Happy Fall!
      It's Fall, the time of year when I'm right in the middle of my yearly creative project.  Every month, in my Hedge a Gram I stop and gather my thought's about my work for anyone who is interested. Even though I have written and illustrated 30 children's books, I  still have lots of hurdles, challenges and uninspired periods. Luckily, they are outnumbered by the exhilaration of creating a new story and the falling down the rabbit hole feeling of being taken up with a new set of images, color palette and design.
     Sometimes I feel like an armchair adventurer when I get immersed in a book's setting. I was very very fortunate to be able to travel to India several years ago specifically to collect background material for this book, THE TALE OF THE TIGER SLIPPERS. Strangely, the illustrations will rely on two very separate sources, and sources that are both very new to me. The first is the flora and fauna of India. Before my trip, I had envisioned India as a jungle like setting, and the descriptions from Kipling's works THE JUNGLE BOOK, KIM,  RIKKI TIKKI TAVI, THE JUST SO STORIES, and his many other short stories. Revisiting his work I am heartbroken that some of his language and descriptions about culture reflect an unacceptable attitude about India. Kipling was a master storyteller and his work made up a good part of my beloved childhood reading and revisiting Kipling's world is bittersweet. When we travelled to India we landed in Mumbai, spent the night and then set off by plane to central Madhya Pradesh where we visited three large national parks, Panna, Bandhavgarh, and Kanha, where there each had a tiger population (but no guarantees we would actually see a tiger). My husband and I arranged to have our bird guide we met in Africa to come with us, Martin Benadi. Martin guided us on  4 trips birding  trips in Africa and we knew it would enhance our experience. The guides in the Indian parks were great as well and we loved being in a small group so we could stop and explore if we saw something interesting that others might not be so crazy about. I was really eager to see a variety of  birds and animals to use as minor characters in my book. At the first park, we didn't see a tiger, but after three days in the second park we got very close to a huge, resplendent male. We were in an open jeep and the tiger sauntered along the dirt road and wowed us with claw sharpening and scenting on a tree. Here is where I would like to say how different I found the landscape then my Kipling images. This part of India is on a high thickly wooded plateau that had been kept pristine for hundreds of years for royal hunting parties. There were lots of rocky outcroppings, ravines, steams, and fields in the mostly deciduous forest. Now the areas are designated national parks that are strickly patrolled. In the mornings it was icy cold requiring sweatshirts, scarfs and mittens. Besides the tiger, the scenarios that I remember intently were seeing flocks, perhaps twenty or more of stag peafowl moving through the fields, from a distance their long tails looked like weird black sticks behind them, also coming across an elephant with it's armed mahout or partner in the forest. The mahout was guiding the elephant with very energetic kicks with his feet from his vantage point on top of the elephant. He was part of the guard force against poachers as well as recording the tiger population. I don't really know what prevented the tigers from wandering out of the park and eating the cattle that were everywhere in the surrounding countryside. I do know that every tiger in the park is known by their unique facial markings. I have to keep this in mind when I illustrate the four tiger characters in my book. I also, with the help of Martin kept track of every bird sighting, so I could cross reference the species in my many bird books when I got home. I planned to show birds in the illustrations' backgrounds, after being inspired my the Mughal court art in the 15, 16 and 1700's. The Persian and Indian miniatures of that time are hallmarked by the exquisite birds, animals and plants. The other memorable mammal sightings was on one of my runs near our hotel. Sitting in a sunspot was a beautiful wildcat. It was too dignified to move away so I stopped and stared at it for a long time. When I got back to the hotel one of the hotel employees said there had been a leopard on the hotel grounds. I would not have stopped to see the leopard! That would never have happened in Africa where we tourists were always being apprised of potentially dangerous wildlife.
     The two very separate ways of collecting background knowledge for my book were our trip, and my nice collection of artbooks about Mughal court art. The scenes in the exquisite and detailed albums and miniatures were commissioned and influenced from a series of culturally minded emperors that lived in the 1500's until the early 1800's. The scholars and art historians that annotate my art books have given me many exciting ideas about creating my book. For example, body language. If a person is making an utterance, and the artist wants to show this, the figure touches his thumb to his first finger. In another example, if a figure is amazed, as if seeing an extraordinary event, he could be biting a finger, as if testing if he is dreaming. There is one gesture I'm not clear on. When a figure, usually a prince, is pictured about to enjoy worldly pleasures, he holds a sprig of a flower, never a bouquet, and is pictured smelling it's fragrance. Does this show he is very sensitive or something else? When characters are hunting, they wear an earthy green. If a beautiful blue, in those days made from Lapis lazuli pigment, which is costly, is used, the figure is often an important one. Certain trees are symbolic, my favorite is one with many colored leaves that I did not knowingly see on my trip. This will require some digging on my part.
      You can see how one piece of information leads to another and why I feel like I am falling down the rabbit hole like Alice's! Currently I am painting every chance I can get in many European cities because I am on  trip with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in which my husband Joe plays the double bass. The concerts, in Europe's great halls are outstanding and well, for lack of a better word, mind blowing, Mahler's 3rd symphony with mezzo-soprano Susan  Graham, and Shostakovich's Symphony Number 4 are two of the masterpieces they are playing. On the long bus rides and plane trips, besides worrying about my chickens back home, I am working on next year's book, about a musk ox named Cozy which is set in Alaska and will be a good reason to plan a research trip to the Musk Ox farm near Anchorage. Since I am a sometime knitter I think there will be a Qiviut (musk ox) wool sweater in the making in my future as well! A new rabbit hole!
Happy creating, your friend and fellow lover of books,

                                            Jan Brett