Nina Crews hit a winning combination with her book The Neighborhood Mother Goose (a 2004 Kirkus Editors’ Choice). She took classic rhymes and created modern urban scenery from her Brooklyn neighborhood, peopling it with the children who live there. Why not do the same for favorite childhood songs? Here Crews discusses the seeds for her newest book, The Neighborhood Sing-Along, and the key to conveying the joie de vivre in her photos of children at play.
Read more reviews of books about children's songs at Kirkus.
What prompted you to do a book of childhood songs?
For awhile after The Neighborhood Mother Goose was out and was getting a nice response, [my editor] Steve Geck and I talked about some way to reapproach traditional text with a Brooklyn setting. After my son was born—he’s now 3 and a half—I thought, “Of course! Children’s songs would be a great way of re-envisioning this older material.”
I was singing lots of songs and getting stuck in many places, thinking, “What else was in this song?” As I went to schools with my Mother Goose book, the songs we had in there, like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and “The Itsy Bitsy Spider,” were great entryways into my visits, to introduce myself and to begin talking about storytelling. So part of it was my personal need for the material, and part of it was seeing how powerful it is with children.
Do your choices take into account which songs would make good fodder for photographs or scenes? Or do you choose the best lyrics first?
As I’m looking at the songs, I think, “What would fit within my vision of contemporary children in Brooklyn? What are [the songs] about? What images are they conjuring up?” What I wanted to do with both books is show the life of kids in Brooklyn, also something humorous or unexpected, or reflecting an emotional moment—some kind of intimacy.
That’s when I look deeper into the song to come up with the short list. With this book, there are so many songs I was fond of from my own childhood. I spent a lot of time researching “The Animal Fair” to find the best version. It was written around the late 1800s, early 1900s. That was one of my favorite camp songs.
Some of the songs are familiar, but others are less so, such as “Oh, Little Playmate” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”
With this book, probably less so than with Mother Goose, I definitely picked out ones that I thought were familiar. I did “Oh Little Playmate” as a clapping game at age eight. I think there will be pockets of kids that will recognize and know it. Bessie Smith sang “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” at one time. Versions of it would be hard to sing to children easily—it was written by Irving Berlin, and his version gets very “Swanee River”–dramatic. But I liked it so much as a possibility, and the idea of making the kids the ragtime band.
What a brilliant idea to use the girl’s smile as the “light” in “This Little Light of Mine.” The way you photographed it, one of the streams from the fountain also resembles a ray of light.
That song for me was always about the idea of an internal light. I’ve always loved that song. It’s about letting the light shine from within oneself.
How did you find your way into this genre?
For The Neighborhood Mother Goose, actually, I have to give credit for the original idea to Andrea Davis Pinkney. She brought up the idea of choosing to look at the nursery rhymes using my photo/photo-collage style. Once I was working on it, I was thrilled by the idea of what it offered. It opened up the possibility of different moments, characters, moods, scenes, and settings. It’s a different kind of approach than when I write a continuous narrative throughout.
One of the nicest things about these collections, Mother Goose and the Sing-Along, is the language is so much fun! It’s not language used in the way we use it today, but it’s so rich. It’s nice to bring it into kids’ consciousness, to create some specifics that tap into that universalism of these rhymes and songs.
What are you working on next?
I have another book coming out this year, besides the Sing-Along: Jack and the Beanstalk. I’m envisioning it again as a 21st-century adventure, with a little boy and a very big vine.