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

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