Children’s book illustrator and author Jan Brett has travelled the globe for inspiration for her work, and this time she landed in Sweden to find a suitable home for Rollo the troll and his family, the main characters in her most recent Christmas book.
Brett has previously written books based in both Denmark and Norway, but this is her Sweden debut.
“I don’t know what the tie is to the northern landscapes but I keep going back,” Brett tells The Local.
Brett had most of the story for her book “Home for Christmas” figured out by the time she and her husband landed in Gothenburg to visit their friends Elof and Gudrun earlier this year.
But the setting and landscape emerged as Brett journeyed across the elongated country.
“I loved it out there. And I’m addicted to lingonberries now, I have to order them, and I have them everyday for breakfast,” she confesses.
She visited an array of handcraft stores to see what types of items to use in her story.
Brett also made a stop at Skansen zoo in Stockholm, where she was able to learn a lot about Swedish animals and study the old buildings in the park.
One of the pigs she met at the zoo even ended up figuring in her book as house pet for her troll family protagonists.
As Brett visited to Sweden in May, however, most of the country was still devoid of snow, posing something of a challenge in her efforts to find inspiration for scenes in the book depicting winter in Scandinavia.
Luckily, there were places in Sweden where winter still lingered well into May.
In the city of Kiruna, north of the Arctic circle, Brett could definitely still feel winter’s icy bite even though summer was technically just a matter of weeks away.
As she went by helicopter to the snow covered peaks outside Kiruna, she found the home for Rollo she had been looking for.
“I got to see where all the Sami herd their reindeer, and I could see Norway from there,” Brett recalls with astonishment.
“I got a good idea what it could look like if trolls lived there.”
Brett had decided to place her troll and his family in the setting of a northern Swedish mountain farm.
She admits, however, that she probably committed a big sin in the eyes of Scandinavians by making the trolls in her story kind rather than sinister.
In “Home for Christmas,” Rollo the troll decides to run away from all the chores his parents want him to do, opting instead to seek his own adventures.
He encounters everything from owls to otters, as well as bears and a hungry lynx.
And the landscape is thoroughly thought through to only include genuinely Swedish elements.
One of the things Brett was hoping to decide during her time in Sweden was what animal to have Rollo join up with before he eventually reconnects with his family.
“I wanted to have this little troll go live with animals, and I knew he was going to use antlers to get back home because it would make the perfect sledge,” Brett explains.
The choice stood between a family of reindeer, which Brett knew travelled in groups, or elk, which she wasn’t as sure about.
But after a visit to an elk park in Kiruna, she made up her mind.
“There was about eight elk there and they were semi habituated,” she recalls.
“It was spring so they were all very friendly, and I could look into their eyes and see they were very intelligent animals.”
After this encounter Brett decided to go use the elk in the book, since, as it happens, they also travel in groups, she says.
Brett also drew inspiration from one of the great Swedish tales, “The wonderful adventures of Nils” (Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige), where a tiny boy travels Sweden on the back of a goose.
“I loved the runaway thing about that [story],” Brett says.
And the idea to run away for adventures as a child is perhaps what made Brett the successful children’s books illustrator and author that she is today.
“When I was little I always wanted to run away from home. I wanted to live in my barn with my horse,” she explains.
Brett loved her horse, and even though she never ran away with it, she couldn’t stop drawing pictures of it.
She drew and she drew, further developing her skills, and was encouraged by the positive feedback she received.
“I wanted to have something that other people admired,” she says.
“I liked to be in my own little world and draw, and I thought ‘I don’t need to study, I’m gonna be a children’s book illustrator.’”
But it wasn’t until she attached stories to her illustrations that she had her breakthrough.
Over more than thirty years, Brett has written just as many books, with “Home for Christmas” being the latest.
And it has a message drawn from an epiphany she had in college when one time she forgot her father’s birthday, which she felt awful about.
“I guess the message is that at some point you have to make that jump from being a kid doing all the fun things, to taking more responsibility,” she says.
“Rollo realizes he misses his mom and that what’s important is to have a family.”