Antsy Ansel: Ansel Adams, A Life In Nature
by Cynthia "Cindy" Jenson-Elliott & Christy Hale
Lee: Please tell us about your Crystal-Kite Winning book!
Cindy: I’ve been an environmental educator most of my adult life. In recent years, I have worked as a garden educator and as a science teacher, looking for nearby natural spaces to help children explore the outdoors on a small, intimate, personal scale. Away from the classroom, away from screens and test scores, kids’ hands and feet help them connect with the planet through whole-body learning. Their eyes and ears, hearts and minds open up. They become healed, healthy and whole through outdoor play.
Taking children outside doesn’t have to mean going someplace special --- to mountains or ocean, or a national park with spectacular scenery. It may just mean going out the back door, examining a weed growing out of a crack in the sidewalk, or a bird balancing on a telephone wire. It can mean finding the life in a pile of dirt, or in a spring puddle of snow melt. Connecting children with the outdoors, and with their own lively curiosity is my purpose as an author, educator and human being.
In 2009, I interviewed Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder for an article in a local parenting magazine. I was teaching science and gardening at the time, and had already sold my first picture book about the outdoors -- Weeds Find a Way, --though it had not yet been published. In one of Louv’s lectures, he spoke about Ansel Adams, his self-described hyperactivity, and how Adams’s father had pulled him out of what he described as a “grimly brown” school in the early 1900s, and had let him explore nature. As I listened, the words “antsy Ansel” spun through my punning mind, and the idea for the book was born.
As I researched, I discovered I had a lot in common with Ansel Adams. I first visited Yosemite with a school group when I was 14 – the same age as Ansel Adams on his first visit. And every summer since my daughter was 4 months old, my family has camped in Tuolumne Meadows in the High Sierra. It is my favorite place to be. I also had the good fortune to have had a mother and father who let us explore outdoors when my siblings and I were very young and living in Cody, Wyoming. As I wrote, I tried to help readers feel what antsy Ansel must have felt, both when he was trapped in a school room, and when he encountered nature in all its manifestations -- big and loud, and quiet and shimmering.
I worked with two mentors in our SCBWI chapter – Andrea Zimmerman and Joy Chu – who helped me polish the manuscript. My agent Stefanie von Borstel of Full Circle Literary helped me connect with editor Christy Ottaviano with her eponymous imprint, and the rest is history.
Christy: It’s tricky to illustrate a book about an artist. In Antsy Ansel I wanted to nod to Adams while maintaining my own artistic style. I am not a photographer, but I wondered, since Adams is primarily known for his black and white photography, if I should I forgo the use of color. I was not happy with my experiments in black and white though. Nature needed a starring role too. In my earlier book The East-West House: Noguchi’s Childhood in Japan, I evoked the natural world through collage work with textured papers. I decided to use this approach again, but this time to selectively add photographic elements to convey one who saw the world through a photographic lens. My first piece was the scene of young Ansel playing on the beach. To create the waves and clouds I manipulated existing public domain images in Photoshop. I de-saturated photos, exaggerated the contrast then added limited color back in. I printed out these altered photographs, cut, and adhered them along with other collage papers.
I adore research. Since I live close to San Francisco I was able to do some primary research. I walked by Ansel’s boyhood home, along Lobos Creek, and down to Baker Beach (which now includes a view of the Golden Gate Bridge). I also went to an exhibit marking the 100-year anniversary of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. There, looking at a scaled model of the buildings and grounds I imagined Ansel experiencing the fair.
I was able to peek inside Ansel’s boyhood home via the Ken Burns documentary on Ansel Adams. The fireplace, window, and furniture of his living room appear in one illustration. My photo research turned up a picture of young Ansel with his calico cat, Tommy. Tommy makes an appearance too. Research brought many treasures, including actual footage of Ansel climbing Half Dome: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C41s5N8_fCc/.
I was surprised and delighted at this peer-selected award. Writing and/or illustrating books is mostly a solitary activity, so the award is a lovely reminder that I’m part of a supportive community of creators.
Lee: How long have each of you been involved with SCBWI, and can you share what you feel you’ve gained by being a member?
Cindy: I have been a member of SCBWI since around 2005. I had written two books for the school library market when I brought a manuscript to an adult writers conference, and met agent Steven Malk, who suggested I join SCBWI to understand the market better. Since then I have published 12 more nonfiction books in the school-library market, and three trade pictures books.
At SCBWI I have found my tribe of nerdy nonfiction writers, the kindest tribe of people on the planet. At my very first SCBWI conference, a few months after I joined, I went to our local conference to get an editor’s critique on an early nonfiction picture book manuscript – my first attempt at writing a PB. The manuscript, about allergies, received an unkind critique from an editor who wondered/suggested I stop writing all together. As a teacher, I knew this was no way to treat a learner, so I did not take it to heart. Even better, however, was the response of my RA. She stepped in immediately, apologized, and sent my manuscript to Stephen Mooser, who sent me an extremely helpful and kind critique. That kindness, and the focus of SCBWI on teaching and learning, changed my life. Now I try to give back to the writing community by teaching Nonfiction and Informational Writing for Children through the UCSD Extension Program in Writing and Illustrating for Children. I hope I never forget that we are here to help each other grow.
Christy: I have been a member since 1991, the year SCBW changed to SCBWI! As art director for Macmillan/Four Winds Press, I was invited to give a keynote address and review portfolios at a SCBWI conference in Pasadena, CA. Over the years I have presented for additional SCBWI events and attended others for my own growth.
Currently I teach an online “Writing for Picture Books” course through the illustration department at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. I encourage all students to join the SCBWI. The organization is a tremendous resource to both those aspiring to enter the industry, and to professionals.
Lee: Do you have any advice to share with other children's book writers and illustrators?
Cindy: Take any opportunity you can find to learn. Focus less on getting published and more on learning to write well. The publishing industry can be fickle. Even well-published writers go through dry spells when nothing sells. Keep the focus on your own values as a creator, your own joy in writing and exploring, and find new ways to grow. That is the way to have a personally satisfying career.
Christy: Read. If you want to create picture books, immerse yourself completely in them. Analyze what you read from both writing and illustration angles. Understand what verbal and visual languages each accomplish separately, and how they work together.
Know your target audience. Spend time with children. Learn about their developmental phases and universal themes important to them at different ages.
Join a critique group of children’s book creators. The SCBWI can help with this. Regular meetings will give you deadlines to keep producing. A support network will help you understand your own strengths, give you ideas to get unstuck, and help you work through problems. Learning to provide this kind of support to others will also help you understand your own work better.
Thanks, Cindy and Christy, and congratulations again on Antsy Ansel winning the Crystal Kite Award!
You can find out more about Cindy Jenson-Elliott here and about Christy Hale here.
Illustrate and Write On,