By Jory john
Illustrated by Lane Smith
Some time ago I became distracted by a picture book with no title featured on the front cover. Similar to the allure of The book with No Pictures by B.J. Novak, a book without a title is at the very least intriguing. After picking it up and turning it around in my hands, I noticed the title, author, and illustrator were featured prominently. . .on the back of the book. They take up the entire back page.
I have never seen such an extreme example of “letting an illustration speak for itself.” The publishing team allowed it to take place of the title. But I understand why they did it. Why say Penguin Problems when you can let Lane Smith show it? The illustration is:
Penguin Problems reminds me that the presentation of a picture book makes a big difference to potential readers. You must take every step necessary to get a reader to pick up that book in hand, turn it around, and flip a few pages. You can't sell books that no one picks up to begin with.
Over the weekend, I attended a webinar about writing humorous picture books by Frances Gilbert, author and editor at Penguin Randomhouse.
I had a great time, but I was sorry that I could not connect with other attendees and Frances in person. I praise the organizers for their conscientious decision to plan an event online and the effort it took to put it together.
The key message of Frances's webinar was to carefully hone and craft every word. This is perhaps the best advice for writing any picture book, as they are short and receive careful scrutiny. Every word counts, which means every word must help you land the punchline. Frances spoke briefly about a few common missteps, such as failure to grab the reader at the opening sentence and wordiness. She guided attendees through a few picture books and pointed out formulaic devices , such as:
Despite the list, Frances quickly disillusioned anyone who might think there was a formula for “funny.” Such formulas are often searched for, but never truly found.
"If the writing is not funny, no formula will help." -Frances Gilbert
As a student, I recall hearing something along the lines of, "Faulkner breaks all the rules." And the usual response is something like, "He can break the rules because he mastered them." I don't know if Faulkner mastered them or not, but one thing is clear: People love his work to this day, with or without punctuation. The best writers and illustrators have a good ear or eye for their work. No one can explain exactly what makes a humorous picture book funny. No one knows why an educated person can read “Sound and Fury” with no problem, but when a tweeter forgets the apostrophe in “you’re” everybody freaks out. No one can explain the success of a writer or illustrator with a formula.
I love that Frances touched on that, but I am also not surprised she felt she had to because everyone is looking for “10 Ways to Become The Best Writer.” And I have read thousands of them to no avail.
I could not stop thinking about something Frances said. It was very simple and she probably did not think much of it. It was so simple that I almost feel bad bringing it up, but it made me think for a long time afterward which is the point of this blog. Specifically, she gave a client a pass on one of her suggestions because of “genius.”
In grade school, an English teacher told us not to rhyme in poetry because we couldn't possibly do it right and rhyming could only make a poem worse. When we pointed out famous poets and poems that rhymed, the answer was, "Well, they were geniuses." The root of this statement is related to Frances’s previous point, that success really can't be explained formulaically, which suggests a general problem for people trying to teach others to write successfully. Can you teach genius? Or can you only teach those who are not geniuses to avoid the difficult skills? Which one should you teach, especially if there is no formula?
One more story. I think this is folklore, but it is interesting anyway. A student asked Beethoven to teach him to compose music as beautiful as “Moonlight Sonata.” So Beethoven said, "Let's start with the scales." When the student remarked, "Did you learn to compose from scales?" Beethoven replied, "No, but I also didn't ask anyone for help."
Perhaps for those of us who are not geniuses, there is a much longer road to success. Personally, I think we can focus on developing an ear and eye for good writing and illustrations by studying picture books as Frances showed by example in her webinar.
By Chris Hadfield
Illustrated By The Fan Brothers
Contributions by Kate Fillion
We've all heard the saying,
Don't judge a book by its cover.
I whole-heartedly agree. However, there is a time now-and-then to judge a cover by itself.
I noticed recently that “The Darkest Dark” has two published covers, but I can’t stop thinking about this glow-in-the-dark paperback version I found.
The cover illustrations drew me in immediately. There are creatures on the cover vaguely reminiscent of Maurice Sendak's “Where the Wild Things Are.” Not only is the style similar to Maurice Sendak, but the appearance of shadowy monsters, contrasted with the bright moon, reminds me of a boy with a wild imagination.
Speaking of contrast, it is odd to have a full moon show up on a cover titled “The Darkest Dark” because, as all late walkers know, the night is brightest when the moon is full. However, the title is not only referring to the darkness of space, but also the fear of the unknown, the dark spaces between everything, and the shadows cast by the light.
The alternate cover features a cardboard rocket. Glimpsing through the pages you will also notice things like vintage robots, models, and yoyos. Nostalgia plays a big part in this story, although passively. The Fan Brothers were wise to play on that. If you don't know already, Chris Hadfield, the author, is a retired astronaut, who likely has many incredible stories about his journey. But this story transpires in a familiar childhood. Many children recall admiring astronauts as they take bold steps into space, yet at the same time worrying about the space underneath the bed. Undoubtedly, Chris Hadfield was the best narrator for this story because he has experienced fear and wonder both as a child and an adult, confronted the darkest dark, and returned.
Hi, my name is Cory Shaw. I am an author and illustrator of books and book covers for children.
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