For three months every summer when Donald Crews was a boy, he and his siblings perched themselves 150 yards from the rail line of steam engines that passed by their grandparents’ farm in Cottondale, Florida, during their annual visits from Newark, New Jersey. Crews, now 80, could not have known that the fond memory of the long trains would inspire emotions so strong that he would draw on them to create a work of lasting significance that would connect his generation to that of his daughter and his grandchildren—along with touching future generations.
Crews has illustrated and designed many children’s books—the most notable among them Freight Train (1978) and Truck (1980), which were both Caldecott Honor books. Flying, published in 1986, was listed as one of the best illustrated books that year by the New York Times.His daughter, Nina Crews, is a celebrated children’s book author and illustrator in her own right, lauded especially for her photo-collage illustrations such as those included in her most recent book, Seeing Into Tomorrow: Haiku by Richard Wright (2018). “The gift of the generational aspect of seeing creative work day after day as my parents worked alongside one another is that you see that doing any creative work—writing, making pictures—is daily work,” Nina says.
For African-Americans, in particular, this is a rare gift, she adds. “There hasn’t been the length of history for African-Americans in this country to have the depth of generations repeating each other with the same continuity in the ways that, say, various other groups might have been able to in terms of relating to history. Having models in your family that show how you can be inspired by powerful art is really great.” I talked to both Crews recently about their work and started with a question for Donald.
Has a lot changed in children’s publishing since you were actively publishing books?
Donald Crews: Creative work is work; there are no generational differences. You sit down at your space. You come up with a concept you want to pursue. You find images and words and situations that further that idea and present it to a publisher. Publishers are looking for a new look at old ideas. We’re all working with the same general concepts. An artist’s concept is just a new way of presenting an old concept. I don’t know that it’s any different now than it was. I think publishers are looking for more picture-book authors of color, and maybe they’re more receptive to ideas from picture-book authors of color. But basically the ideas you present are similar from one artist to the other.
You’re both African-American author/illustrators but you don’t seem to be strongly identified with a contemporary conversation around racial identity. Can you talk about that?
DC: The subjects I chose to work with were not representations of people, they were just vehicles and situations and things that were graphic and colorful and simply presentation. I don’t think of myself as an illustrator. I was very reluctant to draw people in any of my work. Of course these vehicles were driven and used by black people; you just didn’t see them, and I didn’t think they were the focus. Not the people who were there but the object. I didn’t get to show representation of figures until Bigmama’s (1991). I didn’t think it was the best use of my talent. I didn’t get involved in that argument.
Nina Crews: While my stories are not about identity, they involve children of different colors. I have always tried to create a world that is heterogeneous and multiethnic. One Hot Summer Day (1995) is about an African-American girl, another is about a girl of Asian-American and multiracial descent. In Seeing into Tomorrow, the boys are all a part of the African diaspora.
To the extent that you think about it, I wonder what you hope your work will offer future generations?
NC: As I read Freight Train to my son when he was little, I understood it in a way that I didn’t understand what it gave children before that, the feeling of the loss of the train, which is what you feel when you do peekaboo with your children. “Oh, right, the train goes away.” My hope is that any book I create, children will take that book and it will connect to children’s deeper response to the world. Books are there to help children respond to the world. You’re trying to make this emotional connection that kids are trying to make. Readers will be like, “This reaches my heart and brain in a way that’s special.”
DC: Having decided to work in children’s books, the projects that I’ve worked on, having had them accepted and having them have relevancy over a great many people—Freight Train has been in publication for nearly 40 years—that kind of legacy makes me very happy. I know from talking to various young people, it’s had influence in their becoming author/illustrators. I’m not sure I’ve had specific ideas about where that influence should go. But to have had some influence has been a gratifying position to be in. I couldn’t have made a more gratifying choice in terms of my own work. I’m just happy it does have some relevancy for young people and will go on to have some influence down the line.
Joshunda Sanders is a writer and educator in New York City. The photo of Donald Crews above is by Jennifer Muirhead.