Author and illustrator: Jan Brett
Details: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, $18.99; ages 4 to 8.
In the simply titled “Mermaid,” Kiniro, a young mermaid, happens upon a delightful house made of seashells and coral. Her curiosity gets the better of her, and she swims inside. There, Kiniro finds breakfast waiting on a table in three different sized seashells. The food in the first shell tastes too crunchy. The contents of the second shell tastes too slimy, but the third seashell of food tastes just right. Replete with a perfect meal, Kiniro proceeds to the living area, where she spies three chairs.
Adults reading “Mermaid” aloud can expect young readers to interrupt at this point.
They will have heard this story before. Sure enough, bestselling author and illustrator Jan Brett tells an underwater version of “Goldilocks.” What a charming story and beautiful collection of illustrations Brett presents. Like the more than 40 million other of her books in print, “Mermaid” takes readers on an adventure in another world, this time under the sea.
Instead of three bears, Brett’s version features three octopuses who have built a perfectly inviting home. Instead of a fair-haired girl, a raven-haired mermaid does the testing of the food, the chairs and finally the beds. When the octopus family returns, a shocked Baby finds Kiniro asleep in her bed. In a twist on the classic tale, shock turns to happiness as Kiniro proffers a special gift before her final escape.
And now for the story behind the story. As always, travel inspires Brett.
“A baby octopus waved its little arms at me when I glimpsed it on some coral while in the ocean off the island of Okinawa when I was visiting my daughter and her husband,” Brett states on the book jacket in a note to her readers. “It wasn’t until I returned home and was musing over what creatures would take the place of the three bears in my under-the-sea Goldilocks story that it dawned on me that octopuses, intelligent and mischievous, would be just right. I admired the Okinawan houses and made the octopus house like the island ones. When I worried out loud that the octopuses looked alien, my young friend Alma suggested they wear hats. Now the setting and the clothes were Japanese.”
Brett researches her source material assiduously, and the results appear not only in the main illustrations but inside her trademarked border, or keyhole. illustrations that frame the pages and tell another story or foreshadow the main plot in her books.
After her trip to Japan, which provided the initial inspiration for her latest children’s book, Brett visited the New England Aquarium in Boston. An aquarist and curator introduced Brett to Sy, a giant Pacific female octopus.
Brett decided to be an illustrator when she was a child. On her website, janbrett.com, she writes: “Now I try to recreate that feeling of believing that the imaginary place I’m drawing really exists. The detail in my work helps to convince me, and I hope others as well, that such places might be real.”
Brett lives in a coastal town in Massachusetts, close to where she grew up. In the summer, she and her husband, Joseph Hearne, move to a home near Tanglewood, Mass., in the Berkshire Mountains. Hearne is a bass player for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and they travel together all over the world. Brett gets inspiration for books from researching architecture, clothing, historical customs, people and landscapes wherever they go.
Meet the author and illustrator when she makes a stop on her national book tour. Brett will give a presentation that includes a drawing demonstration when she visits The BookMark in Neptune Beach at 5 p.m. Friday.
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