Writing Process Blog Tour

Thank you Marisabina Russo for tagging me in the Writing Process Blog Tour! I really enjoyed reading about your writing process at http://marisabinarusso.wordpress.com/2014/08/22/the-writing-process-blog-tour/!

What am I working on?

Poetry continues to be a source of inspiration for me. I loved photographing contemporary scenes to illustrate nursery rhymes in The Neighborhood Mother Goose. In my new project (working title – Each Green Leaf), I will photo illustrate nine haiku written by Richard Wright, (the African American novelist) and pair them with a brief biography that will explore Wright’s life and creative journey. I love haiku and believe it a great form to study with kids. Writing the biography was fun and challenging. It was quite a task to condense such a rich life into a few pages. The book will be published by Egmont USA and is slated for Spring 2016.

EGL sketch
©Nina Crews – Sketch for Richard Wright Haiku book.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Some of my favorite classic children’s book authors are Ezra Jack Keats; Else Homelund Minarik and Arnold Lobel. I have always loved writing which is simple, honest and playful and have attempted to follow that model in my books. One aspect that makes my books distinct from most others in the picture book field is that I use photography for my illustrations. I think there are so many possibilities for photography in children’s books and love the work of so many of my fellow photographers in this field like Walter Wick; JoAnne Dugan; Nick Bishop; Charles R. Smith and William Wegman to name a few. Most photographic picture books are non-fiction, but I create fictional stories and use collage and drawing to manipulate the photographs. This gives me freedom to be playful and to experiment, while staying rooted in the world we live in. I can follow a girl as she imagines visiting the moon in I’ll Catch the Moon; I can pretend a whole family lives in a pair of men’s shoes to illustrate ‘The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe’ in The Neighborhood Mother Goose and I can show what Jack imagines might be happening to his toy, Guy, under the stairs in Below. 

©Nina Crews – Below 2006

Why do I write what I do?

There are topics I tend to return to again and again – how children play; what children imagine; city life and the diversity of our world. I was a big daydreamer as a kid and I try to honor that in children when I write. I am interested in children’s rich inner life and how that intersects with the world they live in. In Sky-High Guy, the sequel to Below, Jack must learn how to share the imaginary games he plays with his toy, Guy, with his younger brother Gus. In The Neighborhood Sing-Along, I pair classic songs with scenes of contemporary kids that are both naturalistic and fanciful. And I photograph children who reflect the multicultural fabric of our world. I believe it is important for children to see themselves reflected in a narrative and also important to find empathy with children that they may see as different from themselves.

Sing-Along Skip to My Lou
©Nina Crews The Neighborhood Sing-Along 2011

 How does my writing process work? 

The best metaphor I can think of is that writing a story is like untangling a cord of Christmas tree lights. Sometimes it goes easily and sometimes it goes poorly and feels very frustrating. Success means that I can hang the lights where I want and light up the room with something fun.

©Nina Crews – Thumbnail sketches for Below 2005

I usually start with a visual inspiration and then write the story and create thumbnail sketches; rewrite the story; then make more detailed sketch for the entire book; edit the story again and then finally am ready to create the finished art. Again, this is what makes being an author/illustrator so satisfying. The words and pictures are in conversation from the very beginning of the process.

One Hot Summer Day PG2-3
©Nina Crews  One Hot Summer Day 1995

There is really no telling how long it might take. I love rewriting – it’s like getting those last kinks out of that tangled cord. Picture books are a bit like poetry – every word matters. My first editor, Susan Hirschman, gave me two pieces of advice. The first, to read my stories aloud and, the second, that a good story should make a child say “again” when you reached the end. And the latter is ultimately what I aspire to, creating a story that can be read again and again and again.

Tag you’re it! Up next Selina Alko and Javaka Steptoe– two very talented author illustrators and friends. I can’t wait to read their posts for The Writing Process Blog Tour.

Selina Alko was born in Vancouver, British Columbia and has been making books in New York City for over 20 years. Selina illustrated the dynamic New York City-themed children’s books My Subway Ride and My Taxi Ride, and is the author and illustrator of Every-Day Dress-Up, B is for Brooklyn and Daddy Christmas & Hanukkah Mama. In a stared review for B is for Brooklyn, Publisher’s Weekly wrote, “Alko (is) among the most visually eloquent promoters of junior-sized urbanism.” Selina lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn with her husband, illustrator Sean Qualls, and their two children. You can find her at: http://selinaalko.blogspot.com/

Javaka Steptoe is an eclectic young artist, designer, and illustrator, building a national reputation as an outstanding contributor to the genre of children’s literature. His debut work, In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall: African Americans Celebrating Fathers, earned him the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, a nomination for Outstanding Children’s Literature Work at the 1998 NAACP Image Awards, a finalist ranking for the Bluebonnet Award for Excellence in Children’s Books, and countless other honors. His books, Do You Know What I’ll Do?authored by Charlotte Zolotow and A Pocketful of Poems authored by Nikki Grimes, received starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and the ALA Booklist. Hot Day on Abbott Avenue, written by Karen English, received the 2005 Jane Addams Children’s Book Award. Steptoe is also the author/illustrator of The Jones Family Express. His most recent illustration projects include Rain Play by Cynthia Cotten, published in 2008 and Amiri and Odette: A Love Storyby multi award winning author Walter Dean Myers, forthcoming in January 2009. You can find him at: javakasteptoe@ wordpress.com




Funky and fun New York! The Easter Parade!

My first trip ever to the Easter parade! What fun!

Here are a few of the more extravagant hats and outfits sported by women, men and dogs!

butterfly hat
©Nina Crews 2012
Dogs with easter hats
©Nina Crews 2012
Easter hats
©Nina Crews 2012


easter hat
©Nina Crews 2012
©Nina Crews 2012
easter suit
©Nina Crews 2012

A Neighborhood Photo Shoot: Expected and unexpected challenges

A couple of reviewers have commented (very nicely) on the naturalism of my photographs of children. Many of my favorite photographers like Helen Levitt, Andre Kertesz and Roy DeCarava created images that capture the beauty of unexpected and unguarded moments. But this, like all things, does require some effort. In my case I use an extra tool when things don’t quite go my way, Photoshop.

Mega Sashes and Glass photo ©Nina Crews

When I planned the image I wanted for “Do Your Ears Hang Low” I imagined a group of kids hamming it up in front of a shop window filled with mirrors. There is a fantastic glass shop on Fifth Avenue just off of Bergen Street in Park Slope perfect for my needs, I thought. (If you are ever nearby you should go inside – it is beautifully grungy with old wooden shelves holding large pieces of glass.)

I contacted my cast – kids I knew through my nephews, Jack and Gus, and the son of a good friend of mine. We picked a date that worked for everyone – Yom Kippur. Public school was closed and all of the kids could make it. And when I arrived at the location just before four kids, plus accompanying adults and siblings – I found the unexpected. The glass shop was closed. Not for the holiday, it is always closed on Monday. It hadn’t occurred to me to check.

do your ears hang low
"Do Your Ears Hang Low" outtake ©Nina Crews

I scrambled around looking for likely reflective storefronts and had the kids try out one spot. But it wasn’t working. The glass was dark and the kids couldn’t really see themselves. They seemed self-conscious and were having a hard time understanding what I needed. The background looked too busy. I was having a hard time remembering the words to the song.

So we left. I thought that maybe I could pull something together with what we’d done, but I did need to try another idea.

IMG_7471 © Nina Crews

We found a nice wide set of brownstone steps. If I left enough room at the top of the image, I would have a good clean space for the type.  And then we started to shoot.

Most of the kids were upbeat and happily hammed it up. But I have learned to expect that not every child finds it easy or natural to be in front of the camera and also that a child can have a bad day sometimes. So it was expected, though still frustrating, that one kid would sulk in almost every frame I took. Luckily I got one or two nice shots that I could collage into the image above using a bit of Photoshop magic.

Perhaps the glass shop wouldn’t have worked after all. Perhaps if I had used the photo on the stairs with one slightly sad and pensive looking boy, I would have told a different story – a somewhat sadder, softer story. But I wanted upbeat and silly. So here we go!

do your ears hang low
"Do Your Ears Hang Low" , The Neighborhood Sing-Along ©Nina Crews 2011

Poor Guy!

Poor Guy has lost a leg! Jack’s fearless adventure companion featured in my two books, Below and Sky-High Guy, needs some repair. When I was first planning the photographs for Below, I knew that I wanted Jack’s favorite toy to be one that would only exist in that book. I didn’t really know how to make a doll, but I certainly played with enough as a kid, so I gave it a try. Guy was made out of a clay called Sculpey that can be baked in a toaster oven. I gave him dark brown hair and olive skin like Jack, the boy who inspired the book and posed for the pictures. I modeled the arms, legs and head and attached them with wire threaded through his body.

School visit Nina holding Guy and Below

While writing Sky-High Guy, I knew that Guy would be in for rougher treatment, so I cast my original using a plastic compound and made a couple of copies. This way, if Guy got too beat up from being tossed in the air, I would have a replacement. His parachute is  made from a plastic grocery bag and some string.

Guy sitting on the floor

Now, one of Guy’s “clones” travels with me to school visits. He sits quietly through most of my presentation and then performs his flying routine. A week ago, this one lost his leg landing on a tiled floor. Back to the workshop he must go for repairs. Hopefully, he will be back up and on the school circuit soon!

Guy flying

news, f-stops and the wardrobe

news, f-stops and the wardrobe

Welcome to my first blog post!

Why did I subtitle this blog news, f-stops and the wardrobe? To let readers know what I plan to write about in the upcoming months and years.

News? This blog will include news about me – new books and news on upcoming and recent events.

F-stops? Fairly obvious – as a children’s author who uses photography, I want to spend some time talking about my illustration and writing process including the tools I use. F-stops will also include other work such as this photograph taken on a recent, almost-spring day.

daffodil and shadows

The wardrobe? In the first chapter of the first volume of the CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, Lucy steps into the wardrobe and the adventure begins. The door of the wardrobe opens up into an imagined world. A similar step is taken by simply opening a book and beginning to read. I have created many stories in which adventures spring from the imaginative games of children. I will write about some themes of my children’s books and other thoughts on children’s literature.

Thanks for reading this! Please come back soon!