Monday, May 3, 2010


First, a shout-out to my blogging buddy, Julie Larios, who has an article in the latest issue of Horn Book called "Harbors that Pleased Me Like Sonnets." Congratulations!! I shall badger my postman until my copy arrives.

Now on to today's post.

Who knew that one day my art history training would pay off? Behold:

A focal point gives composition its sense of balance. It draws the viewer's eye to the main element of the work, which often isn't smack-dab in the center. Typically, the artist uses lines and shapes to lead our eyes to the focal point, thusly:

Even though there are two figures in this Mary Cassatt piece, the focal point is the mother's face. The figure of the young girl is a secondary focal point, even though she appears in precisely the center of the composition. I believe most people's eyes shoot directly to the triangle made by the woman's face and hands first. She is the primary figure in the painting.

So what if you're designing a cover for a book with two main characters who are equally important? Can a composition with two figures in it work when there is no single focal point?

Welcome to My Neighborhood: A Barrio ABC by Quiara Alegría Hudes, illustrated by Shino Arihara, is due out this summer from Arthur A. Levine books (Scholastic). This is, obviously, an ABC book about the barrio. One child shows the other, a visitor, around her neighborhood. Its two cover figures are separated by a significant amount of space, even though the description says they are friends. Not sure why. Is it to remind us that they come from different places? The horizontal nature of, and the rectangular elements in, this composition lend a safe, tranquil air to the cover -- and maybe that's why the artist left space between the figures(?).

These fellows will soon grace the cover of a picture book called Day and Night by Teddy Newton (Chronicle/Disney Pixar). First, they'll be the stars of an upcoming short film to be shown in theaters before Toy Story 3 this summer, then this picture book (40 pages!) is slated to appear in stores later in the summer. So I don't know their story yet, but unlike the two friends above, these chubby fellows are connected even though they don't touch. There is use here of the negative space between the two figures; it makes one of those pleasing triangles. Neither figure is more important than the other. I hesitate to call the space between them a "focal point" but it's something to think about. They are both looking toward that space between.

Talk about your triangles. The two headless figures on the cover of Boys, Bears, and a Serious Pair of Hiking Boots by Abby McDonald (Candlewick, April, 2010) are all about angles, tri- and otherwise. Main character, Jenna (a suburban girl from New Jersey), visits Canada, hoping to commune with nature and boys. This novel isn't about two main characters with equal billing, but the dual figures on its cover leave no doubt that romance is on the main character's mind. Arguably, the placement of the oars and boots on the dock may point to the female as being more or less the true focal point of this composition. And the two figures are connected. Their feet are touching -- or almost touching.

This Means War! by Ellen Wittlinger (Simon and Schuster, April 2010) has two figures on it, equal sizes pretty much. Which one is the focal point? Both. Neither. They are so close to each other that they become one figure, in a way. And yet, they're turned away from each other, so we know there's conflict. This Means War! is a middle-grade novel about a nine-day-long girls v. boys challenge, set against the backdrop of the Cuban missile crisis. Although a girl is the main character, it's her male former best friend with whom she is rowing, so he plays an important role.

Apparently, all those tuition checks and all that studying of grainy slides in a dark lecture hall was leading up to this moment. Hope you enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed putting it together.

Added later, the Cuban flag:


  1. i'm with you all the way here until the very last, when *my* art school background kicks in. on this means war i'm going to have to argue that there is a most decided focal point and the design is not accidental.

    look at that cover from a room's distance and what do you see? the color red dominates, which puts the focus on the boy and the word war. red is a hot color and stands out against the neutral beige and the cool blues. because of that, i feel the design fails if the main character is actually the girl because looking at the cover i would have assumed the opposite.

    what's interesting to me, and maybe could have been highlighted better, are the actual colors themselves. since it's set against the background of the cuban missile crisis it's interesting to me that the palate consists of dirtier versions of the colors used in both the US and cuban flags - red, white, and blue. and when you look at how there is a natural triangle created with the characters head's at the top sloping down toward the outer edges of the word war, against white picket stripes, it's almost a subtle echo of the triangular field that makes up the cuban flag which, you will note, has a single star in the middle approximately where the star is here in the letter A. i'm going to guess this is an accident unless i hear otherwise, but it's an interesting coincidence nonetheless.

    but maybe that's just me.

  2. Whoa. That's really good, Mr. David Elzey. As I was reviewing my post, I noticed the red popping out at me, too. I hadn't taken color into consideration. I'll add the Cuban flag for comparison.

  3. Nicely done, David - I like your eye! And Carol, thanks - I want to go back to school and study Art. And Art History. And Design. And History. And Museology. And Journalism. And Comparative Literature. And maybe Physics, in a literary way. And maybe Oceanography or Marine Biology. And Woodshop and Autoshop. And Photography...and Astronomy....

  4. As a post-script, I'll add this link, which expands on the idea Carol offers up of negative space:

    The Ooligan Press site is full of cool stuff about book design and design in general. Spend some time there when you can (aka Another Black Hole to Fall Into So That You Never Move From in Front of Your Computer.) and I'm going to link it in our Blogs We Follow list.