The seed of a new book can sprout anywhere. For bestselling author Jan Brett, inspiration swam under her feet on a summer's day.
"I was dangling my feet over the water of a pond and saw something that looked like the shape of a turtle, covered with water weeds," Brett recalled in a recent phone interview from her home near Boston. "It was a giant snapping turtle, and when it started to swim, the weeds just trailed behind it like pennants streaming in the water."
And "Mossy," the turtle with a garden on its back, became the latest addition to her fictional menagerie. The endearing turtle joins hedgehogs, chickens, bears, wolves, reindeer, elephants, armadillos, lions and more in her modern fables and fantasies.
Debuting in September, "Mossy" the book (G.P. Putnam's Sons, $17.99, 32 pages, ages 3 and up) instantly made the New York Times best-seller list.
On her way to the Central Valley, Brett is traveling the country in her "Mossy" bus, a coach made for touring in style. The outside is covered with scenes from the book including a turtle the size of a Mini Cooper. In the back, she has room for her "studio on wheels" where she can work on her richly detailed illustrations.
"It's usually used by rock stars," she said of the bus. "I'll find a sparkly bobby pin and wonder, 'who wore that?' But it's comfortable for such a long road trip and allows us to bring all the kinds of things that make our events fun."
That includes 100 posters for the first 100 fans in line at each stop, coloring pages, buttons, book plates and a colorful backdrop for photo shoots and book signings. In 30 days, she'll visit her home state of Massachusetts plus New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Texas, Arizona, California, Oregon and Washington.
She'll be in El Dorado Hills on Thursday evening, signing books at Lakehills Covenant Church. Hosted by Face in a Book, the event moved to a larger site to accommodate her many fans.
"I really look forward to the interaction with the children," she said. "It's a chance to tell about what I do. They can follow along with me, drawing. I tell parents 'Bring pencil and paper.' "
Beloved for her gorgeous paintings as well as her prose, the author-illustrator has more than 38 million books in print. She meticulously illustrates her books, often spending an hour or more to complete just one square inch. Her work appeals to both children and adults.
In the case of turtles, hedgehogs and chickens, Brett made room in her home and garden so she could know her subjects personally. She got thoroughly hooked on fancy chickens particularly white-crested black Polish bantams and became a breeder of show birds.
"I've got 104 chickens right now," she said. "But about 60 of them are youngsters. They'll grow to maturity, then I'll sell all but six.
"They're just fascinating," she said of her flock. "I love the fresh eggs, and they're good little pets."
While working on "Mossy," she installed a turtle pond, now inhabited by bullfrogs and one happy turtle. Although inspired by a snapper, the fictional Mossy is an Eastern box turtle.
"Mossy is a terrestrial turtle, so she couldn't really grow a garden like that," Brett said. "But I loved the idea."
Brett, 62, is married to classical bassist and pilot Joe Hearne, who recently celebrated his 50th anniversary as a member of the Boston Symphony. They met while she was taking flying lessons. He travels with her on tour.
They split time between a 2-acre home in the Boston suburbs and a 17-acre Berkshires country place in the forest near Tanglewood, the symphony's summer home. (And, yes, her menagerie makes the move with them each summer.)
With the orchestra, they've traveled the world together. As souvenirs, Brett picks up more ideas. A recent trip to Russia inspired the setting for her next book.
"I'm working on a chicken Cinderella," she said. "It's set in an old village outside St. Petersburg. While in Russia, I saw these beautiful costumes at an ethnic museum, including some very pretty beaded hats. Of course, the chickens will have to wear some."
Despite the many models clucking in her backyard, the next book didn't hatch on its own.
"It was my editor's idea," Brett said. "I resisted at first. Just because I'm interested in chickens, would other people be too? But they are so funny."
MEET AUTHOR AND ILLUSTRATOR JAN BRETT
When: 5-7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Lakehills Covenant Church, 7000 Rossmoore Lane, El Dorado Hills
Details: www.janbrett.com, (916) 941-9401
Note: Event is hosted by Face in a Book of El Dorado Hills.