Take an underwater 'travel trip' with Jan Brett

TYRINGHAM — If Jan Brett has learned anything in the more than 30 years as a children's book author and illustrator creating dazzling, delicate worlds for little readers is those same little readers have big, capable minds.

"It's the best when they get their little pointed finger out to show you something," Brett said with a laugh during a recent phone interview from her summer home in Tyringham. "The children reading my books might not have a huge vocabulary but they have the same vibrant brain that will develop over time," she said. "It's all there: the creativity — and quite a lot of opinions — and the intelligence is there, too."

And she takes the job of feeding their intelligence seriously. When Brett's not watching her husband, Joseph Hearne, a bassist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, perform, or taking a run through Tyringham Valley, she's spending months researching her next book, pouring over materials and squeezing in eight hours of drawing a day.

Her dedication to the work, and honoring the intelligence of her young audience, is apparent in her newest book "The Mermaid." Just ask her where the inspiration for the underwater spin on "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" came from and she'll take you on a journey through the coral reefs off the coast of Okinawa, Japan, and face-to-face with a Giant Pacific Octopus at the New England Aquarium.

The book, released in late August, revisits the classic children's tale (we all remember, "Ahhh, this chair is just right.") but instead of three bears it's three octopuses, and Goldilocks' golden locks are replaced with the dark tendrils of Kiniro, a young mermaid.

"Goldilocks was the first book I ever illustrated," said Brett, who now has more than 40 million books in print. "It's really a book about curiosity. Everybody has favorite trait. It might be ambition, might be caring for others, but for me it's curiosity. It drives so much of our life force and exploring. There's something so human about it."

It's that curiosity on a trip about 12 years ago visiting her daughter who was in the Marine Corps stationed in Okinawa at the time that sparked the colorful backdrop for "The Mermaid."

"I thought, 'What if I could set the story in Okinawa with a mermaid under the water,' " she said. From there she set off trying to figure out what underwater creature could take the place of the bears. At first she thought about walruses, "I love walruses — they're slightly threatening but intelligent ... and walruses would be so cute with mustaches!" But then realized they lived in the Bering Sea, so that wouldn't work. When she asked her prime audience what sea creatures would work, she got a lot of shark ideas, "boys just love sharks," but she feared they wouldn't be a mindful enough creature for the story.

One day, her son-in-law said while he was snorkeling that he saw a baby octopus waving its arms.

"He was so excited about it, I thought 'That's what I should do,' " she said.

From there she immersed herself in the world of octopuses, going so far as to have an arms length experience with one at the New England Aquarium. Her dedication to the research is apparent in her whimsical illustrations, where every sucker on each of the eight arms looks ready to attach to something.

But it's still a children's book.

"It's fun to imagine another world," Brett said, pointing to the small details, such as how there are eight tea cups or eight toys for the baby octopus to play with.

She's already working on her next book — about a hedgehog in Denmark — and fans can expect more detailed work that makes her illustrations highly recognizable. Fan favorites include, "The Mitten" (1989), "Gingerbread Baby" (1999), and "The Night Before Christmas," (1998) with wintry scenes inspired by Stockbridge.

"I've been accused of doing too many snowy stories," she said with a laugh.

While she opted for a warmer climate for this story, she always likes to stick with animals.

"Animals are much more fun to the draw then people," she said. "I don't do too many reptile books, they don't have quite the appeal to me. Animals just have great expressions."

Brett hopes her work inspires little readers to go on what she calls "travels trips," whether it be experiencing what an octopus' house might look like undersea, or a hedgehog's snowy bed.

And her readers can count on a travel trip well researched.

"I always felt insulted when a book was too simple," Brett said of being a young reader. "When you're old enough to start reading or have books read to you, it's wonderful to spend a lot of time on that one page pouring over the details. It's a nice introduction to books."


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