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TRUCK @ 30

BY DONALD CREWS

Time passes . . . thirty years in publication for Truck is impressive. I have from time to time had the opportunity to be present where stacks of my books were displayed for sale, and I must admit that it is a heady moment to think that you are the reason for their being there. Young girls and boys, their parents and grandparents, reacting to my books. Over time the reactions are very similar—somehow I got the story right.

But the number of years in publication isn’t as important as the path that Truck and Freight Train led me to. I really can’t think about one without the other.

They weren’t my first efforts in picture books. We Read: A to Z was the first. Not created to be published but as a vehicle to demonstrate my talents in areas that could not be represented in a single book jacket or two-dimensional design piece. It served its intended purpose well for some years before it was published, and after its publication Ten Black Dots was intended to prove that it wasn’t a fluke. I, we—Ann (Jonas) and I—continued our quest with reasonable success as freelance graphic designers in NYC. We worked primarily for publishers, designing book jackets, text illustrations, the odd poster or promotional piece, whatever job presented itself, and I illustrated a few books not written by me. I got to work with many of the people who would be my colleagues for the rest of my career—Ava Weiss, Libby Shub, and Susan Hirschman. Illustrating a picture book where the language and concept is not your own is a very different experience from being in complete control. Complete control is better. “Don’t complain, do it. You’ve done it before, you can do it again.” That was my rally talk to myself. I was also aided by a midcareer scare when a very wise friend, John Condon, described an aging Donald Crews mining the fields for small assignments and not succeeding. He counseled me to “Do something that only you can do, and then they can only get you to do it.” Sage advice.

Freight Train came about partly from that advice. Truck was confirmation that I could do it more than once.

I was very excited by my proposal for Freight Train; it developed nicely; the Gang at Greenwillow was equally impressed, supportive, and enthusiastic (very important elements in the process); the completed project was impressive. Freight Train was praised by lots of people. “Next!” “What will you do next?” The next project is what proves the point. Truck followed soon after Freight Train and put me on the path that I’m on still. While you’re observing, you’re working, and the next project might be anything.

My choices for subjects are snapshots, symbols of real moments, and I like to interpret and place them where they have maximum effect. We lived in the West Village in Manhattan while I worked on Truck, near the West Side highway and lots of warehouses and delivery trucks. It was an inexhaustible supply of material to pick and choose from. I use a combination of sketching and photography to collect material, select the most expressive, and make those images simpler still. The story was written loosely in my head as I developed the images, page by page, to tell the tale. The specific words, as usual, were left till last. As in Freight Train, where my subject was a train, this was a story about a truck—the human element is implied. No one has seemed to miss the people, thus far.

Thirty-two pages of images seem like quite a lot in the beginning of a project, but they soon fill up, and soon enough you have to eliminate the weaker ones. Every image has to contribute to the story or it gets discarded. When all the images work together, the story’s done. All thirty-two pages were full of trucks, the pictures and the signs along the streets and highways replaced the need for a specific narrative, and I hadn’t left a visual place for any typography anyway, so I presented the book as a wordless story and that idea worked for everyone.

The finished art for Truck, like Freight Train and a few others, was completed as pre-separated art. Each page was rendered in grayscale in proportion to the proper value of red, yellow, blue, and black for each color in the image—a very tedious task, but useful for color correction and color management later on. It also allows for very clean, clear printed color.

Many early books were printed in New Jersey, and this allowed me to be present to see the project through the print process—one more treat that is missed now that books are printed in Asia. The ultimate delivery of a box of completed books that arrives sometime after you’ve begun this journey is the next treat. Thirty years later, if you’re lucky, you still get to autograph an original copy—original for the reader, which is what matters. What a pleasure.

“Next!”

Donald Crews is the creator of many acclaimed picture books, including the Caldecott Honor books Freight Train and Truck. He lives in Germantown, New York.

3 Comments

  1. cindy says:

    love the foto! and oh my, my 5yo
    would love these books!! =D
    going searching for them now…

  2. Tim Smith says:

    Sylvie has an original press sheet from TRUCK (just like the one behind Mr. Crews in the picture above) on display in her office. It is a beautiful piece of artwork and I am extremely covetous of it.

    Congratulations on thirty years of TRUCK, and thanks to Donald Crews for a great essay to commemorate it!

  3. Marilyn, a K teacher says:

    I am writing a unit about using mentor texts. You are the author that we are studying to see how we can get some ideas to help us be better writers. Thank you.

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