Donald Crews

 I grew up in Newark, New Jersey. By today’s cultural standards, at times our neighborhood seemed to be directed by children. When we weren’t in school or eating at home or sleeping, we gathered on the street, in front of one house or another, wherever the activity of the moment developed. There was a separation by age group, and the younger group emulated the older one, occasionally being allowed to participate. Some things needed to be passed down to the young group, like how to ride a bicycle, or the rules in 'Tops' play, or shooting marbles, or making a scooter out of last year’s roller skates.

I did read, mostly comics; either the nickel or dime current issue, or the newspapers’ comics sections, especially Sunday’s. The Newark Star-Ledger, the New York Daily News, and, best of all, the New York Journal American. We had a big encyclopedia. It was, as I remember, about ten inches thick. It was a great source of information and investigation and random reading. Everybody read something. I really can’t recall a favorite book, but whenever asked, I do first think of Wanda Gág’s Millions of Cats.

 Until I was about fifteen, two months out of every year were spent at my grandmother’s home in Florida, as chronicled in my book Bigmama’s. We called our Grandma ‘Bigmama’. Not that she was big, but she was Mama’s Mama. She, Bigmama, was very impressed with my ability to read at a young age.

 I don’t have any stand-alone book favorites. When I served in the military in the early ’60s, reading at the various base libraries was a great benefit. It was one place to go and read in a relatively private environment.

 My time in the military was an important beginning on my path into picture books. I intended after my time in service to return to my career as a graphic designer, and I needed some material for my portfolio that was fresh and new, something more substantial than book jackets and posters. Graphic artists had long been involved in picture book illustration, so I wrote and illustrated a book to demonstrate my potential to design and illustrate an expanded project. That book was We Read: A to Z and it rightly notes my beginning as a picture book artist.

I came to concentrate on picture books first and foremost because of the primacy of the pictures. Words have a secondary role in the completed story and fit nicely within my writing abilities. Adults don’t look to picture books for information and entertainment, so children are my natural audience. I try to choose subjects that they, and I, will be interested in investigating, and then crafting a picture story around that subject. I started visualizing stories about things that go, it seemed right, and I expanded on that theme.

 I suppose I have grown up by this point in my life. Looking back and thinking about the things I’ve done, I could not have predicted or specifically planned this outcome.

If I were to be a character in a book of my creation, I’d love to be a force like the Freight Train, or the Truck, or the Sailboat in Sail Away. Something that’s dramatic and memorable.


Donald Crews was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1938. He has twice been awarded the Caldecott Honour; in 1979 for Freight Train and for Truck the following year. He has written various other travel-themed books for children, such as School Bus (1984), Flying (1986), and Sail Away (1995) Crews is well known for his abstract and unusual stories, which rarely feature human characters. Donald and his wife currently live in the state of New York in an old, restored farmhouse overlooking the Hudson River and the Catskill Mountains.

Image copyright © Gordon Trice

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