One-Minute Book Reviews

October 25, 2007

Why Does This Picture-Book Cover Work? Elizabeth Matthews’s ‘Different Like Coco’

The latest in a series of occasional posts that rate the covers of books recently reviewed on this site

By Janice Harayda

The covers of children’s books often fail for the same reasons that the covers of adult books do: They’re dull, clichéd or too pallid to stand out at a bookstore or library. Or they tell you too little about a book or, worse, aggressively misrepresent the contents. And if they’re about people – instead of one of those riveting topics like Let’s Read and Find Out About Flypaper or My First Book About Dandruff – they may stereotype their subjects as nakedly as all those pink covers on novels marketed to women in their 20s and 30s.

Elizabeth Matthews avoids all those problems on the cover of Different Like Coco (Candlewick, $16.99, ages 4 and up) www.candlewick.com, which combines a pen-and-ink drawing with the artful use of watercolors. This picture-book biography of the fashion designer Coco Chanel sports a witty illustration of its subject in a brown-black dress on a yellow background with the title in an interesting copper-colored script. And it works beautifully for several reasons:

1. It has real “pop.” Put Different Like Coco on any bookstore or library shelf and it will stand out among its shelf-mates because of its strong design. It doesn’t need the special effects that make so many books look more like toys – lots of glitter, metallic images and overengineering in the form of punched-out or see-through spaces.

2. The image of Coco Chanel points to the right, or to the pages instead of the spine. This is so basic that no critic should have to mention it. In most cases you want to focus children’s attention where it will encourage them to open a book (though there are some notable exceptions that succeed). But a striking number of picture books ignore such fundamental design principles.

3. The cover represents both the book and its subject accurately and nonstereotypically (without a sea of pink). Chanel designed simple, unfussy clothes with flair. This is a simple, unfussy cover with flair. Matthews’ art reflects the spirit of Chanel’s designs so well that you might guess the subject of her book before you read the title. But the cover isn’t so sophisticated that it will appeal to adults more than children. The comic exaggeration (and that dog) will take care of that.

Some people might argue that Chanel’s arms look anorexic. But in the context of the book, the pencil-slim arms are clearly intended as a stylistic exaggeration and also appear on women with bodies of operatic proportions.

The only other thing might strike you as odd about this cover is that Matthews’s name appears in a much smaller font than you usually see for authors of her caliber. That’s because this is her first book. The general rule in publishing is: The bigger the author, the larger the font for his or her name relative to the font for the title (though less so for children’s books than others). Stephen King’s name, for example, appears on his covers in a larger font than the title of the book. It’s a safe bet that as Matthews’s reputation increases, the size of her name on the cover will, too.

The original review of Different Like Coco appeared on Oct. 21, 2007, www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/21/. You may also want to read a comment in yesterday’s post (Oct. 23) by lisamm, who says perceptive things about this cover, including the Chanel has her head held high.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

October 21, 2007

Elizabeth Matthews Makes a Stylish Debut in Her Picture-Book Biography, ‘Different Like Coco’

Different Like Coco. By Elizabeth Matthews. Candlewick, 40 pp., $16.99. Ages 4 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Elizabeth Matthews makes a few missteps in this sparkling picture-book biography of Coco Chanel that may cost her a shot at a Caldecott Medal. But Different Like Coco marks the arrival of a gifted new author-illustrator who will certainly be in the running in the future if she keeps turning out work of this quality.

Matthews slips a few quasi-anachronisms into her story of the poor but energetic French girl who learned to sew at a convent school, then revolutionized early 20th-century fashion with designs that both reflected and fostered the emancipation of women. Young Coco plays with a roll of toilet paper and uses electric lamps. And while such an impoverished girl could have had those luxuries in the late-19th century, it’s so unlikely that the images are jarring. It’s similarly distracting to read that Coco went to school “in Auvergne” instead of “in the Auvergne.”

But such small problems ultimately may matter about as much as the complaint often made about the creator of Where the Wild Things Are: “Maurice Sendak can’t draw faces.” Who cares when an author’s work has so much else going for it? Matthews has that signal virtue in her field: a lively and distinctive artistic style that children will recognize from one book to the next. In this one she works in pen-and-ink washed with watercolors that are subtle but not – as in so many picture books – insipid. Her characters have snout-like noses, prominent eyelids and mouths that convey a range of expressions, midway between realism and caricature. The images have a different style but an amusing spirit similar to that of some of Jean Fritz’s acclaimed books about the colonial era, including Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George? and Why Don’t You Get a Horse, Sam Adams?

Matthews has also entered a genre that needs writers of her talent. There are far too few good picture-book biographies for children under age 9. Because Matthews has a light touch, she would be an ideal author for picture-book biographies of female pioneers in comedy, such as Lucille Ball. From Different Like Coco to Funny Like Lucy? It could happen, especially if the American Library Association www.ala.org gives Matthews some encouragement when it hands out its awards in January.

Best line/picture: All display a fine ability to draw and sense of color. Different Like Coco also has outstanding endpapers, sayings by Chanel in a white font on a black field, that typify the attention to detail at Candlewick.

Worst line/picture: The electric lamps not only look anachronistic but don’t have seem to have cords or pull chains.

Published: March 2007 www.candlewick.com

Furthermore: Matthews lives in Rhode Island and attended that incubator of picture-book talent, Rhode Island School of Design.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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