December 2004

Sharon Adarlo

features

Judging a Book By Its Cover: Books for Ankle-Biters

For your inner ankle-biter, we are going to look at children’s picture books this month. This critic was going to look at new releases for adults, but sometimes your book cover critic feels exactly like Lewis Carroll’s Alice: “And what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversation?” Exactly, chica. Sometimes you don’t want to think of any profound thoughts and just look at pretty pictures, and sometimes when you least expect it, a children’s picture book touches a nerve and leaves you breathless with its cleverness, twee little lessons, beautiful images, and the elegant simplicity of a story told in ten minutes flat.

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon: A Pop-up Book
By Peter Abrahams (Adapter), Stephen King, Alan Dingman (Illustrator)
Little Simon; Pop-Up edition
ISBN: 0689862725

The first thing you see, large as a whale, is Stephen King’s name in white serif font, and the title is this little itty-bitty thing in artful calligraphy. Where’s the illustrator’s name? Stephen King’s collaborators? Oh, right. You’ll have to dig for that information on the back flap where Peter Abrahams's and Alan Dingman’s names are in small print. Granted that the story of the pop-up book is derived from a novel by Stephen King with the same title, surely it wouldn’t hurt to put the adapter’s and illustrator’s names on the front as well. Maybe they were worried about cluttering the front cover, or maybe (and most likely), they were worried they would confuse people with other names. Stephen King is a brand much in the way Starbucks or Wal-Mart is, and god forbid we forget that. They could have made King’s name smaller and let him share credit more prominently with his mates. It would make the cover more effective, besides just being polite. The cover is beautifully drawn and full of icy and mysterious tension. The big ass author name kind of dampens the over-all effect. The gorgeous rendering of the trees and their stubby branches melting into the fog and mist gets trampled by the huge white letters. You don’t notice the sinister shadow at first because of this, but the image of the girl, mouth half-open in panic, is chilling. It’s still a very good cover -- credit to Alan Dingman. He has really out-done himself by illustrating a creepy cover. Just tone down Stephen King’s name, and share credit -- then I would be happy.

Room for a Little One: A Christmas Tale
By Martin Waddell, Jason Cockcroft (Illustrator)
Margaret K. McElderry Publisher
ISBN: 0689868413

 

 

Winter’s Gift
By Jane Monroe Donovan
Gale Group
ISBN: 158536231X

Room for a Little One's cover warms the dark and cold cockles of this crotchety critic’s heart. The cover is predominantly colored in a warm, rich butter cream; and the colored pastels are expertly used to render and model the precise yet personable forms of the animals. And speaking as a non-expert, the title typeface looks like a close cousin of the Delphin font, but sharper, chunkier. Delphin font is glyphic or inscriptional -- used solely for setting the title. This version has a more archaic look due to the sharpness of its serifs, and so it’s a little different from the run of the mill serif font but deferential in its treatment of the cover, not too flashy to detract from the central image. Yes, the cover design is rather conventional, but makes up for it in leaps and bounds by the richness and the detail of the cover illustration.

The second book cover, Winter’s Gift, is another slightly staid book cover design, but again, like Room for a Little One, the illustration is beautiful if different in tone, cold and bitter. The title’s typeface, another glyphic or inscriptional font, is a fitting choice. The typeface is not in black but a kind of grayish wash, which enhances the thematic approach that the designer/illustrator used for the book cover. Also, we should note, unlike Stephen King’s book cover, the creators of both these books have their names in small print and thus they do not detract from the beauty of the books’ presentation.

Jungle Gym Jitters
By Chuck Richards
Walker & Co
ISBN: 0802789315

This cover is just zany, funny, and worthy of a second or third look. The cover illustration recalls vaguely the style of Chris Van Allsburg's books due to the use of monochromatic pencils on grayish paper, but the cover and the contents inside are wackier, more manic. I really enjoy looking at the cover. The screaming boy is lovingly rendered, and the reflection on his glasses pun tire swings for his eyes. Children, rickety jungle gyms, and a whole assortment of other creatures play out on his glasses much like the way the Where is Waldo books present themselves - inviting the viewer to carefully observe the spectacle. The boxed in frame of the image is the only quibble I have. The white border is too stark and makes the image feel hemmed in.

The Adventures of Abdi
By Madonna, Olga Dugina, Andrej Dugin
Callaway Editions
ISBN: 0670058890

Madonna, strangely enough, was plugging her latest children’s book on Fresh Air last week. She was, in equal turns, slightly quavering, nervous, slipping into a faux British accent, and at times defensive and snippy. She objected to Terry Gross’s interpretation of her book. She vehemently said that she was sick of all the Kabbalah questions. But what was funny about the whole interview, which was pretty long, was that it mostly concerned itself with her stage persona, her personal life, and not about the book -- understandable in light of her huge and varied career. Goes to show, logically, that her name sells like Stephen King’s, but it gives her short book career the air of a stunt. But unlike some washed-up C-list celebrity on the Surreal Life, she has a castle or something and hob nobs with Sting, and she can buy the King of Siam twice over, I imagine -- and this huge and towering ego has decided to step away from the airy firmament of celebrity and pen children’s books for us common folk and our common children, and it shows on her new book.

First off, like Stephen King’s aforementioned book cover, illustrator credits have been exiled to the back flap gulag, but unlike said horror-meister, Madonna has graciously put her name at the bottom and is smaller than the title itself. How modest of her! The cover image is beautiful -- detailed, fanciful, and a style (more evident inside and the illustrators’ other works) recall a post-modern Hieronymus Bosch, except without little naked people being tortured, flayed alive, that sort of thing. But the typeface used and the white block frames really detract from the cover and get in the way of things. First off, the calligraphic typeface for her name, all in caps, looks bunched up. Maybe the designer should have stayed with the same size for the “M” and a smaller size for the rest of the letters. It would cleaner, more elegant. The font is also an inscriptional font, but in this case, the whole style of the typeface is used only once in the capitalization mode. The rest of the letters should be in lower cases. The “M” could act like a “versal” -- those large, gilded letters at the beginning of a page that many monks would use to signal “the doors and windows of the text” as said by the wise poet and typographer, Robert Bringhurst. The white or ivory blocks that frame the text also serve as visual obstacles. They stand in the way of enjoying the cover illustration. They should have found a more elegant and natural way of presenting the text.

Jungle Drums
By Graeme Base
Harry N Abrams Publisher
ISBN: 0810950448

 

 

Animalia
By Graeme Base
Harry N Abrams Publisher
ISBN: 0810918684

 

 

The Eleventh Hour: A Curious Mystery
By Graeme Base
Harry N Abrams Publisher
ISBN: 0810908514

You should really buy some books by Graeme Base. Graeme Base put himself on the map in the 80’s when he turned out his Animalia book. The ABC book is beautiful and gorgeously detailed as reflected in the exquisite cover. Using possibly a mix of gouache and colored pencils, he cleverly edged the big central image with twenty-six panels depicting a particular animal to a corresponding letter. There’s a mix of naturalism and stylization that is not, but almost, perfectly achieved in his images of animals on the cover. The lion on the front central piece is fully realized, but that small panel on the right depicting a kiwi and a kangaroo look almost amateurish in this uneasy balance of realism and caricature. But the obvious enthusiasm in his work and the overwhelming precise detail and bright colors mask these small imperfect gestures.

The Eleventh Hour, quite possibly his best work, is another worthy keepsake. It’s a puzzle mystery book with intricate clues and highly detailed drawings, and again, like in Animalia, Base delights in having animal protagonists, which are featured in the raucous and buzzing cover. There’s a better mediation between the detailed naturalism of the animals on the front cover, from the inquisitive looking giraffes to the grasping cat, and the need to stylize certain features – eyes most of all. It is also hopelessly clever that the “V” in the title points to 11 o’clock.

And this brings us to his newest book, Jungle Drums. In relation to his previous work, the cover for Jungle Drums seems less precise and more impressionistic. His hand is getting looser. Compared to other illustrators, the cover is more detailed, delineated. The serrated fronds of exotic plants are intricately detailed. Every little tuft of fur, sharp beak, and hanging vines have a depth and richness that easily engages the eye, but there’s a looseness here that is not so evident in Animalia and The Eleventh Hour. Usually artists start off drawing in a very precise manner in order to master the basic tenets of light, shadow, and modeling – eventually, the artist becomes so skilled that there’s no need to be so precise because his or her lines acquire a stylishness and character that can enliven a drawing by a simple stroke here and there. I think Base is getting there. He’s still keeping that almost scientific precision so evident in his earlier works, but loosening it up. It seems there’s more fun and whimsy in this cover because of this. Also the title piece is extremely clever and true to life – the waxy, soft stems of a young seedling curve and bend to form the title, and besides that, the animals depicted in the cover are a steady culmination of his artistic trajectory. There is no falseness here or misstep. There is a facile balance between realism and stylized gestures in the animals’ limbs and expressions from the drum playing warthog to the chubby birds in the trees – Base has truly grown into the mantle of one of the best loved children’s book artists and writers.