The Elephant’s Garden, by Jane Ray; Boxer Books, $14.95, 32 pages, ages 2-6.
Many cultures have their version of the garden thief story–Russian folklore tells of Tsarevitch Ivan whose golden apples are stolen by the mythical Firebird, and food theft leads to a most unhappy ending in Nankichi Niimi’s powerful Gon, the Little Fox (1932). And of course, there’s the biblical tale of the snake tempting Eve with a forbidden apple in the garden of Eden. These aren’t those effortlessly cheerful happily ever after tales–these are stories of greed, failure, and attempts at redemption, with varying degrees of success, and Jane Ray’s retelling of a traditional Indian folktale follows in that tradition.
Here, a little girl named Jasmine discovers a brightly festooned elephant stealing from her garden, and once confronted, the elephant explains that the fruit in his garden is inedible. To prove it, he whisks the astounded child to his faraway cloud garden, where massive kiwis, strawberries, and peaches fill every corner, but sadly, they’re only precious jewels and of no use to a hungry elephant. Upon returning home, Jasmine tells her family about the magnificent sky garden and though she begs them not to tell anyone, the whole village finds out about the elephant’s treasures. What follows is a surprisingly elegant exploration of greed and selfishness. Ray’s vibrant, jewel-toned, collages evoke a lush Indian fantasy world, and the double-page spread of Jasmine grasping the tail of the elephant recall’s a similar nocturnal flight in Joanne Ryder and Amy Schwartz’s Night Flight or any of Henri Rousseau’s jungle scenes.
A worthy addition to any folktale collection, The Elephant’s Garden subtly invokes Ghandi’s summation on avarice: “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.”
On Saturday November 28, while a chilly rain fell outside, beloved author and illustrator Jan Brett arrived at the Northborough, Massachusetts Wegmans market in her massive tour bus and talked about the inspiration for her latest book, The Turnip, while also offering young fans a drawing tutorial.
A group of nearly four dozen children waited eagerly in a roped-off area of the market, surrounded by seasonal holiday items, while parents stood in the nearby dairy section. Brett arrived wearing turnip colors: a purple-velvet blazer with a jade green rooster brooch and banana-yellow pants. A Hedgie the hedgehog purse draped across her shoulder, holding the Prismacolor translucent markers that would be employed later in the program to create Badger Girl, one of the characters in The Turnip. Brett’s husband, Boston Symphony Orchestra Bass player Joseph Hearne checked Brett’s microphone and set up her easel.
Before the art demonstration, Brett introduced her husband and her pets, a rooster and a chicken who travel with her wherever she goes. The poultry were surprisingly calm and appeared unfazed by the throng of people. Next, she discussed the inspiration for this book. She and Hearne had traveled to Russia, and upon passing a rural farm, Brett was reminded of a folk tale where peasants attempt to unearth a giant turnip. “I loved the story, but why not turn the peasants into a family of badgers?” she explained to the children. “I think badgers are so expressive, don’t you?” The children, who, until that moment had been transfixed into silence, heartily agreed. Brett started outlining the face and body, and then stopped. She told the group that children often write to her asking how to draw expressions, and she always told them that the eyes are the most important feature. “I have a mirror next to my easel, so that I can make faces and sketch what I see.” To demonstrate, Brett covered her face, leaving only her eyes visible. Happy, mad scared–the children guessed correctly each time.
After adding the badger’s body parts, Brett added color, all the while offering tips on shading and outlining. Though this single sketch took less than forty minutes, Brett acknowledged that a single page spread often requires a week of steady work. “I know I’m finished with a drawing when I feel as though I could jump right into the page,” she said. The New York Times bestselling author offered encouragement to the group too. “To get better, you must draw, draw, draw! And be sure to sign and date your work, so that you can follow your progress.” Though some children may lament that their work doesn’t come out looking like Brett’s, she insisted that budding artists stick to it. “The more you draw, the better you get.”
Brett signed copies of The Turnip after her demonstration. Wegmans staff organized fans by ticket number, and though lines snaked through the aisles, order reigned. My daughter and I waited patiently with my mother, a longtime Brett fan who had orchestrated the outing, and when we reached the signing table, the author charmed us with her sweet inscription. Naturally, we had toted along a second book, The Night Before Christmas, which Brett happily inscribed as well, adding a reindeer portrait alongside the date.
Famished, my daughter inhaled a slice of pizza after the book signing. As I waited in line for a cup of coffee, I spoke with a woman I recognized from the event. She brought her seven year old son, though they had just moved from Virginia days before Thanksgiving and were still unpacking. “My son will only read Jan Brett books. They’re magical. So we had to come,” she explained. Another woman, a teacher at Seven Hills Charter School in nearby Worcester, brought eleven of her 21 students, and raised funds so that every child in her class could have their own copy of The Turnip. “Jan [Brett] has a way of inspiring and encouraging these children. It means so much to them.” Powerful words to remember during this holiday season, when we’re bombarded with ads for gadgets we don’t really need, and when children are so easily distracted by gimmicks and flashing doo-dads. Books, beautiful books, are magic.
The Turnip, by Jan Brett; Putnam Books, $17.99, 32 pages, ages 4-7. (November 2015)