You would be hard-pressed to find a library in town that doesn't carry Jan Brett's books, or a kid who hasn't encountered at least one along the way. The Mitten, Brett's most ubiquitous title, is a staple in schools and reading programs across the country -- and the world. Now, with a new book, The Umbrella, and a fancy tour bus to travel in, Brett is taking her show on the road to connect with the kids and adults who have made her so popular.
"It's like a rock-star bus," says Brett of her bookmobile. "It's just fantastic because we can go to some of the markets that might take two plane rides." Traveling on the ground instead of the air also allows Brett to connect with more of the people who are fans of her work. "This allows me to do signings later in the day so more kids and teachers can come," she explains. "And I can bring all these things for the kids who come." In addition to being the author's home away from home, the bus carries posters, an easel, buttons and a backdrop for kids to take pictures with the author.
Brett's new book is a bit of a departure from the Nordic-inspired stories and illustrations that made her famous. Titles like The Wild Christmas Reindeer and Annie and the Wild Animals have a definitively northern feel. Her new book, The Umbrella, is set in the South American cloud forest.
"It's really meant to be a companion book to The Mitten," Brett explains. "Two teachers wrote to me asking if I would do a rainforest book. They had the idea to use an umbrella and a rainforest." When Brett first wrote The Mitten, she was already thinking of how she could use that story frame in a different setting: "The Mitten is a very traditional story. I remember thinking, 'I would love to go to another culture and tell this story.'"
By the time she received the teachers' e-mail, she had already visited the cloud forest. "Luckily, when I was there I bought a lot of books," she laughs. "I thought at first 'I can use my imagination,' but it's much more complicated than that." Brett's travels to the forest were full of revelations for her. "I was very surprised at how benevolent it felt; it wasn't creepy at all," she explains. "It's like a wall, and you're just there... It's almost as if Mother Nature went nuts and said 'What can I think of next?'"
In Brett's book, a young boy goes for a walk in the cloud forest and drops his umbrella on the ground when he goes to climb a tree. While he is climbing, the animals on the forest floor come out to investigate. Brett explains that's how it is in the forest she visited: "You go for a walk, and if you just sit there for a minute everything just comes alive."
Brett loves giving back to the readers who admire her books. She has an extensive Web site (www.janbrett.com) with hundreds of activities and resources for kids, teachers and parents. During the tour, you can find a new blackline drawing on the Web site each day. These can be combined to make a cloud forest mural for classrooms or at home. "I did this for Noah's Ark [set in Botswana], too," Brett remembers. "Teachers got really creative. There's something about a class doing a mural that's so exciting."
Those who attend Brett's visit at Auntie's are in for something a little different than the usual reading. "At the bookstore, I really try to make it a good environment," says Brett. "I'd love to have kids bring drawings of their own when they come. I want to be able to do something to let them know they have this precious gift."
The message Brett most wants her young readers to hear is that they need to keep fostering their creativity. "You have to give yourself time," she explains. "You can't do it if you're always being scheduled. You can't discover your creativity without time."