Betsy (Reilly) Lewin spent much of her childhood living in the world of fantasy, heroically racing through the woods as Robin Hood or searching for Pooh's habitat in a tree, under a sign reading "Sanders." On another day, a fallen tree became a pirate's galleon. Such playtime, including tracking fairies and observing nature in the woods and farms around her hometown of Clearfield, Pennsylvania, steered her toward the world of children's literature.
Family activities further directed Lewin's interest to this genre. Her father often entertained Betsy and her brother with his storytelling; and her mother read to them from My Book House, a twelve-volume set of nursery rhymes and stories for children of all ages. The Kate Greenaway and Randolph Caldecott illustrations in these books, along with Ernest Shepard's pictures in Winnie the Pooh and Beatrix Potter's illustrated books, cultivated Lewin's appreciation of picture books and established high standards for her own illustrations.
Lewin has never lost enthusiasm for these books, still in her possession. Drawing and painting became Lewin's favorite pastimes, her devotion to them garnering her parents' support through private art lessons and abundant art supplies, including easel, oil paints, and stretched canvases. Even when watching cowboy movies or cartoons, Lewin studied the anatomy of the animals' movements in order to improve her drawing. She became the class artist in school, her ambition to become a professional artist never wavering.
When time for college arrived, her parents were not enthusiastic about Betsy's insistence on attending art school, fearing she would not be able to make a living as an artist. However, Betsy prevailed and enrolled at Pratt Institute of Art in Brooklyn.
At Pratt Institute, Betsy met Ted Lewin, whose passion for art and animals reflected her own; moreover, both had a penchant for adventure and travel as well as a commitment to the conservation of wildlife and the environment. The couple married in 1963.
Betsy gained experience in graphic art while working as an assistant art director at a greeting card company. Later, she did freelance greeting card design and wrote and illustrated stories for children's magazines. One of these was expanded into the book Cat Count, initiating Betsy's second career. Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type (by Doreen Cronin) is Lewin's best- known book, a Caldecott Honor book in 2001. Its success inspired a sequel, Giggle, Giggle, Quack. The titles reflect the fact that Lewin's books are rendered in a free-spirited style. "I love the immediacy and freshness of drawing like this," she explains. "It's liquid thought. The images flow through my hand onto the paper almost before I know they are in my head."
A third barnyard frolic, Dumpy La Rue (by Elizabeth Winthrop), danced its way to The New York Times Book Review Best Books List for 2001. "I love writing and illustrating for children," Lewin affirms. "It's hard to say which I like best, writing and illustrating my own books, or illustrating books by other authors. Journeying to a new place and finding a story to tell from the treasure chest of new experiences there, is always exciting and deeply satisfying. The first time I read a manuscript written by another author I feel all the excitement and anticipation of unwrapping a present. I welcome the challenge of illuminating that author's words with my pictures, of bringing my own 'words' through pictures to augment and deepen the story, while respecting the author's vision, too."
"Each book takes several months to complete," Lewin continues, "and it's hard to let go of it when it's finished. But there's always the next one to look forward to." Occasionally Betsy paints in a controlled, realistic style, not totally unlike that of her husband. However, she considers her naturalistic animals in books such as Chubbo's Pool as being somewhat anthropomorphic, setting her work apart from Ted's.
The couple are world travelers who share their joy of exploration through their collaborative books. Betsy records their animal encounters with a tape recorder and in her energetic watercolor sketches; Ted photographs the animals and later uses the photos and sketches for reference when he creates extraordinary double-paged watercolor spreads.
With the publication of Gorilla Walk and Elephant Quest, the Lewins' collaborations have just begun. The youthful Betsy Reilly imagined herself on fantastic voyages as she stood on a dead tree trunk; today Betsy Lewin embarks on journeys both wondrous and real, her art now serving as source of inspiration to her young readers, just as the art of E. H. Shepard and Beatrix Potter served her.