Jan Brett: The Three Little Dassies

If you have a special child in your life, chances are you’re acquainted with Jan Brett picture books. If you haven’t read a Brett book, you might want to change that situation. You’ll delight in her colorful, detailed illustrations, the satisfying storylines and, perhaps best of all, the secondary stories told pictorially in the page borders. You might start with Brett’s latest book, The Three Little Dassies.

I learned all about dassies while chatting with Brett last week just before her art demonstration and book signing session at the Cincinnati Zoo. The presentation was part of her October promotional tour, during which Brett is traveling across the U.S. in her dassie-decorated bus.

Dassies are groundhog-like creatures with cute, koala-like faces. They live in southern Africa, and Brett encountered them while on a birding trip in Namibia with her husband. After returning home, she couldn’t get the dassies out of her mind. Since the chubby creatures live in family groups in stone homes, Brett realized they would make perfect characters for an African version of the three little pigs.

You can find the finished book at local bookstores and libraries as well as online, but I got a chance to see Brett’s book dummy. Illustrators create these dummy books to work out the pacing of the story and the composition of the individual spreads. You might say they’re the dry run before committing to creating the finished art. Once the illustrator finishes the dummy, he or she sits down with the editor and the art director and hash out any changes that need to be made.

Below is a sample spread from Brett’s dummy for The Three Little Dassies.

See the rope-like designs in the borders? They’re actually strings of wooden beads. Native women in the area wear necklaces of these beads, which give off a scent like sandalwood. But the beads didn’t stay in the border. If you look at the published book, you’ll see the borders are unified with background elements of African grasses and fabrics. You’ll also see that the eagle is clothed—to make him more of a comic or, as Brett put it, “goofy” character as opposed to a scary one.

Covers are an extremely important component in picture books. In an unusual last minute decision, the original cover art was switched out. Here’s the original cover:

Note the clothed, dapper eagle.

Here’s the current cover:

I could go on. Brett bubbled with information about writing and
illustrating picture books, not to mention African geography, culture,
flora and fauna. Her drawing demonstration for her book signing
session inspired me to try my hand at drawing a dassie (I’ll spare you
that picture).

I also got a sneak peak at her upcoming book.
“As usual” Brett told me, “I’m behind schedule, so I’m working on my
next book while on this tour.” She told me and the children attending her presentation that, when working on a finished illustration, “it takes an hour to do an inch.” You can tell from the partial illustration below that Brett’s next book will be set in a more northern clime.

So again, I urge you to head to your favorite book seller or library
and treat yourself to a Jan Brett picture book. An accompanying child
to whom you can read the book is optional. If you can attend a Brett
book presentation/signing, treat yourself to that, too (again, with or
without child). You’ll find a tour schedule at www.janbrett.com.

For more about Jan Brett, see A Storied Art in the April 2009 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.


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