One-Minute Book Reviews

January 12, 2008

Why Was Randolph Caldecott So Great? (Quotes of the Day/Maurice Sendak)

On Monday the American Library Association will announce the winner of its highest award for a picture book, named for the great English illustrator Randolph Caldecott (1846–1886). Why was Caldecott so important? Here’s an answer from Maurice Sendak, who won the Caldecott Medal for Where the Wild Things Are:

“Caldecott’s work heralds the beginning of the modern picture book. He devised an ingenious juxtaposition of picture and word, a counterpoint that had never happened before. Words are left out – but the picture says it. Pictures are left out – but the word says it. In short, it is the invention of the picture book.”

* * *

“My favorite example of Caldecott’s fearless honesty is the final page of Hey Diddle Diddle. After we read, ‘And the Dish ran away with the spoon,’ accompanied by a drawing of the happy couple, there is the shock of turning the page and finding a picture of the dish broken into ten pieces – obviously dead – and the spoon being hustled away by her angry parents. There are no words that suggest such an end to the adventure; it is purely a Caldecottian invention. Apparently, he could not resist enlarging the dimensions of this jaunty nursery rhyme by adding a last sorrowful touch.”

Maurice Sendak in Caldecott & Co.: Notes on Books & Pictures (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988), a collection of Sendak’s reviews and other writing for adults. The first quote comes from his essay “Randolph Caldecott” and the second from his acceptance speech for the 1964 Caldecott Medal. Sendak is one of the few great picture-book artists who is also a great critic. Caldecott & Co. has only a dozen pages of pictures but doesn’t need more, because Sendak makes you see books without them.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

December 4, 2007

No Salute for the Cover of ‘Miss Manners’ Basic Training: The Right Thing to Say’

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

By Janice Harayda

One of the delights of the syndicated Miss Manners etiquette column is that it has always had a distinctive voice – a bit arch and Victorian yet also witty and commonsensical. You would never know it from the covers of some of its companion books.

Martin’s advice finds a deft balance between the ideals of two eras – the years before and after the upheavals of the 1960s, which swept away many traditional etiquette rules. You see that trait clearly in the cover of Miss Manners’ Guide for the Turn-of-the-Millennium (Fireside, 1990), which shows of a photo of a fountain pen next to a personal digital assistant. The title floats above them in the John Hancock-ish script that is Martin’s trademark. And the harmonious coexistence of the quasi-archaic font and sleek PDA reflects her style perfectly.

You can’t say that for the cover of the more recent Miss Manners’ Basic Training: The Right Thing to Say (Crown, 1998), part of her “Basic Training” series. The regimental stripes seem intended to carry out the mild joke in the title – Martin as a drill sergeant sending you to the boot camp. This is too clever and clashes with her tone. Martin isn’t the John Wayne of etiquette so much as its strict but benevolent headmistress. Worse, the colors of the cover – especially that stop-sign yellow – are shrill, which she isn’t. And on a lunch-hour dash through Borders, who would stop to read a nine-line subtitle in white-on-navy-blue reverse type?

Why does a writer with such a steady voice come across on her covers as a teenager who doesn’t know whether she wants to wear a lemon-meringue prom dress or a flak jacket to the party? Well into her career as an author, Martin moved from Simon & Schuster to the Crown imprint of Random House, which gave her a new look. The mismatch may have extended beyond her covers. Martin’s latest book, Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, Freshly Updated, written with Gloria Kamen, was published by Norton www.wwnorton.com.

If you’re interested in book covers, check out Rekya’s Bookshelf www.rekya.blogspot.com, a site that focuses book design. It has a great blogroll with links to many good book-design sites and designers’ portfolios.

The review of Basic Training: The Right Thing to Say appeared on Nov. 21, 2007, before a second post on Cyber Hymnal that appeared the same day. To read it, click here www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/11/21/.

All cover reviews on this site consider not just aesthetics but how well the cover reflects the contents of the book. That’s why the cover reviews don’t appear until after the review has been posted (or, if I have only a line or two to say, in the section of extra material that follows the review, not in the body of the review). These reviews aren’t just about design but about truth in publishing.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 24, 2007

Is This a Good Book Cover or Bad? A Review of the Cover of ‘Different Like Coco’ Tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews

You see hundreds or thousands of book covers — at least in your peripheral vision — every time you enter a bookstore or library, and they probably influence what you pick up and maybe buy or take to the checkout desk. But how much do you really know about why they work or don’t work?

Last week I wrote about why Katha Pollitt’s new essay collection, Learning to Drive, is a good book with a cover that doesn’t serve it well (Oct. 16 and 17). Tomorrow I’ll consider the cover of Elizabeth Matthews’s picture book about Coco Chanel for ages 4 and up, Different Like Coco, which I reviewed on Oct. 21 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/21/ and also liked. This book is undoubtedly one that the judges for the 2008 Caldecott Medal will look at when they meet to select the winners in January, partly because there are so few good picture-book biographies for children under age 9 that the American Library Association www.ala.org rarely has a chance to honor them. What might the Caldecott committee say? Good cover or bad? Can you give three reasons why the cover works or doesn’t? Check back tomorrow to see if your reasons agree with mine.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 17, 2007

When Bad Covers Happen to Good Books: Rating the Cover of Katha Pollitt’s ‘Learning to Drive’

Royce M. BeckerWhat was Random House thinking? Katha Pollitt handed the firm a gift-wrapped successor to Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck, the white-hot bestseller from its Knopf imprint, in Learning to Drive. Her book, like Ephron’s, is a stylish essay collection about being a wife, mother, girlfriend, daughter, New Yorker and writer.

Faced with this chance to strike gold again, Random House has – so far – blown it with Learning to Drive. Let’s leave aside the things the firm didn’t do for the book, such as publish a reading-group guide – Knopf didn’t at first post one for I Feel Bad About My Neck, either – and focus on what it did do: namely, give the book a cover likely to do nothing to help it gain the high bestsellerdom within its reach. Among the problems:

1. Visually the design doesn’t “pop,” industry jargon for “jump out at you.” It is way too dark and ambiguous. Except for the road sign, it looks a colorized mammogram. (Just what women want! A book that reminds subliminally them of cancer!) If you lean a few feet back from your computer, you may not even be able to read the title of the book (especially if you’re using laptop like mine, which isn’t brand-new and and has a relatively small screen). It just fades away. And that’s what it will also do at a bookstore or library where it’s surrounded by covers that do pop.

2. The gloomy cover, though a problem, might at least be defensible if reflected the tone of the book – if it appeared on, say, another paranoid Don De Lillo novel. But Learning to Drive teems with life as seen by a woman who is passionately involved with it. It is also entertaining. So where are the women, or even the people? Where is the wit? Yes, the cover shows a road, and the road is a classic symbol of life in literature. So you could argue that, theoretically, it fits the book. But marketing surveys have shown that a cover has 4-to-7 seconds to grab you. In those few seconds, how many people will make the symbolic connection?

3. Above all, the cover of Learning to Drive doesn’t suggest what is unique about the book. Its image of a road could fit anything from Richard Ford’s short stories to Claudia Emerson’s poetry. The cover of I Feel Bad About My Neck showed a jar of skin cream with the title of the book on the label and would have suited no other book. That’s part of what makes it a great cover.

I’m not asking for a copy of Ephron’s cover. And I’m certainly not asking for pink. But there’s a middle ground between stereotyping women and denying that a book has anything to do with them. The cover of Learning to Drive renders women invisible, and – oh, irony of ironies! – that is what Pollitt has spent her entire career opposing.

Cover design for Learning to Drive: Royce M. Becker

Links: Learning to Drive www.randomhouse.com and www.kathapollitt.blogspot.com. I Feel Bad About My Neck www.aaknopf.com.

Why I chose Learning to Drive for this occasional series on book covers: This is case in which the publisher clearly could have done better. Many small firms can’t afford to hire great art directors (who oversee book design) and graphic designers (who often develop or execute the cover concepts). Random House can afford it. And some books have little chance of becoming bestsellers even with great covers. Others come from authors whose books will make the New York Times list if they look like dog food. Learning to Drive doesn’t fall into either category. With this book, Pollitt had the best chance of her career to “break out” — more jargon — and find her way to many more readers. She may still do it. But it would have been easier for her if her book had a cover that helped booksellers and others understand its uniqueness and position it correctly. Finally, this was a case in which a protest by Pollitt and her literary agent might have helped. Most authors have little or no control over their covers. Often their agents don’t have much clout, either, or won’t use it for fear of offending publishers. Pollitt has a strong following and one of New York’s best agents. There’s little doubt that Random House would have tried to accommodate them if they said, “This cover is unacceptable.”

Note: A thousand thanks to Sean Lindsay, the host of the site 101 Reasons to Stop Writing, for a) noticing my comment that I didn’t know how to add images and b) e-mailing me instructions for finding and inserting images. Without Sean, you wouldn’t be looking at the image of Pollitt’s book but reading a description. If you’d like to see a blog by someone who really knows how to pull one together, visit his informative and entertaining 101 Reasons to Stop Writing www.101reasonstostopwriting.com.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 14, 2007

What’s in a Book Cover? New on One-Minute Book Reviews

Filed under: Uncategorized — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:37 pm
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When critics get together, they never say, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” If you get more than 500 books a week from publishers — as the editors of major book-review sections do – you know that a cover can tell you a lot. It can tell you whether a book technothriller (look for the metallic Stealth bomber) or a romance novel (look for the bare-chested man with hair longer than yours) and whether a book is a Library of America edition of a classic (black and white) or a “Complete Idiot’s Guide” to the Bible or Tantric sex (orange and white). And covers are becoming more important as the publishing industry becomes ever-more market-driven.

So there’s a new section called “Cover Story” at the end of some reviews on One-Minute Book Reviews that comments on especially strong or weak covers. The first dealt with the cover of Rebecca Gowers’s first novel, When to Walk www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/02/. These occasional remarks follow the reviews — instead of appearing in the text — because authors typically have little or no control over their covers. If the writers are lucky, publishers will listen to their views about them. But often they are unlucky. Do you think that the authors of books marketed to women really like those pink covers that publishers put on so many of them?

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

August 11, 2007

Is Writing for Children Easier Than Writing for Adults? Quote of the Day (Maurice Sendak)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:19 pm
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Nothing frustrates many picture-book artists more than hearing people say that writing for children is “easier” than writing for adults. Maurice Sendak suggests why it isn’t easier in these comments on the work of the great French-born American illustrator Tomi Ungerer (Moon Man), winner of the 1998 Hans Christian Andersen Award for illustration:

“Some adults look at [Ungerer’s] work, then rush to drag out the bromide that explains how easy it is to make a picture book: ‘Just a handful of sentences and a lot of blazing pictures.’ These critics fail to see that a successful picture book is a visual poem.”

Maurice Sendak in Caledcott & Co.: Notes on Books and Pictures (Farrar, Straus/Michael di Capua, 1990), by Maurice Sendak.

Comment by Janice Harayda:
Maurice Sendak is one of the few living picture-book artists who is also a great critic. Caldedott & Co. collects his reviews of books by or about authors or illustrators who include Edward Ardizzone, Randolph Caldecott, Walt Disney, Beatrix Potter, Margaret Wise Brown and Arthur Yorkinks and Richard Egielski. This book would help almost anyone gain a better understanding – and appreciation of – the gifts of the artists he considers.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 13, 2007

What Makes a Book Well-Designed? Quote of the Day #24

Filed under: Book Covers,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:00 pm
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Why are some books more visually attractive than others? Here’s a partial answer from book designer Carol Goldenberg.

” … book design and typography are at their most successful when not immediately apparent to the reader. It can even be said that book design is a kind of ‘invisible’ art.

“In her book The Crystal Goblet (1956) British typographer Beatrice Warde likened good book-making to a crystal goblet of wine: ‘Everything about it is calculated to reveal rather than to hide the beautiful thing it was meant to contain.’ As she further pointed out in her metaphor, to pour wine into a solid goblet would be to disguise the drink – one would appreciate the vessel itself perhaps, but that is all. And so it is with good book-making – good design provides the form or framework within which words and images can shine through.”

Carol Goldenberg in The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and Their Creators (Houghton Mifflin, 2002), edited by Anita Silvey, a former editor-in-chief of Horn Book Magazine.

Comment by Janice Harayda:

The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and Their Creators is an excellent reference book for anyone with a strong interest in children’s literature. As this quote suggests, the encyclopedic text also offers insights into other kinds of books.

Design and typography are greatly underestimated partly because, as Goldenberg notes, we often don’t notice them. But they can make or break a book. (This is one reason why you typically see the font identified on the last page.) The best-designed books I have reviewed on One-Minute Book Reviews include Fiona French’s picture books for children, Easter (March 17) and King of Another Country (March 30), and Eric Hodgins’s comic novel Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (April 9), which has brilliant illustrations by William Steig. An example of stellar design that I haven’t reviewed here is Nick Bantock’s “Griffin and Sabine” series that takes the form of the correspondence between Griffin Moss, a London card designer, and Sabine Strohem, who lives on a remote island and sends him a notes on his postcards.

I chose Chris Costello to do the site for my novels www.janiceharayda.com because he has designed beautiful books, in a great range of styles, for major publishers of titles for children and adults, including Random House and Simon & Schuster. You can see some of his covers by going to www.costelloart.com and clicking on “Typography” and then “Children’s Titles.” Chris has won many awards for his work.

What books have you read that are exceptionally well-designed?

(c ) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 10, 2007

How Does a Writer Develop a Style? Quote of the Day #23

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:06 am
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Ernest Hemingway said that perfection of style is a writer’s road to salvation. But how does a writer develop a style? Here’s an answer from Tomie dePaola, who has written and illustrated many children’s picture books, the best known of which is Strega Nona:

“When I was a student at Pratt in the 1950s, studying illustration, I remember a fellow student asking one of our instructors, ‘When do we learn about style?’ ‘We won’t learn about style,’ he replied. ‘Style happens naturally. If you keep on working, eventually the way you can and want to express yourself will surface. Meanwhile, do the assignments, listen to the critiques, don’t miss your drawing classes, painting classes, design classes and by all means look at everything. Go to the galleries and the museums. Your own style will surface.’”

Tomie dePaola in “Voices of the Creators” in The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and Their Creators (Houghton Mifflin, 2002), edited by Anita Silvey.

Comment by Janice Harayda:
Tomie dePaola may have been talking about illustration, but his advice applies equally to writing. Many writers try to “find” their style by imitating great writers. But you don’t find a style so much as release it, or allow it to emerge, in the way dePaola describes. If you keep writing long enough, you’ll see what your style is. Imitation may give you ideas about your style could be but won’t provide it for you.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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