Transcript from an interview with Betsy Lewin

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Betsy Lewin. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Betsy Lewin

Early career choices

I grew up in a little town in Pennsylvania called Clearfield. It was in a little valley in the Alleghenies, and there were lots of woods and farms. I guess that's how I came to have such an affinity for animals and nature. It's always been a big part of my life.

But I've always drawn. I've drawn on paper bags and sidewalks and napkins and in the inside of my mother's books, which I'm sure if she was still alive, she would forgive me now, but then she was pretty upset about it. But I never wanted to be anything but an artist. I never could be anything but an artist. I wanted to be a pirate for a while, but there wasn't much calling for that. So I went back to my art. And just all the way through grade school, junior high, and high school, I was encouraged by my art teachers and by my parents. I was encouraged by my parents until it came time to go to art school, and then they didn't like that idea very much. They didn't like the idea of me going to New York. They wanted me to go get a liberal arts education and major in art, because they didn't really think that you could make a living at it. They certainly didn't think a woman could make a living at it. This was back in the fifties.

But I insisted and said if I didn't go to art school, I wasn't going to go to school. So, I went to Pratt Institute.

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A struggling artist

But that was, I think, the bravest thing – or the stupidest thing – I've ever done in my life, because I had no idea what I was getting into. I really was a very young 18 year-old, but I just jumped in with both feet and struggled for years and years, doing one thing or another, never really finding out where I belonged until I started doing children's books…

I teach at Pratt one day a week and I tell my students, "You don't go from your dreams in a straight line to realizing them." You know, you go all over the place and take a very circuitous route. And maybe you'll wind up someplace that you didn't even expect to.

Certainly, I didn't really think of children's books, or picture books, when I was searching out my career. And I think that one of the main reasons was that there weren't that many picture books then. Picture books didn't really come on the scene in a big way until the late '70s and the early '80s, which, I guess, had to do with demographics and certainly technology. They got better at being able to do picture books in color. So, I kind of rode that crest – and here I am!

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Click Clack Moo

I didn't know Doreen when the book was published. I still had not met her. Daniel Pinkwater and Scott Simon read that book on their Saturday morning show, and it was sold out before it was even published. I think it was two weeks before pub date. And it went into a third printing before it even hit the stands. So, it was an instant success and a big surprise, I think, to everybody.

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Kid humor

There is this humor that can be appreciated on an adult level. It's an interesting combination, and it's not something that you plan. It's just the way it happens. Somebody asked me once, "Well, do you actually illustrate for adults, so that adults will like your illustrations, too?"

And I said, "No, I don't. I illustrate for myself." What pleases me is what goes into the book. And if it appeals to adults, too, that's great. I know it appeals to kids. And I know that because of the kid in me, because I don't think I ever really grew up, anyway. I still peer at things the same way children do, and give things a lot more attention than adults do. And I think that goes into my illustrations, my thinking, and my stories.

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Ideas from around the world

I'm not as prolific a writer as I am an illustrator, but when I write my own stories, it happens the same way. Pictures come into my head, and the pictures dictate the words, rather than the other way around. And when I'm illustrating a story by another author, of course, the author's words put the pictures in my head. So, it's all the same process. It just gets jumbled around a little bit, whether or not you do pictures first or the words first. When I write, it's actually a combination of the two. I usually do some drawings first to get my word thoughts going. And then I put the words to it.

Most of the stories that I write come out of experiences that I've had with my husband Ted – we've traveled all over the world. We usually go to places where there's wildlife, because that's our main interest. And so What's the Matter, Habibi? is a story about a camel and a camel driver. That came from my experiences with camels and camel drivers in Morocco and Egypt. And a book called Chubbo's Pool is about a selfish hippopotamus that won't share his pool with anybody else, and that was a real hippopotamus that lived in the river outside a camp we stayed at in Africa, who would not share his pool with any of the other animals, and he wouldn't share it with us, either. And so that's where my stories usually come from.

Cat Count and Animal Snackers came out of the blue. Like Doreen says, "click, clack, moo," were just three words that popped into her head. I am really inarticulate when it comes to talking about where this ability comes from or where these ideas come from. I truly believe it is simply the way you're wired. You don't have any choice – it's not up to you. You just do it, because it's what you do. I think most artists and writers would agree with me on that.

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Soul mates

My husband Ted went to Pratt [Institute], too. He had already graduated when I met him. It's funny, because my roommate and his roommate were best friends, and my roommate kept telling me, "You've got to meet my boyfriend's roommate. You've just got to meet him. You guys are soul mates. You'll love each other. You've got the same sense of humor. You both love animals." And we just never somehow got together, until the end of my sophomore year. He showed me a picture of his pet lion cub, and that did it. We realized that we were both interested in travel, and we wanted to go to Africa to see the great herds before they dwindled. And we laughed together. We just had so much in common. And I admired him so, because he draws in a very naturalistic, realistic way, which I don't. I envied that. I really did.

But he also is a Caldecott Honor winner, by the way, for a book called Peppy, the Lamplighter.

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Two illustrators under one roof

So then finally we got married, and we bought a brownstone house in Brooklyn. Ted works on the top floor. His studio is on the top floor. Mine is on the second floor, and we work pretty much in silence from seven o'clock in the morning until about one o'clock in the afternoon – except for going up and down stairs, you know, checking each other's work out. It goes something like, "Come up and see what I'm doing," and I say, "No, I was up there last time. You come down here and see what I'm doing." That kind of thing. We break for lunch, but an illustrator's life is really pretty much a hermit's life. You sit in your own studio, and you work in silence for however many hours you can stand it.

I can't even listen to music when I'm working. It has to be just completely quiet.

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The travel bug

We were bit by the travel bug, and we've been going someplace ever since. We've been to different parts of Africa nine times. We've been to India four times. I want to go back there. I'd love to go to Pushkar to see the camel races. There are wonderful wildlife refuges there that we would love to go back to visit.

And Mongolia – the thing that's drawing us there is this annual festival called the Nadam Festival. They celebrate their three most ancient sports: wrestling, archery and horseracing. They're raced by five-year-olds up to 13-year-olds. So, we're sure there's a picture book there. That's what we're hoping to do, another collaboration like Gorilla Walk.

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"Oh, magic hour, when a child first knows she can read printed words!" — A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1943