Usually for Book Review we pick one book or a handful of books on a theme. Today we’ve selected an author/illustrator, Jan Brett, and are discussing all of her books, collectively. With a marathon of holidays coming up (read: lots of quality family reading time and also lots of time you might want to independently occupy a child with a book so you can get those holiday chores done), Fair Play wanted to open up a veritable world of reading. Disclaimer: I haven’t actually read all of her books. In any event, let’s talk about why most of them are pretty great.
Jan Brett’s books are characterized by her striking illustrations. If you’ve seen one of her books before, you know the work. A Fair Play Friend described them as distinctly “Scandinavian” – I don’t know if that’s accurate but it feels right. Anyway, the most important element of Brett’s illustration actually is not what is happening inside the pictures on each page, but what is happening around them. One of Brett’s hallmarks is her use of borders or sidebars. These borders are not purely decorative – they generally foreshadow impending events in the book or tell a parallel story.
In Town Mouse, Country Mouse, there are sidebars showing the dangers unique to each situation (an owl or a cat) watching the oblivious mice. The town and country mice switch places, so while they are attuned to the dangers whence they came, they are not on the lookout for the dangers where they are going. As you read about the mice exploring their new digs, you can also see (before the mice can!) the mounting dangers.
In The Mitten, a child drops a mitten in the woods and does not notice. Various animals take up in the mitten throughout the story. In the borders of the illustrations, the child continues his walk, unaware of the silliness happening on the page, or with his mitten!
Brett’s borders and sidebars keep young children’s attention to the story. They teach an important lesson about theory of mind – the psychological term that refers to the understanding that my thoughts, and what I know, are different than your thoughts, and what you know. Children who haven’t reached this stage in cognitive development (2-3+ years, it’s somewhat open to debate) will have a lively debate with you about who knows what in The Mitten, or whether the mice in Town Mouse, Country Mouse know they are being watched, just because the owl and cat know they are watching them.
Brett’s books also teach about elements of story-telling by scaffolding the order of story events. The story still plays out in a linear fashion, easy and predictable for young minds, but with the introduction of early hints about what will happen, that children pick up on and begin to use themselves. Brett’s use of these elements is a sort of visual foreshadowing, a literary device most authors don’t work into children’s books until written foreshadowing is possible – something often requiring a story length more appropriate to chapter books.
Town Mouse, Country Mouse and The Mitten are two of my favorites. Trouble with Trolls also comes highly recommended. Jan Brett has many more, however, and you can find a selection in Fair Play’s Amazon store. Most ship Amazon Prime and cost $6 (paperback) to $12 (hardback). I also recommend you head over to Jan Brett’s own website – she has all kinds of recommendations for projects as well as printable coloring sheets of her lovely illustrations.
Fair Play loves these books for their contribution to multiple areas of development. Some books have more gender-stereotyped story lines (Owl and the Pussycat, for example) so do use some care in selecting particular titles. Fair Play gives Jan Brett’s books 4 pinwheels: