Boyhood summers spent in Cottondale, Florida, at his grandparents', with his mother and siblings, constituted a considerable departure from the family's life in Newark, New Jersey, where Donald Crews was born in 1938. Years later, the compelling books that Crews would write about his Cottondale summers would be a dramatic departure from his previous picture books. The annual train trips south provided Crews with a visual experience that would first inspire him to create the graphic concept book, Freight Train (1978); later, he relived the summers by writing and illustrating two autobiographical books about the Florida experiences, Bigmama's (1991) and Shortcut (1992).
In between trips to Cottondale, Crews spent his formative years in Newark with an older brother and two sisters, one younger, the other older. While his mother worked as a seamstress, also designing and making clothing for his sisters and herself, Crews's father worked both for the railroad and as a jack-of-all-trades. Both parents used artistic judgment in their handiwork. The children attended school and helped with chores around the apartment. Crews and his siblings spent most of their free time outside playing seasonal games with their many neighborhood friends.
School was generally pleasant for Crews, as he was a good student and sometimes enjoyed special status as an artist. Often a teacher asked him to draw a map on the chalkboard or to complete some other task requiring artistic skill. When Crews reached high school, one teacher in particular became a mentor. "You will go to art school and you will succeed," assured the teacher, who went as far as to secure the necessary entry exams Crews needed for art school. Crews notes that teachers are the first people who can show confidence in children outside of family members--and the opinions of outsiders usually make a stronger impression than relatives, he says.
The artist graduated from Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City in 1959. He met and married another Cooper Union graduate, Ann Jonas, and both worked as graphic artists in New York. Crews was drafted into the U. S. Army and was sent to Frankfurt, Germany, in 1963. The couple's first daughter, Nina, was born in Germany; another daughter, Amy, was born a year after the family moved back to New York.
Before his return to the states, Crews updated his portfolio to use while seeking employment. Among the pieces he created was an alphabet book, made strictly as a pacer for art directors to see. Those who saw the book suggested that Crews should submit it to publishers as a children's picture book. A pathway to a new career opened for Crews when We Read: A to Z was published in 1967. Rather than relying upon tired clichés for illustrating the alphabet, the artist chose to use concepts such as location to depict words that began with each letter. For example, the page with the words "Cc, corner: where the yellow is" is illustrated with a yellow square in the far corner of a red page in the book.
Crews and Jonas continued to work as freelance graphic artists from a studio in their apartment. Crews created another book Ten Black Dots (1968) and subsequently illustrated books written by others. Freight Train, written and illustrated by the artist, was awarded a 1979 Caldecott Honor.
The success of Freight Train led Crews to write and illustrate other popular books with transportation themes, such as Truck (1980), a 1981 Caldecott Honor book, School Bus (1984), Flying (1986), and Sail Away (1995). Children joyfully embraced the books about the comfortably familiar trains, vehicles, airplanes, and boats that moved through the pages on exciting journeys. Crews also recorded colorful moments and events in life; Parade (1983) and Night at the Fair (1998) memorialize the festive occasions beloved by many children.
In Bigmama's, Crews underlines the impact of his Cottondale experiences by concluding that "some nights even now, I think that I might wake up in the morning and be transported to Bigmama's with the whole summer ahead of me." On his grandparents' farm, the artist was liberated from the constraints of the city as surely as his bare feet were free of the confines of his city shoes. Each year on arrival, the Crews children searched the farmhouse and grounds with the unspoken hope of finding no change, and the text reassures us that "everything was just the same." Young Crews spent many hours on the front porch in Cottondale watching trains pass by the farmhouse, never dreaming that the trains that fascinated him and provided his father with a job would also be the source of inspiration for books he would write.
Though they were quietly pleased by his success as a graphic artist, Crews's groundbreaking books made his parents enormously proud. Crews's father lived to see the publication of Bigmama's; his mother is still living. Crews lives in the Hudson River Valley in a restored farmhouse, which could be regarded as another tribute to his Bigmama, Bigpapa, and the many good times in Cottondale.