Ted and Betsy Lewin

2015 Hall of Fame Inductee: Ted and Betsy Lewin

Illustration is not a particularly dangerous profession—unless you are Ted and Betsy Lewin! From rescuing a truck from crocodile waters in Botswana, to choking on smoke while trying to keep the fire going in a Sami lavu (tepee) 125 miles above the Arctic Circle, to running into a grizzly mother and her two half-grown cubs in Denali National Park, Ted and Betsy have crossed the world in search of stories for their amazing children’s books. Not every trip has been dangerous, but there have been enough scary moments to give an editor chills. I remember well their first collaboration, Gorilla Walk, which took them to Uganda in search of the mountain gorilla. They’d been wanting to make the trip for years, but Uganda had been engaged in an off-and-on civil war seemingly forever. Finally there was a let-up, and Ted and Betsy took off. I was a nervous wreck the whole time, but they got home safely and the book got underway. A while later, however, a similar party, making the same trek, was murdered. The civil war was on again. Whew!

Such wildlife adventures seem a logical outcome of Ted’s childhood, spent growing up with an African lion, a chimpanzee, several kinds of monkeys, and an iguana named Iggy who liked to crawl up into the Christmas tree, turn green, and stay until New Year’s. When he was 17, Ted became a professional wrestler to help pay his tuition at Pratt, so a later life confronting grizzly bears makes a certain sense. Betsy’s childhood pets were more tame—a dog named Trippy who liked to eat used Kleenex and a cat named Ajax. But, unknown to each other in their childhoods, each was reading I Married Adventure by Osa Johnson, equally enthralled with Osa and her husband Martin’s exotic adventures with rhinos, pygmies, and even the gorillas Betsy was already dreaming of seeing in the wild someday herself.

Betsy seems to have been destined for a career in children’s books from the start. Weaned on  Babar, Uncle Remus, Robin Hood and Winnie the Pooh, she “even found the exact tree where Pooh lived under the name of Sanders” in the woods at the end of her street in Clearfield, Pennsylvania. Always an artist (if there wasn’t any paper, a napkin or a paper bag would do as well), her heroes were Ernest Shepard, A.B. Frost and Beatrix Potter. After graduating from Pratt Institute where she studied illustration, she designed greeting cards, then began to write and illustrate stories for children’s magazines. When an editor at Dodd, Mead & Company asked her to expand one of those stories into a picture book, Betsy had come home.

Ted also studied illustration at Pratt. As he became familiar with painters like Velasquez, Homer, Sargent, Aikins and the Ash Can School, he started a series of portraits of “the boys,” as pro wrestlers called themselves. He painted them not just in the ring but in the dressing room. Not surprisingly, one of the first jobs he landed after graduation was with Joe Weider’s boxing and wrestling magazine.

When Betsy was a sophomore at Pratt, she was introduced to Ted. He claims he won her heart with pictures of his pet chimp and lion cub. Whatever, they started to go everywhere together—even to the wrestling matches. “If my mother knew where I was right now,” said Betsy at her first match, “she’d kill me.”

One of Ted’s classmates had gotten a job as art director of a men’s magazine, and suddenly Ted was flush with work. Using his brothers and Betsy as models, he painted Betsy being attacked by everything from a rogue mongoose to a pirate of the Sulu Seas. His brother Mark fended off alligators with a bowie knife and made a great Nazi being shot in the stomach. Betsy took pictures of Ted himself as a Comanche warrior, an evil Arab and a captain going down with a sinking ship.

In 1963, six years after they met, Ted and Betsy were visiting Ted’s family. His mother kept following Betsy around. “What’s wrong with that boy?” she kept asking. “Why hasn’t he asked you to marry him?”

“Your mother is driving me crazy,” Betsy told Ted. “What do you think? We’re obviously not going to go our separate ways.” They were married a few days later in a local church.

Ted started working for magazines and Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. One day he met an agent, Elizabeth Armstrong, who was interested in representing him. At the time, there was a lot of federal money in education, and Elizabeth was able to get Ted a number of full-color textbook illustration jobs, but she didn’t think the money was good enough in children’s trade books, so she never approached their publishers. That took Betsy, who began agenting Ted when Elizabeth retired. Ted began illustrating young adult jackets, and then came the big one—his first picture book, Faithful Elephants. He has never looked back.

One day Betsy looked up and saw a sign: ADVENTURE TRAVEL. Deciding it was a good omen, she climbed the stairs to their second floor offices. An hour later, she was in a phone booth calling Ted. “Guess what?” she said. “We’re going to Africa!” And so they were off—on the start of 40 years of travel over six continents.

The rest, as they say, is history. To date Ted is the author and/or illustrator of more than 100 children’s books, Betsy of 93 and counting. They have each been awarded a Caldecott Honor Book Medal, Betsy for Click, Clack, Moo! Cows that Type by Doreen Cronin, Ted for Peppe the Lamplighter by Elisa Bartone. Between them they have garnered dozens of awards, including New York Times Best Illustrated and numerous ALA Notable Books and Children’s Choices, not to mention all their starred reviews. They each have a Society of Illustrators Silver Medal and Ted is the recipient of the prestigious Hamilton King Award.

People—both inside and outside the business—often asked why Ted and Betsy never did a book together. Truth be told, they couldn’t figure out how to mesh their totally different styles. Ted is a watercolor master. His paintings can light your evening with the glow of an 1800s New York City gas lamp or warm it around a Kalahari fire. They can make you feel the wet spray of elephants taking a bath or feel the hair on a silverback gorilla’s back. They can put you there on the steaming Sahara or the freezing Arctic ice. Betsy’s great strength is in her line—its speed, its wit, its sparkling personality. She can capture a mood—of animal or human—with just a few strokes of her pen. Her illustrations capture the subtle—and not so subtle—feelings that are part of everyone’s life. She is a genius at finding the humor in a situation. So their collaboration is perfect. Ted paints the big picture, Betsy tells the human story. I’m particularly fond of her illustration in Gorilla Walk showing on one page Betsy being helped up the steep slope with one porter’s hand held out to her from the top, another porter’s hand pushing her tushie from behind. On the facing page, we see Ted sliding down the slope taking out a porter.

I asked Ted and Betsy how they might sum up their lives as illustrators, humorists, painters, adventurers. “It beats work!” they said. Amen!

Susan PearsonRetired, formerly, Editor-in-Chief,
Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books