Profile of 2015 Wilder Medal winner Donald Crews

crewsfamily_adjusted Nina, Donald, and Ann Crews, 2009. Photo: Amy Crews.

Looking back on my childhood, it is clear that my parents, Donald Crews and Ann Jonas Crews, gave my sister and me a visual education. They taught us to look at the world and shared with us their passion for visual and cinematic art. They taught us that the way something is presented is a form of expression and has meaning. That in the spaces between words there are actions and gestures. In the spaces between words there are pictures. When I look at my father’s body of work, I marvel at his elegant visual solutions for telling any story. He knows how to communicate in the spaces between words. This ability is something integral to his temperament, and it was an elemental part of my childhood.

Over the years, my sister, Amy, and I have joked about communications with our father. They are often brief and to the point, their tone imperative — the complete opposite of the longer digressive chats we would have with our mother. Amy and I might laugh, but rarely do we have much argument with what my father has to say. His style is just Dad — he’s not one to ramble on but is clear and concise in word and gesture.

Crews_early_years_gray Donald and Ann Crews, 1962. Photo courtesy of Donald and Ann Crews.

My parents worked at home, which meant that they were always working and never working at the same time. Jazz music or talk radio programs played constantly. There were advantages to having our parents always available in that way. Even though we’d be shooed away when deadlines loomed, they were ready and available when my sister or I wanted help building something for our dolls or with a school project. We were even called upon, on occasion, to participate in their work — both of us posed for photographs and drawings that were included in their freelance projects.

My father and mother moved to New York City from their family homes in New Jersey to attend art school. They became passionate and committed New Yorkers, raising my sister and me in the New York of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s — a time when many families chose the safer nearby suburbs. The city offered culture — high and low. My parents marveled at the architecture and the energy of our hometown. Sure, they had to be careful in a city with a high crime rate, but that was a small sacrifice to make to be inspired and creatively energized the minute they walked out our front door.

donald crews taking photo Donald Crews, 2014. Photo: Nina Crews.

Our family would take bike rides past the abandoned piers on the west side of Manhattan, down to the Staten Island Ferry. We would ride the ferry back and forth to Staten Island, without getting off, simply to look around the harbor and get a nice view of lower Manhattan. When I was in seventh grade and taking a photography class, my father walked with me around our neighborhood as I took pictures, encouraging me to take one more look here or there. On these excursions, he would take photographs, as well — visual notes that might be helpful for projects down the road or things that he just found interesting. He still carries a camera with him most of the time and records scenery and signs, or events such as the parades, bicycle races, and county fairs that became the subjects of his books.

crews_envelope_adjusted Photo courtesy of Nina Crews.

When I was nine and ten, my family sent letters to me at sleep-away camp. My mother’s letters were filled with news of the past day or two since her last letter. She made sure I was up-to-date on my sister and the cat and anything special that had gone on. My father wrote less often, and his letters were less detailed. Instead, he created visually playful hellos. One letter begins, “Don’t have much to say so I’ll write small…” It is a tiny handwritten message occupying a rectangle the size of a postage stamp in the middle of a letter-sized page. On the envelope of another letter sent by my mother, he drew an elaborate gothic-style N for the first initial of my name. A third letter featured a self-portrait, because while he had sent photos of my sister, my mother, and the cat, he had none of himself to send.

My father’s first books, We Read: A to Z and Ten Black Dots, were part of my early childhood library, but his biggest successes came when I was a teenager. When Freight Train won a Caldecott Honor, the four of us traveled to Dallas for the convention and awards ceremony. We took a side trip to New Mexico afterward, making the most of our time in the Southwest for more looking and more photographs. When we got home, my father created a slideshow that we watched together, and we had an animated discussion of our different memories of the trip.

While I was soon off to college and much more involved in finding my independent self, I felt the magic of those years after Freight Train. My father had success followed by success, and with each new project he worked to match the design of his art to the story at hand. I remember him doing photo experiments for the blurs of the moving carousel in Carousel, and expanding upon his use of airbrush in Flying. And all the while, my father and mother were building a friendship with his editor, Susan Hirschman. In time, she would become my mother’s editor — and mine.

My father had encouraged my mother to consider making picture books, and soon they both had successful picture book careers. While they never collaborated, they cared deeply about each other’s work and offered both support and criticism. What mattered was to make each book the best that it could be. It was an excellent education for the aspiring artist that I was. I saw my parents create meticulous book dummies. I watched them start final art for a page and then abandon that art if it wasn’t quite right. I learned that it is not enough to have words on the page, but that the words must be well spaced and well placed. I learned that a beautiful picture book takes months and months of thoughtful, careful work.

When I began my career in children’s books, I strove to use the lessons learned from years of watching my parents work. Both of them were thrilled to have me follow in their footsteps, and their thoughts and advice have always been helpful and supportive. As I worked on my own books, my appreciation of their work has grown.

Surprisingly, even after years of work in the field, I found that there were still lessons for me to learn from my father. Lessons I learned from reading Dad’s books to my infant son, who by the age of six months showed a deep passion for all vehicles. Freight Train was the most popular. And not just for the obvious appeal of trains moving down the track, but for the final moment of the book when the train was “gone.” The final page is so very spare, showing just empty tracks and a trail of smoke. That moment is epic for a child that age, for whom the presence and absence of known things is still deeply mysterious.

My father knows how to hit the right note at the right time, as a jazz musician might. He punctuates a simple text with an observation that gives us a reason to look and look again at that train, bus, or busy harbor. He shares with very young readers his deep engagement with looking at and observing the world. A visual education.

Donald Crews is the winner of the 2015 Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal. From the July/August 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more speeches, profiles, and articles click the tag ala 2015.

To commemorate Black History Month, we are highlighting a series of articles, speeches, and reviews from The Horn Book archive that are by and/or about African American authors, illustrators, and luminaries in the field — one a day through the month of February, with a roundup on Fridays. Click the tag HBBlackHistoryMonth17 and look for #HBBlackHistoryMonth17 on and @HornBook. You can find more resources about social justice and activism at our Talking About Race and Making a Difference resource pages.

The Horn Book celebrates Black History Month


Nina Crews

Nina Crews most recently illustrated A Girl like Me (Millbrook), written by Angela Johnson. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, seven-year-old son, and seventeen-year-old cat — and all three have posed for photographs included in her books.

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