Thank you to author Cindy Jenson-Elliot for sharing her newest book, Antsy Ansel: Ansel Adams, a Life in Nature with me. Today’s post is part of a blog tour for this must-read new book, beautifully illustrated by Christy Hale. For those of us who know students who just can’t seem to sit still, Ansel Adams, the iconic nature photographer, is an example of how a student can struggle to be successful in a school setting but shine in an environment where he is passionate. For Ansel Adams, that was nature.
I asked Cindy to tell us more about her inspiration and process when writing this book.
Kathleen: What inspired you to write about Ansel Adams?
Cindy: I have taught many things over the years, but I’ve spent most of the past eight years teaching outdoors as a school garden instructor. I realized a few years ago that in addition to any personal goals I have in life, I have a sort of big-picture, social engineering goal, which is to help people connect with nature in their own backyards and schoolyards. In my teaching and my writing, I’ve looked for opportunities to do this. So when an opportunity came about to interview Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Wood: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, I jumped at the chance. In the middle of a lecture I attended, Louv mentioned Ansel Adams, how he had been hyperactive as a child, and how his father had taken him out of school and given him access to nature. My mind immediately tossed up the words “antsy Ansel.” The next day I began to research Ansel Adams with the goal to write about the connection between his need to move and his relationship with nature.
Kathleen: What was the process like for writing Antsy Ansel? How did you go about researching his life?
Cindy: My family and I have spent a week each summer camping in the High Sierra of Yosemite National Park since my daughter was 4 months old and my son was in kindergarten. This fall my son went of to college, so it has been a long relationship with a beautiful place. When I began writing the book, I realized what a wonderful opportunity I had to see the places he had visited. I had photos of Ansel Adams hiking and skiing in some of the places we visit each year – in the Valley, on Lembert Dome in Tuolumne Meadows. On our drive up to Yosemite, we stopped at Manzanar, the Japanese internment camp in the Owens Valley where Adams took photos for Life Magazine. Everywhere we hiked, I paid attention to my own visceral experience of these places, as well as comparing our Yosemite experience to his photos. Yosemite is eternal. It is the same today in many ways as it was back then. Family trips to San Francisco and Big Sur, where Adams lived in his early and final years, rounded out this primary resource research.
In addition, of course, writing nonfiction involves enormous amounts of reading about a single subject – a complete pleasure! His autobiography in particular was a beautifully written resource for understanding his childhood.
Kathleen: You play with font style and size in the book, as well as punctuation. Why did you decide to include those features in the book?
Cindy: All books are the collaborative efforts of a number of people who may not ever meet – the author, artist, art director and book designer. The process of creating a book usually starts with the author’s words. In writing this book, I wanted to get inside young Ansel Adams’s head. What did it feel like to be bombarded with stimulus? How does someone with ADHD feel when they’re stuck in a room? How did he feel when he attended the World’s Fair? I wanted readers to feel what he felt, to feel their minds flitting from place to place, bombarded with sights and sounds, smells and movement, unable to be still, excited by everything.
Christy Hale’s art work echoes this idea. When Ansel is stuck inside, notice her straight lines and structure. When he is flying from place to place, see the organic flow of art. When he has an intimate moment with nature at Lobos Creek, see how close we are to Ansel’s experience.
As for the fonts, those are all chosen by the fabulous book designer and Art Director who are tasked with putting my words and Christy Hale’s pictures together. Book designers are the geniuses behind every picture book, making the work of two artists fit together – from choosing fonts, to placing pictures and words in just the right way on a page.
Kathleen: What is the best lesson you learned from writing Antsy Ansel?
Cindy: I learned to ask for help. I had written a number of drafts, but was feeling very unconfident and worried about whether what I had written was working. Our chapter of SCBWI – the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators – had a mentoring program in which more experienced authors would mentor less experienced authors on a specific project. This book was mentored by both Andrea Zimmerman, author of, among many books, Eliza’s Cherry Trees, a biography of the woman who brought cherry trees to Washington, D.C. and by Joy Chu, a book designer and former art director. They helped me understand how my ideas could work better as a book.
Kathleen: What advice would you give to teachers as they help students grow as writers?
Cindy: I also teach writing to children as a Fellow/Teacher Consultant of the San Diego Area Writing Project. I think it’s important for children to just enjoy writing. I’ve been working with a group of friends this year, doing exercises from the book The Artists Way. One of the adages in that book is that if we take care of quantity – doing a LOT of writing – then we don’t need to worry about quality. If students have a chance to fall in love with reading and writing, and to feel their own creativity emerge, then over time their writing will improve.
Kathleen: What advice would you give students who feel like Ansel Adams did at school?
Cindy: That’s a tough one. I think the lesson in Ansel Adams’s life is that giving children access to nature – unstructured and open-ended – can be healing and life-changing. I think that kids who need to move need to be given opportunities to move. And kids whose minds flit from one thing to another need real world, hands-on stimulation instead of screen time. I think screens have their place in the world, but being able to use your hands and bodies to learn is far more valuable.
Thank you Cindy for creating such a special book and for sharing your thoughtful responses to my questions!
Kathleen’s thoughts on writer’s craft in Antsy Ansel:
This summer, reading Stacey Shubitz’s Craft Moves: Lesson Sets for Teaching Writing with Mentor Texts, helped me learn more about writer’s craft and specifically what to call craft moves I may have noticed and appreciated but didn’t know how to label. Antsy Ansel has many craft moves and would be an excellent choice for a mentor text. Some craft moves I found:
-dialogue advances the story
-punctuation to create voice
-movement of time
-show, don’t tell
There are so many possibilities and curricular connections that can be made from Antsy Ansel: Ansel Adams, A Life in Nature. In my third grade classroom, this book could certainly be a mentor text for writing, as well as a book that teaches about following your passion and being resilient. Many thanks to Cindy Jenson-Elliot for creating such a beautiful book and for taking the time to share her process with our Two Writing Teachers community.
- This giveaway is for a copy of Antsy Ansel: Ansel Adams, a Life in Nature. Many thanks to Christy Ottaviano Books (Henry Holt and Company) for donating a copy for one reader.
- For a chance to win this copy of Antsy Ansel: Ansel Adams, a Life in Nature please leave a comment about this post by Wednesday, October 12th at 11:59 p.m. EDT. I’ll use a random number generator to pick the winner, whose name I will announce at the bottom of this post, by Wednesday, October 12th.
- Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, my contact at Christy Ottaviano Books (Henry Holt and Company) will ship your book out to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
- If you are the winner of the book, I will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – (Antsy Ansel). Please respond to my e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.