Because Nina Crews grew up in a world of picture books, her exposure went far beyond reading. Her father, picture book illustrator and graphic artist Donald Crews, began creating picture books while she was at the perfect age to enjoy them. Both of her parents worked in graphic design and encouraged Nina and her younger sister, Amy, to try many art projects. Best of all, having parents whose studio was in their home drew the girls into the daily rhythm of working artists and assured the availability of art supplies. Nina's mother, Ann Jonas, began a career as a picture book artist when Nina was a teenager.
Her parents lived in Germany when Nina was born (1963), but she was still a baby when her father completed his U.S. Army service and the family returned to the states. Crews lived with her family in Greenwich Village in New York City until she was 12 years old, in an area she characterizes as "relaxed and funky," an atmosphere similar to her current neighborhood. The young families she lives among today remind her of her childhood and often inspire the subjects of her books. "I look back to move forward on a new children's book," she explains. " I try to remember a much younger me and recreate some of the things that delighted me then."
Playing with Amy occupied a great deal of spare time when Crews was growing up, but both girls also liked to read. Crews remembers loving her father's books, of course, but others also became important to her. "The more there was to see in any one image, the better," the artist says in describing images from picture books that captured her attention. One particular favorite was Nothing Ever Happens on My Block, by Ellen Raskin, the story of a boy who sits on the stoop and thinks nothing is going on-but fails to notice how much is actually happening around him. Long before she wrote and illustrated books, Crews learned to appreciate "personal books," books about places and things she knew and loved.
New York provided another important role in her development, for Crews loved growing up in the city. "There may have been more tall buildings than trees, but I enjoyed the city and all its variety," she affirms. "The people, the neighborhoods, all of the city's quirkiness were endlessly exciting." It was only natural, then, that the city became a subject of the artist's earliest photographs. She studied other art forms, but photography became her focus when Crews attended Yale University. Following her graduation, she worked in commercial animation production for Pee Wee's Playhouse. The experience with animation led Crews to a way of creating picture books unlike her parents' work. For example, in an illusion borrowed from animation for her first book, "One Hot Summer Day" (1995), Crews employed a series of stop-action photographic images to give the appearance of a child dancing across the pages. Additionally, the artist's use of photo collage allowed her to simulate the fade technique in animation, as seen in the book's double-page spread featuring puzzle pieces that seem to fall away to reveal the next scene.
Inspired by her newfound collage style, Crews wrote and illustrated "I'll Catch the Moon" (1996) and "Snowball" (1997), both centered on photographs of young children in urban settings. "I'll Catch the Moon" features the window and spectacular view from Nina's favorite childhood home, a loft near Manhattan's Union Square. "Snowball" is a kind of homage to another beloved book from Crews's childhood, Ezra Jack Keats's "The Snowy Day," a landmark book set in the inner city. Other books followed, including You Are Here (1998), "A High, Low, Near, Far, Loud, Quiet Story" (1999), and "A Ghost Story" (2001). Always the reader is invited into the world of the child's play in Crews's books, and always there is plenty to look at on each page.
For inspiration, Crews draws not only on her experiences as an urban child, but also on the work of some of her favorite artists who combined photography and collage, including Romare Bearden, Hannah Hoch, and Man Ray. "Collage allows me to use photography playfully and to tell a story on many levels," Crews says.
Writing the text requires Crews to find "a good balance between the written story and the visual story," she notes; "each one should help the other." Crews continues, "picture books are the combination of two forms of poetry, the written and visual, and their flow should be musical. I find myself reading a lot of poetry while I work on ideas."
The artist lives in New York with her cat, Clementine, who is awaiting an opportunity to be featured in a book. In her free time, Crews enjoys reading, running, Yoga, dancing, and exploring the city she loves.