Park Slope

Q&A: Park Slope illustrator Nina Crews dares young girls to dream

February 20, 2020 Angela Johnson

From the sports they should play to the careers they should pursue, young girls are often told what they can’t do. But in a new children’s book, “A Girl Like Me,” Park Slope resident Nina Crews shows them that not even the sky is the limit. Crews uses photographs of girls from multicultural backgrounds in a unique collage technique to illustrate the poem, written by award winning author Angela Johnson.

Johnson’s poem empowers young readers to follow their dreams, despite what others may say to discourage them. And Crews’s dreamy photo spreads portray girls flying through the air and scaling skyscrapers, despite being discouraged by everyone around them.

The Brooklyn Eagle caught up with Nina Crews to learn more about what inspires her and what she loves most about Brooklyn.

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BE: Your parents were children’s book authors. Was it inevitable that you would follow in their footsteps? 

NC: I didn’t immediately follow in their footsteps. I would say I was hesitant at first. After college, I was doing my own photo illustrations for editorial, some work for animation studios and a little bit of playing around. At that point, I didn’t know if I had a voice that would be appropriate for children’s books, or a style that could set me apart from my parents. It was only after a few years of being out in the world that I felt like I’d developed a distinct artistic voice.

BE: Your use of photo collage is very unique for a children’s book. How did you come up with the idea?

NC: During the time I was doing photography for myself, a lot of interesting artists were doing things like taking photographs apart and rearranging things. I was influenced by a lot of the work I saw around. There seemed to be so many possibilities with photography if you manipulated it in some way. I also like artists like Romare Bearden and people who did collage work. So I ended up developing my own hybrid based on a lot of work I was interested in. I also liked the idea of using photography in fictional books, instead of just in a documentary way that you would for a nonfiction book.

BE: How do children respond to the photographs? 

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NC: Children usually get carried away within the story. Some groups of kids will look at how things are created with a very sophisticated, savvy eye. Other kids won’t look at how the illustration is made. They will just see it as something imaginary. I’ve done readings where kids have asked me how I painted the picture, and I have to remind them that it’s a photograph.

But it doesn’t seem to be a problem. In fact, some kids are excited about seeing real pictures.

BE: The message of the poem is so beautiful. What was the inspiration for your illustrations? 

NC: The poem was originally published in a book that came out in 2006. I discovered it in an anthology without any pictures attached to it. It’s written in first person, so you sort of put yourself into the story. I loved the spirit of the poem and how it presented dreams. And in the end, there’s an idea of going beyond those dreams. It’s about taking ownership of who you are and what your potential could be.

When I thought about the illustrations, I saw a chance to amplify the spirit of the poem, rather than just repeating the words on the page. That’s when I started thinking about using more than one girl. I thought another way to amplify the poem would be to have the girls bring their friends along, and use the idea of community as another way we inspire each other to go beyond the things we dream for ourselves.

Which is nice because it was much more fun to do these illustrations keeping that dream flowing through the whole thing. Otherwise the other half might have looked sort of dull.

BE: What are some of your favorite places in Brooklyn?  

NC: I’ve been a Brooklynite for over 30 years now, so I’ve seen it through a lot of changes. Prospect Park is one of my favorite neighborhood haunts. I’ve included Coney Island in other projects. I’m also a big fan of the libraries in our neighborhood and beyond. At this point, because Brooklyn has so much to offer, I rarely go to Manhattan for anything. My friends are in Brooklyn. And there is great art, great restaurants and great bookstores all close by.

Nina Crews will read from “A Girl Like Me” at the Brooklyn Heights Library (109 Remsen Street) on Saturday, Feb. 22 at 11:00 a.m.


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