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From the Studio

Ten Black Dots, by Don Crews

We Read A to Z GreenwillowTen Black Dots exists in close relationship to We Read: A to Z, my first published book. I didn’t intend or even think of that first effort as a book to be published, only as a self-assigned exercise in concept, design, and typography.

I was about halfway through my military service and thinking about reentry into the design field in some form, and I needed a demonstration of abilities not reflected in most of the work in my portfolio at that time. Designers I admired—Paul Rand, Bruno Munari—had been involved in picture books, so it wasn’t an unheard-of design project. So I set out. The form fit the limited space in the off-post apartment Ann and I had in Frankfurt, Germany.

I completed the project to my satisfaction, and the couple we shared our apartment with insisted that I submit my effort to German publishers—who all turned it down. It was an alphabet primer in English, after all. Since my cover letter was written by my friend in German, my dummy and rejections were returned in German. I’m not a German speaker, so the sting of those rejections was minimal. I hadn’t, in any event, intended my project for publication.

Discharged from the military and back in the hunt for work, I found that my book performed exactly as intended. It demonstrated abilities not evident in a single-page solution and engaged my interviewer long enough for me to make my pitch for whatever job I was aspiring to get. Somewhere along the way I stopped showing the book altogether.

I was working with Elizabeth Shub at Harper & Row, doing book jackets and illustrations, and she asked if I’d ever done—or desired to do—a picture book. Eventually I showed her mine. She was intrigued; the editors at Harper were, as well. And the book was finally published. Good fortune, not persistence and singleness of purpose, won the day. Then I wondered if I could create another work, intending from the start to have it published.

Ten Black Dots spread Greenwillow
We Read: A to Z
introduced basic letter forms and concepts for children, and I thought a fitting subject for a companion book might be one introducing the basic number set, 1 to 10. My first concept was actually 100 Black Dots. Many of the same images were used, but rather than each one standing alone (“One dot can make a sun or a moon when day is done”), I proposed that my readers would count each dot in the book and there would actually be one hundred of them in the various images. “Too complicated”—that was the consensus. That’s what editorial is for: seeing the sense that you miss in your excitement of the moment, as you’re creating words and pictures. I agreed that the concept needed tweaking and simplifying, and the result was a vast improvement. Ten Black Dots—something a young reader could relate to.

Ten Black Dots cover GreenwillowThe original book was a 6×6 inch square, but along the way it was enlarged to 8×8, since smaller formats tended to get lost on the bookshelves. It was published by Scribner’s, since Elizabeth Shub had moved there and I followed. Eventually she was one of the founders of Greenwillow, and other work followed.

Ten Black Dots has been published in its original 8×8 inch hardcover edition, in paperback, in a 24×24 inch big-book format (very effective and exciting in this large size!), in a Spanish edition—and now it has a board book edition.

I’m very fortunate to be responsible for a book that parents and children in 2010 appreciate as new and useful and exciting, all these years after its creation in 1968. WOW!


  1. […] Crews. Alive. Well.  Writing marvelous blog posts about the creation of Ten Black […]

  2. Marilyn, a K teacher says:

    I am about to do a writing unit for my 20 kindergarten students. I picked Donald Crews as the author to use to teach this unit.

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