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Donald Crews: the signs and times of an American childhood - essay and interview.

The work of picture-book artist Donald Crews is striking in its sharp-edged images of urban life, especially transportation. Informed by his graphics training and experience, he emphasizes picture over story and presents the hand of people upon the urban environment, in buildings, buses, planes, ships, and most of all trains, but often little of the people themselves. Most of his stories are brief, using the pattern of a counting book or an alphabet, for example, listing the elements that he is presenting with a twist to bring the book to an end. In fact, he has exploited the picture-book form, presenting minimalist text and relying upon his visuals to move the book forward, in Caldecott- and ALA-honored books written from the late 1960s like Freight Train (1978), Truck (1980), and Carousel (1982). However, it is only in the 1990s that he has begun to expand and elaborate his texts, broadening his style of drawing and reaching into autobiography, to dramatically describe his African-American childhood, in Bigmamas (1991) and Shortcut (1992).

Crews was born in Newark, and much of his education, training, and experience have been in graphics and design, resulting in the sharp line, geometric shapes, primary colors, and poster-like quality of most of his illustrations. He studied at Cooper Union School, where he met his wife, the picture-book artist Ann Jonas. Stationed in Germany while serving in the U.S. Army in the early 1960s, he designed an alphabet book to include in his graphics portfolio for his return to civilian life. After some rejections, this book, We Read: A to Z, was published by Harper in 1967. Unlike most alphabet books, it does not dwell on concrete objects but uses large blocks of color to stress concepts, relationships, and location. For instance: "Cc, corner: where the yellow is," "Gg, grow: things get bigger," and "Ff, few: not many squares." The C page is red with a yellow square in the lower-right-hand corner, while the F page shows three green squares on an otherwise bare white page. We Read was followed the next year by a counting book, Ten Black Dots (1968). Meanwhile, Crews continued his design career, doing magazine work and producing book covers, as well as illustrating others' works.

In the books that follow, the strongest motif in Crews's work is transportation, and especially trains. His father worked on the railroad, and as a boy Crews took the train to spend the summer with his grandparents in Cottondale, Florida, the inspiration for his book Bigmamas. Typical of his middle-period book (stretching roughly from 1978 to the early 1990s) are nine books on transportation subjects, including Freight Train, Truck, Harbor (1982), School Bus (1984), and Flying (1986). These utilize bright colors and hard-edged pictures of an urban world and its machines, but few actual people. The artist's graphics background is the dominating feature here: Large blocks of unmodulated color appear with little shading, shadow, or perspective, sometimes tempered or softened with an airbrush. Nevertheless, his visual techniques are innovative for children's books. Freight Train uses static pictures of train cars which are photographically blurred to create motion. This is a technique he has returned to often (notably in Carousel), and a number of his books use photographs for illustrations. Stories tend to be minimal, and the subject of the book is usually educational as well as visual. For example, after presenting a series of watercraft in Harbor, the final page of the book lists "Ship Shapes," the identifying silhouettes of thirty ships and boats. Freight Train familiarizes its audience with a generalized train and the primary colors ("Red caboose at the back / Orange tank car next / Yellow hopper car," 3-4), but the book contains only 55 words and merely shows the train's passing. Other than day, night, and forward motion, there is no plot development. Of course, one of the cultural lessons of a picture book for a prereader is the forward motion of books, as one must keep moving to the right, turning pages until the book is completed.

In addition to his poster-like style of painting, Crews often makes use of type as a visual element in his story, contrasting large and small type to indicate shouting and excitement, for example. When the wind fills the sails in Sail Away (1995), it does so with a visible "WHOOSH!" in all capitals drawn onto the picture of the sail. In his illustrations for Robert Kalan's Rain (1978), in an homage to Japanese artist Hiroshige, Crews fills the page with diagonal lines of the word rain, alternating boldface, italics, and roman type.

Truck, which was a Caldecott Honor Book as well as an ALA Notable Book, is a wordless picture book which shows a truck carrying cargo from coast to coast. On another level, however, the pictures show the United States full of signs, traffic signals with words, and even mere shapes, which remind us that we know the stop sign from the shape as well as the words. Arrows, X's, and pictographs fill the gestural arena, and Crews exploits the nature of signs more so with fireplugs, klaxon horns, and directional markers. The reader also notices fog, smoke, headlights, and makes the assumptions which these markers lead us to. Truck is a semiotic exploration of what we see daily, presenting the American landscape as a grid for the mercantile delivery of goods. After the truck moves from city to city through tunnels, over highways, through night and rain and fog, it reaches its destination, and its door is opened to reveal its cargo: crates of tricycles. The cycle of transportation and delivery continues, as Truck draws its young readers to their own mode of transport.

The pictures in Truck, though jammed with the tools of humans, show not one person. Windshields are black, and there are no visible drivers or pedestrians. The art is large bright areas of color with thin black outline, rendering the vehicles stylized and generic, though in no way depersonalized or dehumanized. The diagrammatic nature of traffic signs makes this style strikingly appropriate. What is stressed here is the circus of signs, and the visual splendor of the ordinary and familiar. And Truck is particularly rich and rewarding, with its colorful panoramic pictures. Without a written text, this book offers the American scene as the story, the highway the storyline. Marjorie Reinwald Romanoff wrote in 1981,

A gifted artist, Crews appears to have been influenced by the Pop Art movement of the 1960s as well as by the Futurist movement that celebrated the creation of machinery and began in Italy prior to World War I. Not unlike the Futurist, Boccioni, Donald Crews has focused on machines of the twentieth century: the train and the truck.... Drawing upon the apparent influence of Pop artists, in general, and Robert Indiana, in particular, Crews uses bright colors, graphic lettering, city signs, and diagonal lines in Truck. (20)

His books also bear a resemblance to Constructivist picture books of the Soviet Union in the 1920s; these also taught Soviet children about transportation and natural science, through innovative pictures and typography. In the interview that follows this essay, Crews acknowledges his appreciation for Paul Rand (American, 1914-96) and Bruno Munari (Italian, born 1907), two highly influential graphics designers. Both incorporated elements of contemporary art into their work, including Cubism, Constructivism, and Futurism.

Crews's stylized manner of drawing extends to the few humans we see in a book like Parade (1982), where the people are obviously exposed. Bystanders appear as generic people shown as shapes of un-outlined color, without features. Again, Crews uses objects to stand for the details - a swatch of hair, a hat, or a pair of sunglasses. The participants in the parade, the marchers, for instance, do have features - eyes, nostrils, mouths - and they are differentiated with various skin tones and hair textures. Though the figures are stylized and simplified, here more individual and ethnic features are allowed to enter into the story we view.

It is easy to see that, in the evolving of style, husband and wife influenced one another. Ann Jonas did not begin making picture books until the 1980s, and her first ones shared the geometric style of Crews's earlier books. If anything, Jonas's work experiments more daringly with the picture-book format. Both Roundtrip (1983), in black and white, and Reflections (1987), in color, use illusionistic pictures as the reader reaches the end and flips the book upside down to see different images on each page.

Crews's works through the 1980s were justly popular and respected. It was toward the end of this decade that he began dealing in material that was more personal and that reflected a more diverse view of the country. For instance, in Bicycle Race (1985), an unusual book of numbers because the changing alignment of the racers allows for a jumbling of the numbers, white, brown, and black cyclists can be identified. Bystanders, though still portrayed in a stylized manner, would seem to include Crews and his wife, and the winner of the race is a surprise, the dark-skinned woman who earlier had had to stop to fix her flat tire.

This concern for race, gender, and matters of diversity can be seen in Crews's first books, Ten Black Dots and We Read: A to Z, as he writes, perhaps with tongue in cheek, "Uu, under: where the black is" (21). However, the clearest transition can be seen in his illustrations for Franklyn M. Branley's Eclipse.' Darkness in Daytime, a "Let's-Read-and-Find-Out Science Book," published in 1973 and then revised in 1988, both in pictures and words. While both versions are picture books, the earlier is hard-edged and geometric, with pages printed with color to the edges, alternating with black-and-white spreads. Again, the figures tend to be diagrammatic, as the author explains how the smaller moon, for example, can almost blot out the sun in a lunar eclipse. In the first version of the book, a girl, outlined in black and white, holds a penny in front of her eyes to cover a flat car seen in silhouette. In the 1988 version, an African-American boy in modulated color performs the same experiment with a red car seen in 3/4-view, with shadows and perspective. The new edition of the book uses painted pictures, full of color on every page, creating a more vivid and engaging effect, and at the same time reflecting a concern in popular books to present a more honest portrayal of the diversity of American society.

Crews has written that he was not directed to change the content of the pictures for the new book:

As I recall the reason for the new edition was mostly due to a format and the number of colors to be utilized in the series. The first edition was limited to two colors on one side and two on the reverse. The new edition was four-color. The earlier edition reflected more the way I worked at the time, graphic, geometric images with no figurative elements. The new edition is more illustrative and does have figures as did most of my other picture books at this time. I of course think of people of color whenever figurative representation is called for. There was no editorial directive as far as I recall. (Letter)

At the same time that Crews's style has broadened, containing softer edges, more perspective and shading, and a more painterly style, his interest in projecting more social diversity is also evident.

In the 1990s, he has moved from his nonfiction educational mode to autobiography, in two stories from his childhood, Bigmamas (1991) and Shortcut (1992). Both involve trains and the trips his family made to the Cottondale, Florida, home of his grandmother, known as "Bigmama." In the picture book Bigmamas, the mother and four children enter into a warm and active family environment which is rural: a farm home, located in time for us by the horse and wagon, open well, wind-up Victrola, pedal-powered sewing machine, and a car license reading "Florida 1949." These pictures are fully drawn, with the finest of outlining, and consequently they appear less confident; in the interview that follows, Crews suggests that he is not satisfied with the drawing style. In the Greenwillow editions, Crews often identifies his technique on the copyright page: "Watercolor and gouache paints were used for the full-color art." The pictures are almost all done in brush with occasional airbrushing. As Susan Hepler suggests in "Books in the Classroom," such reflexive notes, dedications, as well as dates and repetitions placed in the texts, lead the reader to be aware of the bookmaking and the role of the illustrator and storyteller (68). It is certainly a characteristic of all of Crews's work that the reader is rewarded for and even required to observe all the details of the pictures and even the book as a whole.

In Bigmamas, four children and the mother ride the train south, presumably from New Jersey, to rural Florida. The story follows the children as they kick off their shoes and become reacquainted with farm life. Their links with the past and the strength of the family are stressed. Describing dinner together, the book reads: "We talked about what we did last year. We talked about what we were going to do this year. We talked so much we hardly had time to eat" (27). The book ends with a grown man in mustache and beard looking out over the skyscrapers of a nighttime cityscape thinking of his childhood sense of time: "Some nights even now, I think that I might wake up in the morning and be at Bigmama's with the whole summer ahead of me" (30).

Obviously this book is a departure for Crews, since he is depending upon story as much as pictures to carry the book. He reaches into his past to create a sense of continuity and transition. Though the pictures clearly identify his family as African-American, his story in no way depends upon this, even though it follows a pattern familiar to America, with the urban younger generation in the North returning to visit the rural older generation in the South. Though the book tells of the older ways, its only hint of the social history of the times is the sign that marks the train car as "Colored." Once again, Crews asks his readers to pick up on the signs.

Bigmamas bears a resemblance to Back Home by Gloria Jean Pinkney, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, which appeared the following year. In it, a city girl Ernestine takes the train south to the family farm in Lumberton: "We think it only fitting that you get to know your kinfolk" (3). Jerry Pinkney's bright pencil and watercolor illustrations show a friendly, active environment, full of flowers and movement, with an African-American family reinforcing its past and its values. Likewise, Jerry Pinkney's The Patchwork Quilt, written by Valerie Flournoy (1985), focuses on tradition, as a girl helps her ailing grandmother sew a quilt of familiar scraps. Pickney's vibrant pictures have graced a number of books of African-American themes, such as Mirandy and Brother Wind, by Patricia C. McKissack (1988); the story of a cakewalk contest in the South, Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman (1996); and Sam and the Tigers: A New Telling of Little Black Sambo (1996).

Other African-American picture-book artists have likewise dealt overtly with matters of race and gender. For example, Jan Spivey Gilchrist has published on such subjects as the "African American anthem," in a picture book of James Weldon Johnson's Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing (1995). She has also produced images of the African American family in Indigo and Moonlight Gold (1993) and Tynia Thomassie Mimi's Tutor (1996), in colorful oil paintings on canvas which are somewhat less finished than Crews's. In Mimi's Tutor, African words and ceremonial dances of Guinea are explained. In this vein are Tom Feelings's black-and-white illustrations for Julius Lester's To Be a Slave (1968) and The Congo, River of Mystery (1968). Feelings seems especially eager to push the picture book to its limits in his autobiographical Black Pilgrimage (1972) and the stunning black-and-white drawings of Middle Passage, both of which aim at a wider audience than simply children. Crews's picture books have been less overtly political, yet always insistent on portraying the reality of the American multi-racial society.

Returning to the train motif, Crews's next book, Shortcut (1992), follows the children on a smaller episode, as they walk down the railroad tracks to save time on their way home. Again drawn in watercolor, this time more confidently with bolder dark outlines and more airbrushed scenery, the pictures show the children trapped on the narrow rail-lines as a train bears down on them. Like Bigmamas, this is a fully developed story, and the writing is rhythmic to match the sound of train wheels: "We laughed. We shouted. We sang. We tussled. We threw stones. We passed the cut-off that led back to the road" (7). Crews returns to his use of type as a visual element. The impending train fills the end pages with the words KLAKITY-KLAK-KLAK-KLAKITY-KLAK-KLAK. As the train approaches in the text, the whistle is illuminated in the engine's headlight, WHOO-WHOO, and the KLAKITY-KLAKs fill the bottom of the page, suggesting the horror of the deafening noise as well as the claustrophobia of the narrow cutout. This book also ends in night as the frightened children return to their home, chastened and safe.

The late 1960s, when Crews began his career in children's books, were a transitional period, but thirty years later, the market has warmed to a more diverse view of society. The artist's art has evolved from the abstract to the more specific; in doing so he is able to present his story more clearly and frankly, always using the visual to teach his readers to read the signs of their society. Exploiting the medium of the picture book, he masterfully leads us to look and see what is really there.

The following interview with Donald Crews was conducted as part of the "Decade Out Loud" program, during the loth Anniversary of the author series "Writing Out Loud" at the Michigan City Public Library, Michigan City, Indiana.

Bodmer: Can you define what a picture book is to you? Which do you consider more important, the pictures or the words?

Crews: I wouldn't be in picture books if it weren't for the fact that they are books that are primarily stories that can be told without the words. Ideally, if the pictures are done well enough you shouldn't need the words; the pictures should tell the story. The story should be full and fulfilling and interesting even without any words.

There generally are words to support the pictures. But if it were not for the fact that I could use illustration and color and form and design, I wouldn't have gotten started with picture books at all. That first book that I did for my portfolio was done because an artist needs a portfolio to find work as a staff person or a freelance person, just to show your best stuff as you move from one place to another. I decided on the form of a picture book because of my knowledge of people like Paul Rand and Bruno Munari and designers who had worked in picture books as a medium and had all the elements that I needed for my own work needs: design and color and typography and all the things I wanted to demonstrate my abilities in. So, being a designer and being a communicator, pictures came naturally, because telling stories and explaining things is what designers do. It's the same thing with a picture book. You're telling a story, primarily in pictures, with some words as support. I think that's the only way I can be involved in it. The fact that they call it literature is an extension I didn't intend.

Bodmer: The forms of the books you have published are quite varied - from, for instance, a book like Freight Train, which has no more than fifty-five words, to Bigmamas, which carries more text. Some artist-writers like Dr. Seuss and Maurice Sendak start with the words and only when the text is completely finished do they begin thinking about the final pictures. Do the pictures or the words come first for you?

Crews: Bigmamas and Freight Train are different kinds of stories. Freight Train was close to the time when I was doing most of my work as a designer, and abstraction and brevity and symbol were more important to me, were more significant to the way I did my work. In terms of Bigmamas, there were many things I had to tell. There wasn't enough room in the picture book to tell the story in pictures only; the words had to be expanded. I don't think I have abandoned the brevity of a book like Freight Train. But in Bigmamas there was a need for more words in order to make the story whole, to give the story the completion I thought it needed. Shortcut was another story that needed more words, but there are a lot fewer than in Bigmamas because the graphics in that story were more easily a carrier of the story.

As far as working, you need to know what the story is, what you're talking about, what it is you plan to do in this project in order to do the pictures, but I don't need to know the precise words that I'm going to use. I like to change as I go along if I find a better word. I can make that adjustment up until the very end. I suppose that I got started in picture books again after doing We Read A to Z and 10 Black Dots as portfolio inclusions - more as an experiment, a self-test in the beginning. I did a series of books that were written by other people, with very few words. You were given the concept and your job as an illustrator was to give that concept life in terms of its pictures. I always had trouble with the words that the other authors had used, and I decided that I would do a book, Freight Train, to choose my own words. So, that's when I got back into doing picture books, and keeping the words short and brief, making my own choices, and changing them right up to the very end, right up to the point when you package the project and turn it over to the publisher.

Words are the easiest part to make an adjustment in, even after the book comes back from first proofs. Something may come to mind long after you've started that would be more fitting than the word you already had. So I reserve that right to make those adjustments.

Bodmer: What is the process that you go through in developing an idea into a book?

Crews: The thought, something to make a picture book about, can be anything at all. There are no restrictions in terms of what the subject might be. It's hard to say when the thought becomes a real idea you could pursue as a picture-book project. But it's only an idea until you've made some stab at developing that into a picture story. You have to get some sort of image on paper, in sequence, and some sort of direction established before it becomes a real idea to you.

The artist is the first line of attack in terms of making a picture story. You have to get started somewhere and clarify the idea that you've got: start it and give it some flesh in the middle. And you must break down that story in your own mind into parts and develop those as brief sketches, as pictures. I generally don't talk to anybody about what I'm planning until after I've had a chance to go through it, and find out what the heart of the story is.

If I do a book about freight trains, for instance, and it's going to be a picture book, and it's going to be a brief book of 24 or 32 pages, I have to make a choice in terms of what I'm going to include in that story, what each page is going to lead to, and how the pages are all going to support each other. Telling the story in pictures is a matter of eliminating a lot of things because there's not a lot of space to ramble. Those are all things you do before you show it to anyone else.

I think showing something to someone too early gives that person a part in the process, part of the decision in terms of what it is you're going to include, and how you're going to approach this problem. I don't want to take the chance of losing it. I want to have a solid base, a solid premise that I'm going to work with before I show it to anyone else - even my wife, who's an artist and a designer, and we work in the same house. I don't show her things, and she doesn't show me her things until after we have gotten to a certain point where it becomes our ideas and not someone else's pot where everybody can put something into it. It has to get to that point before I show it to anyone. I generally show it to her first, and sometimes things that you think you've done well might not have been done as well as they might be because they don't communicate. The point of getting another opinion, another person to look at it, is to find out whether or not it's a transportable idea, or one that you only have in your own head. You want to find whether or not you're communicating. It's a luxury, really, to have someone fight downstairs that you can talk to, at almost any stage, any time day or night; you can talk about the idea before you try to export it.

Once you get a project in sketch form, it's still malleable; it's still something that can be adjusted. Then the editor and I talk about it as a potential project, and they've accepted most projects. There are several that we went through a series of disagreements about, and I made some adjustments. And at a certain point they got to be projects that were more theirs than mine, so I decided not to go along with them, not to finish it, to go on to another project. You really have to solidify your base before you find some other person that you get to be involved in a project.

Once the thought becomes an idea, a developable idea, one that you've chosen to put into practice, you can have a sketch ready in six weeks or so. I usually make a miniature story book, with all the pages roughly done, and I've kind of briefed in the type, so they can get a clear idea of what it is I intend. You don't really have to do that. You can make sketches as thumbnails and they can read those. At a certain point if you're working in a very thumbnail or storyboard sort of fashion, in order to finish the project you're going to have to find some form where this whole story is laid out in a more detailed way. So you might as well do it up front as later.

Bodmer: Do you have books on a shelf in your studio that you decided not to complete?

Crews: Not on a shell no. It's a small studio. They go in a box in a drawer, out of sight. Projects are generally up and down. They're up when you're working on them, and then when you're finished, they're down in a box and they're put away. Almost nothing from former books is out. They're all in their own little containers somewhere. Some of the things I started and did not quite finish are in a file, where they can be gone through.

For the story for Bicycle Race, I'd taken pictures of bicyclists racing in the park and made sketches and taken notes over a long period of time before I came across those sketches in my drawer and said, That really is a pretty good idea, why don't I finish it, why wasn't it finished, why wasn't it turned into a book? Having been reminded that I was interested in that as a project I would go back and do it. Some of the things that were unsuccessful are in the so-called "unsuccessful file." Several of those I look at and say, Why didn't I like this book - because it looks pretty good now?

Another book I did called Harbor evolved from my initial idea about a river, about a river's birth in the mountains, flowing out to the ocean and, at the end, flowing out through the harbor on the final page. We had talks about it several times back and forth, and the harbor pages grew every time - one page, two pages, five pages - and then eventually it came to me that what I really wanted to talk about was the boats that plied their trade on the harbor at the end. The river was really only setting up that endgame. So the book became Harbor and not a book about a river. Things can change as you go along.

In my case the people I work with are at Greenwillow Books; they formed this company about twenty years ago, a division of William Morrow. There are three people - an editor-in-chief, an art director, and a senior editor - and business people. So when you present a project, you're presenting it to all the people who have to make a decision about the project in that initial meeting. And generally a project is settled in that first few minutes. They either want it, or there's a problem and they don't. So it's very good that you can work within six weeks or so with a project and develop it, and have someone not only have an opinion about it, but decide whether or not it's going to go further, whether you're going to take it back to your studio and complete it, and turn it into book. So that's a pleasurable point of discussion.

I've worked in other projects where you complete a project and the project is submitted and you leave it, and it's some time before they get back to you on a decision of whether the project is valuable or not. It's very hard to get emotionally involved in a project that has that kind of space around the decision of whether or not you're going to complete it. I like the way it is now, people I've worked with a good long time. The art director at Greenwillow Books is a person that I did design work for thirty years ago, so it's all familiar people, like family.

Everything goes in pairs; one success leads to another. After my first book was accepted, I decided to do 10 Black Dots. Just because the first book was accepted I didn't know whether I could do another, a second book. I did Freight Train and that was very well received. Even before you know that it's going to be generally received, it's well received by me initially, and my family and editor, and so immediately you start to work on something else. And I went to Truck. Bigmamas was well received, and everyone liked that initially.

It's more than a year before you're going to know whether or not you've got something that's generally popular on your hands. The book has to be printed, it has to be sold, it has to get into the stores. People have to review it. People have to look at it. So it's a good long time. You can't wait for all that to happen until you start doing the next project. So the initial reaction from the people who are at that forefront of this process - family and friends and editors and people who begin the process - if their enthusiasm is infectious and they're enthusiastic about the way you've done a project, it fuels the fire to start another project, and that's why I started Shortcut.

It's a test as an artist. You're always trying to extend the things that you can do, and once I'd worked with the style I used in Bigmamas, I thought, Why not try it again? I'm not all that happy with the way I draw things actually. It could be better. Since it was done and it had some effect, I decided to do another.

Bodmer: Many of your works can be seen as educational. What do you want your readers to take away from your books?

Crews: Initially, what you want them to take away is an enjoyment of the involvement of being in books; I wasn't really thinking in terms of education or messages, or things that they needed to take away, especially. I think just of an adventure, an involvement with observation, a learning to look, to be more observant about what you see. All of my books are about real events, and they're only segments of those real events, a small portion of them and trying to tell a brief story about that part. Just the involvement with the book is what I want people to experience, and taking a look at the way I tell a story and hopefully finding pleasure in it.

The differences between one artist and another involve the point of view. I think in any given year any of the books I've worked on - except for the ones that are very personal, Bigmamas and Shortcut - about trucks, trains, boats, cars ... there are lots of books that are produced with some other artist's opinion or statement about that event. Hopefully the way you see it, the way you present the story will be one that will be more exciting than someone else's.

Bodmer: Recent books like Bigmamas and Shortcut recount events from your childhood, but even books like Freight Train mention going back to Florida and seeing the trains. How important is memory to your idea of storytelling?

Crews: If you're looking in terms of what a book's going to talk about, in terms of what you're going to make a statement about, and what are children going to be interested in, I guess you have to observe children and think about whatever it was that you found valuable in the beginning. I think that's why I started with Freight Train when I had the idea of going back to picture books and creating a picture book. I wanted to find out what it was that I found enjoyment in while growing up. Trains were immediately evident as something that impressed me a great deal, and I assumed they would probably impress some young people if I did the book properly.

I consider all the elements, thinking in terms of what it is that will make a good story. Bigmamas didn't originate so much from my remembering my earlier life as from telling the story to nieces and nephews and discussing it with my siblings and my parents. It was always a part of our conversation whenever we got together. Those were very important times obviously because we all spent a great deal of time talking about it. I think Bigmamas initially came out of the idea that kids, the young people wanted to know more about what it looked like - what we meant by an outhouse, and the barn and the big house. We had few photographs of that experience. And I thought of it more in terms of a way of clarifying the stories that we told all the time. That's how it started. It's not really the way I drew or illustrated things when I was working that characterizes the way ! handled Bigmamas; it's more like the things I did personally, and I considered it a personal way of expression. After having sketched it a few times and looking at it, I thought it might possibly be interesting to complete a project using this method.

Bodmer: What's the process over these fifteen years where you're dealing more directly with your life and growing more confident with your audience, or your storytelling? What's the place of storytelling to inform us today what life was like?

Crews: I think that at the early stages, with the early books, there was no real indication that there was an audience. Even in doing Freight Train, I was still thinking about myself as a designer and not as a picture-book creator. I didn't call myself a picture-book creator; I called myself a designer. And I was working in the design field. I didn't know I had an audience. And I suppose Bigmamas and Shortcut indicate that there are people there who look at the books that I create and have some feeling for their value. I suppose that gives me a bit more courage to do books like Bigmamas and Shortcut.

To tell a story, to write so that people call you an author ... it's very heady to be called an author and writer, to know that things you create could be useful. In the beginning you don't think in terms of these books in the library, in the card catalog with a list of works you've created. So it is kind of a heady thing to do. I think that gave me the courage to work on Bigmamas. Partially it's telling the story to family, and partially you're aware of the fact that there aren't very many books about Black families and their lives, and partially you have a responsibility to contribute to some of that. Since there are stories that I have that deal with Black lives and there is an audience out there for them, why not tell those stories as well?

Works Cited

Branley, Franklyn M. Eclipse: Darkness in Daytime. Illus. Donald Crews. New York: Crowell, 1973.

-----. Eclipse: Darkness in Daytime. Rev. ed. Illus. Donald Crews. New York: Crowell, 1988.

Crews, Donald. Bicycle Race. New York: Greenwillow, 1985.

-----. Bigmamas. New York: Greenwillow, 1991.

-----. Carousel. New York: Greenwillow, 1982.

-----. Freight Train. New York: Greenwillow, 1978.

-----. Harbor. New York: Greenwillow, 1982.

-----. Letter to George Bodmer. 22 July 1996.

-----. Parade. New York: Greenwillow, 1982.

-----. Sail Away. New York: Greenwillow, 1995.

-----. School Bus. New York: Greenwillow, 1984.

-----. Shortcut. New York: Greenwillow, 1992.

-----. Ten Black Dots. New York: Scribners, 1968.

-----. Truck. New York: Greenwillow, 1980.

-----. We Read: A to Z. New York: Harper, 1967.

Feelings, Tom. Black Pilgrimage. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1972.

Flournoy, Valerie. The Patchwork Quilt. Illus. Jerry Pinkney. New York: Dial, 1985.

Gilchrist, Jan Spivey. Indigo and Moonlight Gold. New York: Black Butterfly, 1993.

-----. Tynia Thomassie Mimi's Tutor. New York: Scholastic, 1996.

Hepler, Susan. "Books in the Classroom." Horn Book 64 (Sep.-Oct. 1988): 667-69.

Johnson, James Weldon. Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing. Illus. Jan Spivey Gilchrist. New York: Scholastic, 1995.

Jonas, Ann. Reflections. New York: Greenwillow, 1987.

-----. Round Trip. New York: Greenwillow, 1983.

Kalan, Robert. Rain. Illus. Donald Crews. New York: Mulberry, 1978.

Lester, Julius. Sam and the Tigers: A New Telling of Little Black Sambo. Illus. Jerry Pinkney. New York: Dial, 1996.

-----. To Be a Slave. Illus. Tom Feelings. New York: Dial, 1968.

McKissack, Patricia C. Mirandy and Brother Wind. Illus. Jerry Pinkney. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Pinkney, Gloria Jean. Back Home. Illus. Jerry Pinkney. New York: Dial, 1992.

Romanoff, Marjorie Reinwald. "Freight Train and Truck: A New Trend in Children's Literature?" Children's Literature Association Quarterly 6.3 (1981): 19-21.

Schroeder, Alan. Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman. Illus. Jerry Pinkney. New York: Dial, 1996.

George Bodmer is Professor of English and teaches children's literature at Indiana University Northwest.
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Author:Bodmer, George
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Interview
Date:Mar 22, 1998
Words:6679
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