In the Ring with Author/Illustrator Ted Lewin

Buffalo, New York. It's cold up there near the Canadian line, the kind of place where houses often have sun porches to catch what heat they can get in the blustery winters. In the 1940s, most families would content themselves filling it with a couch, some houseplants, and a radio. In the Lewin household, the sun porch was filled with gym mats and weights.

The Lewin brothers loved wrestling. When they were little kids, their dad brought them ringside where they watched fighters with names like Goon and Dangerous Danny body slam each other to the cheers and boos of roaring crowds. Like today's WWF, the wrestlers were larger than life, playing out their own stories on the mats.

When Mark and Ted got home, they gave their folks a show on the sun porch. Back at the ring, their faces stuffed with popcorn, they had memorized all the moves, and now it was time to show off what they learned. Slam! Crash! Boom! The folks went wild, whistling and cheering.

Their older brother, Donn, would have joined them but he was fighting in the Pacific during World War II. With his parents' okay, he had signed up for the Marines at age 16. When he got home, Donn took a job as pro wrestler. Like all the guys, he worked on a personality to make him a show-stopper. As Tarzan, muscular, brown-skinned Donn brought the house to its feet. Sometimes he came on with a chimpanzee, monkey, or a lion cub.

When their days in the ring were over, the animals were sent back to the family in Buffalo. The monkey seemed pretty happy hanging out in the back yard, but the little lioness had to go to the zoo after sinking her fangs in a brother's backside one time too many.

Ted Lewin, the middle brother, had always loved to draw, and he was good at it. As he got older, he needed money to go to the prestigious Pratt Institute for advanced studies. It seemed the most natural thing in the world for him to join Donn on the road to make some cash.

Ted loved it. The guys' world was like no other. It was a tough job, though. They wrestled on mats in cow pastures, in old concrete baseball stadiums, and once at a mental institution. Even though a lot of the moves were for show, wrestlers could and did get seriously hurt. Ted broke a leg when his opponent knocked the wind out him so he couldn't get in position to land correctly for his next fall.

Wrestling just seemed to be part of the Lewin family's world. His sister married Dangerous Danny McShane, and soon baby brother Mark joined them in tag team matches.

At Home in Two Worlds

Pratt Art Institute is located in New York City, which is also home to prime time wrestling. Instead of working in the campus bookstore or slinging hash in the cafeteria to make his tuition, Ted slung and was slung by guys with names like Haystack across the mat.

There's a lot of down time in between bouts, and Ted sometimes took advantage of it by whipping out his sketch pad and capturing wrestlers when they were not in front of the crowd. Later on he would take these images and his amazing memories and turn them into an award-winning book, I Was a Teenage Professional Wrestler.

While he was at Pratt, he met his future wife, another artist named Betsy Reilly. After graduation in 1956, Ted continued wrestling for another 15 years while he built up his career as a free lance artist. His wife wrote and illustrated children's books.

Cover to Gorilla WalkEventually, Ted was doing the same. His series "World within a World" came out in 1976. These books look at wildlife and nature in places the world over: elephants in India, a river in Brazil, gray whales & elephant seals on the California coast, and the creatures who live in the Everglades.

Ted took his time with these, often photographing his discoveries so that later he could use those same images, shot through with color, light and movement, to inspire his book illustrations.

He and his wife sometimes work together, particularly on nature books. In 1999, they wrote Gorilla Walk, which tells of their earlier explorations in Uganda in quest of mountain gorillas.

Ted Lewin has illustrated dozens of books, often for famous authors such as Mark Twain, Scott O'Dell, and Lynne Reid Banks. His illustrations for Peppe the Lamplighter, written by Elisa Barton, earned it a Caldecott Honor in 1994.

Ted and Betsy Lewin still live in Brooklyn, near the Pratt Institute. They have separate studios; hers is downstairs, and his is upstairs, taking up the entire top floor of their old and lovely house. Their recent book set in Australia, Top to Bottom Down Under, was released in March, 2005. In 2007, Ted went back to the ring to write At Gleason's Gym, a book about Brooklyn's famous gym where many great fighters, including Muhammed Ali, trained.

As for the rest of the Lewin family, big brother Donn, now living in Hawaii, keeps lifting weights and wowing the crowds in body-building competitions. Little brother Mark never gave up wrestling. He tours the world, catching up with Ted by long distance phone calls from exotic places. Ted visits exotic places, too, but he's more likely to bring his camera and his sketchbook than his wrestling togs.

Click here to see a list of books written and/or illustrated by Ted Lewin that are owned by the Central Rappahannock Regional Library. Below are Web sites and other online resources that can provide more information on this author.

On the Web

Biography Resource Center
http://www.librarypoint.org/articles_databases
Has two articles on Ted Lewin drawn from standard library reference sources, Contemporary Authors and Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults. You will need a CRRL card to use this database.

Meet Authors and Illustrators: Ted Lewin
http://www.childrenslit.com/childrenslit/mai_lewin_ted.html
A short article with a photo of the author and reviews of some of his works.

Meet the Artist: Ted Lewin
http://www.nccil.org/tlewin.html
A biography that includes Ted's comments on the work that earned him a Caldecott Honor, some details of his artistic techniques, and a photo of Ted and Betsy Lewin.

Ted Lewin Homepage
http://www.tedlewin.com/
Ted Lewin's own page is visually intriguing. Here, you will find a short biography, his book covers, a complete listing of awards won, and a place to email Ted and Betsy!

Video Interview with Betsy Lewin
http://www.readingrockets.org/books/interviews/lewin
Betsy Lewin talks about her life, including her trips around the world with Ted, a typical work day at their home, and how she met her husband. The transcript is also available online.