Betsy Lewin is perhaps best known for the whimsical barnyard animals that populate the pages of Doreen Cronin’s “Click, Clack, Moo” books.
She’s not a realistic illustrator, she said.
“I try to capture character. I really get their essence down,” Lewin said.
So it is that Lewin’s subjects dance, type and plot in the name of barnyard betterment — never mind that they don’t have opposable thumbs.
Lewin, a Caldecott honor winner, will be in town Friday and Saturday as part of the Allen County Young Author’s Festival, meeting with elementary students to explain the process and practice of illustrating children’s books.
Lewin, 73, has been illustrating children’s books almost since leaving art school in the 1960s.
Lewin first worked at a greeting card company after graduating from Pratt Art Institute in New York City. She also wrote illustrated poems for children’s magazines.
One poem, “Counting Cats,” was noticed by a children’s book editor who asked if she’d like to expand the concept into a book. She did.
The 16 cats of her poem became 65 cats over 32 pages, she said, and she has been doing books ever since.
Lewin still lives in New York, along with her husband, illustrator and author Ted Lewin.
Since 1997, the couple has co-authored and illustrated books based on their travels.
“We’ve been traveling for 40 years,” Lewin said. “We usually go to wildlife places. It was kind of later on in our career as children’s book illustrators that we realized we can get stories from these trips.”
The two at first came up with independent ideas and did separate books. But in 1997, after an arduous trek to see mountain gorillas in Uganda, neither had any story ideas.
“On the plane ride home I asked Ted what he was writing in his notebook,” Lewin said.
Stunned by the difficulty of reaching the gorillas, Ted was writing about the trek, not the animals, Lewin said.
“I realized that was the story,” she said.
They collaborated on the book, with Betsy doing sketches of their hike, while Ted’s realistic renderings illustrated their encounters with the gorillas.
“We’ve done about five or six (books together) since,” Lewin said.
The couple’s next book is set in Iceland. It will be about the sea bird puffins and their young, called pufflings.
Pufflings “leave their nests at night,” Lewin said, and head out for life on the sea, where they dive for food and bob about for two years before learning to fly and returning to land.
Sometimes, though, the pufflings get lost before they even begin.
“They see the lights of the town and think they’re heading out to sea; they think the lights are the moon,” she said.
Children in Iceland “go out at night and rescue these little pufflings.”
In the morning, Lewin said, the children carry the birds to the sea and toss them in, starting them on their long trek to adulthood.
LEWIN explained the process of producing a picture book.
Typically, an editor contacts the artist with a manuscript. If the artist likes it, he agrees to illustrate the book. The artist gets to “decide how many words go on each page,” she said.
The artist draws the character based on the writer’s descriptions, she said.
“It takes me usually three to four months to illustrate a book,” Lewin said.
When she’s done, “I turn in a whole stack of art.”
Many artists now work digitally, she said.
“I will never make that learning curve. To just hand your work in on a disc just blows my mind,” Lewin said.
Instead, Lewin works in pen, ink and watercolor.
Also, Lewin said, “if I get a subject to illustrate that doesn’t say they are human beings, I will turn them into animals.”
Using animals allows her more freedom than locking into any specific “type” of person, Lewin said.
Lewin used the approach with Sarah Weeks’ “Two Eggs, Please.”
The story, about many different visitors to a diner, was inspired when Weeks’ “child’s kindergarten teacher put a brown and a white egg into a bowl and asked the children what’s different. Then she broke the eggs and asked what’s different,” Lewin said.
The story is one of recognizing common ground, Lewin said.
Typically, Lewin said, authors and illustrators don’t meet while working on a book. Often, they live in different parts of the country.
“I’ve met a lot of authors I’ve illustrated for at conferences,” she said.
That’s how she met Doreen Cronin, after she had illustrated “Click, Clack, Moo.”
The two now get together occasionally.
Still, Lewin said, “I think we maintain our separate identifies and goals,” even when working on the same book.
Lewin is looking forward to visiting Iola, she said.
“Not all authors and illustrators like to do this sort of thing. Illustrators tend to live pretty hermetic lives.”
Events like Young Authors, though, “give you a chance to get out and connect with kids,” Lewin said.
For young fans who may one day wish to illustrate books, Lewin said, “Practice. That’s how you get better at what you do,” And, she said, “if that stays in your heart, then follow your dream.”