DECORAH | It's one of those chicken-and-the-egg questions best-selling children's book author and illustrator Jan Brett loves to answer: Which came to roost first? Her passion for raising poultry or the beautifully drawn tale of "Cinders: A Chicken Cinderella," Brett's newest book?
Brett, 63, is beloved for her lushly illustrated stories about lovable, adventurous animals and modern children's classics such as "Gingerbread Baby" and "The Mitten." She has more than 38 million books in print, and her latest book reimagines the "Cinderella" fairy tale when one magical night, Cinders, the most hen-pecked hen in the flock, becomes the belle of Prince Cockerel's ball. The book was released Tuesday.
The author will bring her 24-market national tour to a sold-out event at 10 a.m. next Sunday at Decorah High School, hosted by the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum. Her appearance is in conjunction with the exhibition "The World of Jan Brett," on display through Jan. 5 at the Vesterheim. She'll arrive in a rock-star-style bus wrapped in artwork from "Cinders."
Inspiration for this latest book, she says, came from her flock. Brett, who lives in Massachusetts, breeds, sells and shows ornamental chickens -- Silkies, Cochins, buff Brahmas, a Silver Phoenix and Polish, too. When she's on tour, a chicken sitter cares for her feathered friends.
In summer, when she and her husband Joe, a bassist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, relocate to the Berkshires where he performs, the flock goes along for the ride. Brett grew up with a menagerie of animals and has always loved the gossipy, garrulous birds.
"Mine are like racehorses -- they have good bloodlines. I'm up to about 100 in a giant barn that's pretty sound-proof. I tend to elaborate on their personalities," she says, laughing. "I think of them like movie stars -- John Wayne, Johnny Depp, Marilyn Monroe. One might be demure, one a Miss Smarty Pants, there's a grouchy one and the goody-goody girl who is always very solicitous.
"Chickens are so funny, so transparent. I have one who likes to be picked up and cuddled, and a male that when I walk in, he lands on my shoulder or my head if I have on a hat. His son is the same way. I notice things about them, like one chicken is extra bossy and one is not very nice, and that made me think about Cinderella's stepmother and stepsisters. I thought the juxtapositioning could be really cute," Brett explains.
Brett, known for her research around the world for book settings, wanted this story set in winter and to dress her chickens in gorgeous ball gowns, gold-rimmed uniforms, even corsets. That notion was reinforced by a trip to Russia where she visited palaces, dachas, museums, St. Petersburg and Novgorod's famous wooden structures.
"St. Petersburg was very beautiful and grand and Novgorod, with its classic onion domes and tons of gingerbread trim, looked like something out of a fairy tale. I saw beautiful, bejeweled costumes in silks and embroidered folk costumes just as beautiful in cottons. I walked in the woods near the Baltic Sea and heard a real cuckoo. I could hardly wait to start on this book's illustrations," she enthuses.
Her books are for children but are exquisitely layered and detailed, works of art that grow up with a child. "Books were magical for me growing up. I loved the ones that were so detailed that I felt that I could walk into the pages. I want children to have that same experience."
In person, children adore Brett. She doesn't just sign their books but talks to them about where her ideas come from, draws little pictures for them and tries to coax out their creativity.
"I hope I live up to what they think I'll be like. I love those magical moments with kids. They’ll tell me things, and they're very thoughtful. I just want to encourage them."
"Cinders: A Chicken Cinderella," $17.99, is available at major booksellers and online book sources.