Jan Brett | Children’s Stories

Once Upon a Time…


Jan Brett, children’s book writer and illustrator, writes children’s stories and also encourages the young, budding artists. Brett’s story was featured in the June 2011 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.

By Holly Davis


“Kids are natural artists,” says picture book author and illustrator Jan Brett. True, but parents, grandparents and others with children in their lives aren’t always confident about how to encourage that natural bent.

Brett, however, doesn’t just talk about children’s creativity and write children’s stories; she draws it out (literally). While on a book tour this past fall for her latest release, The 3 Little Dassies (a version of The Three Little Pigs, set in Africa), she gave live drawing demonstrations, such as the one described below that took place at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden.

Jan Brett Drawing Demonstrations | "The 3 Little Dassies"

Jan Brett adds imagination to authenticity as she demonstrates how to draw a dassie wearing the traditional headdress of the Herero women of southern Africa.

A dassie—or rock dassie—is more formally known as a rock hyrax, a chubby little creature native to southern Africa that resembles a woodchuck with a bit of koala thrown in (though the dassie isn’t related to either). In Brett’s book, dassies decked out in the traditional dress of African Herero women play the roles of the three little pigs. A dassie was also the subject of Brett’s drawing demonstration.

“When you draw a creature in a story, you can show what’s going on by what the creature’s doing with its eyes,” said Brett. With her hand covering all her facial features except her eyes, she had the children in the audience guess the different emotions she was expressing—happiness, sadness, surprise, anger. They answered enthusiastically, as well as correctly, even describing in their own words the more complex emotion of wonderment. Brett’s point was made: The eyes would be an important part of her drawing.

Jan Brett Posing with Two African Herero Women | "The 3 Little Dassies"

Jan Brett (center) poses with two Herero women.

After describing her drawing materials (markers, to make the drawing visible to the audience, though a pencil and eraser are her usual choice for sketching), she began drawing as she advised, “Start with simple shapes.” And so she continued for about 20 minutes, not only explaining each step with tips about materials, anatomical details, shading, line thickness and colors, but also making real the dassies’ world as she described the terrain of their homeland, their habits and predators, the dress of the Herero people and much more. This was no dry textbook account—Brett had visited the region, and her facts were laced with anecdotes.

Brett’s picture book renditions of dassies combine the real and the fanciful, which the illustrator addressed by recounting her experience as a nursery school child making a headband as part of a study unit on Native Americans. She’d had to choose between attaching an actual turkey feather (closer in appearance to an authentic eagle feather, but not very colorful) or a colored feather (dyed in lovely hues, such as turquoise or magenta, but not very realistic). “I remember thinking,” she said, “that artists were probably divided into two kinds of people—those who preferred the authentic and those who would make things up. Then I got older and realized that’s not true—you can do something that’s authentic and then use your artistic license.”

As she finished her demonstration, she asked her young audience to look closely at their fingers and thumbs. “Did you know,” Brett asked, “that nobody has a fingerprint exactly like yours? It’s the same way when you draw a picture or write a story. No one has the same kind of talent as you do.” Brett then challenged each child to find a quiet spot in the next couple of days and create a drawing. It seems altogether possible that most of them followed her advice.

Brett’s book tour for The 3 Little Dassies is over, but, at any time, children can enjoy her instruction through her website (www.janbrett.com). Within its 4,000 pages are how-to-draw videos as well as downloadable artwork and instructions for making pictures, bookmarks, games, flashcards, greeting cards, murals and much more. Her facebook page (www.facebook.com/byjanbrett) suggests daily activities.


Jan Brett's Bus Tour for "The 3 Little Dassies" | Children's Stories

Fans in 23 U.S. cities enjoyed Jan Brett’s book discussions and illustration sessions at each signing.

Find other stories about the lives of some inspirational artists in the June 2011 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.


Check out “First Steps: Drawing and Painting Animals” for a better look at drawing animals.




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