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Jan Brett has a new book, based on ‘The Nutcracker,’ and an exhibition at the Norman Rockwell Museum

Children's book author-illustrator Jan Bretthandout

Like many ’80s babies, I grew up on author-illustrator Jan Brett’s early books. “The Mitten,” “Annie and the Wild Animals,” “Fritz and the Beautiful Horses.”

The beauty was in the nuance — the flare of a horse’s nostril, the shading of a fox’s paw. You could pore over every page.

Talking to Brett, it’s clear why she’s so good at what she does: She never lost that childhood sense of wonder. And it’s why we love the wonderlands she creates.

Norwell’s New York Times best-selling picture book author talks with energy, like she can’t tell you her thoughts fast enough — one minute a story about the honeyguide bird in Botswana, the next, how some ideas are like shooting stars. (“Sometimes you see this big green one with a tail, and you go oh my God, I bet it lands.”)


Brett’s 48th book, “Jan Brett’s The Nutcracker,” out Nov. 16, is set in Russia and based on Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite.” She pulls choice cuts to retell a classic with signature old-world charm.

"Jan Brett's The Nutcracker" releases on Nov. 16.handout

The Hingham native was inspired by listening at Boston Symphony Hall. Her husband, Joseph Hearne, is a bassist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

The book is everything you’d expect: whimsical, wintry, holiday magic packed with details — ornate shoe buckles, spotted mushrooms dangling on a Christmas tree, hedgehogs ringing bells, silver wolves playing flutes. Her hallmark page-borders are works of art themselves.

Starting Saturday, the Norman Rockwell Museum hosts “Jan Brett: Stories Near and Far,” exploring Brett’s art, stories, and the travel experiences that have inspired them, on view through March 6. She’s globe-trotted for folk tales, legends, and story ideas, from Namibia to Sweden. Brett hosts a “Nutcracker” launch celebration at the museum Dec. 11.

I caught up with Brett, 71, to talk about the book and show.


Q. You have a big exhibition coming up.

A. I’m so thrilled. And they’ll show artifacts from traveling, which is helpful for children who might want to be illustrators to understand the process. So much of my borders use seashells, or grasses, from the places I’m illustrating. You get into the frenzy of being fascinated.

Q. You went to the Boston Museum School.

A. I loved the Museum School, because we spent so much time at the MFA. We practically lived there.

Q. When did you know you wanted to be an illustrator?

A. I was 6. I had the best parents in the world. My mom would give us three kids tons of art material. We had limitless crayons and time. Time is such a valuable thing.

Plus I had this best friend who loved to draw; we wanted horses more than anything in the world. Neither of us had them. My friend Marla and I would draw horses: Mine was Yankee, hers was named Rebel. Hers was dapple gray; mine was sorrel with a white blaze and flaxen mane. We had our own world.

Q. Why book illustration? Was there a book that sparked that goal?

A. Hingham Public Library was this old Victorian building. We’d go all the time and read horse books.

At school, kids would pay me a penny to draw them a horse. This made me feel good; I felt I had something to offer. I was a little socially inept. In conversation, I wouldn’t be able to express myself. And then I’d draw, and have this feeling: “Oh, this is what I wanted to say.” I’d get in this other world, and not only could I put things in that world, but that world would put things back into me.


Q. Wow, I love that. So I associate your books with winter.

A. I think because my artwork is so cramped with detail, that the snow is a little bit of a relief. Snow is a nice foil. Plus I love winter; I love being a New Englander and having the snow be so transformative and cleansing. Like going to the beach and the tide comes in. I’ve gone in my backyard and almost feel like I’m lost because every tree will have a different configuration from the snow.

We have a funny expression in our house, “It’s blue time,” when the sun goes down, and the snow is all shades of blue. It’s so beautiful, I can’t get over it. I have to keep drawing it.

Q. You have a lot of fairytale retellings.

A. When I was little, I loved fairytales for the fantasy part, but didn’t like where there would be a rescue using magic. Because I thought, “What are the chances of that happening to me?” I couldn’t relate. So I gravitate towards plots with a problem that the child can puzzle out, like “The Hat.”

I had a double-jointed finger. My mother called it my “magic finger.” At school one day, I said “I have a magic finger.” They said, “That’s not magic, you’re just double-jointed.”


That same day, I’d decided to wear everything red. They started to go: “Those reds are clashing.” It was overwhelming. My mother said, “If kids make fun of you, just distract them.” So I said, “I’m a red bird, what kind are you?” And they looked at their clothes, and said, “I’m a blue bird,” “I’m a jenny wren.” All of the sudden I was no longer the center of the teasing.

It’s the same thing in “The Hat” where the farm animals make fun of Hedgy [so he distracts them]. I was reading it aloud one time, and thought: Oh my gosh, this is like in the playground.

Q. How do you typically get your ideas?

A. A little bit is a fishing expedition. Sometimes it’s something funny one of my pets has done. Once when Joe was playing at Carnegie Hall, we were at a fancy hotel, we had pancakes with maple syrup, and on the elevator on the way up I got the idea for “The Hat,” which is my favorite book ever, and I’m sure it was from a sugar high.

Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. Follow her on Twiiter @laurendaley1.