Children's literature fans love the work of author-illustrator Jan Brett for her combination of simple-yet-clever storylines and richly detailed animal artwork, such as "The Hat," in which a hedgehog accidentally gets a stocking stuck on his head and unwittingly influences other woodland creatures to borrow a young girl's laundry from the clothesline.
In addition to drawing on a variety of cultural folklore and natural history, Brett frequently includes illustrations in the borders of her books, delighting keen-eyed young readers by offering them foreshadowing clues. In a recent interview, she told the Weekly her borders serve not only an artistic purpose but also an emotional one, harkening back to her own childhood as a voracious -- and anxious -- bookworm.
"When I was little I loved reading, but I was always worried that something bad was going to happen to a character, so I'd read the last page, then read the book," she said.
When telling her own stories, she often uses the borders to give sneak peeks that help children figure out what's coming next, or information that the other characters lack.
"I loved books that had plot threads like they were fabric, even when I was really little," she said. "That's why I love to have children as my audience. I don't think they have less attention to detail than adults; in fact it's the opposite."
"Tiger Slippers" takes its visual inspiration from the wildlife of India and the artistic style of Persian miniatures, and its story inspiration from the folktale "Abu Kassem's Slippers." In Brett's retelling, a story-within-a-story set in an imagined world reminiscent of the Indian Mughal era, a tiger recounts why he keeps a pair of worn-out old slippers in a place of honor in his garden. It's a simple but resonant lesson on how everyone is molded by their past experiences, and on how to acknowledge the past without being overburdened by it.
"Sometimes things happen to us that we want to get away from. You can't just make them go away but you can say, 'OK, this is where I'm going to put this memory, this feeling,'" Brett said of the slippers, which represent the tiger's humble beginnings and hard work on the road to success and of which he can't seem to rid himself no matter how he tries.
"You can look at them and remember, but you don't have to wear them any more," she said. "I think children can understand that even though they haven't had the years of experience."
Brett said she'd always longed to illustrate Bengal tigers, and traveled to three national parks in India to observe them. By shifting the story from the Middle East to India but setting it vaguely in the style of the multicultural, well-traveled Mughal empire, she was able to retain the Persian and Middle Eastern roots of the tale while incorporating Indian wildlife.
"I had to really be careful about cultural appropriation," she said, adding that while, obviously, the world of the book is fictional, she had advice from experts on depicting the clothing and architectural styles of the period.
From the Mughal art she poured over at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Brett borrowed the depiction of wonder, in which a character bites his or her fingers (or in this case, paws), "as if to say, 'I gotta pinch myself. I'm not in a dream.'" The eyes on the slippers, she said, show their importance as talismans to the tiger's life.
At her Palo Alto appearance, Brett will give a tiger-drawing demonstration and talk about her research trips before signing books, all part of a "rockstar-style" tour across the country that involves traveling with her husband on a tiger-decorated bus.
Relishing a chance to inspire future artists, Brett said she knew she wanted to be an illustrator from a young age.
"I was a very slow thinker. I never could say what I really meant. When I could draw a picture, I could put in all these observations of life, like a conversation in images rather than in words," she said. "Everybody has ways they find they can communicate to their fellow people. For me, it's coloring."
Registration for the free event is open at eventbrite.com.