Monday, September 28, 2009

Children's Book Antipode

Much of what's written in English about children's book cover design naturally focuses on Western images. But what about children's books produced on the far half of the globe? I've been wondering if the style was quite different. It seems that most of what we see from the Far East now is manga and anime, and except for a few books that have drifted across the Pacific now and again, we don't seem to see much of what kids over there are reading.

Allow me to introduce two twenty-somethings, Amie and Nikolai. Amie grew up in Jhunan, Taiwan; Nikolai in Illinois, USA. They now both live in Boston. I asked them to come up with five favorite books they remember from childhood, so that we may have a little fun comparing and contrasting the cover art and design. Below are their choices.

First, from Amie, we have this picture book. She tells me it's about Mr. Crocodile having a day off:

I like how his passengers are wearing clothes and carrying books; they're adorable. I like how his long body spans the entire cover. By comparison, here's Nikolai's first choice, one of his very first books. The classic story of Corduroy, the little bear no one would buy.

Also adorable. I had no idea what to expect with this experiment, whether the covers would have significant design differences or not. But the more I look at these books, I see more similarities than differences. Note the way both images above face to the right, as if inviting the child to open the book, in anticipation of the story (which is common in picture books, I know). Note the jaunty typefaces. I love the way the crocodile seems to be about to swim right off the page, ready for adventure. (He looks like Lyle, doesn't he? Gosh, those teeth!) On the other hand, Corduroy is standing on a soft, comfy cushion. He's enclosed by the red background--very safe and cozy.

Next we have this somewhat Babar-esque little pachyderm on the cover of a wordless picture book from Taiwan. Amie says this "is my favorite elephant! She really tries hard to make her body look funny, sometimes looks like the moon, sometimes looks like a tree."

I like the bright colors, and the way the sky frames the little elephant. But I kind of wish the frame around the artwork had been left off. If the artist had omitted it, it would have allowed the elephant room to swing right off the edge of the book, like the croc above. The puffy, outlined title typeface is cool.

Compare that cover to Nikolai's Dandelion by Don Freeman, the lion who wishes to upgrade his appearance for a fancy party. Another Don Freeman cover, with similarities to Corduroy.

Both have animals for main characters. The elephant morphs, and the lion is anthropomorphic. Both are books about changing oneself--okay, maybe that's a stretch.

I wonder if children's book design and the stories one grows up with can influence the way a person sees the world. From Amie, we have this story of a young girl searching for presents on her birthday. "Her mom leaves little traces everywhere in the house, like a treasure hunt," Amie explains.

I can't get enough of this cover. Love the playful typeface and the way the girl is partly outside the frame, as if she's sneaking past her parents (Amie, is that what appealed to you, hmm?). Contrast, color, pattern, all very appealing. It's interesting that we don't see anyone's face straight on; in fact, the mother's back is turned to us--because she's hiding something?

Nikolai listed a very silly book, one he asked for nearly every night when he was three: Roger Bradford's Benjamin Dilley's Thirsty Camel, a cumulative story about a flooded basement and the fantastical beast who drinks it up. It's a tale about a boy's runaway imagination. Did it affect the way Nikolai turned out? Probably not; he says he just liked the illustrations. Honestly, I do, too. There's something about the way the camel's hump and head slope down toward little Benjamin so that our eyes are drawn to him. Very nice.

Now, from Nikolai and the west we have the wonderful Frog and Toad books by Arnold Lobel.

Contrast Lobel's easy reader tales of friendship between two amphibians with this book about two friends and jealousy from Taiwan:

These covers say more about what's to come than first meets the eye. Frog and Toad are facing the same direction (into the book again), riding together on their little amphibian-sized tandem bike as if all is right with the world, whereas the two children' on the Taiwanese book face each other, facing off, with the gift--and some white space--in between them. Well done, in both instances. Surely, the jealousy book was produced later than Lobel's; the more modern nature of the cover suggests as much. This is the only book that I felt had a uniquely Asian style--and maybe this shows my ignorance more than anything. But the cloud pattern on the gift, and the way it appears to be made of cut paper suggests an Asian aesthetic, to me. Like origami. The white square behind the two children and the sharply contrasting thick, black border remind me of calligraphy. And the entire design seems, well, designed. Deliberate. Artsy. Yet despite the Asian feel, the hair color on the two children makes me think this may be an import from the west, perhaps Europe?

And finally, my favorites. Both of our guests listed the same book. How's that for a small world?

Comments anyone? Corrections? Clarification? --CB

Monday, September 21, 2009

Tapjacketing #2

Round 2 of Tapjacketing.
Just click on the word "Link" to be on your way:

1. Link: Since Carol mentioned typeface last week, I want to send you over to this web page, where you can learn all about a fabulous documentary called HELVETICA. Who knew that this ubiquitous font was considered authoritarian or that it could be the source of such controversy?

2. Link:
Sarah Johnson, a student at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, recently sent me this interesting link to the Gutenburg Museum in Mainz, Germany, which has an exhibition of different styles of cover art - from the Middle Ages all the way up through the late 19th century and Art Nouveau. Oh, gosh, I see now that there's a book flea market in front of the Museum every Saturday. I want to go!

3. LINK: If you haven't done so yet, check out the always-interesting Jacket Whys - they're doing pretty much what we do here at Jacket Knack (and there's room for plenty more) -- looking at kids book & YA covers.

4. Link: Over at one of my favorite sites ( PRINT: DESIGN FOR CURIOUS MINDS) eight designers post their thoughts about "killed covers" (covers which were rejected for some reason or another. There are photos of the final covers next to the "runner-ups" that didn't make it, many of them preferred by the designers but nixed by someone else.

5. Link: Editor Cheryl Klein on her blog BROOKLYN ARDEN talks about book design and specs specific to Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit by Nahoko Uehashi.

6. Link: John Gall, the Vice President and Art Director of Vintage Books (which publishes about 200 books a year) talks about "the rules" governing book design (Rule #5 is "Rules are made to be broken.") Interesting triva (maybe not so trivial) from Mr. Gall: "Green covers don't sell."

7. Link: In this interview of Marla Frazee, there's a snippet about designing the new cover art for Mary Norton's classic The Borrowers (interior illustrations were not changed.) Here's what Frazee says:

"The cover of a novel has to encapsulate the entire book, reflect the major theme(s), and be captivating enough as a single image to entice the viewer to pick the book up, buy it, and read it. Of course, a picture book cover has the same objective, but the illustrator of the picture book has already created the visual narrative and is intimately and emotionally connected with the world inside the book. The illustrator of the cover of a novel is often coming into the project with no prior knowledge of what is inside the book. In my experience, this distance from the imagery of the story is sometimes hard to bridge. But that also makes it exciting and new."




Monday, September 14, 2009


Let's talk typefaces, or more specifically "display typefaces" -- in other words, decorative fonts, like those a book designer or illustrator might choose for the cover of a book. Some readers may think display typefaces are straightforward and benign, quietly serving their purpose: to attract the attention of potential book buyers. But this is not always the case. Fonts, while appearing to live lives of quiet representation, can actually be hiding a secret, insidious agenda. Beneath the demure facade of a display typeface there may lurk a seedy underbelly of turmoil and deceit!

OK, I'm being hyperbolic. And silly. (It would not be the first time.) But still, sometimes a typeface is more than just a typeface, and things get ugly. Professional designers can carry a deep disdain for certain styles. Comic Sans is generally reviled -- for its lack of sophistication and overuse, I presume. Who knew that such an innocent, friendly typeface like Comic Sans could rile up even the most mild-mannered of typographers?

There are probably hundreds of display typefaces out there (Incidentally, there is a difference between the terms "typeface" and "font" although they're often interchanged.), and some of them are meant to invoke an immediate connection in the viewer's mind. As one blogger puts it, they are "shortcuts, visual mnemonic devices" meant to trigger meaning. Here's an activity that demonstrates my point. Can you match the typeface of this pretend children's book Lazy Dog with its connotation? The first one has been done for you:Pretty easy, right? I took those typefaces directly from Photoshop, so they're fairly common, I suspect. The first is Rosewood Std (circus), then Herculaneum (gladiators), Giddyup Std (cowgirl rodeo), Edwardian Script (afternoon tea), Lucida Blackletter (jousting), OCR A Std (robots), and Curlz MT (slumber party). You'll occasionally find examples of these out there on children's book jackets, though not often. I think designers avoid them, since they're so common and available to the general public. I've been looking for display typefaces on children's and young adult novels that immediately invoke something specific. I just read Annette Curtis Klause's Freaks: Alive on the Inside which makes use of a version of Rosewood, for obvious reasons. Whales on Stilts, by M.T. Anderson, employs a typeface that invokes the pulp comics of yore:

When typefaces are used to identify an ethnic group, some designers, understandably, cringe at the sight of them. It's stereotyping--almost literally. Take a look at Mandarin (one of many faux Asian fonts out there), Inuit, Shalom, Latino!, and Neuland. These are stereotypes in one of the earliest senses of the term. The designer for Micol Ostow's Emily Goldberg Learns to Salsa chose a Salsa-like font for at least one edition, and I think it's appealing:

Is it OK to use a visual shorthand to signify a certain group, to turn artistic styles identified with a certain culture into Latin-alphabet lettering for use as a display typeface? Some typographers are dead-set against it, it seems. It's a murky area. Sometimes the ethnic group embraces a typeface. For example, Asian character look-alike lettering (sometimes referred to as a "chop suey" font) was often used on Chinese restaurant signs and menus, at least it used to be--and it was presumably selected by the Asian restaurateurs themselves for its immediate association with the Orient. So does that mean it's OK? Dunno. You don't see those "chop suey" typefaces much anymore, and certainly not on book covers. You may remember The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Bishop, illustrated by Kurt Wiese. Perhaps a classic example of a chop suey typeface there--and that book has had its share of condemnation for several reasons. I can't think of a more recent children's book that uses a chop suey font. Can you?

The Neuland typeface, which is often associated with Africa, has a long and convoluted, but fascinating, history--and no relationship to anything African whatsoever. But its ability to invoke an African/safari/jungle feel still persists; however, this may be only in the United States. Here's the British cover of Alexander McCall Smith's Tears of the Giraffe (no Neuland), followed by the U.S. version (Neuland):

What's wrong with Neuland is its apparent lack of sophistication, its clunky-ness--and the implication that these traits apply to Africans or African-Americans. This thorough article from Giampietro+Smith about the history of Neuland uses the words "lower-class", "inelegant" and "garbage type" to describe this typeface and its "bastard children." So using it to suggest African culture is, whether we realize it or not, an insult. For more about the unpleasant history of Neuland, I recommend taking a few minutes to read that G+S article. Way more is going on with Neuland than meets the eye. For example, the article mentions the film Jumanji, and sure enough, that movie's artwork uses a version of Neuland. But to Chris Van Allsburg's credit, perhaps, the original children's book does not:Lots to think about. I know I'll never look at a book cover again without thinking about the choice of typeface for the cover. And now, for your viewing pleasure, I leave you with this video, in which typefaces are personified:

Sources and further reading online:
Typeface Inspired by Comics Has Become a Font of Ill-Will
Gaimpietro+Smith on Neuland
Chop Suey Fonts
Special thanks to Ralph Brendler for the video link and the tip about Comic Sans.

Monday, September 7, 2009

An Interview with Julie Paschkis

Illustration from Summer Birds by Margarita Engle
Illustrated by Julie Paschkis

Reading Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast last Thursday, I got a peek at some of the sketches and finished art for the recently released picture book, Building on Nature: The Life of Antoni Gaudi, written by Rachel Rodriguez and illustrated by Julie Paschkis. Julie is a remarkable artist whose talents go many directions - I have one of her original cut-paper figures - a mermaid & her double - framed up & hanging on the wall in my dining room. Night Garden: Poems from the World of Dreams (written by Janet Wong) was named a New York Times Best Illustrated Book, and Julie has teamed up with many writers to help get picture books onto the "Best Books" list of Booksense, the Kirkus Review, the New York Library, Parents Choice, the American Library Association and others. She illustrated two of my books (seen in the sidebar below) and is a friend, and she's kindly consented to an interview with Jacket Knack about the process of creating cover art and illustrations.

JL: Hi, Julie - Your trip to Barcelona to research the artwork of Gaudi certainly paid off - Building on Nature is stunning. Congratulations! Here are some questions that I think people who are not familiar with cover design and illustration might ask you if they could. Let's start with your primary considerations when coming up with the cover art of a picture book. How do those considerations differ from those you have when working on the interior illustrations?

JP: The cover needs to illustrate the whole story - not just one scene. It needs to grab your attention and make you want to look inside the book. I pay a lot of attention to the cover. I usually don't begin to sketch the cover until I have completed all the interior illustrations. I want to understand the book as a whole before trying to sum it up.

JL: At what point does an editor or art director enter into the process, or do you make most of the decisions (typography, layout, etc.) on your own? Can you explain the relationship between an art director and an illustrator?

JP: More people are involved with the cover than with the interior art. It's different with different publishers. Despite the old saw, a book IS judged first by its cover so a lot of people put in their opinions. The editor and art director have a say. In some houses the sales force also comments on the cover design. Usually I talk with the editor about ideas and then I sketch different options. The editor chooses which one to go with, with my input. I am careful to only submit a sketch that I would want to paint! In the sketch I indicate where I think the type should go but the art director makes the final decision and placement. The art director picks the font but I usually have input on that. There have been many instances where I have asked for more font options; I care a lot about the lettering. I've attached some cover sketches that were used and some that weren't.

Above: Preliminary Cover Design Sketch (not used) for Building on Nature

Above: Sketch for Final Cover Design for Building on Nature

Above: Final Cover

Above: Preliminary Cover Design Sketch (not used) for Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal

Above: Final Cover Design Sketch

Above: Final Cover

JL: For Building on Nature, you traveled to Barcelona to see Gaudi's architectural masterpieces in person, and for an upcoming book about the writer Pablo Neruda you'll be spending some time in Chile. Can you share with us how this up-close research influences your approach to projects?

By traveling to these places I get to understand not only the work of the artists but the context in which they created it. My hope is that the sense of place seeps into all of the pictures. I wasn to get the details right and I can get a lot of that through research in books and on the internet. But I don't think I can get the feeling of a place without going there. I think place had a big impact on Georgia O'Keeffe, Gaudi and Neruda. Also, when I get to illustrate a book I feel like a door is opening in my life and I want to walk through it. Unfortunately I pay for the travel myself. Fortunately it's worth it. Now if I could just figure out how to time travel!

This is the second book you've illustrated that focuses on the life of an artist - the first, also written by Rachel Rodriguez, was Through Georgia's Eyes, about the painter Georgia O'Keefe. Was it difficult to maintain your own style while picturing someone else's artwork?

I also did a nonfiction book about the folk artist Grandma Prisbey who built the amazing Bottle Village in California out of things she found at the dump. The book is called Bottle Houses

and it was written by Melissa Slaymaker. Yes, in every instance it was scary to try to depict someone else's artwork. I felt that especially with Georgia O'Keeffe because she was a 2-D painter. How could I paint the book without merely painting slightly worse versions of her paintings? I was so relieved when I thought of doing cut paper illustrations because it meant that I could translate her imagery instead of just copying it. Now I am relieved that Neruda was a poet and not a painter!

Have you been stopped in your tracks by the covers of any books lately? Let's include picture books, chapter books, YA books, books for adults - any kind of book! Whose artwork is catching your eye? What pulls you over in a bookstore and makes you want to pick up a book?

I get attracted to books by their shape, size and feel as well as by their covers. I often like small books with matte covers. I've attached several book covers that I really like. They're not new but they are good. In all of them the art and the type work together, and they all delight me. They all do a good job of telling you what the book is about.

JL: Can you tell us about any other mediums you've been working in or directions your artwork goes besides books?

JP: This spring and summer I've been doing designs for fabric. Years ago an editor said that she wouldn't want me to illustrate a book but she'd love me to design fabric for a couch! Well now her dream (and mine) can come true. Actually, it's cotton fabric for quilting. I designed a line called Folklorica for In the Beginning Fabrics.

Fabric Design - Folklorica Line
(Note: I added links to Julie's designs as well as a link to In the Beginning, just so people don't have to email Jacket Knack to figure out where it's sold!! - JL)

Besides the Neruda biography, do you have other projects in the pipeline?

I've got two books in the pipeline right now that I am excited about. I've attached a scan from each one. One is Summer Birds by Margarita Engle (see illustration at the top of this interview - JL) which Holt is publishing. It's a nonfiction picture book about the 17th century scientist/artist Maria Sybilla Merion. The other is Where is Catkin? It is written by my sister Janet Lord and will be published by Peachtree. It is a hide and seek book. (Note: Julie illustrated two other books written by her sister: Albert the Fix-It-Man and Here Comes Grandma!)

Illustration from Where is Catkin? by Janet Lord

JL: I can't wait to see the newest books (Note: And I'm going to call around to some of our Seattle stores to see if they carry Folklorica - gad, those designs are beautiful! Which makes sense, of course: No matter what it's designed to cover - a bed? a book? - Julie's artwork is wonderful!)

Thanks again for sharing your answers with Jacket Knack readers, Julie.