CHILDREN'S PUBLISHING is a tough, speculative industry, particularly since the interest rate boom, and so it is surprising that Greenwillow chose to speculate on a word rather than a subject. Light may have been irreistible as the germ of a book idea, one of those schemes that promises thematic excitement and graphic punch, but logic should have outrun inspiration, here, and overtaken it before the contract was signed. Quite simply, there is no such in this book.
This is not to say that Light is not a handsome book. Half a dozen spreads in this slim oblong volume are striking graphic compositions that speak well for Donald Crews as a designer with a fine sense of color and form. As closely as I can figure, he has planned to show a progression from dusk to dawn, lights of many kinds punctuating the darkness. The minimal drawings are filled with carefully chosen flat tones. The book as a whole, however, is more a private essay, an indulgence, than a communication to young readers or pre-readers about light. Or even about design. The financial side of children's publishing may be tight but good editorial philosophy is even more binding: design itself is not enriching; design is a modifier, a tool, a way to amplify communication, and without a basic message the best design is empty.
In previous books, Trucks and Freight Trains (both Caldecott honor winners), Crews directed his considerable talents toward real goals: bold renderings of big forms that move across pages, across country; the excitement of motion, the confusion of the highway; the power of big haulers; the continuum of the route, the achievement of the delivery. His design had a lot to work with.
The nature of light, though, is not concrete. It changes and, like good design, is not an object in itself but a revealer of other things. The message Light has for its young readers is shadowy at best and should have had a lot more candlepower to make it plain. Some parts are confusing: the "Dark in the city" spread is actually brighter than its "Lights in the city" sequel; the spread on "Glimmering lights" doesn't glimmer, at least not enough to justify introducing the word "glimmer" to early readers. "Starlight" is confusing and inaccurate and a cliche and . . . okay, enough, I'll put down my venomous pen.
It's too easy to be angry with a talented man who doesn't deliver the goods, and it gets easier to be angry each time he produces a successful book: that is the increasing danger and vulnerability all good writers face. Donald Crews is good. But in Light he has fumbled in the dark, without sight of a goal. Let him find a theme and he will illuminate it with his excellent gifts for beauty.