Children’s author riding storybook bus to Cobleskill

Every autumn, Jan Brett and her husband climb aboard a colorful bus and criss-cross America.
Jan Brett's tour bus will be in Cobleskill Friday.
Jan Brett's tour bus will be in Cobleskill Friday.

Every autumn, Jan Brett and her husband climb aboard a colorful bus and criss-cross America.

For more than two weeks, Brett, America’s beloved author/illustrator of children’s picture books, and her mate, live like rock stars, eating and sleeping on the bus as she meets thousands of her young fans.

This year, the first town on their 23-stop tour is the Schoharie County village of Cobleskill.

At 4 p.m. on Friday, the bus will be parked at SUNY Cobleskill, and it will be easy to find, because it’s wrapped in a winter wonderland scene from Brett’s latest book, “The Animals’ Santa,” and covered with forest characters, like a joyful white rabbit in a red-trimmed vest, marching mice and dancing squirrels.

At 5 p.m., in the college’s Bouck Hall Ballroom, Brett will give a presentation and then sign books.

Children will be welcome to pose for pictures in front of the bus or with Hedgie, a costumed hedgehog character from “The Mitten” and “The Hat,” two of Brett’s best-known books.

During an interview with The Gazette, Brett suggested that children bring a pad of paper.

Author/illustrator Jan Brett

WHEN: 5 p.m. Friday

WHAT: Program and book-signing

WHERE: Bouck Hall Ballroom, SUNY Cobleskill, Route 10/7, Cobleskill.

HOW MUCH: Free. Books will be available for purchase.


“This year, I show the children how to draw a rabbit, because that’s the main character. It’s really fun,” says Brett, who has a merry lilt to her voice and laughs often as she chats on the phone.

“I don’t do a reading from the book. I bring my easel and my paints. I bring my artwork. I tell them how I got the idea and how the characters evolved.”

Traveling with her on the bus is a live rabbit, which Brett will show the children.

“He’s very cute. He’s white, with a little bit of black around his ears and gray on his nose. And he’s got gray eyebrows. He looks like Michael Caine. You know, the actor. I chose one, out of a whole litter of bunnies, that looked like the rabbit in the book.”

SUNY Cobleskill is expecting a big crowd for Brett, a New York Times best-selling author who has created 35 books over the last three decades and has 39 million of them in print.

The last time she signed books in our area was in 1997, at The Open Door book store in Schenectady, according to The Gazette archives.

“We have people coming from as far away as Syracuse,” says Lois Goblet, the college’s chief advancement officer.

Ready for visit

Faculty and students have been preparing for her visit for months. In the two daycare centers on campus, Early Childhood and Graphic Arts majors have been reading Brett’s books to the children. Fish and Wildlife students have been teaching the kids about animals.

“They have a real white rabbit in their classroom,” says Goblet.

The Woodsmen’s Team, a campus club, has even built a decorative arbor as an homage to “The Animals’ Santa” and the ornate borders on its pages, which were inspired by Native American designs made with porcupine quills.

While the event is free, visitors are invited to bring hats and mittens that will be donated to local schools, Goblet says.

While researching the book, which tells the tale of forest animals trying to uncover a Christmas mystery, Brett traveled to Newfoundland.

“We even had a dinner from all the food that people catch and hunt. There was moose and salmon and cod and different kinds of preserves and all these wonderful things.”

The animal characters wear bold patterned clothing with designs derived from traditional Native American clothing that Brett studied at Harvard’s Peabody Museum.

“They had little tobacco tins, like little bells. So I put those on my creatures,” she says.

“But I didn’t copy one tribe, because I wanted it to be its own tribe. I’m picturing these animals almost as a lost tribe. So magical things can happen. It’s kind of mystical, and the ravens are kind of mystical.”

Like “The Mitten,” “The Hat,” and other Brett books, her new story is set in a snowy landscape.

“I just love winter. I love to be out in the winter. I love the snowy sports,” she says.

“The best thing is when you go to bed and it’s all brown in the middle of the winter and there’s no snow yet and everything is dead. Then it snows in the night and the first thing you realize is that it’s so quiet. You go outside and sometimes you can get lost in your own backyard because everything looks so different. It looks like a fairyland.”

Brett’s home, two-acre backyard and studio is in the seacoast town of Norwell, Massachusetts, not far from where she grew up, and she lives there with her husband, Joseph Hearne, a bassist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and a flock of award-winning ornamental chickens that she breeds, sells and shows.

In the summer, when Hearne plays at Tanglewood, the couple pack up the chickens and move to their cabin in the Berkshire Hills.

Next spring, Brett, who turns 65 on Dec. 1, plans to run in the Boston Marathon.

“I’ve started training. This will be my 10th,” she says.

World travelers

While Brett creates her books at home in Massachusetts, she is always traveling around the world to do research, because of her husband’s job or to see her daughter and grandchildren.

“We’ve been to Africa seven times. We’ve been to Europe because of the orchestra. We went to Russia for the chicken book [“Cinders: A Chicken Cinderella”] and a little bit of South America. For ‘The Owl and the Pussycat,’ we went to Martinique. We’ve been to the Scandinavian countries a lot,” she says.

“Next year, we go on a big tour for the orchestra. That will be all the countries in Europe.”

Brett has a daughter, Leah, who is married and has two children.

“My daughter is in the Marine Corps, so we always go and see her. She’s in Japan now but she’s been in Qatar and we went to Korea to see her.”

The author and her husband journey to the Capital Region, too.

Hearne has a son and a daughter who live in Albany, and the couple stop in Schenectady on their way to poultry shows in Syracuse and the Southern Tier.

Every September, they head to the Cobleskill Fairgrounds for the fall show of Eastern New York State Poultry Association.

“My favorite thing is the New England asters in bloom, to find the real dark purple ones, along that road, from Cobleskill to Albany,” says Brett.

Reach Gazette reporter Karen Bjornland at 395-3197 or [email protected]

Categories: Entertainment

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