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An eye for detail — Children's author/illustrator Jan Brett says life is about the possibilities

When Jan Brett was little, her parents let her choose clothes to wear, and one day she decided to be all in red: red shoes, red shirt, red pants, red sweater. The only problem: They were all different colors of red and they didn't particularly go well together.

"I didn't know anything about clashing colors," she said. But when she got to school, her friends began to make fun of her because nothing matched.

But Brett had a very wise mother, who had told her that if other people made fun of her that instead of getting hurt or defensive she should try to create a distraction. So little Jan told her classmates, "Well, I'm a cardinal. And they are all red. What kind of bird are you?" And suddenly everyone was trying to come up with a bird that matched their own clothes.

Years and years later, when Brett was writing her book "The Hat," about a hedgehog that got a sock stuck on his head, and when the other animals laughed at him turned it into a wonderful hat, she realized she was really telling the story of her "cardinal" clothes.

Maybe, when kids read "The Hat," they will discover a way to handle it if other kids make fun of them. Or, not. Maybe, because that story is set in Denmark, they will just enjoy all the fun bits and pieces of Danish culture. Or, maybe because Brett's books are full of such vivid colors, her readers will delight in the way the images tickle their senses. Maybe they will get caught up in the secondary story played out in silence in the margins. Maybe they will love the story because of the whimsical animals or maybe just because it is being read to them by a special person.

That's the thing about Brett's books: They can be enjoyed on so many different levels. They are not books to just read and set aside. They are books to delve into.

"When I was little, I would close my eyes and put my finger on a page," Brett said in a telephone interview from her Massachusetts home. "Then in my mind I would go to that place."

Once there, so many possibilities opened up. And that's what she hopes to offer kids. That's really what her books are about — possibilities.

"Children have such vibrant minds. They need to play. They need to be creative. They need to imagine. It's so important for their sense of self discovery. And it helps them learn problem-solving. They can look at characters and think maybe they will do A or maybe B or maybe something that's never been done before."

She remembers a book on the "Arabian Nights" that she was given as a girl. On the cover was an Arabian warrior dressed in a turban and jewels. And he had a little rip in his clothes. "Wow. All the questions that came up because of that little rip. I loved that. That little rip offered so many possibilities."

Brett will be talking about the possibilities of her latest book, "The Umbrella," when she visits Utah as part of her Umbrella Bus Tour. She'll be visiting the Layton Hills Mall on Friday from 5-7 p.m. to talk about the book and about writing. There'll be posters and pictures, and she'll sign books and give out buttons.

With 30 titles and more than 26 million books in print with numerous appearances on the New York Times Best Seller lists to her credit, Brett is considered one of the foremost author/illustrators in the field of children's literature today.

"The Umbrella" takes place in a Costa Rican rain forest, which is filled with amazing and intriguing plants, animals and insects — if you take time to see them. "You go in there, and it seems empty until you stop and look," said Brett. "And then you see this big, impressive, very beautiful place."

She captures it in detail in the book. It is that same eye for detail that has endeared her to readers young and old in books such as "The Mitten," "The Trouble With Trolls," "Berlioz The Bear" and "On Noah's Ark" as well as her re-telling of such tales as "Beauty and the Beast" and "Cinderella."

From the age of 6, Brett wanted to illustrate children's books. "I was very shy. But drawing was a way to feel good about myself. I drew all the time. I did horses. And people would tell me they looked good, and I would feel good."

She also read to a lot. "My grandmother would give me a beautiful book each year. I especially loved the Beatrix Potter books. They were very detailed. And I promised myself that was what I'd do. I also loved the big words she used. I was excited because I knew what they meant from the context. I put a few big words in for just that reason."

Brett studied at the Boston Museum of Fine Art School and attended Colby-Sawyer college.

"And then I illustrated the backs of boats, and menus and textbooks and greeting cards," all the time taking her illustrations to publishers of children's books. "Finally, I went to a publisher who told me it would be better if I could come up with my own story as well as the illustrations."

She was 27 when she got her first book published. "Each year I'd do more books and less other stuff until finally my dream came true."

The story always comes first in her books, she said. The hardest part is to come up with the little "aha," the little surprise turning point that is always part of the story. "I don't want it to be bland."

Once she has the story, she thinks of how to illustrate it. "I'm not good at mechanical things or buildings or old people. So you won't see many of those."

She is good at animals. And at travel. It is no accident that each of her books is set in a different location: China, Russia, Norway, Germany, even Martinique. Her next book, called "Honey, Honey, Honey," takes place in Africa.

"I want to help kids delve (it seems to be a favorite word) into places they might never go. Or might want to go someday. After I read 'Ping,' I always wanted to go to China."

So she encourages kids to read. And she encourages them to draw. "If you get to a point where you're having trouble with something," she advised, "look at your drawing in the mirror. You'll see it in a whole new way. You'll see that maybe one eye is higher or a shoulder is off-balance."

Another tip: "If you want to know what color something really is, make a circle with your thumb and finger and look through that. That strips away everything else so you see the color of the water or the pavement or a tree. I tell kids that if they are bored while waiting for their parents to pick them up, make a circle and compare the bark of the nearest trees. You'll see that one may be green and one brown and one may have lichens."

In that same way, look at the detail in books, she said. "In one picture, an animal's fur may be flat. In the next, it's puffed up. Why is that? Every detail is there for a reason."

It is that ability to really see what is going on around you, she said, "that makes life so much more rich and interesting. It's that connection to something out of yourself that leads to a sense of self discovery — that helps you blossom and unfold."

Life offers lessons and layers and possibilities, she said. "Delve into them."


E-mail: carma@desnews.com