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Southwick School wins visit from bestselling author

Best-selling children’s author Jan Brett will visit Southwick School in Northfield on April 19 to spend a day reading, drawing and having fun with her young readers. Southwick School was the 2010-2011 winner in an online contest for a visit from the author, beating out 4,300 schools who entered. Brett will also be signing copies of her latest book, “Three Little Dassies,” an African-based twist of the classic “Three Little Pigs.” (Courtesy)
April 06, 2011
NORTHFIELD — School librarian Tammie Turmel was thrilled to learn recently that after many years of trying, Southwick School was finally named the winner in an annual online contest to receive a visit from bestselling children's author and illustrator Jan Brett.

"I've been entering the contest every year since 2004, and when I got a call from her husband, I thought he was kidding," Turmel said.

But, it turns out that the 925 entries received from Southwick School were enough to beat out 4,300 other schools across the country by correctly matching characters from Brett's many books with the correct titles.

Brett said she is equally excited to make the trip to Northfield to meet the school's students and staff. She and her husband, Joe, live in Norwell, Mass., and Brett has family members who live in New Hampshire, as well, making the trip even more pleasurable.

"We had entries from all over, including Hawaii. The contest is random, though, and so I never know where I'll end up going. This is exciting for me to go to Southwick this year," said Brett.

Making the trip along with Brett will be her famous character, Hedgie the Hedgehog, who was born through her love for the bristly little creatures she once had as pets. Brett includes the character somewhere in each of her books, and said she enjoys bringing Hedgie, or a good replica of him at least, to the schools to greet the students, too.

As part of her time spent with the boys and girls, Brett likes to encourage art and reading activities. She hopes in doing so, she will inspire them to make up their own stories and illustrate them on their own.

Since kindergarten, Brett said she knew she wanted to be an illustrator. After college, she went from publisher to publisher with her portfolio looking for an opportunity to illustrate children's books. Finally, Brett was told if she wrote a story herself and then illustrated it, she might have better success than waiting to be paired up with an author. From there, the rest is history, as her books and renditions of classic children's tales continually top the New York Times Best Seller list.

Her inspirations come from around the world, as seen in her latest book, "The Three Little Dassies," an African twist on a great American classic.

"I was in Namibia, Africa to see the animals when I was working on my book, 'On Noah's Ark.' I saw these little rock rodents (dassies), and thought they were really cute. They just reminded me of the three little pigs, so I used them for this latest book," said Brett.

She and her husband have made eight trips to Africa for research on her stories. Other tales and illustrations by Brett take her young readers to China, Switzerland, Scandinavia, and even the Arctic Circle.

"Natural history is part of the fun. The kids may never go to some of these places, but they can enjoy them in my books," Brett said.

When not traveling for research or her annual bus tours, she takes her love for education to the Internet, offering free printed materials, classroom ideas and activities for both students and teachers alike. Joe keeps the Web site up to date for her, and Brett said she also gets plenty of advice and ideas for her site from family members who teach.

"We like to support the teachers who have been so good to us over the years. Everything on the site is free for them to use, and some things are even interactive for the kids to enjoy," said Brett.

Classroom signs, bulletin board projects, awards certificates and lots of other educational materials and games are all available for download or print.

The couple has become so involved in the Web site that Brett said they actually wake each other up in the middle of the night with ideas to add to their ever-growing site.

Included in the online activities are video drawing lessons for many of the creatures found in her books. Other videos allow readers to listen to the inspirations for some of her stories and illustrations, depict events from her book tours and also show her at a White House speaking engagement.

With all she does, however, Bret admitted illustrating is her greatest love.

"I seemed to have trouble communicating as a child, and I guess drawing was how I did it. Things aren't right in my world if I'm not drawing. Some people knit; I need a paint brush in my hand," she said.

Besides reading to students at Southwick, Brett will also give them a drawing lesson, and she hopes to encourage them to step away from the distractions of today's world and take time to express themselves through art.

"Creativity," she said, "is almost like play. It's an extension of your spirit. Kids should take time out to write and draw, to let that flower inside unfold."

Turmell said the school is very excited to have won the contest, and everyone is looking forward to the visit on April 19. As a tribute to the author, fourth graders in the Reader's Theater group will be presenting a short play for Brett, among the other activities planned for the day.

Copies of Brett's books are available at stores throughout New Hampshire, and online as well. Her materials for students and teachers can also be found at www.janbrett.com.

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