Archive for Saturday, November 13, 1999


November 13, 1999


An author and illustrator's devotion to detail have been turning heads for decades.

Something as simple as a cookie might just make a positive difference in a child's life.

That's what best-selling children's book author and illustrator Jan Brett lives for.

She considers sparking a child's interest in reading through her stories and illustrations -- of horses, animals, trolls and now a gingerbread cookie -- among her greatest accomplishments.

"When I get a letter from a teacher saying 'We had a child we thought we had just lost. (He wasn't being read to at home; he had other troubles, etc.) Then he got one of your books and was carried through by the pictures,'" Brett said. "And then (he wants) to read another story.

"To find out I may have changed this child's education "" Her voice trailed off as the humbling impact of the thought hit.

Brett, who has more than 16 million copies of her books in print, will be in Lawrence Sunday to promote her new book "Gingerbread Baby." The book is a reworking of the classic tale of the Gingerbread Boy, a crisp anthropomorphic cookie that pops out of the oven and taunts villagers and countryside animals, until it meets the clever fox.

Brett always has liked the tale of the Gingerbread Boy, but said she felt the ending was a little harsh.

"The Gingerbread Boy was just doing things that every real child's done -- being cheeky -- but gets eaten in the end," she said. Retelling the story gave Brett of Norwell, Mass., an opportunity to soften the plot and use her skills to richly recast the story with her special artistic touches.

Details, details, details

To open a Jan Brett book is to immerse yourself in another world. The illustrations are filled with details that add new elements to the story or introduce a different culture.

"I've always liked detail," Brett said. "It's an extension of my life.

"It gives my characters place. It makes them come to life. The details made that story be real to me. It's also what I loved in other people's books that I was reading."

She knew from an early age that she wanted to illustrate books.

"When I was 6 was when I decided. People would say to me, 'Jan you should be a children's book illustrator.'"

Or it could have been that she told people she wanted to be an illustrator and they were just humoring her, she said.

Her first book illustration project was "Woodland Crossings" in 1978. Her big break as an author/illustrator came in 1981 with "Fritz and the Beautiful Horses." What followed were nine more original storybooks, five classic stories retold and illustrated and numerous book illustration projects.

Last year's holiday offering, "The Night Before Christmas," an illustration of Clement Moore's classic poem "A Visit from Saint Nicholas," spent two weeks on the New York Times Book Review Hardcover Fiction Best Seller list. That book was among the hardest projects she's ever tackled.

"It was so wordy and you want to be true to the spirit of the poem. When it's someone else's writing it's more difficult."

Still, the lure of illustrating the Christmas standard was irresistible.

"People love that poem so much," she said. "I wanted to be a part of that tradition."

A little hint

Brett took her formal art training at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts School, but doesn't consider her illustrations academic.

"My work has a primitive feel to it," she said.

Yet the vivid colors and details she lovingly ladles onto her illustrations give each page a level of depth and realism.

"When I feel like I can walk in the page, that's it; that's when I'm done."

Brett also puts the borders of her illustrations to work in her books.

"I have too many ideas, so I put them in the borders, she said.

As a child she would read stories and then be disappointed that everything unfolded and came to a sudden end on the last page.

"Now when I do a book I have that 6-year-old mind. The borders give clues to how things turn out. It's a way of giving hints," she said.

The borders also are an opportunity to share and teach. Buried in the borders of the "Gingerbread Baby's" illustrations are shields that represent the 25 districts of Switzerland. Brett traveled there to get a better feel for the alpen culture she thought the book should have. She uses springerle, elaborate molded cookies made with anise, in her border decorations to help maintain the European experience. Brett, who bakes cookies once a week to send to her daughter in the U.S. Marine Corps, even brought warm gingerbread dough and springerle into her studio to let the aroma inspire her as she worked.

Perhaps some of that inspiration will be noticed by a young child.

In the mean time, have another cookie.

-- Jill Hummels' phone number is 832-7150. Her e-mail address is


Author and illustrator Jan Brett will be in Lawrence for a book signing from 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sunday at the Children's Book Shop, 937 Mass.

Some of the books she has written and/or illustrated include "Berlioz the Bear," "Trouble with Trolls," "The Wild Christmas Reindeer," "Comet's Nine Lives," "The Hat," The Mitten," "Town Mouse, Country Mouse," "The Owl and the Pussycat" and "The Twelve Days of Christmas."

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