Canadian expat Ashlyn Anstee’s debut picture book, Are We There, Yeti?, was released by Simon & Schuster Canada this week. Her follow-up, No, No, Gnome!, is forthcoming from S&S in early 2016. We caught up with the former Vancouverite, who studied film animation at Sheridan College in Toronto before moving to Los Angeles, to chat about her grand entrance into kidlit authorship.
You grew up in Vancouver and lived in Toronto. What drew you out to L.A.? Short answer, sunshine! Long answer, it was a lot easier to work as an animator and storyboard artist in L.A. My mom grew up out in L.A., which means I do have some roots there. My heart is always in Canada though, and so much of my creative inspiration is drawn from there.
It seems that a lot of people trained and working in animation eventually turn their talents to picture books. Why did you decide to take the plunge? I actually had always wanted to do picture books since I was a little kid, and it took me that long to realize that you can actually do it for a living. I read a lot, and the people who make books have always seemed like mystical wizards. To me, picture books are the perfect medium; you get to explore an idea in a beautiful, fun, concise way, and you get to do it as part of a very small team. It’s much more yours than a lot of animation projects. That was appealing!
How did the book come about? Well, I love puns. It’s a blessing and a curse. Usually, I start with titles, which is sort of a no-no in books, I think. But for me, it’s fun to think of a nice catchy bit of word play!
From there, I drew a lot on some road trips my family took when I was a kid. We went across Canada a few times in a much-too-full van. I was not a very patient child.
Once the book was roughed in, I was lucky enough to meet my agent at a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators workshop, and Yeti ended up finding a home with Simon & Schuster.
Are you still working full-time in animation? Do you hope to move fully into picture books? I am still working in animation. I’m storyboarding at Nickelodeon right now. I do love animation; it definitely inspires my storytelling and it’s a lot of fun to be part of a team making this amazing fun show, and to see it come together. I think though, as I get older (and when I have kids of my own), that I would love to move fully into picture books, or at least have animation take more of a back seat. I like the idea creation part of animation, but I don’t know if I have the stamina to do boards for 30-plus years. I like to change it up too much!
Because of my full-time job, I end up working a lot of evenings and weekends, but because it’s for something I love, I really enjoy it.
What was the inspiration behind Are We There, Yeti? (and why a yeti)? I love cryptozoology and mythical animals and had always wanted to make lots of books with lesser-known folk animals (I still want to make an Ogopogo book someday!). Once I had the title, which is a nice twist on that childhood phrase, I was sort of set on a yeti. Are We There, Sasquatch? doesn’t have quite the same ring.
Is there a message you’re hoping to convey in the book? I think by the end of Yeti you have an appreciation for the journey that the kids have been on, and that being patient is worth it in the end (when you reach the final destination). It’s hard as a kid to take a road trip.
The characters show a good amount of diversity. Were you conscious of being inclusive, or did this just occur naturally? I was lucky to grow up in a pretty diverse set of schools, so I tried to think of the kids I knew growing up, and put as many of them as possible in the book. Having a good mix of genders and racial backgrounds is something that is important. Even just for the element of a kid being able to look and say, “Hey, that girl has red hair, just like me!” I actually have a PDF somewhere of all the characters – I gave them all personalities and likes and dislikes, and that was fun too.
S&S is already comparing you to Mo Willems. How does that make you feel? Do you see it? Mo and I both wear glasses, so I think if I cut my hair, or he grows his out, we could be pretty close…
Seriously though, it is a huge honour. I love his work, and to be compared to a great is humbling and terrifying all at once. I think Willems is the master of funny, character-driven stories, and I aspire to similar goals. I think hitting the right balance of sweet and funny is something that for me is pretty important. I will keep trying.
Who inspires you, visually? Any big influences? Clearly, I love 1950s-style illustration, especially ’50s educational films. I actually did my college thesis film as a parody of those films. I also love comics, and how simply so many of the greats can tell a story. Calvin and Hobbes, Mutts, Cul de Sac, and Pearls Before Swine were big for me growing up.
I tend to look to abstract painters and sculptures for palettes, textures, and shapes in my work, Paul Klee and Henry Moore in particular.
And of course, other amazing picture book artists! Mo Willems, Dan Krall, and Oliver Jeffers are some of my current favourites.
What’s next? Tell us a bit about No, No, Gnome! I’m always writing. It’s a bit exhausting, writing. It’s kind of like running a lot of marathons and then eventually someone stops you, and they say “You can stop running now!” but you don’t believe them, so you keep running, until your legs are little nubs. That’s how I feel about writing – it’s never ending.
But yes, I’m writing – some picture books and some early readers are on the table right now.
No, No, Gnome! is my second book. I wrapped it up a couple of months ago, and I’m really excited for it to come out. It’s got a bit more mischeviousness than Yeti, and still lots of kids and flowers and gardens. It’s focused around school, and you get to meet Gnome, who can be a little bit naughty (like all of us).
Anything else you’d like to add? I would like to formally apologize to my father for thinking that shouting “Are we there, yet?” over and over was a fun way to pass the time on a road trip.