A hedgehog and a dog would appear to be unlikely friends, but in the hands of children's book author and illustrator Jan Brett, the two fictional animals have a complementary relationship.
On a typical day, they work together in the desert at Star Lab – the hedgehog as a member of the clean up crew and the dog as a scientist who is "in charge of outer space."
But when a "geyser" on the distant planet Mikkop stops sending glittery plumes of sparkles up into the air, Hedgie the hedgehog is the only one capable of flying a rocket into space to see what's wrong.
With some courage and clever thinking, Hedgie manages to restore the sparkling geyser to normal and earns an "Official Astronaut Star" from his scientist-friend – the dog – back home on Earth.
This adventure unfolds in the colorful pages of Mrs. Brett's latest book, "Hedgie Blasts Off!" (Putnam; $16.99).
Brett is well known in the world of children's picture books. She has written or illustrated more than two dozen. In most of them, many different animals are friends.
Among 3- to 7-year-olds, her primary audience, Brett has "rock star" status. But she's also a hit with parents and grandparents, a testament to her more than 30 million books sold.
"She tells a great story," says Norberta Reilly of Wayland, Mass. She and her 5-year-old granddaughter, Sophie Eldridge, have read many of Brett's books together.
Sophie, who just started learning to read on her own, says "Hedgie Blasts Off" is probably her favorite. That's because, "It's about a hedgehog in a spacesuit, which is fun."
While Hedgie's mode of transportation in the book is a rocket ship, Brett opts for a bus to get her from book signing to book signing – a giant purple one with a picture of Hedgie on the side.
She and her husband, Joe Hearne, a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, recently spent three weeks on this bus visiting 23 cities to promote her latest story.
Among the bus's many amenities are a bedroom in the back, a kitchen, a bathroom with a shower, leather sofas, and a flat-screen TV.
She and her husband sleep and eat on the bus, while a driver takes them to the next city, just like a touring rock star.
The only difference? "Rock stars usually give away T-shirts," Brett says. "We have buttons." Every kid at a tour stop at the Wellesley (Mass.) Free Library got one.
The kids also had the opportunity to meet with the author of some of their favorite books. In addition to getting an autograph or taking a picture, many children received a tiny personalized drawing from Brett.
"She's awesome," says 5-year-old Kai Wilson of Wellesley, who has read most of Brett's books with the help of his mom, Melissa. "Each time we read the stories, we notice something different in the illustrations."
It takes Brett about a year to complete all of the illustrations for a book. She uses watercolors "with a very dry brush," a process known as gouache (pronounced gwahsh).
She pays close attention to the eyes of her animal characters "because that's where our expressions come from," she adds.
She also is known to "hide" a tiny painting of a hedgehog somewhere in each of her books. It's a tribute to her pet hedgehog. (Unlike Hedgie, her hedgehog is real).
While there's plenty of room in the bus for the hedgehog to accompany her when she travels, it stays at home. "It's just easier since we don't know about laws for bringing [wild] animals across state lines," she says.
Although Brett's children's stories are fiction (not factual), they usually have a "kernel of truth to them," she mentions. In the latest book, "Hedgie is asked to do something he's not sure he can do. It takes courage to do what he does. But that's the kind of person I want to be."
That's the kind of person Kai wants to be, too, when he grows up. "I'll probably help animals because I like them a lot," he says.
In the meantime, he got the autograph of his favorite author. Then he headed home to check up on his newly acquired stuffed-toy hedgehog.
The hedgehog's name, not surprisingly, is "Hedgie."
Squishy rocks, sparkling geysers, talking animals – just about anything can happen in the pages of Jan Brett's children's books.
But before one of her wild adventures winds up in print, Mrs. Brett has to develop a character, a plot, and a setting. That's because "those are the three elements that every story has to have," she says.
In her latest book, "Hedgie Blasts Off!" a hedgehog (the character) works as a janitor at Star Lab (the setting). But when a problem arises with a sparkling geyser on the distant planet Mikkop, he's asked to fly to outer space to see what's wrong with it (the plot).
Many times Brett's story ideas come, she adds, from "observing the environment, looking a little closer, and thinking, 'What can I find here?' "
She also visits zoos, keeps pets, and travels as much as she can. Then she lets her imagination run wild.
Anyone can write a story or draw a picture, Brett says. All you have to do is "turn off the TV, get out some art supplies, and listen for that inner voice to tell you what to do."
"Whatever you make is unique," she adds. "No one else in the world can do it just like you."