From the January/February 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveler
Jan Brett, an acclaimed author and illustrator of children’s picture books, has integrated travel—of the most fanciful sort—into her work. Whether scoping out wildlife in Botswana for a book on Noah’s Ark or studying troll mythology in northern Sweden, Brett travels in order to imbue her tales with the treasure of authenticity—both factually and visually. The result has been a string of popular titles such as The Hat; Town Mouse, Country Mouse; Annie and the Wild Animals; The Three Snow Bears; and Armadillo Rodeo. Her latest book, The 3 Little Dassies, took her to the African nation of Namibia, where she studied the rabbitlike creatures of the story’s title and also the patterns and designs of tribal fabrics, which appear in the book’s illustrations.
What on Earth are dassies? They’re hyraxes, very odd mammals—subungulates—about the size of marmots or woodchucks. They make a high-pitched sound like a woman’s scream. Guests at African lodges sometimes hear them at night and think they’re leopards. No one has the heart to tell them it was just a hyrax. The animals have these little leathery feet. You see them up in rock cliffs and you can tell where their little caves are because their droppings stain the rocks white.
What are your impressions of Namibia? It’s so out of the way. You feel safe walking around the capital, Windhoek. There’s a town square where you can see the native Himba people. Some of the women are topless, covered with ocher, and selling beautiful little dolls to tourists.
How do you connect kids’ books to travel? It’s a matter of following the story. The first book I illustrated was Fritz and the Beautiful Horses. That involved going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The next book was set in Ireland. I looked at picture books in the library and thought, “It can’t really be like this.” I was a single parent at that time. I borrowed a thousand dollars and took my daughter and my mom to Ireland around St. Patrick’s Day, because that’s when the story takes place. I was amazed to find Ireland really was like that. We went to Dingle on the west coast. The area was unspoiled and had few tourists because tour buses couldn’t get out there at the time, about 30 years ago. It was so beautiful and green; lambs were being born; there was a rainbow every two minutes. The only thing bad was the food, except for breakfast, so we all liked to eat a huge breakfast. One of the stranger places I’ve gone is Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, on Baffin Island. I thought, oh, wow, I could really live here. I went there to research The Three Snow Bears. We went in April instead of February, when it would’ve been 70 below. But it was like going back in time. Everyone is very self-sufficient there.
Do you have a philosophy of travel? For me travel is like a treasure hunt. I go with a list of things to find. For The 3 Little Dassies I needed to find the animals’ habitat and to find the tribal people so I could examine their traditional clothes. One time I did a book about reindeer, and I had to go find out what the bottom of their hooves look like because I wanted to show that in an illustration. Another time it was tree bark; another time, badgers—whatever the story requires. It’s always a treasure hunt.
What else do you look for when you travel? I’m a devoted birder. While in Arctic Sweden to research trolls, we saw a huge grouse called the capercaillie. It lives only in wild places, such as pine forests in Scotland. Scottish weavers sell a tartan kilt with the colors of the bird. The money goes to saving the bird’s habitat. On my first trip to Africa, for the book On Noah’s Ark, we went to see all the great land mammals. But the next time, we went to southern Africa and hired a bird guide. On that trip, everything was much slower. We were on foot rather than chasing all over the place in vehicles trying to find lions at a fresh kill. Walking was just so much more interesting. A lot of times we would stalk a bird for something like 45 minutes. There are so many different kinds of birds in Africa. In Namibia, we went to a World Heritage site called Twyfelfontein. Besides cool birds to find, the site is known for its petroglyphs, occurring in some of the largest concentrations on the continent. That’s where we saw Verreaux’s eagle, which is also called the black eagle, and the dassies as well. As it turned out, I did not use the petroglyphs we came across in the book, but they were pretty amazing to see.
So what you found there helped shape the concept for the book? Oh, yes. I noticed that the dassies live in stone “houses” like one of the three little pigs. That struck a chord with me. And then on a book tour, I asked all the kids what to do with the story. I’d say, “I’m going to create a book set in Africa about these little dassies that are like the three little pigs. Who do you think should play the role of the wolf? I could make it a hyena or a lion or the Verreaux’s eagle, which is the dassies’ natural predator.” The kids would always recommend the natural predator.
What favorite things have you brought back from your travels? I’ll describe my art desk: I have my paints; a book about trees all in Swedish, which I cannot read; a huge chunk of reindeer moss; four rolls of birch bark; about ten different containers, which I’ve found in antique shops, to hold my pens and pencils; my clock that shows the time in Iraq, because my kids are Marines and sometimes they’re in Iraq; a stack of books I want to send somebody; eggs that I’ve decorated from my chickens; and I’ve got my bird books.
Keith Bellows is the editor of Traveler.