Typically, when you think of an author/illustrator, you think of someone who combines words with paintings or drawings to tell a story. But author/illustrator Nina Crews is not your typical storyteller — she’s extraordinary, and chooses to illustrate her stories with photographs. “I fell in love with photography in college,” she says. “While I studied painting, drawing and sculpture, I felt that I could make my strongest work with photography. When I started writing books, I never seriously considered making more ‘traditional’ illustrations. I was a photographer and so my books would be photographic.”
For Ms. Crews, creating books is a family affair. Her father, Donald Crews, won Caldecott Honors for his books Freight Train and Truck. His wife, Ann Jonas, has written and illustrated many books, including Color Dance, Reflections, and Round Trip.
It was during a time when she worked in animation production that she began to write books for children. One Hot Summer Day (Greenwillow Books, 1995) was her first book. “I wanted to reflect the energy of the city environment, the textures of it. It’s something that I love,” she told Publisher’s Weekly. She followed that book with I’ll Catch The Moon (1996) and Snowball (1997).
“Picture books are the combination of two forms of poetry, written and visual, and their flow should be musical,” she says in a promotional piece written for Greenwillow. And her The Neighborhood Mother Goose (Greenwillow, 2004) is a testament to that statement. This book is an ALA Notable book for 2004, and it was selected by Kirkus and School Library Journals as one of the Best Books of 2004. The photographs, which are combined digitally (probably in Photoshop), are sparkling. The bold, double-page spreads depict modern-day urban scenes from classic Mother Goose rhymes.
In her most recent book, Below (Henry Holt & Company, 2006), a young child rescues Guy, an action-figure that has fallen through a hole in the stairs, from imagined dangers from below. With this book, Ms. Crews successfully combined color and black and white photographs with line drawings. This handsome book is colorful and friendly — fun, not only for the child, but mom and dad, too.
It’s our pleasure to present Ms. Nina Crews:
Please tell us about your book The Neighborhood Mother Goose
An editor suggested that I think about doing a Mother Goose collection. I immediately liked the idea. And as I read through other collections of nursery rhymes and bookmarked my favorites, I became really excited about it. I had Hillary Knight‘s Mother Goose book as a child. He created a village inhabited by the characters of the nursery rhymes. I thought it would be really fun to do the same with Brooklyn as Mother Goose’s “village”. The challenge was to find rhymes that could work in an urban environment. I had to omit a number of classic nursery rhymes (Mary had a little lamb, Baa, baa black sheep), because they required more rural settings.
Can you tell us about your road to publication, the highs and lows?
With this book [The Neighborhood Mother Goose] and with One Hot Summer Day, I had the wonderful experience of having an editor express interest in working with me before I submitted the story. In the case of One Hot Summer Day, I had met with Susan Hirschman, the editor and founder of Greenwillow Books, in the hopes of getting a chance to illustrate a project. I had known Susan for years. She had published books by both of my parents and I had interned at Greenwillow one summer during college. I brought a portfolio of work and both the editor and art director liked it a lot. They didn’t want me to do the book, but suggested that I come back with a book idea of my own. I brought them One Hot Summer Day one month later and they accepted it immediately. I was amazed and elated. I don’t think there was a single low point in that first project. I wish I could say was always the case.
How long did it take to get this story published?
The Neighborhood Mother Goose took about three years to complete. It was a fun book to do. I had a great time coming up with locations and scenarios to update the nursery rhymes. I was able to photograph in some of my favorite places in Brooklyn like Coney Island and Prospect Park.
What are your biggest challenges in bringing stories to life?
Most of my ideas usually sound better in my head, than they read when I first write them down on paper. It takes a lot of writing and rewriting to get something close to the initial spark of inspiration. Because I am also making the illustrations, I do small thumbnail sketches and sometimes I take photographs to help me flesh out an idea. This helps a lot. The biggest challenge is to push forward from that first thrilling concept to building a 24 – 32 page story based on it. I want my reader to be excited about the ideas that inspired me and I must do that through the story and the pictures. So words and pictures must be chosen that clearly express those ideas.
As an African American author, what challenges — if any — have you experienced?
My only real frustration has been when grownups judge a book’s suitability based on whether the child or children in the book “reflect” the child or children that they plan to share it with. I have read my books with children of all races and they are all open to a good story – regardless of whether the child looks like them. Children’s literature should represent children of all races and it is important to have that experience of seeing oneself on the page. But I don’t think that one’s reading list should ever be limited to that experience.
What advice can you give to new writers like myself ?
Writing is solitary work and artists who choose solitary work often need to seek out community. Whether you find other writers to share writing with or just share your experiences and struggles, my advice is to find these people. The work in your studio will be filled with moments of euphoria and doubt and it is good to have a friendly ear to share them with.
Also, your second grade teacher was right when she told you to rewrite your essay. More often than not, your writing will be helped by rereading and rewriting it a number of times. Don’t be discouraged; just consider that part of the process.
As an African American writer, do you ever feel the pressure to write a particular kind of story? What advice can you give to writers who want to write on subjects out-of-the-box?
I do not feel that I have been pressured to write a certain type of book, but more that there are limitations to the market for children’s literature. The publishing industry is very competitive at present. The editors and agents must consider the commercial viability of a story. This may lead to more caution at times than may be ideal from a creative point of view.
You are a successful author, speaker, parent. How do you find balance — and writing time, for that matter?
I have always made time for my creative work. I have always been a big believer in balance. I think it’s important to make time for family, friends, work, play, exercise and house cleaning. I have always been pretty lucky in finding work that allows me to do this. I haven’t had to do all of my writing and artwork in the early or late hours of the day while holding down a full time job.
Are you a photographer outside of children’s publishing? Can you speak on that topic?
I do some commercial work outside of children’s publishing, but most of my other photography has been more personal fine art work. I have had opportunities to show photographs in gallery group shows over the years. These days, I continue to develop photography projects, but I would say that most of my photographic work is for my picture books.
Your first book, One Hot Summer Day, published in 1995. How have you grown as an author/illustrator?
One theme that has been quite constant for me has been a child’s imaginary play. In One Hot Summer Day, I’ll Catch the Moon and Snowball, I wrote solitary stories from the first person point of view. When I first read One Hot Summer Day to schoolchildren, I was asked – “Where’s her mommy?” I had thought that it was most important to highlight a child’s autonomy, but young children also like to know that their parent is nearby. In subsequent books, relationships between the characters started to play either a minor or major role – serving sometimes as the impetus to fantasy. A child’s autonomy is still important in my work, but now the child exists within a family or a community. I want to continue to develop this thread.
What is the most gratifying aspect of being an author of children’s literature?
The most gratifying aspect of being a children’s author is sitting in a room with a group of children who are all completely engrossed in one of my books. When I am working on a project, I don’t share it with a lot of people and most of those people are adults. Seeing the enthusiasm of a group of children is fantastic.
On the business side, what advice can you give to beginning authors?
These days, I think the best advice is to be prepared to knock on a lot of doors. Even as a veteran author I have found this to be the case. You may have to show your work to a lot of agents and then editors to find the right fit. Try to research the people you submit your work to beforehand. You may be able to save yourself time if you have a sense of whether the publisher you submit to is likely to publish the type of story you write. A glance at their website and back lists would give you some idea.
What inspires the characters you write about? Where do they come from?
My characters are inspired by my experiences and by observations of children that I know. One Hot Summer Day grew out of memories of my own childhood. Below is based on an event in the life of my nephew, Jack. He dropped a small plastic figure into a hole in the stairs.
Do you outline your stories, or do you simply sit down and write?
I generally write notes and make small sketches when I am working out an idea for a book. Sometimes I will take some photographs as well. Since the manuscripts are short, I don’t find that I need an outline.
Who is your greatest cheerleader?
My mother and father have always been great supporters of what I do. They are also fair critics. I would also count my sister, several close friends and my husband among the people whose enthusiasm has been really important to me as I develop projects.
What is on the horizon?
I have two projects in the works right now. The first one, which is close to completion, is a sequel to my last book Below. Jack and Guy find some new adventures together. I have also completed a manuscript for an updated version of Jack and the Beanstalk.
Some questions used with permission and consultation of Cynthia Leitich Smith.