The Bestselling Author Shares Her Inspiration for Her Classic Picture Book in an Exclusive Interview
by Traci Swain
“I try to re-create that feeling of believing that the imaginary place I’m drawing really exists. The detail in my work helps to convince me, and I hope others as well, that such places might be real.” —Jan Brett
Jan Brett is beloved for her detailed illustrations that transport readers to enchanting natural settings. In her classic picture book The Mitten (the Scholastic Book Clubs Book of the Week), Jan takes us to a lush snowy landscape of pine trees and animals who wear plush winter coats. In this exclusive Q & A interview as full of details and surprises as her art, Jan reveals her inspiration for creating The Mitten and the real-life people and animals behind the characters.
Why do you think kids love reading your book?
First, I think kids love animals. Another thing I think kids like about The Mitten is imagining all of the animals smooshed together—a prickly hedgehog next to a soft rabbit, a powerful owl with a little mole—just as kids are often put into groups and have to find a way to get along. And I hope they enjoy anticipating what is going to burst that very crowded mitten.
When did you realize you wanted to become a writer?
As a child, I remember the special quiet of rainy days when I felt that I could enter the pages of my beautiful picture books. Now I try to re-create that feeling of believing that the imaginary place I’m drawing really exists. The detail in my work helps to convince me, and I hope others as well, that such places might be real.
When did you first hear the Ukrainian folktale that inspired The Mitten and why did it prompt you to adapt it into a book?
I got the idea from a few teachers! They thought I would like to draw the animals and the snowy scenery in this folktale. Then I did research and found out one of the versions had animals going into a pot, and one had a farmer who thought the animals in the mitten might be his dinner! I adapted the story so the animals would be okay in the end.
Why are hedgehogs one of your favorite animals?
I love hedgehogs because they are so gentle. They only need to roll up in a ball to be safe from predators. They also have a nice shape, especially their noses, and I like to watch them walk. It’s not a waddle, or a scurry, but more like a funny scuttle.
[Jan revealed that her other favorite animals are chickens and horses!]
Are Nicki or Baba inspired by anyone in real life?
The model for Nicki was a neighbor, Tad. He was so full of energy and was very eager to help while I was working out the scenes in the book. He jumped on rocks, slid down hills, and leaped over logs while I took pictures. And the model for Baba was my mother, Jean. But she had brown hair in real life.
Congratulations on your exhibition, Jan Brett: Stories Near and Far, at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. What are you hoping young viewers will take away from this show as well as from your books?
Thank you! It is very exciting to have an exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum. I have always admired how he captured such distinct personalities and emotions in his work. I hope kids who come to the exhibit are inspired to make art of their own and think about making up stories that only they can imagine and share.
With more than 42 million books in print, Jan Brett is one of the nation’s foremost illustrators of children’s books. As a child, she decided to be an illustrator and spent much of her time reading and drawing. As a student at the Boston Museum School, Jan spent many hours in the Museum of Fine Arts. Jan and her husband, Joe Hearne, who is a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, love to travel. Together, they visit many different countries where Jan researches the architecture and costumes that appear in her work. Jan lives in a seacoast town in Massachusetts.
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