Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Preserving A Life's Passion

There was once a girl who spent days in the out-of-doors with her father fishing or hunting.  He hunted with a bow and arrows he made himself.  She carried a camera.  Even after years of sitting for hours in the woods, they never saw a single deer.  Perhaps it was their quiet conversations to and from their positions which alerted the wildlife.  In those conversations the girl learned the names of plants and trees, birds and small animals and their value to humans and the world as a whole.

This father was also a photographer.  He turned his pictures into slides; some he made himself.  The girl still has hundreds of them.  This girl learned to develop and print her own black and white pictures in her own darkroom.  She taught middle and high school photography and yearbook classes; sometimes they made their own pinhole cameras.  She eventually taught elementary students to make sun prints using the same scientific principles behind cameras, film and photographs.  This allowed the children to better understand the work of Wilson Snowflake Bentley.

The Bluest of Blues: Anna Atkins And The First Book Of Photographs (Abrams Books for Young Readers, February 12, 2019) written and illustrated by Fiona Robinson is about another girl, her father, and their shared love and study of nature and photography.  Even though they were born more than one hundred fifty years apart, the more contemporary girl would have loved to have known about Anna Atkins.  This is the wondrous connection made through all kinds of books for all kinds of readers.

1807-The English Meadow
The sky is the bluest of blues.
Little Anna's arms are full of flowers: buttercups,
forget-me-nots, corncockles, love-in-a mist, feverfew, and marigolds.  The air is thick with butterflies and bees.

Nearby Anna is her father carrying a jar full of bugs and a heavy book.  Anna sees a bright red poppy.  In order to preserve it, she places it inside the book.  It will become dry and flat, pressed within the pages.

At home the duo work in the father's laboratory.  As a scientist he studies electricity, chemistry and entomology.  It is here Anna learns about scientific names given to plants and animals, Latin words known everywhere around the world.  John Children, Anna's dad, is her only parent.  Although it is not the practice to educate girls, this man makes sure Anna learns

chemistry, physics, zoology, botany and biology.

By the time Anna is twelve she and her father, partners in their studies, visit the seashore.  She makes meticulous drawings of what she finds.  At twenty-four Anna is living her dream as a botanist focusing on the flora found in her native land.  She continues documenting the specimens through her illustrations.  Her work and attention to detail is shown in one of her father's books, Lamarck's Genera of Shells.  Can you imagine making drawings for over 250 shells?

In 1825 Anna marries Pelly Atkins, a man of wealth and political prominence.  They live near her father, now a member of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge.  Women are not allowed to become members or be a part of important discourse within the society.  Anna continues to gather and protect plant specimens.  Her herbarium is enormous in content.  She wishes to share this with a larger audience.

Fourteen years after her marriage Anna is admitted as a member of the Royal Botanic Society in London.  A few years later Anna, Pelly and her father leave London for the countryside.  It is here Anna and her father explore photography and she uses one of the first cameras.  A visit with Sir John Herschel changes everything for Anna. 

Sir John Herschel's discovery of the cyanotype print leads Anna down the path she most wishes to travel.  On the sunniest days she, her father and sometimes her servants work.  Over the course of ten years, thousands of prints are made.  Together Father and daughter hold her efforts in their hands:  a book.

In reading this book the research employed by Fiona Robinson is indeed evident in the details she includes but also in the depiction of the passion Anna and her father have for their work.  Each important portion of Anna's life becomes a section of the book with a date and a place.  For several of these "chapters" Fiona repeats the phrase

the bluest of the blues

at the beginning.

The scenarios are personal in description using the present tense.  We stand next to Anna wherever she goes and whatever she does.  Fiona Robinson also closes the book in the same manner she begins it, in a field with bright red poppies.  This time there are two differences which further breathe life into Anna Atkins as she is presented to us.  Here is a passage.

1811-Beside the Sea
The sea is the bluest of blues.
Anna finds a long strip of squeaky, bubbly, brown seaweed.
"Fucus vesiculosus!" states Father.
"Fu-cus-ve-sic-u-lo-sus!" says Anna, repeating the Latin carefully.

She takes the seaweed by its roots and swings it high above her head.  Momentarily, she sees it silhouetted against the bluest of blues.

Fascinating is a word which comes to mind in looking at the front and back of the book case.  The texture of the paper is smooth with a cloth spine.  The colors used by Fiona Robinson here are used throughout the book with one exception.  The hues of blues do shift some to complement the text.  If you are wondering how the image was formed on the front, your curiosity is certain to increase when you look at the back. 

The back serves as a front and back jacket flap with a darker blue used.  The images are specimens of flora.  It looks as if they are sun prints or cyanotypes.  On the opening and closing endpapers, done entirely in shades of blue, Fiona Robinson features first a series of sea shells beautifully depicted and numbered.  On the later are thirty-two cyanotypes of seaweed.  The sea shells are continued on the page prior to the title page.  The title page is a silhouette of Father and a younger Anna walking in a field.

Almost all the illustrations span two pages.  When full-page pictures appear, it is for pacing.  Fiona Robinson describes her process in a note at the conclusion of the book.  She used many techniques to create this signature style.  She shifts her perspective from very close to Anna to showing a more cityscape view when appropriate.  The wide eyes, mouths, noses and cheeks on the people are distinctive.

One of my many, many favorite illustrations is for the text previously quoted.  It is a double-page picture.  On the left Anna is standing and swinging the discovered seaweed over her head.  Behind her the sand, sea and sky stretch.  Sea birds swirl behind her.  On the right, a kneeling Father holds a crab in one hand.  (Fiona Robinson states in her note the sea is made from a

photograph of cling wrap.

For those who harbor a love of nature, photography and exploring both, The Bluest of Blues: Anna Atkins And The First Book Of Photographs written and illustrated by Fiona Robinson is pure perfection.  It is a tribute to the relationship of a parent and child and how they pursued that which they loved.  It is an inspiration to all who hold a dream in their hearts.  At the conclusion there is an Author's Note, How to Make Your Own Cyanotypes, Bibliography, Institutions Holding Anna's Cyanotypes, Acknowledgments, Illustration Credits, a dedication, publication information and the earlier mentioned Medium Note.   I highly recommend this picture book biography for your personal and professional collections.

To learn more about Fiona Robinson and her other work, please follow the link attached to her name to access her website.  Fiona Robinson can be found on Instagram and TwitterAt the publisher's website you can view interior images. 

To discover more titles selected this week by those participating in the 2019 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge, please visit Kid Lit Frenzy the site hosted by educator Alyson Beecher.


  1. I'm so glad to read this wonderful review, Margie. I've done so many hours of field journaling with students, would have loved this book to share with them. I will be sure to find and read it. The "extra pages" shared on Amazon look lovely.

  2. I, for one, am getting a plant press as soon as possible, Linda. I used to press flowers and now is a good time to start again. Thank you for visiting.