October 31, 2008

Discovery: We Read: A to Z


At the library the other day, I flipped through the children's books for sale, a usually motley shelful of discards, donated books, and junk. This time, though, there was a great old copy of Leo Lionni's Frederick; a nice copy of the hilariously suck-uppy Babar Comes To America; and this book, We Read: A to Z by Donald Crews, which would have been worth a quarter for the cover alone. [I dropped a dollar into the box and didn't ask for change.]

We Read, published in 1967, is not perfect, but it's fantastic. It's a witty, visually oriented alphabet book where each letter is "about" the design of the 2-page spread itself. "Aa, almost: nearly all red," is on a spread that's nearly all red. "Bb, bottom: where the green is," has a green stripe along the bottom, etc.


It took her a few letters to figure out the concept, but by G or so, the kid got the hang of it, and turned the book into her own NPR Weekend Edition Puzzle. So a more accurate title would have been, We Guess: A to Z, but whatever. It works.

Crews was a mystery to me, though. Turns out We Read was his first book, done as a portfolio stuffer by a young graphic design student under the influence of Paul Rand and Bruno Munari, and it got picked up and published. Crews went on to create a whole host of visually strong, largely text-free children's books over the years, and to illustrate the works of many other writers. Freight Train, a wordless tale of a train's cross-country journey, won a Caldecott in 1978, and so did Truck, which Crews published two years later.

There were several books that featured photography and photocollage, and by the 1990's, Crews had softened the hard, pop edges of his illustrations, and he began telling stories of his own childhood. Bigmama's and Shortcut are both about a young black boy visiting his grandmother down south in Florida. He's still alive, kicking, and working in New York, too.

Buy Books by or illustrated by Donald Crews at Amazon [amazon]
Donald Crews [wikipedia]
Donald Crews: the signs and times of an American childhood - essay and interview, from the African American Review, Spr 1998 [findarticles.com]

1 Comment

His daughter, Nina Crews, also writes books for children. She's a photographer. Snowball is a favorite at our house.

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