Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Nina Crews

h1 June 21st, 2011 by jules

“Many of my favorite photographers…created images that capture the beauty of unexpected and unguarded moments,” author and illustrator Nina Crews wrote here last week at her blog. Nina herself manages to capture the same candidness in her own picture books for children, which are rendered via photography and collage.

As I wrote last week at Kirkus, no one quite captures the rhythm and singular heartbeat of children’s play on their streets and playgrounds as Nina does with her camera. Since her debut title in 1995, she’s brought readers a host of books depicting children of various ethnicities playing together in urban neighborhoods. Her exuberant photos take up every inch of these spreads—there’s too much energy here (often a downright ebullience) for any wasted space.

“Crews’ fans will be delighted,” a Kirkus reviewer wrote about her newest title, a contemporary version of Jack and the Beanstalk (“with spiky parts rounded off,” the review adds), which will be released next month by Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt. And Publishers Weekly calls her May release, The Neighborhood Sing-Along (Greenwillow), “jubilant.” Indeed, it is. Have you seen it? Oh, please find yourself a copy by hook or by crook.

I’m happy to welcome Nina to the breakfast table today—she chooses “a cup of strong coffee with milk and toast with lots of butter.” Sometimes, she goes for yogurt or cereal, she says, but I’m all for the buttery toast and strong coffee today. I’ll cyber-set our cyber-table while getting the basics from her first, and I thank her for stopping by this morning.

* * * * * * *

Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Nina: Author/Illustrator.

Jules: Can you list your books-to-date?

Nina: Eleven titles, as of July 2011, including One Hot Summer Day; Below; Sky-High Guy; The Neighborhood Mother Goose; The Neighborhood Sing-Along; Jack and the Beanstalk. I have also illustrated two other books.

Jules: What is your usual medium, or––if you use a variety—your preferred one?

Nina: Photography and collage.

Spread from The Neighborhood Mother Goose (Greenwillow, 2004)

Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Nina: Brooklyn, NY.

“Jack lived in a tall, narrow house. A tall, narrow house with many stairs. Jack climbed up and Jack climbed down. He always brought Guy with him.
They had many adventures.”

“There might be dragons!”

Spreads from Below (Ottaviano/Henry Holt, 2006)

Jules: Can you briefly tell me about your road to publication?

Nina: It is the family business; I am the daughter of Donald Crews and Ann Jonas.

Ann Jonas and Donald Crews near their home in upstate New York
(Photo credit: Nina)

I didn’t originally plan on following so closely in their footsteps. After college, I tried out a few applied art jobs – I worked for animation studios and did some photocollage illustrations for magazines. {Pictured below} is a still frame from an animation job I designed and animated a long time ago. It is from a Nickelodeon-produced pilot of a show called “Accidentally on Purpose.” Those are cockroaches that are part of a pinball machine game.

I took part in a fine art studio program run by the Whitney Museum. It was only after I felt more certain of my voice and vision that I entertained the possibility of picture books.

Around that time, my father recommended me to illustrate a manuscript that he wasn’t interested in. I got an interview to show my portfolio to Susan Hirschman and Ava Weiss at Greenwillow Books. They asked me if I had written anything of my own and sent me home with a date to come back one month later with an idea. The idea I brought in was One Hot Summer Day.

Cover of and sketches from One Hot Summer Day (which, incidentally, I covered at 7-Imp way back here when the blog was just a wee baby); Greenwillow, 1995
(Click to enlarge sketches)

“It’s summer, and it’s hot.”

“I dance in the rain.”

— Final spreads from One Hot Summer Day

Jules: Can you please point readers to your web site and/or blog?

Nina: and

“I’m a Little Teapot” and “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe” from
The Neighborhood Sing-Along (Greenwillow, May 2011)

“Do Your Ears Hang Low?” from
The Neighborhood Sing-Along

Jules: If you do school visits, tell me what they’re like.

Nina: I talk with the students about my creative process. I adapt the presentation to the age of the children. With pre-K audiences, I will read more / sing more, and with older kids I talk more specifically about how I work. My preferred method is to speak with a group of one to three classes and bring a large portfolio of art samples and photographs to show.

Lately, I have been bringing the doll I made, Guy from Below and Sky-High Guy, along on my visits. He shows off his parachuting skills and is a big hit. {Ed. Note: Guy is pictured below — in flight.}

I leave a good amount of time for Q & A. The children love being able to ask a question or make a comment. It’s fun for them and fun for me, too.

Jules: Any new titles/projects you might be working on now that you can tell me about?

Nina: In July, my contemporary, citified version of Jack and the Beanstalk will be published. A few years ago, I came across an article in a local paper about a little boy who planted an exotic bean vine in his backyard and grew gigantic bean pods. I thought it would be a lot of fun to see a beanstalk climbing up the side of an apartment building, and I had a load of pictures of the clouds that I have taken while flying that I liked and wanted to do something interesting with. Jack and the Beanstalk has had numerous interpretations, so I felt I had a lot of freedom to re-imagine it. I wanted my version to be grounded in the experiences of a modern kid. This created some complications, because stealing or acts of vengeance can’t redeem modern children, and that is exactly how the classic Jack becomes a worthy boy. So my version has more humor than vengeance. The giant is metaphorically cut down to size.

Mmm. Coffee.Coffee’s ready, and the table’s set now for six questions over breakfast. Let’s get a bit more detailed, and I thank Nina again for visiting 7-Imp.

1. Jules: What exactly is your process when you are illustrating a book? You can start wherever you’d like when answering: getting initial ideas, starting to illustrate, or even what it’s like under deadline, etc. Do you outline a great deal of the book before you illustrate or just let your muse lead you on and see where you end up?

Nina: Most book ideas begin with a visual idea that inspires me. This usually gets jotted down in a notebook or pinned up on my bulletin board and, once a story starts to gel around that idea, I sit down and write. I generally don’t take many photographs until I have really planned out the book.

(Click to enlarge)

(Click to enlarge)

As I write my first drafts, I will do some thumbnail sketches to block out the main actions for each spread. Once I have a pretty decent draft of the story, I create a more detailed sketch. For my first book, I used magazine swipes and a Xerox machine. Now I mostly draw the sketch in pencil and maybe ink over it to make my scribbles clear enough to show an editor.

Thumbnails for Below (Ottaviano/Henry Holt, 2006)
(Click to enlarge)

The sketch phase is really important, even though I will take photographs. I use it to plan out the actions of each page and as a reference when I take pictures. I share it with editors and with my models.

Sketches from Jack and the Beanstalk (Ottaviano/Holt, 2011)

After sketch comes photography. Most of my models are family, friends, and friends of friends. I even made an appearance in my recent book, The Neighborhood Sing-Along.

(Click to enlarge; Nina is pictured left)

Models for Jack and the Beanstalk (Ottaviano/Holt, July 2011)

“‘What’s that noise?’ said the giant. ‘What’s that smell?
FEE, FIE, FOE, FUM, I smell a young ‘un!
Looks like your cookies caught us a new boy!…'” —
A final spread from
Jack and the Beanstalk

Once the photography is complete, I work with the images digitally – color correcting and collaging them. When I started making books, I didn’t own a computer and printed and collaged my photographs by hand. People have suggested that the work must go faster now, but I don’t think it really does. There are so many possibilities to adjust and finesse an image that it’s hard to stop.

Working on The Neighborhood Sing-Along, Greenwillow, May 2011
(Click to enlarge)

I still like to do some hands-on work, though in several books I have added some drawn elements to the photocollages, and I like to make some of my props, like Guy, the action figure doll that I photographed for Below and Sky-High Guy {pictured earlier in interview}.

Working on spread for Jack and the Beanstalk (Ottaviano/Holt, July 2011)

A final spread from Sky-High Guy (Ottaviano/Henry Holt, April 2010)

2. Jules: Describe your studio or usual work space.

Nina: My studio is a bit transitional at the moment, but there are three features that are always necessary:

  1. A bulletin board to post projects, ideas, and just stuff that I like. I am a big believer in the brain’s multitasking ability that allows for creative breakthroughs when I am busy working on other things. So, I like to keep some visual reminders around.
  2. A blank worktable. I write long-hand before I type and edit any manuscript on the computer. I also sketch before I photograph so that I have a clearer vision of what I need when I work with my models.
  3. A computer with a large monitor. All of my finishing work is done digitally now.

Jack’s magic beans in Nina’s studio
(Click to enlarge)

3. Jules: As a book lover, it interests me: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?

Nina: The Snowy DayEzra Jack Keats; Little BearElse Holmelund Minarik, illus. Maurice Sendak; Nothing Ever Happens on My BlockEllen Raskin; Freight TrainDonald Crews; The Quilt -– Ann Jonas.

4. Jules: If you could have three (living) illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?

Nina: That question is a bit difficult – I have met a lot of really fantastic and talented authors and illustrators over the years, who could easily be on this list, and have shared coffee or wine with a few. Three people I might add to that list are: Peggy Rathmann – because her books are so funny and 10 Minutes Till Bedtime was a big favorite with my son; Faith Ringgold – because she has two rich careers as a fine artist and a children’s book author/illustrator; and Bryan Collier, whom I almost met quite recently.

5. Jules: What is currently in rotation on your iPod or loaded in your CD player? Do you listen to music while you create books?

Nina (pictured right): I prefer quiet when I write. I listen to music or NPR when I am working on illustrations. Mostly I random-play my entire music library, which includes a lot of stuff: Chocolate Genius, Fela Kuti, Beck, John Coltrane, Zap Mama, Björk, Corey Harris, Steve Reich, Cat Power, Bob Marley.

6. Jules: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Nina: There are so many things that most people don’t know about me. But they should certainly ask, and I will most likely answer pretty openly and honestly.

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

Jules: What is your favorite word?

Nina: Impossible to say. There are way too many really good ones. “Pivot,” for instance, is very nice.

Jules: What is your least favorite word?

Nina: “Favorite”? Just kidding. I don’t really have favorites — and more likes than dislikes when it comes to words.

Jules: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Nina: Art. Live music, drama, or dance. Running in the park. Great conversations with smart people. My three-year-old.

Jules: What turns you off?

Nina: Reality TV shows.

Jules: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Nina: I am trying to curb my tongue, now that I have a young child. Not always easy.

Jules: What sound or noise do you love?

Nina: A cat’s purr.

Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?

Nina: Any kind of whining –- grown-ups, children, power tools…

Jules: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Nina: Product or textile designer.

Jules: What profession would you not like to do?

Nina: President.

Jules: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Nina: “I know. I know. It’s a big, big, big surprise, but you just might like it.”

* * * * * * *

All artwork and images used with permission of Nina Crews. All rights reserved.

JACK AND THE BEANSTALK. Copyright © by 2011 by Nina Crews. Published by Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt, New York.

THE NEIGHBORHOOD SING-ALONG. Copyright © by 2011 by Nina Crews. Published by Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, New York.

The spiffy and slightly sinister gentleman introducing the Pivot Questionnaire is Alfred, © 2009 Matt Phelan. Thanks to Matt, Alfred now lives permanently at 7-Imp and is always waiting to throw the Pivot Questionnaire at folks.

6 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Nina Crews”

  1. ONCE AGAIN, thank you for exposing me to the sixty-eight shades of awesome that is Nina Crews, and her exceptional collage/photography/art books. I love, love, love them, and they make me feel like, “yeah, there’s a story in everything, and art is possible everywhere,” because of the way she sees the world.

    I still JUST LOVE that girl in One Hot Summer Day — those sunglasses are just a hoot.

  2. Tanita, my absolute pleasure. How much do I love One Hot Summer Day? Let me count the ways….Or, well, I need more coffee, so let me just suggest readers go see it, if they haven’t already. And, yes, that little girl: She’s a hoot and, as you put it, has a face that just yells possibility.

  3. The Neighborhood Mother Goose is one of my favorite books to put on display. It’s hard to see it and not want to take it home. I am tapping my foot waiting for The Neighborhood Sing-Along to come in. I think it will be another favorite.

  4. […] spreads from Nina’s book are re-posted from my Tuesday chat with her. It’s here, if you missed it and are […]

  5. I enjoyed this interview. Thanks for making it available.

  6. […] Nina Crews (June 21, 2011) on her road to publication: “It is the family business; I am the daughter of Donald Crews […]

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