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Leafy greens

Renowned childrens book author Jan Brett visits the Springs


Jan Brett knows her ungulates. The renowned children's author and illustrator pondered for quite some time about whether the tapir, a small creature that hails from the tropics, was hoofed enough to be considered an ungulate (it is). Brett's latest book, The Umbrella, is a lush picture book that is set in a rainforest (a baby tapir does indeed make the scene). She will be signing copies on Thursday, Oct. 7 at the Barnes & Noble bookstore at Briargate.

Brett goes on an extensive book tour every year, a feat that most authors cannot or are not willing to undertake. "It's my chance to meet people. Teachers do so much for me, so why not return it? It's a relationship," she said.

Brett's bus is "wrapped" like a city bus, using detailed and brightly colored artwork from her book. Traveling by bus allows Brett and her husband, Joe, to bring more props along, including a Hedgie costume (the hedgehog character featured in her previous book The Mitten), easels and a giant backdrop of the rainforest for photo opportunities.

Brett's outstanding picture books have delighted children and their parents for years. Past titles have included On Noah's Ark, The Mitten and Who's That Knocking on Christmas Eve?

The Umbrella is the story of young Carlos, who decides one rainy day to take a walk in the cloud forest. He is sure that he will see many animals, and leaving his umbrella behind on the forest floor, he climbs a tall fig tree in order to get a good look at them. Perched in the tree, Carlos can't figure out where all the animals have gone. Down below, plenty of creatures have discovered his abandoned umbrella. As more animals climb into the umbrella, each bigger than the last, an unexpected event sends them all on a very wet adventure.

The plot is that of a folktale -- the idea of many animals getting into an object and there not being enough room is used worldwide. Brett's story is a retelling, one that will strike many as similar to that of The Mitten. In fact, the idea to do The Umbrella came about when a couple of teachers e-mailed Brett. They loved using The Mitten in their classroom and reported that when they had their class study the rainforest, they used an umbrella instead of a mitten in the story.

Following Brett's recent visit to the Monteverde Cloud Forest in Costa Rica, a storyline evolved, complete with an idea of artwork.

"Of course, I tweaked it so that it wasn't the same story again," said Brett. "The rainforest was so beautiful and benevolent, and not scary at all. There's nothing there -- the animals are so cryptic and quiet. Then all of a sudden they'd all come out at once, and then there'd be silence for another 15 minutes.

"Visually, I wanted to get across the feeling of animals being right there, but just not very easily seen."

Her latest book is also a departure in the sense that her past books have often been focused on snowy themes, including Christmastime, white forests and traditional Scandinavian designs. The Umbrella, by contrast, is alive with color. The kinkajou, tapir, monkey and exotic quetzal bird are all rendered in gorgeous watercolors and topped with a gouache technique in order to apply a more opaque color to her paintings.

"When we traveled to the Cloud Forest, I was amazed at how many forms and shades the leaves would take. I went home and bought every color of green that I could get," said Brett. Still, the leap into gratuitous color also meant more work on her art, resulting in a book that took far longer to complete. "Actually, [painting] the snow is such a relief from busyness," she said. "The Umbrella is so much more detailed. "

Brett is a strong believer in the wonders of a child's mind, in children's ability to absorb and retain information that even adults may not catch. It's for the children, then, that she pours herself into her detailed artwork. "If you look a little bit," said Brett, "and then a little closer ... it'll be rewarded."

-- Kara Luger

Book info

The Umbrella by Jan Brett (G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York) $16.99/hardcover


Jan Brett book signing

Thursday, Oct. 7, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Barnes & Noble, 1565 Briargate Blvd.


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