On The Road With Jan Brett
The vehicle formerly known as Kid Rock’s “Red Blooded Rock 'n' Roll Redneck Extravaganza” tour bus is rumbling along the interstate as Greg mans the steering wheel and Jan Brett takes a nap in the rear berth. The Prevost X3-45’s jet black exterior has been upholstered in a soft blue wrap decorated with smiling tigers in silk robes; the inside has been furnished with needlepoint throw pillows and rooster crockery from Brett’s home. We are less on the highway to hell and more on the highway to coffee and a biscuit: The Tale Of The Tiger Slippers tour is making its way from a strip mall on Long Island to a high school auditorium in Pennsylvania in late November. At 3:30 p.m., the light is flat on the tussocks of western New Jersey, and the sun is already getting ready to set. “Jan’s having a great nap,” Joe Hearne, Brett’s husband of 39 years, says to the publicist. He’s pleased for her.
But the bus is running late. That’s bad. Traffic has been stoked by weathermen gesturing at incoming wiggles on satellite pictures only to curdle here on I-78. Google Maps is consulted every few minutes, check-ins are had with the drivers, call sheets stared at with concern. A long line of fans, multiple newspaper reporters, and at least one television crew are waiting at the destination for Jan. Brett emerges from the back of the bus — she looks nicely rested. “Sleep is my wonder drug,” she says to Hearne.
On the shoulder, highway message boards advise “WEATHER ALERT: AVOID UNNECESSARY TRAVEL.”
Well, this is very necessary.
Brett has sold over 41 million books, and is the only children’s book author who makes a habit of putting on rock star bus tours every year, often pegged to a fall release. Last year she chartered the “Snowy Nap Express” from east to west, and she’s currently late handing in her pages for next year’s title. “I'm always late on my book,” she says. This year it was because of her chickens. Around 200 chickens, all of whom she knows by name. Taking care of the chickens “is a lot of work, because I'm vaccinating.” What she means by that is she's vaccinating them all herself, and here’s how that goes: “Okay, guys,” — out comes the needle — “turn them upside down.”
She is currently motoring across middle America on her 18th national book tour, having inoculated the chickens and released her 45th book. If Brett were a musician, we could describe her as platinum 41 times over, to give you a sense for the units this trim blonde 70-year-old, who at any moment looks ready to clip on nordic skis and go for a schuss, can move. (For comparison, John Green has sold around 45 million copies of his books.) It takes her an hour to paint an inch of her intricate artwork, created at the same aspect you’ll see her work printed and bound. Unlike her digital counterparts, if she changes her mind about the fill in a border, she has to carefully paint over it in gouache with a tiny brush until it’s gone. And there is always the opportunity to put your fist on a patch of wet paint and mess something up. Brett still sends her paintings by registered mail to the publisher (though Hearne scans them first just in case these days), having stayed with G. Putman & Sons through multiple acquisitions and mergers over the past 30 years with nary a rumble.
A new Jan Brett title gets a print run of 100,000 right off the bat, a monstrous achievement in the current publishing landscape (unless you are Michelle Obama). It will also bring out the crowds.
The Tiger Slippers Express (TSE) pulls up outside the Carle Place Barnes & Noble in Nassau Country, New York, shortly before 9 a.m. on a Saturday. The book signing isn’t until 10 a.m., but people are already putting the transmission in park in front of Guitar Center. They dash out of their cars in bobble-hats and puffer coats to take photos of each other against the bus, pointing at their town in the tour-stop list or smiling in front of the bumper. They have brought babies still too little to do much but lay flat in their prams, blinking, children carrying copies of The Gingerbread Baby, and tweens who have aged into Harry Potter and Percy Jackson but still treasure their picture books. Many have artwork to show Brett. (“Are you an artist?” she asks each guest.) A fan at a previous signing brought his young children and a letter he received from Brett in response to his fan mail when he was just a boy. "Have to reply to all the letters," Hearne says. "Have to."
Pay the most attention to the eyes, because that’s how you know what someone’s thinking.
Inside, Hearne is at work in his blue blazer, a man with a white, Sam Elliot-esque mustache moving sharply through setup and refusing offers for Brett to use the venue’s microphone — not his first tour. When Romper meets him aboard the TSE, Hearne is skeptical of lifting the curtain on operations. It’s the back end of a sausage-making factory, he warns Romper. No reporter has come aboard before, and Hearne is a little wary, but Greg and Eddy, the drivers, each with black beanies and a Southern lilt, seem excited to have an extra person to rib. They're used to chartering rock bands — that of Robert James Ritchie, among them. This time around, they got Jan.
At Brett's Tiger Slippers reading this frigid Saturday, a bookseller-come-hypeman gets the audience of perhaps 100 riled up in their folding chairs while Hedgie, a 5-foot tall mascot, bumbles about. Brett performs like Janet Jackson with a microphone taped to her cheek. After the welcome, she launches into the backstory of The Tale Of The Tiger Slippers, based on a Persian story, Abu Kassem's Slippers, broadly about hard work and humility, and transposed to the jungles of India's Madya Pradesh, where she toured wildlife reserves as part of her research (“giant squirrels,” she says). A graduate of the Boston Museum School, Brett gives a little art history lesson “in hopes that [the kids will] write their own story.”
Then she holds a demonstration with some Prisma markers, transforming a rectangle and circle into a tiger as the audience looks on. Brett is a wonderful performer, chattering away with the nonchalance of someone about to fetch a teapot off a stove. “Pay the most attention to the eyes, because that’s how you know what someone’s thinking,” she says, twinklin' away. Children's book authors, if you were wondering, are as nice as you think.
Sometimes her stories are based on folk tales, sometimes the plot noses its way into her life. Take The Snowy Nap, inspired by a time when Brett caught Little Snow, a pet bunny who resides in a corral in Hearn’s home office, staring out the window at a wild rabbit peering in. A few days later, a black bear came to say hello.
She has based her next book around animals trying to clamber underneath an umingmak, or musk oxen (in Inuktitut, their name translates as “the bearded one”). The musk ox is a hoofed arctic mammal with an extraordinarily thick and soft spring coat called "qiviot," and exist in preservations and farms in Alaska, where Brett's daughter lives. Umingmak are the ur-cozy animal; essentially a gigantic walking snood. “The baby musk ox are the cutest baby animal that ever lived,” says Brett.
She is thinking about doing a version of the Nutcracker after that, although “I've read the original story" and "it's really creepy.” She describes the bits of the story glossed over in ballet productions, where the slightly weird godfather comes to visit the girl, the mice fight, and the girl falls through a pane of glass, badly cutting her arm. “She goes into a coma,” says Brett as her publicist shakes her head. “And then, no, it gets worse!”
Hearne likes to cycle, but couldn’t bring his bicycle on the TSE because Hedgie is taking up valuable space in the cargo hold.
Brett might bring back Hedgie as the narrator. Rehabilitating stories is somewhat her forte: “I did do Little Black Sambo, but I made it a dog. So it's set in Norway and she has her dog, and the trolls want her dog and pieces of her clothing.” Nothing terrible happens in Brett’s books — instead of being eaten, the Gingerbread Baby winds up a home owner. The worst that might befall a character is overheating or getting itchy under all the wool. This is the mystery of Brett’s magic: her outlook is still resolutely as cheery and sparkle-eyed as it was when she published her first book.
The job of the children's author is largely to pipe pleasant dreams in the windows ahead of bedtime, and when authors fail to plumb their works from the conflict and sadness beyond, adults and children alike disapprove. Creating a story that winds up a classic, then, requires either a willing suspension of disbelief about the world, or surplus of optimism.
Though she claims not to pay much attention to what other children's authors and illustrators are up to, Brett does not create in a vacuum, and the world beyond is no snugglefest. Her research into Ukrainian folk art in the late '80s required her to look behind the Iron Curtain; 7% of the country is currently under occupation by Russia today. Brett is without controversy, but her being flagged during visa applications reminds us of the power that artists can have. The animals she paints are cuddly, yes, but also sometimes endangered, like the tigers and elephants she has met on her travels, or tentatively back from functional extinction, like her beloved musk oxen.
Brett’s readership belies another sad trend. The share of parents reading out loud to their children drops sharply as kids enter school, according to NPD BookScan (formerly Nielsen Bookscan) data. Yes, those kids eventually learn to read themselves, but the communing is lost, the hunting together for squirrels in the margins. Somewhere near 50% of parents with children under 5 read aloud, and it goes down from there. (Unless, of course, you’re at a book signing.) Publishing data show that children’s books are a bright spot in a flat publishing market. As is Brett.
The artist is the same age as Bruce Springsteen, whose longevity on the road has been attributed to his dedication to lifting weights and running on a treadmill. ("His muscle tone approximates a fresh tennis ball," wrote The New Yorker's David Remnick in a 2012 profile.) Brett goes jogging in the mornings, and recently beat the qualification time for the Boston marathon by 20 minutes. Right now she needs a fit ball (there is an REI nearby but if they're not able to blow it up for her, forget it). Hearne likes to cycle, but couldn’t bring his bicycle on the TSE because Hedgie is taking up valuable space in the cargo hold.
The two met in their 20s when Brett was learning to fly gliders, and Hearne was instructing. They were each married to someone else at the time, but Hearne found Brett beautiful. (“She still is.”) They reconvened not too many years later when both had divorced. Today, they share three children, 39 years of marriage, a cabin in the Berkshires, and a home where Massachusetts crumbles into biscuits and drops into the sea. August will bring their 40th anniversary. Not that Brett is keeping count.
“I'm the opposite of a counter person, I'm like here in the moment,” she says. “But Joe's a counter person.” Hearne goes on Brett's book tours and Brett accompanies Hearne on his performances around the world with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, for which he plays the double bass. They are each masters of their craft, but you'd think they were a married couple on an RV tour of national parks from the way they downplay their achievements. Day in and day out, they seem to think only about supporting each other.
“You wanted to come along on this,” Hearne says to me as we jerk along the road in traffic. He has warmed up since we met.
In between stops, Hearne spends his time rolling flat-packed posters into cylinders, snapping rubber bands around them and stashing them upright in a wicker hamper. The pair do one or two readings a day, go to bed early, and let the jostling of the bus lull them asleep as Greg and Eddy take turns piloting them through the night to the next spot. The further west they travel, the longer the stretches. They will cross the Navajo Nation this year, stopping in Farmington en route from Alamogordo, New Mexico, to Pueblo, Colorado.
That’s where the real magic happens: the napping.
To go inside the TSE, a door with a tiger face swings open and you step up into the driver cab, then into the "living room," which looks like a very tiny Aspen condo. Two cream banquettes face each other before you get to the kitchen/dining area, a square table with a forward-facing seat. Over the sink, a puzzle of wood blocks approximates a shale fireplace. Beyond that are the bunks where Greg and Eddy take turns sleeping during the night. And at the rear is the bedroom, a Pendleton throw visible down the hall. That’s where the real magic happens: the napping.
There is not as much space as you might imagine there to be on a celebrity conveyance; presumably why some bands require as many as 11 buses. It’s just Greg, Eddy, Jan, Joe, and a bag of sandwiches, one of which Jan eats off a porcupine plate. Joe takes a bite of an apple. “That’s a good apple,” he says.
For the distance they’ve traveled — four decades; Botswana to China to Switzerland to the Northern Territories — things are beautifully placid. I get terribly motion sick and had worried I might have to throw up in Jan Brett's toilet, but somehow here, now, I feel fine.
Prodded for life advice, Hearne says “don’t get divorced.” He is nursing a Monster energy drink retrieved from a drawer under the port banquette, and permits a couple of marriage tips to be withdrawn: 1) take some guff, and 2) don’t lose sight of the long-term goal for the short-term irritations. You’re playing a long game, in other words, and Brett’s instinct, along with Hearne’s, is to create. She never abandons an idea she has decided to execute, and she finds flow in the doing, whether it’s knitting, or painting, or showing poultry.
Her art lessons hint at a rock-solid understanding of the biology of the animals she paints so carefully that extends back to the Precambrian age, but you are only scratching — scritching? — the surface until you dive into one of her manuals on chicken breeds and judging criteria. Inside, she admires page after page of stunning sketches: chickens with white poufs on a black body, chickens with tails that spike up like Samurai swords, chickens with hard pouts, raised eyebrows, and lacing on their wings. Brett raises white crested black Polish chickens, a breed with pom-poms for heads, and she will gently bathe them in preparation for a showing. (“If a chicken has tight feathers (for example, Leghorns), blow-dry in the direction of the feathers,” suggests one online guide to showmanship. “If a chicken has fluffy feathers (for example, Cochins), blow-dry against the feathers.”) One thing the judges look for is verve, Brett says; a good strut. “Some just have it.”
Perhaps that’s why.
Why Brett, who could surely sell plenty of books without following Kerouac’s “long red line” from one side of the country to the other, drags herself out every fall at an age when other people have retired and taken up drinking sherry. The other buses out on that road are the musicians, touring their anthems for six weeks at a time until their bodies give out — a circuit Greg, a retired fireman, enjoys almost as much as he loves returning to the missus in Nashville — and of course the presidential candidates currently scritching across Iowa and New Hampshire and Ohio with their Messages. Each bus is a billboard for an idea, a person, a solitary movement vying for an audience. And there in the mix are Jan and Joe up top, books, posters, and a pallet of Bounty towels stowed under a rose-adorned cargo hatch down below. The pollies are fueled by donor money, lobbyist money, and their own egos, but what is propelling Jan Brett down the road?
We pull into the parking lot of a high school in eastern Pennsylvania with 10 minutes to spare. The sun is long gone and the TSE's blue underglow lights give it a really cutting figure in the dark of the parking lot.
The community in Emmaus has been vying for a Jan Brett stop for five years, and two young women responsible for organizing the event are on stage in front of maroon curtains keeping the audience busy. A small baby is propped up in a chair in his Christmas jammies while his mother adjusts her baby carrier around her waist. Starbucks holiday cups sit at heel next to their owners. Families and friends carry bundles of hard covers in and take their seats.
Hearne enters the auditorium, followed by Romper (who is carrying an amp), followed by Hedgie. Brett is last, and met by cheers as she enters the stage from underneath the long curtains. There are babies and toddlers and pre-teens, and I think about how, in the space of a few tours, they will age out of picture books and sitting on their parents' laps. I think about the people with Stein/Bakara tees in their wardrobes. About the people who saw Scott Stapp sing in leather pants during Creed's "Weathered" tour in 2002. About the way that 40 years of partnership might fly by the window when you really get going. I think about that bit in The Last Waltz when Robbie Robertson comes on stage for an encore and says to the audience, "You're still there, huh?"
Eventually, the Prevost will rumble back to Nashville, and the sky blue wrap will come off. The kids will take home their signed books and notes on the Mughal dynasty. I will get in my tiny hire car and speed back across Pennsylvania toward the city and my children.
Brett admits that in criss-crossing the country to meet her little fans and provide a lesson on the world and her life, she is giving more than they might be able to comprehend. "But even if they don't understand," she says, "it'll be in their memory bank."
For a list of tour stops and dates, visit JanBrett.com.
Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the breed of chicken that Brett shows. Though she does have Silkies, she predominantly raises white crested black Polish chickens. It also misidentified the county in which Carle Place is located. It has been updated.