June Hedge a gram

  Happy June!

    This is Jan Brett, and this is my June hedge a gram.  What I call my hedge a gram is my thoughts about children's books -- especially the one I'm working on.  When I was little I knew I would be a children's book illustrator.  I wanted to get started right away.  It was difficult to find anyone who knew about how it was done.  Actually, every time I write and illustrate a book I reimagine the process.  Sometimes, I strive to do it differently.  One of the things I find inspiring is how kids think along paths less traveled or better still, bushwhack their own way into a story.  By writing my hedge a gram I hope kids and adults who want to write children's books will see some of my milestones, my creative excitement and some of the down slides when I have to work through a problem.
   I usually begin my book in early February.  The idea has been percolating for a year or more, but this isn't a rule, it usually happens that way though.  I've had an idea about mossy the turtle who grows a garden on her back ever since we saw a snapping turtle underwater covered with water plants, rippling in the current.  The turtle rose slowly from the bottom, under our dangling feet.  We were on our dock on Goose Pond.  I decided to take the turtle character out of the water, turn her into an Eastern Box Turtle and have her be discovered by a biologist who brings her home to be an exhibit in her Museum.  I set my story back in time to late Victorian called the Edwardian period about 1908 -- 1915.  I did so because small museums that grew out of people's collections from the natural world -- shells, bird's nests, orchids, fossils were all the rage.  At the end, the biologist's little niece makes an argument for setting the turtle free, and together they release Mossy, but not before she is painted in great detail.
   One of my favorite places in the world is the Peabody Museum of Art.  Part of it is called the Agassiz Museum, after Mr. Lewis Agassiz a brilliant scientist, explorer, collector and director of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology in the mid-1800s.  Many mounted specimens were taken from remote parts of the world and little is known about them even today, these creatures are so secretive.  When you go to the Museum, one marvels at the diversity of nature.  I hope in my book I can capture a bit of that feeling.
   Even though I have big ideas, lots of excitement and energy to devote to my book it has been difficult.  I've mostly finished the 32 page dummy and I went over it with my trusted and most admired editor Margaret Frith.  I kept getting the feeling that Mossy didn't win me over enough, so I decided to insert a double page spread at the beginning showing her growing her garden.  That would make the book 34 pages.  So I took out a page in the middle where I went on a little too long about the pros and cons of Mossy staying as an exhibit in the Museum. 
    I feel both sides have equal credibility so I found the answer in a compromise.  Mossy stays a year in the Museum, garnering interest and being admired and studied, but then she goes free after a wonderful detailed portrait is done of her.  The portrait is a very useful tool.  The Peabody is filled with wonderful portraits of horses done by Native Americans.  They tell things about the horses that a photo could not.  There are also portraits of Native Americans themselves, and those capture something about the human spirit that a photo does not always capture.
   At my meeting with Margaret, we came upon the idea of using the frame as a device to organize my illustrations in the book.  It gives a hint to the turning point of the book, the grand portrait of Mossy.
    I use the passage of time in this book like a character.  It starts out when Mossy is a young turtle.  She has a pair bond with Scoot who is waiting for her when the biologist returns her to the wild.  She has baby turtles eventually, and the last page is of Mossy as an old, old turtle.  I was amazed to read about a turtle that had 1887 carved in its shell, but is still walking around on Martha's Vineyard island.
   I hope by reading my ups and downs, problems and solutions, you will see how books get molded and formed.  It's easy to get discouraged, but the rewards make it worth the trouble.
   Good luck on your story and don't give up on it!  Don't forget the trick of just before falling asleep, ask yourself, "How can I fix this problem."  You might have the answer in the morning.  Happy reading,
                  Your Friend,

                    Jan Brett