Best-selling American children’s author and illustrator Jan Brett may not know it, but she helped put my kids to sleep about a million times when they were younger. Her 1992 book, “Trouble with Trolls,” was a mainstay bedtime story in the Cahill house. So when an email came announcing Brett’s tour for her latest book, “The Tale of the Tiger Slippers,” would have a stop at Farmington Public Library – and would offer books sold at Maria’s Bookshop – it seemed like the perfect time to get her on the phone.
“The Tale of the Tiger Slippers” is the story of a tiger cub who is a hard worker. His mother stitches him a pair of slippers when she notices the pain in his feet caused by sharp thorns and stones. As the cub grows into an adult, his hard work makes him successful. Despite his wealth, he still wears the slippers his mother made him; although by now they are worn and shabby and are constantly made fun of by other animals. The tiger tries to get rid of the slippers by many methods – chucking them in a river, tossing them over a wall, etc.
But the slippers always find their way back.
Finally, when the tiger has a cub of his own, the son suggests the father build a special place for them that would allow the tiger to remember all the hard work that got him to where he is now while allowing him to wear new shoes.
Brett said the book is based on the classic Persian folktale “Abu Kassem’s Slippers.”
“The original is quite grim and old-fashioned,” she said. “The secondary story – the story behind the story – is that psychologically, you can’t control the things that happen to you in your life; sometimes they’re bad, sometimes they’re good. But you can’t just make them disappear. But you can put them in a place where you can contemplate them, but they don’t have to control you – one doesn’t have to see them every day.”
It’s a story that can be found in other books as well, she said.
“I read about this in this novel, ‘Cutting with Stone’ by Abraham Verghese, and it was also in one of Michael Crichton’s novels, ‘Eaters of the Dead.’ Both these books had the same fable, and I thought, ‘Wow. It really resonates with people,” she said. “And I love the idea that like Shakespeare, it’s on two levels. It’s a funny story about the runaway slippers, and finally contained them, but it’s also got this deeper meaning.”
To research “The Tale of the Tiger Slippers,” Brett traveled to India, where she took an expedition to nature parks Bandhavgarh, Kanha and Panna. She said the book is a combination of the beauty and mystique of the animal and her interest in art from the Mughal Dynasty at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Brett, who has also written the children’s classics, “The Mitten,” “Berlioz the Bear” and “Honey ... Honey ... Lion!” said she has always illustrated, that it’s an important part of who she is.
“I’ve wanted to do it ever since I was a little girl, the illustration part, so it all comes from that. And that’s just part of my being, if I could use that word, is to draw,” she said. “I was very shy when I was little, and very early on, drawing a picture and being able to think about it and put out what I wanted to communicate, even if it was on a different subject than having a conversation with a person, it was very fulfilling to me, it really just made me tick.”
As she got older and attended art school, Brett said when she would take her portfolio around to publishers for jobs, she was told she’d have to pivot a bit – that it would be easier for her to get work if she could write as well as illustrate. It was advice she took, but even now, drawing remains her first love. And because of that, she said when she begins a new book, she must write it first, otherwise, she risks having only half a story.
“I write first because it would be so easy to get in love with a character or a setting and then not be able to have the plot. I always have to start with the plot,” she said, adding that writing can be difficult for her, so she has little tricks she plays in her mind to help get the ball rolling. “Some people are just writers and that’s what they do; they love writing. I have to trick myself. But the artwork is the opposite: I’m just compelled to draw and to make the make-believe world.”
Brett said when she goes to book-signings, she likes to spend time drawing pictures for the children and telling them how she gets ideas for her books.
“The one thing I want to impress on them is that this magic that happens when you start concentrating on your drawing and the real world kind of fades away, and then all of a sudden the importance of what you’re drawing as you add what kind of weather it is, what the characters are saying, what they’re wearing, the fur – is the wind blowing in their fur? – and then it becomes a realer world than the world around you, which could be a corner of your bedroom or something dull and boring,” she said. “Ever since I was little, I’ve loved that transformation. I just want the kids to know that that can happen.”
And for an author who has been writing children’s books for more than 30 years – and boasts more than 42 million books in print – the novelty of creating stories hasn’t worn off, Brett said.
“It never gets old,” she said, “it never gets old.”