Feathered friends help artist Jan Brett hatch magical children's stories.
By Sharon Selz
When Jan Brett needs inspiration for one of her children’s books, she looks no further than her own backyard.
“Chickens are such funny, expressive and beautiful creatures—they’re natural models,” says the best-selling author, illustrator and self-proclaimed poultry fanatic. Jan shares a 2-acre home in Norwell, Massachusetts, with her husband, Joe Hearne, and some 60 ornamental chickens she breeds, sells and shows. A few have even come to roost as characters in her whimsical, animal-rich stories. (Her books include modern children’s classics like The Hat, The Mitten and Gingerbread Baby and her latest, Cinders: A Chicken Cinderella.)
“My childhood home had a barn in back that my sisters and I proceeded to fill,” Jan says of their menagerie, which boasted a burro, horse, guinea pigs and, of course, chickens. “We used to bike to a nearby farm and buy baby chicks for 35 cents apiece. A smart little hen named Delly even learned to ride on our handlebars.”
Still charmed by chickens, Jan raises several breeds— Silkies, buff Brahmas, Cochins, Silver Phoenix and Polish included. Every June, when she and Joe travel to their home in the Berkshires (Joe, a musician with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, performs there every summer), they pack up flock, stock and bantams.
“For years, we carried the chickens in our cars,” Jan says, recalling squawky squabbles erupting in her hatchback. “Now we transport them in cages inside a horse trailer, and they seem to enjoy the trip.”
It’s no wonder her chickens look forward to summer vacation, considering the ritzy roosts that await them—one for hens, one for roosters. “The boys’ house is soundproof, in consideration for our neighbors,” Jan says. “We have classical music playing on the radio in both houses. I think the chickens find it as soothing as we do.”
The walls of the pristine wooden structures are brightened by chicken artwork Jan collects and by photos of beaming youngsters holding a pullet in one hand and a blue ribbon in the other. “I sell many of my chicks to 4-H members for their animal projects,” she says. A mentor to junior exhibitors, Jan’s happy to give pointers on what makes a winning chicken. “I try to be an example of what goes into good husbandry,” she says.
Jan counts her chicken chores as a highlight of her day. “I actually love cleaning pens,” she says, adding that she’s rewarded daily with nest-fresh eggs for her homemade bread. When preparing for poultry shows, “I get intense,” she admits. As a matter of fact, she becomes a regular chicken beautician.
Forget everything you’ve heard about cranky wet hens. “My chickens love warm water!” Jan says. “I wash their crests with baby shampoo in the sink. Then I transfer them to the bathtub to wash their bodies.” Next, she clips and files their nails and applies glycerin moisturizer to their beaks, combs and wattles. She dries them under a heat lamp.
More than a few times, Jan’s fancy fowl have strutted off with best bantam honors and even a super grand championship. Win or lose, she names each chicken based on the theme of the book she’s working on at the time.
The World in Watercolor
Jan’s pampered poultry get a chicken sitter when she and Joe travel to do research on books she sets in locales like Africa, China, Scandinavia and the Arctic. Typically, she comes home with suitcases full of information on the flora, fauna and folk customs of the country, which she weaves into her elaborate watercolor illustrations.
“It’s an inch an hour,” Jan says of the painstaking detail she pours into her scenes, each framed with an intricate border that often hints to perceptive young readers where the story is going. “I want kids to be able to open my books and feel as if they could walk right into the pages.”
Jan is more than just a name on a page to her young followers. She schedules a book tour every fall to meet her fans in person. She and Joe hit the road in a bus wrapped with artwork from her latest book. “Traveling this way gives us the flexibility to visit smaller out-of-the-way towns,” she explains. “Plus I have enough room to bring along my easel.”
Besides signing books, Jan gives a mini art lesson at most every appearance. “Sometimes, the kids bring their own artwork to show me—their creativity blows me away,” she says. “We adults need to encourage them to keep using their imaginations.”
Jan’s stories have been incorporated into preschool and elementary schools’ curricula across the country. Her website, janbrett.com, features thousands of free educational activities for teachers to download and use with their students.
As the grandmother of six tech-savvy youngsters, Jan knows how to engage her online audience.
“For the past couple of years, we’ve held a contest on Facebook, encouraging parents, teachers and librarians to enter to win a school or library visit from me,” she says. Tens of thousands of entries are common.
“I have a great time spending a day with the kids—drawing with them, sitting in on their art club meetings and speaking at their school assemblies,” she says. “At the end of my talk, I ask who wants to be a writer or illustrator, and 90 percent of the hands go up.
“That makes me happy—and hopeful about the future.”
Raise a Reader
About half of parents (49 percent) think their children don’t spend enough time reading books for fun, according to a recent Kids & Family Reading Report by Scholastic, the children’s publishing, education and media company. Scholastic Vice President Maggie McGuire offers these musts to keep kids reading:
- Be a reading role model—let your children see you reading daily.
- Fill your home with books and reading materials–magazines, newspapers, comic books—that tap into your children’s interests.
- Read aloud to your children, even after they can read by themselves. You’ll build their vocabularies, show them books are fun and inspire a lifetime love of reading.
- Build reading into your children’s daily schedule, and the habit will grow.
- Let your children read print, digital or both, as long as they read every day.
Photography by Jim Wieland; styling by Pam Stasney