May Hedge a Gram

Happy May,

     Every month, I stop what I'm doing, and let kids and interested children's book enthusiasts know what I'm doing, in the hopes it will help you with your creative projects, or just shed some light on how I go about creating a children's picture book.
     I say "creating" because I write and illustrate my books. The artwork is what really drives my interest, and has been the part of my job that really defines me. that is why I will sometimes retell a favorite folktale or fairy tale. Last year I illustrated Cinderella. Because I find chickens both beautiful and fascinating, I made them my main characters. Chickens, when living in medium sized flock of many ages and of both genders, with plenty of room to move around have many human like behaviors. They can be loving, or form best friends, they can get jealous, or bossy.  In my flock there is a great amount of flirting and male solicitation at the moment, which escalates in spring. The mothers are very protective of their babies, and are very patient with them as they teach them to eat, drink and come when called. All their personalities went into my book characters, and it was great fun to observe them, and then paint what I saw.
     When I first thought about illustrating Cinderella, I was resistant because tend to I shy away from stories that use magic or a rescuer to save the character. The more I got into the story though, I thought that the transformation of the bedraggled, unhappy girl into the blooming confident women, is a rite of passage that can happen to a lot young women . When viewed in that way I liked the story more.
     It?s always difficult to say goodbye to my characters when I've finished my book, but I always make sure I have a another book idea waiting in the wings. Actually, more than one! Often I've talked to my trusted editor about these book ideas, and she will give me a go ahead.Last summer on a hot steamy night, I got an idea about the wild animals Santa. Where it came from I have no idea, especially since I usually do my creative thinking in the morning when I'm fresh. I was so excited about this story idea that I wrote it all down, as if I heard it before and without giving it another thought, emailed it to my editor. She liked it! I didn't know it then, but there would be many drafts and much thought as I would turn over that initial idea trying to make it a complete story. My editor kept insisting that I keep pushing and carve out a satisfying story, and I finally did. I would have been terribly discouraged when I first wrote my piece if I had known how much more work I had to go. That's what editors are for, and the best ones manage to make you work hard without feeling like it was a bad story to start with. The writer or artist is always vulnerable when the ideas are just forming.I think that's why a lot of creative people don't like to talk about their work until its near completion.
     I spent a few weeks working on my 32 page dummy, a cartoonish, sketch version of my book, and then took it to NY to talk about it with my editor, Margaret. We finalized the trim size, which is how the dimensions of a book are described. Then, both of us edited out as many words as we could, now that we had the artwork to describe events. The things that can't be painted, like the fragrance of fir trees, the feel of frosty cold air or the jingle jangle sound of broken ice will be described in the words.  I?ll try to tell as much of the story as I can in the pictures.
     Yesterday I started on my first double page spread, actual size. I experimented with different shapes in the borders, and played attention to what colors would be in my palette. Since my book takes place entirely outside in the snow I thought about the animals that I would cast as the friends of the two Snowshoe Hares that are the main characters. When Margaret and I met in NY we thought long and hard about what the animals would wear. It could be their natural fur coats, it could be just sweaters like what dogs wear, or they could have costumes that look like they were from another culture, either real, or imaginary.  I like the thought that my job entails important decisions like, ?what the animals will wear!?
     One of the reasons I chose Snowshoe Hares as characters is because of their amazing winter coats. They are brown in summer, which makes them blend in when they have babies. Then in fall, patches of white start appearing. By the time the world is white with snow, they are too, except for their ear tips which remain black. I've always thought that was the most surprising thing. There is a bird, the Ptarmigan that does the same thing.Its feathers go from brown in summer to white in the winter, except for black tips on their wings.I set my book in Scandinavia so I could include a hedgehog as one of the animal friends, just because I like hedgehogs. Hedgehogs don't live in the Americas. I also put in surprise appearances of a badger, wolf and moose, other fun animals to draw. I have to save the best until last because of the way I've told my story. The animals are all guessing who the Animal?s Santa is, and they are wondering who has been leaving gifts on Christmas.It turns out that its a Snowy Owl. The Snowy Owl is the largest Owl in North America, and it also lives in Polar regions across the Atlantic. Its a fearsome predator of small furry animals, but because of the magic of Christmas he is benevolent. Curiously, the color, white, of its feathers and the way the feathers are arranged on its face, make the Snowy looks like a bird-Santa.  You can imagine the feathers framing its face looking like a beard.
     I'm looking forward to continuing to work on the finishes of my book, my favorite part of the process. Good luck with your story ideas, and don't ignore that seemingly strange idea that pops up from who knows where. I might just be a future book.
Happy Spring,
                    Jan Brett