Monday, August 31, 2009

A Cover Curiosity

Along with the forthcoming release of the film adaptation of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are comes this book by Dave Eggers. The accompanying story says that this version is loosely based on the original picture book; the story/screenplay has been expanded for film. The article also quotes Eggers's (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) somewhat offhanded reference to some old kids' book from "the sixties" with a real fur cover which sat moldering in a warehouse.

You may know the book he means. I did. It's Margaret Wise Brown's Little Fur Family and it's from the forties, not the sixties. It is indeed a curiosity.
They don't make 'em like this anymore.

Harper & Brothers introduced Margaret Wise Brown's Little Fur Family, illustrated by Garth Williams (The Wilder Little House books guy), in 1946. I remember reading in Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon, Leonard Marcus's biography of Brown, one of the most beloved American children's authors, that it was a HUGE deal to her that the cover be made of real fur. Rabbit fur. Many bunnies sacrificed their lives so that children in 1946 could feel the Little Fur Family and experience the "Here and Now" philosophy put forth by the Bank Street School.

You can get your own original Little Fur Family on eBay, if you act now. It's yours for one easy payment of $937.50 USD.

Or here, for $1,500 USD.

Gosh, it's weird, isn't it? I mean, look at it. As far as I can tell, this first edition came in a cardboard box that made up the actual outer cover, with a hole cut in it so that people could feel the fur before making their decision. Inside that box lies the actual book, with fur stretched across boards. Then inside that, the pages, of course, with Garth Williams's appealingly non-threatening, bear-like (or badger-like? or . . . woodchuck-like?) images inside. It must have cost a ton to produce--and I wouldn't have wanted to be the guy who had to cut and fit all those pelts in place. I've read that children were afraid of the cover. I wonder how many they sold, especially just after the war--can't seem to ferret out what the original price was. It's only 3x4-1/2 inches--makes me wonder how many copies they got out of each rabbit.

The book is charming, and it is still available new, 'though with a boring (but better) fake fur cover instead of the real stuff. Here's a sample, from the HarperCollins site. If you buy a first edition, can I borrow it?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Tapjacketing #1

I was a bookseller for a long time before I turned full-time to writing and teaching, and I've still got that strange disease a lot of booksellers have - it's incurable: we're afflicted with the need to touch new books. We need to hold them (I'm telling you, it's physical this addiction, not metaphorical.) We need that hit, that rush, getting acquainted with "the look of the book." When we find one that satisfies, we run our hands over it, we turn it over, we open it (but not to read it - just to see the font, feel the paper.) We sometimes smell it. Dedicated booksellers are a strange breed.

When I was a buyer, I talked to sales reps about cover art. They talked to me about legendary cover designers like Chip Kidd, whose covers are both famous & infamous. I didn't know Kidd's work at the time, but I hurried out to find out all I could. Kidd, whose interview Carol posted on Friday, has a tome out (the kind that you can use to press flowers, or keep a door from closing.) It's titled CHIP KIDD: BOOK ONE - WORK 1986-2006. Don't even think about reading this book in the bathtub - it must weigh 7-8 pounds and it's the size of a small Hummer. But it makes for glorious reading, filled as it is with photos of the book covers designed by this "rock star" of graphic design. Kidd writes intelligently in the book about his designs-- those that flew and those that didn't even get a chance to, shot down by art directors or editors or people from Marketing. But there's not much text: most of the book is just cover after cover after cover after cover after's breathtaking if you're hooked on "the look of the book."

Here is what I hope will be the first of many Monday Tap-Jackets - I'll be posting a list of links on a monthly basis, so if you're interested in covers, just click on "Link" to check these stories out:

1. Link: At Blue Rose Girls, Alvina, who is an editor in NYC, offers up some thoughts on book design, including comments about the covers for The Postcard and Firegirl, both by Tony Abbott.

2. Link: 6 classic kids book covers from Alan Power's book Children's Book Covers. Posted over at design:related, where Nick believes that book covers are being dumbed down for today's readers. Have to admit, those are classy designs. I wouldn't mind having a few more like that, and a few less photographed faces.

3. Link: A wonderful essay by Steven Heller in the NY Times about the kind of long-term chemistry that can exist between an author and a cover designer. Not kids books; still, interesting.

4. Link: What would happen if the Harry Potter series were redesigned to look like classic Penguin book covers?? Illustrator and designer M.S. Corley gives it a go. I think they're gorgeous.

5. Link: Eight classic kids books covers highlighted in The Book Cover Archive , where you can look up who designed a cover you loved. If you look up Chip Kidd, you'll see several dozen titles & you can decide for yourself if you like his work or understand his aesthetic.

6. Link: Kudos to the people who took up the challenge issued by 100 Scope Notes to design their own debut YA book covers. The gallery of what people have come up with is much better than you would expect from amateurs. And here are step by step instructions for how to do it.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Chip Kidd--An Interview

I'm going out of turn because I'd like to post this video of a recent radio interview between the CBC's Jian Ghomeshi and American book designer, Chip Kidd. Julie and I are both fans of Mr. Kidd's work--plus, I have a secret crush on Jian.

Kidd talks about the Kindle, the desire for authors to have a say in their book's cover art, Harry Potter, Stephenie Meyer's TWILIGHT series cover art, and lots of other book design-related topics. It's worth taking the time to watch:

Monday, August 17, 2009

Pants on Fire: More about the LIAR Book Cover

The controversy over Justine Larbalestier's forthcoming book, Liar, has settled down, the corrected cover has been revealed, the book's release date has been reset, Julie has weighed in with her well-reasoned post, but I'm not ready to drop it. It seems to me there are two main issues exposed by this story. One, the image on the cover of the book clearly does not reflect what is described inside. And two, the (possibly outdated?) notion that a dark-skinned cover image will hurt sales.

So first, the image of the book doesn't reflect what's inside. Perhaps the decision-makers at Bloomsbury thought they were being clever, what with their symbolically-reflecting-the-complex-psychological-makeup-of-the-main-character angle. (I am assuming that the entire thing was not just a big publicity stunt--a possibility that the skeptic in me likes to entertain) Trying to reflect a deeper psychological makeup on the cover seems reasonable--if it weren't for the fact that it goes against the author's intention. Perhaps the problem of differences between a book's cover and the words inside is a matter of degree. I mean, if Nancy Drew is described in the story as titian-haired, but you feel she's more of an ash blonde in the cover art, that's one thing. If the picture on the cover of a novel shows a snow-capped mountain in the distance that is nothing like the terrain for the setting of the book--that might be excusable, as in this cover for the Australian paperback edition of Tim Wynne-Jones's The Maestro (titled The Flight of Burl Crow in AU): See that Alpine-like mountain in the distance? This cover was illustrated by Australian Peter Gouldthorpe who had apparently never traveled to the rocky, tree-covered terrain of the Canadian Shield. It goes against the author's intention, but it's not crucial to the telling of the story, so meh. Let's try something else. What if Clifford, the Big Red Dog sported the image of a big red cat on the cover? Okay, that's not a perfect example for many reasons, one being that the author, Norman Bridwell, is also the illustrator. But it certainly would subvert the author's intention--and confuse the reader. Let's try this one: what if Patricia MacLachlan's Sarah, Plain and Tall came back from the marketing department with this cover on it:
Gosh, my Photoshopping skills are terrible, but you get the idea, right? The book's intent, message, everything changes if we think of Sarah as black. What I'm trying to get at is, it's one thing to use a cover image that doesn't quite fit what's in the book. But when you're changing the race of the character without the author's approval? It changes EVERYTHING. Sure, Larbalestier's character is a liar, but lying about race? Race? In the United States?--or anywhere, for that matter. It's too charged with meaning, too much of a different set of issues. No, sir, I don't like it. Hooray for the cover change.

Now issue two. Skin color on book covers. Whoa. Books with black people on the cover won't sell? Really? I mean . . . really? This suggests not only that white kids will buy books only about their own race, but also that minorities are not in the bookstores buying books--at all. Wrong on both counts. At least, I hope so. I fear I may be too optimistic. When the Liar debacle first made the rounds of the online forums, author Nnedi Okorafor weighed in with her experiences as an African-American author of young adult fantasy novels. Two of her books (which sound awesome, by the way, and have been added to my reading list), Zahrah the Windseeker and The Shadow Speaker, both feature characters with African racial makeups. And there was some going back and forth to get the covers right. Her first novel, Zahrah the Windseeker (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005), is about a girl living a futuristic African world who was born with hair that grew out as seven dreadlocks, each one entwined with a green vine. Her hair sets her apart, giving her special powers, and her hair plays a crucial part in the novel. Here's the original (and gorgeous) hardcover illustration, by Amanda Hall:

Okorafor's second novel, The Shadow Speaker (Harcourt, 2007), is about a very dark-skinned girl from sub-Saharan Africa, but the original cover for this book depicted a white girl. Then a light-skinned girl. It took another round of talks to achieve the final image:

Nnedi was kind enough to respond to my questions about her book cover adventures:

  • Just to clarify for myself, it was the cover of the paperback edition of Zahrah the Windseeker for which you had to request a cover change or adjustment, right?

    Yes, it was the paperback. The hardcover’s cover was PERFECT!

  • Assuming the answer to #1 is yes: After getting such a beautiful cover illustration for the hardcover of Zahrah, when you saw the light-skinned girl on the paperback, you must have been, what? Taken aback? Disappointed? Did they make any excuses for the very light skin--or balk at making the change to her skin to better represent the actual character in the book?

    I actually liked the paperback cover a lot. I loved the butterfly, the flowers and the eyes of the girl they chose. But yes, she was just too light-skinned. Of course I have nothing against light skinned people. It’s just that my character was not light-skinned at all and I felt she should be presented as how she was written. My publisher didn’t make any excuses for making her so light and I didn’t expect any. They changed the girl’s skin tone right away, though. And we all were happy.

  • Re: Zahrah's hair: I think the little bit of hair visible on the image they did use is sort of straight-looking, but you mentioned in your online post that they changed the straightened hair so that it more closely resembles the seven dreadlocks that are so integral to the story. What did they do, exactly --just crop off the hair more?

    Sigh, yes, it’s straight. That was the one thing that really bugged me and continues to bug me. Zahrah has seven super thick long long dreadlocks. They added some green tinges to the girl’s hair on the cover so that it doesn’t look so much like hair but that was the best they could do.

    In this case, the problem is deeper. They used a stock image for the photo and when it comes to stock images, you’re going to run into a problem: There are less “stock” images of black girls with any kind of natural hair, let alone long thick dreadlocks. The reason? That’s another can of worms we can open some other time.

  • For The Shadow Speaker, a white-skinned image on the cover must have come as a surprise, especially since the story takes place in and around Nigeria. Any idea what they were THINKING? When I look at the cover, it seems not only logical but better artistically to have the girl's silhouette dark against the ginger-colored sand.

    The Shadow Speaker takes place mainly in the country of Niger, not Nigeria (though one of the characters is from Nigeria and his back-story happens there). But still, it’s the same problem. Heck yes, I was surprised when I saw what they initially came up with. And confused. In my stories you are not going to question what a character looks like. I’m not interested in playing with physical ambiguity, especially since I’m writing characters of races that are so rarely portrayed in science fiction or fantasy.

    In The Shadow Speaker I think I even SAY that Ejii is “black skinned”. She’s half Nigerian and half Wodaabe and she lives in a town in the Sahara desert. She’s very dark and West African. I think at the time, the designers said, “Oh, we were just using a stock image”. I wasn’t interested in the reason; I just wanted it changed. Immediately.

    I think it was just a case of people thinking on autopilot. The designers were very cool. They were happy to talk about the cover and change it. Ejii went from white to light-skinned. My agent and I made a fuss again (I didn't believe in just making an attempt, I believed in getting it right 100%). Then finally Ejii was dark. Granted, Ejii has a low-cut afro and not the short dreadlocks she has on the cover (and yes, I did request that they change her hair), but that was as good as we could get. The dreadlocks didn’t imply any deeper subtle racial issue (like straight hair would have), so we said “ok”.

    So my publisher listened and understood. We all make mistakes. It’s how we handle our mistakes that shows our true character. And my publisher handled it superbly.

  • It does not seem as if the skin tone of the images on these covers have hurt sales. Any comments about that?

    I think the United States has issues with race that go very very deep. I think putting faces of color on covers might hurt sales, sure. But that’s due to that submerged vein of institutional racism that still runs in this country. I think even people of color have issues with seeing images of themselves. My sister once told me about a woman who sells beautiful African-looking dolls. This woman said that a lot of parents (who were black) were calling and complaining about their dolls when they got them. They were saying their dolls were too dark and their hair was too nappy. They wanted lighter skinned straighter haired dolls for their dark-skinned nappy haired little girls. Go figure.

    I think the more we see diversity in images, the weaker the racist beauty myth becomes. And then eventually it will truly die.

  • Any hopes--or fears--or predictions--about what will happen with the cover on your upcoming novel about the albino Nigerian girl?

    My editor is Sharyn November. She rocks, she understands and she knows what she’s doing. I have complete faith in all that she does. She’s already come up with an idea for the cover that I’m absolutely delighted by. But yeah, I love the challenge of this one.

Thanks, Nnedi!
It seems this problem is far from resolved. Maybe it's the stock image people that need a good talking-to. Or maybe it is we who are the problem. When was the last time YOU bought a book with a person of another race depicted on the cover. If you're a member of an ethnic minority, the answer is probably "not long ago" because so many books have whites on the cover. However, I'm white and I can think of just four children's books on my shelves right now with dark-skinned people on the cover. In the Land of Words by Eloise Greenfield, illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist, Shante Keyes and the New Year's Peas, by my friend and talented author Gail Piernas-Davenport, illustrated by Marion Eldridge, Julius Lester's Day of Tears and the great Varian Johnson's My Life as a Rhombus, a young adult novel. My results are pretty sad, percentage-wise. I'm hard-pressed to think of any Asian or Latino images on covers that I own. It's not a bias on my part so much as a lack of awareness. Well, that's gone now. As Justine Larbalestier implies on her blog, we need to do better.

For more talk about LIAR, see Jacket Whys.
For more about Nnedi Okorafor's work see her website.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Random Quack

Lucky the Duck
Introducing an occasional feature here on JACKET KNACK: The Random Quack, duck-related information intended to amuse and/or inform. Our first duck story comes from the UK, wherein resides one lucky duck.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Covered, Uncovered, Recovered

If you're a children's book author, bookseller, blogger, librarian or publisher, you would have to have been on Mars for the last month not to hear about the whole LIAR cover debacle - Bloomsbury's decision to put a young white girl with long straight hair on the cover of Justine Larbalestier's new novel about a girl described by the author as "black with nappy hair which she wears natural and short."

The original controversial cover (pictured to the right) began to generate quite a few (as in, a landslide) of questions and complaints from people who found it offensive - a "white-washing" - and Ms. Larbalestier herself labeled it as "a shame" on her blog. She worried that people's reaction to the cover would mean that the book didn't get purchased and didn't get read. The author had this to say about the decision-making process at Bloomsbury, which she couldn't influence but did see unfold:

"The US Liar cover went through many different versions. An early one, which I loved, had the word Liar written in human hair. Sales & Marketing did not think it would sell. Bloomsbury has had a lot of success with photos of girls on their covers and that’s what they wanted. Although not all of the early girl face covers were white, none showed girls who looked remotely like Micah. I strongly objected to all of them. I lost."

What Ms. Larbalestier had hoped was that the North American publishers would go with the cover for the Australian edition (designed by Bruno Herfst) which she felt really captured the spirit of the book. That cover is pictured below. See what you think:

No great surprise that the people at Bloomsbury weren't thrilled with the Australian cover - it's a sophisticated bit of graphic design, using typography itself as a metaphor for the unreadable (blurred, undefined, unreliable, mutable) protagonist. Too sophisticated for American teenagers? That might have been the thinking at the Sales & Marketing discussions (Australians teens are more sophisticated?) Instead, why not follow a trend - girls' faces? Proven track record. Marketable. No complicated visual metaphors to provoke confusion. Nothing to interpret. Only the hair over the mouth - pretty straight-forward and simple, and that's where good design often comes from.

Only one problem - the face had to be a marketable face. So Bloomsbury set up a photo shoot of a white girl with perfect silky hair. A safe cover. Or so they thought.

The storm raged. Bloomsbury tried to wait it out. But the ship began to list and Bloomsbury bailed. They delayed the release of the book by one month, (it will be coming out now in October) and they issued a new cover (shown at the top), designed by Danielle Delaney. For it, the camera has pulled back slightly - which is a shame. While the original cover is the definition of "in your face," the new cover is simply a portrait. I'm not sure who designed the original, but it was great work - what a shame that Bloomsbury specified a white model for the photo shoot. The new design has pulled away far enough to include the girl's hands. Her mouth is slightly visible as well. The hair up near the forehead is curly, but in a permed way, certainly not "nappy." And is there a hat of some sort? The hands appear to be pulling on navy blue ties. In the new version, the black background makes the author's name and the title pop, it's true - and the title is quite a bit larger, spreading to the edges of the jacket. The girl, who appears to be older than the original girl, is black. The new cover might be truer to the way the author describes the protagonist, but it's not as exciting as it could have been if the original layout had been used with a black model. Had the original girl been black, her hair could have been long enough to cover her mouth - people can overlook a problem of hair length, the same way they overlook the fact that the girl in the book is nowhere near as beautiful as the girl on either of the covers. But a problem with the color of skin cannot be ignored.

With the redesigned cover, the publisher also offered this explanation:

“We regret that our original creative direction for Liar—which was intended to symbolically reflect the narrator’s complex psychological makeup—has been interpreted by some as a calculated decision to mask the character’s ethnicity,” Bloomsbury officials said in a statement to PW. “In response to this concern, and in support of the author’s vision for the novel, Bloomsbury has decided to re-jacket the hardcover edition with a new look in time for its publication in October. It is our hope that the important discussions about race and its representation in teen literature continue. As the publisher of Liar, we also hope that nothing further distracts from the quality of the author’s nuanced and accomplished story, and that a new cover will allow this novel’s many advocates to celebrate its U.S. publication without reservation.”

The skeptic in me wonders about a Sales meeting where the subject under discussion is how many books will be sold via a symbolic reflection of an internal psychological state. That sounds a bit lofty for a marketing plan. Much easier to believe is a desire at the heart of it all to "mask the character's ethnicity." Apparently, though, Justine Larbalestier remains optimistic about the outcome of the controversy, despite the fact that she has heard confirmations now of how pervasive the "No Blacks on Covers" attitude is: editors who say books with black protagonists on the cover don't sell; sales reps who have told her straight out that some American accounts "won't take books with black covers;" booksellers who have told her they can't give away books with people of color on the cover. (This is America in the 21st-century?) Yet Ms. Larbalestier thinks the fault may lie in the lack of publicity and support given to these books by their publishers, rather than in some inherent racism coming from people with disposable income and a desire to buy books. She recommends in her blog dated 7/23 that people put their money where their mouths are. Time to buy books with people of color on the cover, she says. Oddly, the two books she recommends to people (though they do show non-white girls) do not show their faces - one shows a girl with her back to the camera, and the other shows a sexy torso. Not exactly ground-breaking territory there, either. But maybe the first steps have to be baby steps?

One last thought here: Read Uma Krishnaswami's intelligent post on this subject over on her blog, Writing with a Broken Tusk. She includes thoughts about covers which depict South Asian protagonists, and she delves into this whole trend to obscure/place into shadow/lop off the heads of cover figures. An interesting read. Not long ago, my neighborhood bookstore featured a whole window display of covers featuring people's feet:

So maybe torsos and backs (and toes) just reflect the modern American belief that our rushed lives are a fragmentary mess, that life cannot be visualized as an integrated whole, that what you see depends on where you stand - now I'm getting into Bloomsbury Territory: symbolic reflections of inner psychological states. Time to stop.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Welcome, Readers!

An introduction from Julie:
Welcome to Jacket Knack! I'm so excited about this new venture - hope it proves to be thought-provoking and fun for you as readers, too! I'll be posting my thoughts and comments on jacket design for kids' books every other week, alternating with Carol. We're both writers of kids books - both of us have picture books out - so it's fair to say we both come at jacket design from an author's perspective. But there are other places we stand as well. Before going back to graduate school, I was a buyer for a large independent bookstore with a well-respected children's department. I spent my days looking through publisher's catalogs and talking with sales reps - often, the only visual clues for judging a book came from those catalogs. I loved the time I got back out on the floor with potential readers of those books, and I watched an awful lot of people stand in front of tables and shelves, looking for that one book they couldn't resist. It became a game to see if I could predict which customer would pick up which book. I tried to match readers to covers. I saw kids and adults alike consider, sometimes subconsciously, the typography, the colors, the graphic design, the trim size of a book, and either pass it by or pick it up. Once readers pick books up, the process gets even more interesting - there's a special physical and emotional dynamic between a book and a reader, and that's what I want to explore here at Jacket Knack. What happens between a book and a reader, in those first moments when the reader is doing what he shouldn't ever do (supposedly): judging the book by its cover.

And from Carol:
I'm no expert on children's book covers. I think of myself as a curious fan. I mean, I know what I like (embossed letters! glitter!), and what I don't (contemporary-looking characters on historical novels), so I plan to voice my opinions, for what they're worth -- but mostly I'm here to learn. My interest in children's book covers stems from what I imagine goes on behind the scenes at the publishing house: Images chosen or discarded, cropped, manipulated, juxtaposed; typefaces tried on for size; all in an effort to capture the feel of a book. They're giving printed words the right visual personality and appeal. How do bookmakers know when they've been successful? Well, sales, of course, but do they wonder if the book might have done better with a different cover? Do they regret their choices? And why those particular new cover choices for paperback editions and foreign editions? Sure it's about marketing, but it seems to be more than that. Jacket design is an art form that's enigmatic to me. That's what I want to uncover about covers. Looking forward to it!

Saturday, August 1, 2009