin. He adds, “It’s always amazing to me – she seems to collect things at random, then puts them all together in this wonderful way.”
Often, in the process of traveling to research one planned book, Brett’s discoveries fuel inspiration for yet another, completely different story. She’s gotten three books out of her adventures in Africa, sometimes camping in the bush to see as much of the natural world as she can. “The first time I went to Africa was to research ‘On Noah’s Ark’ and see all the animals,” she recalls. “I was so enamored. I cried all the way home.”
While she was in Botswana, a guide told her about a bird called the honeyguide, which uses its call to lure humans to bee’s nests. Once humans open the nests, a feat beyond the bird, the honeyguide has access to the wax comb. The bird and the folklore around it inspired Brett’s popular “Honey . . . Honey . . . Lion!” On a bird-watching trip to Namibia, she came across the rock hyrax, known colloquially as the dassie. The cute little rodents became the stars of yet another book, “The 3 Little Dassies.” She brought back an adorable set of dolls and samples of cloth from the villages she visited in Namibia, using the colors and patterns for page borders as well as the long traditional dresses, shawls and turbans in which she clothed the anthropomorphic characters.
Brett also has set a number of books in Scandinavia. “I went there because people kept asking me if I was Norwegian,” she says. Though she isn’t sure if she has Scandinavian ancestry, it prompted an urge to go, and her affinity for Norway sparked “The Wild Christmas Reindeer” and her two “Trolls” books. Other books are set in Denmark and Sweden.
She got the idea for one of her favorite books, “Berlioz the Bear,” at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer home in Tanglewood, and the book’s setting was developed during an orchestra tour to Germany and Austria. The title bear is based on her husband, and other characters are based on friends in the orchestra. But the details are from that trip and a subsequent visit for research, in which she haunted museums to find just the right decorative elements. “I was constantly taking pictures,” she recalls.
In one museum, Brett remembers discovering the perfect wagon to replicate for the book. Surprisingly, she admits perspective is one of her weaknesses, so she was sitting atop her husband’s shoulders to photograph the wagon from every angle. “I really wanted it to be accurate, but when they caught us, they were not happy,” she says. She adds, with a mischievous giggle, “I think money changed hands.” On her return home, Brett had a small replica of the blue wagon specially constructed from her photos to help with the authenticity of her illustrations.
In person, Brett is an avid storyteller, and words spill out enthusiastically as she shares her wealth of experiences and the intriguing customs and characters she’s discovered along her journeys. A remarkable memory seems to have facilitated an encyclopedic knowledge about a wide range of flora, human and animal behaviors, and history, all fueled by an innate curiosity and sense of wonder about the world around her. “I just get so excited by all the things that I see,” she says simply. “The world is so incredibly magnificent . . . I feel like [I’m discovering] just the tip of the iceberg.”
That curiosity and a sharp imagination, not to mention a keenness for vivid details, were sparked in part by a childhood love of such picturesque stories as “Wind in the Willows” and “Alice in Wonderland.” “You feel like you’ve just been sucked into this other place,” Brett says. “I used to feel I could just disappear into a book. So when a child opens [one of my books], I want them to feel like they could just walk right into the forest and know what it feels like and smells like and could just lay down in the moss. It’s about making a fantasy place a real place. . . . That’s the key to storytelling.”
While the illustrations in Brett’s books are meticulously precise, the stories often are the result of a looser, intuitive process. “I have to be flexible,” she says. “Sometimes there’s a story waiting to come out and I have to step back and let it happen, leave a lot of room for it to develop. It can have a life of it’s own, and I have to recognize that. It’s a very magical thing.”
The working title of Brett’s current book is “The Mermaid and the 3 Octopus,” set underwater amidst the coral reefs off the coast of Okinawa, where she frequently visited while her daughter Lia lived there. “I didn’t mean to, but I fell in love with it,” she says. “I snorkeled there . . . I saw a baby octopus and it was so cute . . . and that’s the inspiration for it.”
Despite Brett’s zest for travel, some of her books are set closer to home. “Mossy” unfolds by a turtle pond in nearby Hingham and “The Easter Egg” is set in her hometown of Norwell. Then there are books such as “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” and “Beauty and the Beast.” Both are set in “Jan Land,” the colorful made-up world that exists only in the author’s vivid imagination. No travel required.