What a lucky duck–I got to meet the moovelous Betsy Lewin this week. The whimsical illustrator of Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type and countless other barnyard books visited our local elementary school and entertained the kids with a mix of slide show, drawing lesson and Q&A.
Two Kindergarten classes filed into the library with clipboards and crayons, eager to learn from a master cartooner.
But first, Mrs. Lewin showed photos of her 120 year-old Brooklyn brownstone. Her living room is filled with souvenirs from her world travels–Africa, Australia, the Galapagos–places where she has observed animals and gained inspiration. When she showed her husband’s studio on the fourth floor, she pointed out that it was far bigger than hers, not because he was more important, but because it also housed a photography studio. Ted Lewin paints his realistic watercolors by studying photographs. He pays neighborhood kids to model for him. “Anybody want to move to Brooklyn?” she asked. (My hand went up!)
Mrs. Lewin brought along her cartoon friend, Weirdly, to show the children how to draw expressions: mad, sad, excited, laid back and cool, mischievious, shy. “Weirdly helps me draw ’sound’ words like BOOM and CRASH because sometimes I can’t imagine what they look like,” she explained.
She also showed her first draft cover for Doreen Cronin’s Duck for President. The original cover depicted a national political convention. The point of view is Duck’s, looking out over the crowd (we see his back and tail, wings outstretched). In the front row there’s Farmer Brown, some cows and chickens, Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin. Red, white and blue balloons are falling from the ceiling as the crowd holds signs with slogan spoofs like “The Duck Stops Here,” “I like Duck,” and “A Veggie in Every Pot.”
Then her publisher decided they didn’t want political sayings on the cover, so they asked her to write signs with all 50 states. She soon realized that wouldn’t work. “Which states should go on the front cover? Which states should go on the back? It wouldn’t be fair. What about M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I? That’s too long!”
Ultimately they decided to put Duck on the podium with just three signs: DUCK, Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin. PERFECT!
The hilarious moment came when Mrs. Lewis showed a photo of someone in a cow costume, typing away. She said the photo was sent to her in an unmarked package. Then she asked, “Does anyone know what Doreen Cronin was before she became a children’s author?” One kid had an answer. ”A cow?”
Much to his disappointment, no. Ms. Cronin was a lawyer, just like Mrs. Lewin’s brother, a judge, who had sent the funny cow costume photo. (Yep, lawyers are some of the funniest people I know. My own father included.)
Next, Mrs. Lewin showed the children how to draw a lion with a few easy steps. She broke it down into wiggly lines, circles and half circles and then had the kids decide how they wanted to draw the eyes–happy, sad or angry–with just a slant of the eybrows. She had the first row stand up to show the rest of the audience how different each lion was, as different as they were. “And that’s what makes you so special,” she said. “You’re the only you in the whole world.”
After some questions and answers–her favorite books as a child were Winnie the Pooh and Call of the Wild–she asked the children for suggestions of what to draw. An animal lover and observer all her life, Mrs. Lewin grew up in rural Pennsylvania surrounded by farms. She would watch the animals intently so she could remember how to draw them. She doesn’t need to look at an example as she creates. She can draw anything!
Mrs. Lewin draws with quick strokes, and it’s amazing to watch how these simple lines and squiggles magically come together to form monkeys, elephants, rocket ships and knights in shining armor. Two lucky ducks, I mean kids, even got their portraits drawn.
The most interesting part of the presentation was when Mrs. Lewin showed the difference between her original black and white drawings for her debut 1979 book, Cat Count, and the new full-color edition. In the new release, she gave two dancing felines a blue room lit with the shimmering, sparkling light of a disco ball. The way the dots played on the page gave the scene a magical feel, as if it could lift right out of the book and tango around the room.
I’ll use the saying “lucky duck” one last time: how fortunate children are to have such marvelous books illustrated by a true genius. Thank you, Betsy Lewin!