Friday 20 March 2015

Is the rise of MG heralding a golden age for book design? by Helen Clark Jones

When people think of children’s books, they usually think of picture books – type it into Google Images and see what comes up – an illustrated world, where words and pictures are fused together and anything goes. But fast-forward a few short reading years and something odd happens. The words take over and the pictures retreat to their own designated areas, or sit politely on the chapter headings, until they’re confined to doing a sales job on the front cover and illustrated books are for the younger kids. It’s as if the words have kicked the pictures out - but it looks like things are changing.

I love a traditionally illustrated book - colour on the cover, black and white line drawings on the inside – where the pictures bring the words to life on the page, and illustrations from the books I read as a child still have the power to draw me in. Alice in Wonderland, Paddington, Winnie the Pooh and Matilda all continue to engage new audiences with identities rooted in their original illustrations - courtesy of John Tenniel, Peggy Fortnum, E.H. Shepherd and Sir Quentin Blake. 

There will always be a place for traditionally illustrated books, but the rise of MG (*up a whopping 10% in 2014 according to the Bookseller) is bringing about a revolution in book design that is breaking new ground and creating eye-catching books that are visually immersive and able to hold their own against more aggressive competition for readers’ time.

Diary based books, such as the Tom Gates series by Liz Pichon, effortlessly blend words and pictures and prove they can seamlessly work together outside of the picture book format - ‘a novel in illustrated form’ as Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid series describes itself. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence both these books are created by writer/illustrators who can balance both mediums to brilliant effect?

And it seems writer/illustrators are leading the way in the MG novel by producing books that are generously illustrated without constraint. Cressida Cowell, John Chambers, Dave Shelton and Hannah Shaw are among the super-talented authors writing and illustrating books that are more than the sum of their words and pictures combined. Their books are stuffed with bonus extras - abundant visual detail, hidden puzzles, wordless jokes, even separate storylines - that come from a creative involvement with the story that would not make its way into a publisher’s design brief.
Look at this spread for Granny Samurai – the words tell us that Granny is invisible because she’s using her Samurai powers to blend in, but look at the picture and you’ll see her hiding in the background. The illustration let’s you in on the joke and pulls you further into the story.

As MG books gain a stronger commercial foothold, more attention and design budget is being spent on their production. It’s early days, but the value of how a books looks and the impact this can make on the bottom line is starting to be taken seriously. Pictures are not a superficial add-on – covers are the front line of selling and how a book looks inside matters.

Nothing can beat the feel of a real book in the hand and no shiny e-book reader can rival the thrill of turning the page, or replace the unique one-to-one relationship between a reader and a physical book. But MG books are beginning to push traditional design boundaries to stay ahead of the game and make full use of the printed format to show and sell the story.

Graphic novels are spilling over into MG to create a richer visual world and their influence can be felt in the gently illustrated graphics of Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo, where the story flows between text, traditional illustration and graphic action sequences. The emotional heart of the story is offset against Flora’s enthusiasm for comic books and the squirrel’s illuminated adventures represent Flora’s journey to connect with her divorced parents. The mix of formats works.

In Oliver & the Seawigs, the words are embedded in illustrations – or are the illustrations embedded in the words? Either way, the book pulls out all the stops to maximum dramatic effect – words and pictures blend without interruption, the pages are stuffed with visual jokes and sometimes they segue into an all out comic strip. The book is immersive, pacey and engaging in a way that could not be achieved by words or pictures alone.

A great book can stand on it’s own without illustration - but pictures add a whole new dimension and in a visual world where books have to compete harder than ever for attention, illustration is part of a powerful visual toolkit that will take MG books to the next level. 

Dave McKean’s illustrations took my breath away when I first opened Phoenix. The powerful imagery challenges conventional character based illustration and says as much about the vastness of outer space, as it does about the nature of being human. The innovative mix of photography, drawing, graphic texture and the clever transitions between black and white backgrounds don’t just show what’s happening in the story, they take you up into the stars until you’re flying through the universe and feeling Lucky’s energy flowing through your veins. This is illustrative Show Don’t Tell at its best.

Not all books are going to have lavish production budgets, but great book design reaches into the heart of the story and exploiting even the simplest design details can make all the difference. Look at these chapter headings in Tales of Terror. Integrating the titles with the pictures seems so easy, but the effect is 100% more chilling. The chapter Irezumi becomes a sinister tattoo, Mud drips down from the eyes of a skull and The Monkey takes possession of the chapter with his curly tail.

Developments in print technology have removed many design constraints and new levels of detail are now achievable that would have been impossible only a short time ago - for any book that wasn’t a either special edition or a guaranteed big seller. And that means being able to build the personality of the book through extra design touches such as:

Printing right up to the edge of the page without intrusive white margins – see above spread of Oliver and the Seawigs - and the dirty smudges littering the pages of Mr Gum that give the creepy impression Mr Gum himself has been leafing through your book and left his grubby fingerprints all over it.

The ability to move away from prescribed typefaces and play with type creatively – like the scratchy hand-drawn Mr Gum lettering, that underlines his anarchic personality.

Using all angles of the physical book as a design surface such as the zingy lime green fore-edge of Goblins and the encroaching Terribles of Hamish & the World Stoppers, (as discussed in an earlier MGSB blog post by illustrator Jamie Littler and which creep over an exciting transparent dust jacket on the hard back).

And the cheeky peep-hole in the foil cover of Ruby Redfort, Look Into My Eyes. It zones in on a fly on the inside page and says that being a girl detective is all about looking closely and noticing the details.

Great book design sells. It does more to attract book buyers’ attention in a crowded market: it creates a memorably visual read that can stay with you for life and with clever creative thinking it doesn’t have to break the publishing budget. MG is entering a new phase and it makes commercial sense to support every book with the best possible design. This is down to publishing confidence, a clear creative vision, brilliant illustrators, top-class production, the designers who have the imagination to drive it forward and above all, great writing.


Thank you to Hastings Children’s Library for permission to take photographs.
All photography is my own (except Hamish & The Terribles and Paddington), apologies for the quality.


1 comment:

  1. I vividly remember being so sad when every book I picked up at Sceondary school no longer had any illustration. As your Phoenix by SFSaid example shows, recently illustration is spilling into more and more YA. Tinder by Sally Gardner and illustrated by David Roberts, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and illustrated by Jim Kay are fine examples of how pictures add to the story and connect the reader to some difficult themes. I'm desperate to explore this with my own work and am inspired by your examples above. Interesting post, Helen!