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Nina Crews (1963-) - Sidelights

review book children city

The daughter of respected author/illustrators Donald Crews and Ann Jonas, Nina Crews has established a reputation of her own as a talented contributor to the field of children's literature. Combining simple stories with arresting photographic collages, Crews creates picture books that are considered notable for reflecting the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of young children while celebrating the urban environment that is the background of her works.

Born in Frankfurt, Germany, Crews was raised in an artistic atmosphere in Manhattan's West Village. Regarding her childhood in New York City, Crews recalled in a promotional piece for Greenwillow Books, "I enjoyed the city and all its variety. The people, the neighborhoods, all of the city's quirkiness were endlessly exciting. I started taking pictures at an early age, and the city was my first subject." As a child, Crews and her sister were encouraged by their parents in their art projects. She attended New York City's Music and Art High School as a teenager, then went to Yale University where she majored in art and studied photography. "I had well-rounded art training in high school but became more focused on photography in college. Since then, I have been working in commercial animation production and doing freelance photo-collage illustration."

In an interview with Shannon Maughan in Publishers Weekly Crews recalled, "My father always said, 'You should do a children's book.'" Reacting to friends' disparaging remarks about New York City not being a good place to raise children, Crews was prompted to create the concept book One Hot Summer Day. She explained in Publishers Weekly, "I wanted to do a book about an urban child's existence. I wanted to reflect the energy of the city environment, the textures of it. It's something that I love. This book came out of remembering those days of big thunderstorms when the whole world changes from one thing into another." Using a family friend as a model for her collage photographs, Crews depicted a lively, happy African-American girl dressed in purple overalls who describes her city neighborhood as she plays on a sweltering day. Engaging in activities like eating popsicles, playing on the swings, and trying to fry an egg on the sidewalk, the narrator finally dances among the raindrops of a sudden thunderstorm.

In her review of One Hot Summer Day for Horn Book, Mary M. Burns commented that Crews's illustrations are an "intriguing combination of realistic images imaginatively redefined in unexpected juxtaposition....In this context, the camera is as much a painter's tool as palette and brush." Burns concluded that One Hot Summer Day is a "wonderful concept book" and an "auspicious debut." A reviewer in Publishers Weekly concurred, calling the book a "promising debut"and noting that Crews "skillfully captures the childlike wonder at and appreciation of small delights." A Kirkus Reviews commentator heralded "the debut of a welcome new voice and vision," and praised "the fresh and intriguing way these snapshots are collaged with other media into an urban narrative for very young children." When asked by Publishers Weekly about the reaction of her parents to her book, Crews said, "They gave me my space and were really encouraging."

In her next concept book, I'll Catch the Moon, Crews renders her collages in a style that is both reminiscent of and different from the one in One Hot Summer Day. In this work, the artist uses toned black-and-white background photos to create a dreamlike fantasy about climbing a ladder to the moon. Narrated by a seven-year-old girl with a missing front tooth, the story describes the child's fantasy as she looks out her window at New York City by night. She imagines herself climbing a ladder to the moon and dancing among the stars before heading home to bed. Crews uses a photocollage technique that mixes actual photos from NASA with those taken by the artist.

Writing in Horn Book, Elizabeth S. Watson called I'll Catch the Moon a "knockout in both concept and execution" and added that both "the photographs themselves and their placement in the overall design are outstanding." Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books reviewer Deborah Stevenson claimed, "As nighttime journeys go . . . this is an unusual one, and kids may enjoy the tantalizingly realistic bedtime fantasy." A Kirkus Reviews critic added that the narrator's wish "is vividly brought to life," and concluded: "In style and setting, this book is virtually a repeat of Crews's One Hot Summer Day, but its star-drenched, dreamlike mood gives it a totally different emotional content."

In Snowball, Crews tells of a little girl waiting impatiently for the first snowfall of the year. "When the white stuff finally falls, her world transforms into a frosty, fun-filled wonderland," according to a critic for Publishers Weekly. Stephanie Zvirin wrote in Booklist that Crews's illustrations of children at play in the snow "work wonderfully well, capturing not only the activity but also the pure joy behind it."

In You Are Here two bored little girls are stuck in the house because of rain. Mariah and Joy draw a map on their checkerboard of a faraway island. When they go in their imaginations to visit the island, a giant demands a treasure before they can leave. By referring to their map, Mariah and Joy find a sorcerer's library and use a book of magic spells to put the monster to sleep. Natalie Soto, writing in the Rocky Mountain News, called You Are Here "a fun book that powerfully illustrates the beauty of a child's imagination." Susan Dove Lempke, in a review for Booklist, described it as a "joyful book, to be sure, one that will make children want to jump up and begin active, imaginative play."

Crews tells of a possibly haunted house in A Ghost Story. Young Jonathan is convinced there is a ghost in the house when someone keeps knocking books off his shelf and throwing his basketball in the aquarium. His sister, Celeste, does not believe him, and besides, she is too interested in her singing to care. When Uncle Pete comes to visit, he helps out both siblings. He listens carefully when Celeste sings, and he helps Jonathan catch his ghost in a bed sheet and throw the spectre out the window. "It is touching how Uncle Pete pays attention to both children," wrote Anne Knickerbocker in the School Library Journal. A critic for Kirkus Reviews believed that "there is no definitive way to interpret the story, and different interpretations of the plot and the author's intent could spark some interesting discussions."

In The Neighborhood Mother Goose Crews takes familiar nursery rhymes and illustrates them in a modern-day, urban setting. Photographs of real children among brownstones and city sidewalks are used to illustrate such traditional poems as "Little Miss Muffet." The old woman who lived in a shoe lives in a discarded pair of men's shoes on a building stairway, with her many children climbing in and out of them. Two girls play "Pata-Cake" in front of the window for a neighborhood bakery. "Preschoolers will enjoy seeing kids like themselves in pictures that make the familiar rhymes part of imaginative fun on the city sidewalk," wrote Hazel Rochman in Booklist. Susan Dove Lempke, reviewing the work for Horn Book, maintained that Crews's book "truly is a Mother Goose for young children growing up in a new century." Kate McClelland, writing in the School Library Journal, found The Neighborhood Mother Goose to be "a truly cool version that is not for babies only."

In her promotional piece for Greenwillow, Crews stated, "I love making collages. Some of my favorite artists—Romare Bearden, Hannah Hoch, and Man Ray—combined photography and collage. Collage allows me to use photography playfully and to tell a story on many levels. I enjoy photographing children. The interaction always adds something to the project; their performances always give me new ideas. I try to keep the photography session as loose as possible. Collaging the images allows me a great deal of freedom. Basically, almost anything can happen. Writing the book is another kind of challenge. I try to find a good balance between the written story and the visual story. Each one should help the other. Picture books are the combination of two forms of poetry, written and visual, and their flow should be musical. I find myself reading a lot of poetry while I work on ideas.

"As a child," Crews concluded, "I loved books and I loved to look. The more there was to see in any one image, the better. I also loved books that were set in city places. I hope that a new generation will get these same pleasures from my books."

Biographical and Critical Sources

PERIODICALS

Booklist, June 1, 1995, Julie Yates Walton, review of One Hot Summer Day, p. 1776; December 1, 1997, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Snowball, p. 640; October 15, 1998, Susan Dove Lempke, review of You Are Here, p. 416; February 15, 2001, Henrietta M. Smith, review of Snowball, p. 1160; December 1, 2003, Hazel Rochman, review of The Neighborhood Mother Goose, p. 668.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, May, 1996, Deborah Stevenson, review of I'll Catch the Moon, p. 297.

Horn Book, July-August, 1995, Mary M. Burns, review of One Hot Summer Day, p. 448; May-June, 1996, Elizabeth S. Watson, review of I'll Catch the Moon, pp. 321-322; May-June, 2004, Susan Dove Lempke, review of The Neighborhood Mother Goose, p. 339.

Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 1995, p. 633; April 15, 1996, review of I'll Catch the Moon, p. 600; September 15, 2001, review of A Ghost Story, p. 1355; December 15, 2003, review of The Neighborhood Mother Goose, p. 1449.

New York Times, July 11, 2004, Elissa Schappell, review of The Neighborhood Mother Goose, p. 18.

Publishers Weekly, June 12, 1995, review of One Hot Summer Day, p. 60; July 3, 1995, Shannon Maughan, interview with Crews, p. 33; May 13, 1996, review of I'll Catch the Moon, p. 75; November 10, 1997, review of Snowball, p. 73.

Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO), February 7, 1999, Natalie Soto, review of You Are Here, p. E4.

School Library Journal, June, 1995, review of One Hot Summer Day, p. 79; May, 1996, review of I'll Catch the Moon, p. 85; December, 2000, Jean Gaffney, review of From Paper Airplanes to Outer Space, p. 131, and Karey Wehner, review of We, the People: Poems, p. 162; September, 2001, Anne Knickerbocker, review of A Ghost Story, p. 186; January, 2004, Kate McClelland, review of The Neighborhood Mother Goose, p. 112; October, 2004, review of The Neighborhood Mother Goose, p. S28.

Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI), May 3, 2004, Merri Lindgren, review of The Neighborhood Mother Goose, p. D1.

ONLINE

National Book Foundation Web site, http://www.nationalbook.org/ (February 18, 2005), "Nina Crews at Hamilton-Madison House."

National Center for Children's Illustrated Literature Web site, http://www.nccil.org/ (February 18, 2005), "Nina Crews."

Nina Crews Web site, http://www.ninacrews.com (February 18, 2005).

OTHER

Crews, Nina, promotional piece for Greenwillow Books.

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