Bestselling author Jan Brett visits WAEC

Jan Brett spoke with students at WAEC on Tuesday morning before giving them a drawing demonstration.

A New York Times bestselling author was at Warren Area Elementary Center on Tuesday.

Jan Brett, author and illustrator of children’s books, whose stories and illustrations are known worldwide for their intricacy and fidelity to the cultural landscapes of the places they depict, visited WAEC as part of her “like Jan Brett” contest.

In its eighth year running, Brett said the contest started as a way to fulfill the numerous requests she got for school and library visits.

“Everyone said to me ‘you should come here,’ or ‘you should come here.’ Everyone really wanted and felt like they would benefit from a visit,” said Brett. “But we knew we didn’t want to charge money for it, so it became a question of how do you choose?”

The contest, which simply asks interested parents, teachers, administrators, family members, and students to vote for their school or library each year, started in early February of 2017, said WAEC librarian Laura Demers.

“A PTO mom told me about it,” said Demers. “As soon as I heard about it I said, ‘yes, we are on it.'”

Demers started telling everyone to vote for WAEC (through social media), and the votes started rolling in. A total of 89,133 votes came in for the 2017 contest, spread among 8,335 schools and libraries worldwide.

And, after the contest ended, which Brett said, “was neck and neck,” WAEC actually came in second place. But the difference between WAEC and the number-one school, Robious Elementary in Midlothian, Va., was only 18 votes. Robious came up with 5,618 votes and WAEC got a total of 5,600 even. The top ten schools also got 10 copies of Brett’s books, and the top 90 schools received a signed poster for her new book “The Mermaid.”

“Since I was very small,” said Brett, “I’ve loved books and I’ve loved to draw.”

Originally, she intended to be an illustrator for children’s books.

“If you’d have come into my kindergarten class,” Brett told students in two assemblies Tuesday morning, “and you’d asked me what I wanted to be, I’d have told you I wanted to be an illustrator. And my job is even better than I ever dreamed.”

Each day, Brett said she gets up, feeds her chickens, “and then I get to color all day.”

It’s more than just coloring, though, Brett said, as she demonstrated some of her drawing techniques, from shading to bringing the eyes of her characters to life with emotion. Each element of a given page can take hours to complete, she said, and it takes about a year to finish a book because her illustrations are so complex and detailed.

They are also heavily researched, said Brett.

Her favorite part of writing and illustrating the over 40 books she’s produced in her career, has been visiting the places where her books are set, to make sure that she’s getting the ambiance right. She’s been to Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Okinawa, Martinique, Russia, and Costa Rica, among other places, she said. Wherever she goes, Brett said she tries to pay attention to all of the little details of the place, from sights and sounds to cultural beliefs, practices, and styles of dress or mannerism.

Originally, she wanted to illustrate books about horses.

“Or be an Olympic horse rider,” she laughed.

Brett said that she loved writing so much because it gave her a chance to collect her thoughts and plan what she wanted to say. Like many who pursue literary or artistic careers, Brett said she struggled with social skills like conversation. Illustration and drawing, she said, “let me slow down my thinking. I would talk and things would come out wrong, but when I had time to plan, with a drawing, what I wanted to say I could get it out without making those mistakes.”

Brett said that part of what she loves so much about visiting schools and libraries to meet with the children who read her work is that it gives her a chance to inspire those children who may be struggling with similar things. “I think everybody finds a place where there’s a truth for them,” said Brett. For some it might be a mechanic, who just comes by an understanding of engineering and how all the pieces work together. For another, it might be a doctor, who can naturally see how all the parts of the body work together as a whole. And for others, like her, Brett said it’s a natural tendency toward observing and relating the world around them through nonverbal means.

“This,” said Brett of illustration, “is my happy place.” Talking about her books, however, has been a bit of a learning curve, Brett said. Originally, she only ever planned to be an illustrator but her editor convinced her that it would be far easier to get into the publishing game if she also wrote the stories. What she learned from her editor, she said, is that “there are only a set number of stories,” but that how each author takes those stories and makes them unique is what sets them apart.

“I think if I have any talent at all,” said Brett, “it’s that I can remember being five or six years old.” Children, said Brett, have such strong emotions and such depth of emotion, and a very keen ability to observe and take in the world. “The emotions, they’re all valid,” said Brett. “But they often don’t have the experience or the words to express them.” That, said Brett, is what she loves so much about illustration. “It’s a visual language that children just automatically understand even if they don’t have the words or the experience to say it.

Brett said she relishes the opportunity to see schools providing opportunities for students to access books because “it brings education to their lives. Once you love books, once you love the library, no one can ever take that away from you. It can take you out of your world and give you access to the whole world.” An appreciation for the power that books, reading, and the knowledge one gains from reading, said Brett, is one of the greatest contributions a teacher can make in a child’s life. Reading, creative writing, and illustration also, said Brett, give children an opportunity to develop good problem solving skills of the sort that can’t be looked up in a book. The type of skills, she said, that have to come from the creative thinking muscles that such activities stretch.

And writing books, said Brett, is how she’s gotten to all of the amazing places in the world that she would never otherwise have gone to.