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Things that make me cry real tears

Dear Patient Readers and Lurkers,

I interrupt our stream of books with a mini-diatribe (well, not so mini…). Without naming names (and therefore breaking my Solemn Oath of Lifelong Confidentiality), there are some books that contain little problems that become fatal flaws under the white hot glare of the fluorescent lights in a stuffy conference room in a nice hotel somewhere in January in any given year. Imagine the scene in the room: The discussion turns to the next book. The book is lovely. The story is magnificent. Many members of the committee have spent one of their valuable nominations on the book. The illustrations are distinguished, but, yet. But, yet, something is not right. Normally these not right things are not worthy of mentioning in a written review, but once the real discussions begin, these little quibbles can morph into a fatal flaw.

Here are some of the ways a great book can find itself on the side table, never to return to discussion.

1. Paper quality. I am going to try to restrain myself here from a full-on rant, but many books are being created where the reader can see through the paper, making a rather annoying distraction. This problem is getting worse, I am sorry to say. I am equally sorry to say that a few of my very favorites this year suffer from cheap paper. I never mention this to my students, but sometimes they come up with a page opened and say, “What is this?” The shadow of the other side of the paper conflicts with the details the child is looking at.  I am not a printer, but there must be a way to remedy this before the book is in the hands of a reader.

2. Gutter issues. One of the ways that book illustration is different from art on a wall is that the artist has to plan for the gutter. Unless it makes sense for the narrative, (say, a book about symmetry) it is not a good idea to bisect a human with the gutter. It is especially offensive if the human is dancing or has a leg up for some reason. Then, it looks painful. The two sides of the gutter should match up together. No excuses.

3. The book jacket/end paper combo. (Here I pause for a moment of silence to remember a favorite of mine that suffered the slings and arrows of end paper neglect.) If the end papers have ANY IMPORTANT INFORMATION on them, the information must be toward the gutter and nowhere near the jacket. I am not a librarian. I never thought about this for one moment because I like to take the covers off the books when I read aloud.  But, librarians point out that the covers are absolutely used to protect the book. Further, if the designers use the endpapers for author’s notes, bibliographic information or if the story starts on the left-hand size of the opening endpapers or ends on the far right of the closing ones, this vital information is lost to the reader. And that, my dear friends, is a fatal flaw. (It’s not just a flaw for Caldecott–I bet Sibert sees this problem, too.)

4. Weird fonts. Comic Sans. Need I say more? Okay, I must. How about a cursive typeface in a book for four-year-olds? That’s a problem.

5. Poor text placement. The criteria state: “Each book is to be considered as a picture book. The committee is to make its decision primarily on the illustration, but other components of a book are to be considered especially when they make a book less effective as a children’s picture book. Such other components might include the written text, the overall design of the book, etc.”  If the reader cannot figure out where to read next because the text placement is confusing, the committee will notice.

6. Inconsistent illustrations. If the girl is wearing pink shoes on page three, the shoes need to be pink on page five. The dog at the beginning of the books better be the same dog at the end. Just today, I read a book where the main character is outlined  cleanly in black ink on all the pages. Well, not all the pages. One of the middle spreads shows the main character outlined in roughly-sketched ink. The blurry lines on that middle page jarred me and took me out of the story and sent me scrambling for other inconsistencies. Of course, I found other little details that didn’t add up, but I would never have gone on that search unless I had seen the sloppy edges in the middle of the story. I liked the story. A lot. But one illustration was so different from the rest (and there was no reason in the story for such a change) that it brought the whole book down.

7. Cheap crap paper. Oh, right, I said that already. A truly great book can survive, even with one of these issues. Trust me, it can. But, some other almost-as-wonderful books might not. Many of these issues are not in the hands of the illustrator or author; they are in the hands of the design team who is living on a budget. I get that. The committee gets that. But it doesn’t make the shadows of page 4 stop bleeding all over page 3.

What other book production issues bother you?

Robin Smith About Robin Smith

Robin Smith is a second-grade teacher at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a reviewer for Kirkus and The Horn Book Magazine and has served on multiple award committees.



  1. I was a Golden Kite judge for picture book illustration for SCBWI. Here are my pet peeves. Vary the compositions as camera angles. There is one illustrator who only uses close ups and it never varies. Make sure the art matches the text. If a figure is dancing in the text do not have it lying down in the art. And please, children are not adults reading New York Magazine, more colors. Sepia and black & white are tiresome after while and a bit too sophisticated at times.

  2. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Oh, I am totally stealing the “children are not adults reading New York Magazine” line!

    Oh, yes, words matching art is key. I am amazed when I read something like “three penguins are racing” and the illustration shows more or less than three. My second graders catch things like this all the time. Their outrage makes me proud!

    Thank you Melanie. Are the criteria clearly stated for the Golden Kite Award or is it more flexible? When I write here, I have to remember the criteria all the time. When I worked on other committees, things were a little more open-ended.

  3. Robin,

    I hear you, especially on the paper thing.

    Do bindings factor in to Caldecott debate or is that outside the scope of the criteria? It seems to me it’s part of the design, and it’s not that I expect bindings to be rock solid or anything, but sometimes they’re just so bad that the pages are loose the moment one opens the book. I just read a picture book last week that was so wonderful that I would have been inclined to buy five copies for my library, except there was a glaring binding issue.

  4. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    I think if the binding was that bad, the committee should discuss it. I bet it would not be obvious until a little wear and tear had occurred, though.

    A poor binding might lead to shaky gutters. And God knows the committee hates a messed-up gutter. I find myself tsking like my grandmother to myself when I read aloud a book where the gutters are messy.

  5. This is such an important, interesting issue.
    Especially at a time like this, with the lurking fear of electronic publishing, we should remember that a book, beside having a meaningful content, should also be a beautiful object to hold in your hands. A tactile experience can stay with you all your life, even more so if it happens at a young age. So, not only shouldn’t the paper be transluscent, but it should have the right texture and weight for that specific book, and that specific artwork. Unfortunately such decisions are not always up to the illustrator.

    But I would be careful to include in this discussion artistic choices such as color palette or how faithful the illustration should be to the text. Generalizing is always misleading.

  6. A timely post. I am reviewing a reprint of Linnea in Monet’s Garden and feeling sad about the changes the publisher has made to the layout and fonts. In addition, the colors are also not as rich as they were the first time around. Do these flaws undermine the book? That’s a tough call. I am happy to see this book back in print but sad knowing how beautiful it could look.

  7. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Thank you, Sergio, for your comments. (and, of course, for your books) The idea of “beautiful object” is such a big part of falling in love with books, isn’t it?

    Melanie’s comments about palette are interesting–the committee would have to discuss them in light of the criteria.

    Here are the lines from the manual that I think pertains to palette and text/illustration interplay.
    “Excellence of execution in the artistic technique employed;
    Excellence of pictorial interpretation of story, theme, or concept;
    Appropriateness of style of illustration to the story, theme or concept;
    Delineation of plot, theme, characters, setting, mood or information through the pictures;
    Excellence of presentation in recognition of a child audience.”

    The committee would probably discuss palette as part of the discussion of mood and style of illustration.

    The question of text and illustration is certainly something that a committee hashes out, especially if someone on the committee is confused by an element in an illustration. I did not mean to say that each page’s illustration reflects the exact words–please forgive me if that’s how it sounded. (If that were the case Officer Buckle and Gloria would not have made it out of the first round its year, would it?)

  8. Robin: Thank you for your thoughtful email. I am putting it all together finally. Mea Culpa!

    To answer your question, I don’t remember a specific criteria to follow. As an illustrator it taught me what makes for the cut above and what does not work by seriously critiquing all the elements we are discussing. I also looked for art to transcends text, embellish the theme, color palettes and design to carry the story forward. Yes, sparse and b&w do work, but not always, especially when it becomes a trend. And you can use the New Yorker mention, my pleasure!

  9. Thank you, Robin.

    What I meant to say is that a good picture book for children doesn’t necessarily have to be very colorful and bright. And it is not rare that a Caldecott or a Caldecott Honor goes to a book with a subtle palette (Amos and Grandpa Green, for example).
    On the question of text and illustration: what you said was very clear and I agree completely!

  10. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Thanks for this, Robin. And you are so right about the way one little mistake can completely send the eyes racing for another. (This obviously goes for text as well as pictures.)

  11. As one of the signers of Mac Barnett’s “Proclamation” last year (, I’ve given a few of your points a lot of thought and conversation time this last year. One of the things that I really pounded my fists on the table about was cheap paper. However, in the year since, I’ve come to two sides of the fence about this. Paper is maybe the biggest reason that picture books keep climbing in cost, and it’s the biggest reason that the margins for publishers are as tight as they are. I’ve also visited schools several times in the last year where there are plenty of kids whose parents can’t buy $17 picture books. So while the artist and designer in me wants beautiful rich colors on nice thick uncoated paper stock, the picture-book maker in me wants kids to be able to actually buy them.

    I can assure you as well that it’s not many illustrators that get to choose paper, not many that are in charge of font choices and layout (especially concerning end papers and whatnot), and fewer still that get to go to press checks to make sure gutter alignment matches up. Believe when I say that while after spending a year with a book, I want the best book possible. I want everything to be perfect. Much of what you write about happens long after the illustrator has completed his or her work. Speaking for myself, I’ll live with some cut corners if it can keep the book from climbing to $20 and allow it to get into more hands; and I hope that the committee isn’t awarding a design object when they make their decision.

  12. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Sorry, I need to say more. Two things:

    1. The first printing of Grace Lin’s WHERE THE MOUNTAINS MEET THE MOON was crawling with typos, but that doesn’t seem to have stopped the Newbery Committee. ALSC’s Notable Children’s Books committee had dispensed with TUESDAY because of issues somebody had with the phases of the moon. (But when the Caldecott folks gave it the gold, it had to go back on the Notables list.) Which leads me to why

    2. You can’t let a mistake blind you to a book’s virtues. I’ve known (I’ve been!) librarians and reviewers who like to crow about finding errors. It’s kind of in our blood, I think–always looking for the absolute correct information. But would you rather read a great book with flaws or a good book with none?

  13. Great discussion, great points. The sad thing is that the author and even the illustrator–and possibly the editor–do not always have the power over the choices made in the production of a book. We/they may have a clear vision, but compromises must be made. Still, it’s so important to have the vision of what excellence is!

  14. I propose Caldecott gender awards for board books, etc. 1) So many great books get overlooked all scrunched together from the 0-14 year old criteria. Trying to adhere to a 32 page formula and be creative with a certain format to have rules change to a Hugo (not that it wasn’t great) is a heartbreaker. 2) It would sell more books.

  15. Genre not gender.

  16. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    I’m with you on everything but the camera angles. Sometimes there’s a good reason for a static POV — like Jon Klassen’s This Is Not My Hat. But it’s absolutely essential that there be a good reason!

  17. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    I would much rather read a great book with flaws. No question for me.

    But I know committee members know the scrutiny that will be visited upon the honored books and feel a great pressure to look at every single detail of the book. A good chair will constantly point out that the committee is looking for the most distinguished, not necessarily the most perfect book.

  18. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    I am looking for the ubiquitous “Like” button, Leda.

  19. Pet peeve: plain spines. The spine is a design element, and it’s a practical element, too. Wonderful as it would be to display every book’s front cover, that’s not always possible, and if the spine doesn’t give us some clue as to what kind of book it’s binding, that’s a waste of a valuable quarter-inch (etc.) of space. And don’t get me started on spines that don’t list titles or authors. (I certainly understand that design budget can be an issue, but in an ideal world…)

  20. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    I can honestly say that I have never thought about this. Now I will be checking spines like a crazy person.

  21. Amen Sistah!

  22. Susan Dailey says:

    What I find disappointing is when the back of the book has advertisements for other books. Somehow this seems “too commercial” and suggests to me that the publisher doesn’t see it as a Caldecott contender. (I’m probably reading too much into this, but…) As a librarian, I’m not crazy about the “This book belongs to…” at the front of books either. (You know how we librarians are about writing in books.)

  23. As I read these comments and note that so many of the things that you’re discussing are marketing and production issues that are more often than not very much out of the realm of the illustrator’s control, I wonder if anyone also feels that the Newbery contenders should be or are also held to these standards? Does the Newbery committee discuss the typeface used in the book? The chapter openings? The cover design? The binding? Do the judges for the Newbery look beyond the story to make their decision the way that Caldecott judges are possibly looking way past the illustrations?

  24. Robin Smith says:

    I would guess yes, based on this line from their criteria:
    “The committee is to make its decision primarily on the text. Other components of a book, such as illustrations, overall design of the book, etc., may be considered when they make the book less effective.”

    One of the reasons I wanted to raise some of these issues is precisely because they are often out of the illustrator’s hands…or maybe the illustrator has other battles to fight and some of these more pedestrian issues seem trivial. (or not AS important) Maybe someone in the design department of Big or Small Publisher, Inc will realize that each decision is really important. I dunno.

    I keep rolling around your earlier comment, Brian, the one about affordability and paper choice. I wonder how the world of publishing has changed now that bookstore consumers are part of the picture. In the olden days, libraries were the main “customers” for picture books and and book had to be well constructed for being read over and over by many readers. The price point, I would guess (thought I am really just making this up), would be less an issue for a library with a budget and the long view. When I was little, growing up on an Army base overseas, the ideo of owning a book was pretty foreign. We just went to the library all the time. If wee owned books, they were comic books and books from a subscription service. (Talk about cheap paper…those Weekly Reader book club books were a step up from paper towels!) But, my parents could afford them…

  25. Robin Smith says:

    Good point, Susan. I don’t see that commercialism in picture books too much…or it is on the back cover. I think you are right that the publisher thinks it knows what book is a “contender.”

  26. The history of Little Golden Books is all about skipping over the librarians of the day and getting books into the hands of dime-store customers, according to Leonard Marcus’ book. Cheap paper, cheap binding, in some cases terrible writing, and in many cases transcendent pictures.

    Reading back over the official criteria, I see what you mean. And I suppose if one is looking at fifteen amazing books and can’t make a decision based on art alone, then something’s gotta give.

    I totally agree that I’d like publishers (from the editors right down to the lowliest production assistant who is laying out the text on the flap) to think about this stuff. I suspect there are editors out there who are pretty tired of my railing about the design details of picture books I’ve worked on. But I gotta be honest. I don’t know how many of you all know this, but Barnes & Noble and Amazon have near-veto power over covers of books these days. I can name two well-known books by well-known artists that were specifically changed because of resistance from B&N. Publishers are competing with video games, internet and cable tv for the attention of a parent and their six-year-old and, especially on a series, they’re going to always include little promos for books in the same series (Brownie & Pearl and Everything Goes both have it).

    I suppose if a publisher deems a book a Caldecott contender, as was mentioned in this thread, then they’ll do what they have to to make the judges happy and then cross their fingers. But again, let’s hope that this doesn’t lead to beautiful $25 books that kids breeze by on their way to paperback copies of Captain Underpants.

  27. Robin Smith says:

    The whole Barnes & Noble, Amazon cover issue (not to mention the paying for face outs and table space in chain stores) also makes me cry real tears. (and makes me move books around whenever I am in a chain store…such a rebel, I am)

    Your last sentence sent a chill down my spine. I think you should write an article about this…


  28. Bargain sale graphic design! Nothing gets my goat more than seeing a finely crafted, painstakingly laboured, delicately illustrated book sold like a supermarket commodity, with blunt title font in bright pink. Or, equally as bad, virtually no design at all.
    I speak with the anguish of personal experience.

  29. Great discussion – agree with all, including the importance of good spine design. Most illustrators have a lot of say, or at least veto power, in final book design, including fonts, flaps, etc. That said, re: B&N…unfortunately, not only do they have a lot of power over cover design, they even have some input into title choices.

  30. Brian Biggs is correct about the B&N & Amazon veto on covers. Has been happening in Canada at our big box store, Indigo, too. My understanding is that this has been going on for years. So many things beyond an illustrator’s control. Fabulous post, and very helpful comments.

  31. Thank you, Robin, for a cogent and lively presentation. It sounds like me years ago–
    but you are more cogent and lively.

    Once again, a question: why must Notables put a book on its list that has been fully
    discussed and voted “No.”? It has happened too often and I recall a chair of an
    awards committee (ALSC/ALA) who resigned over a thoughtless choice.


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  1. […] Two recent articles concerning picture books are worth a look.  One describes problems with picture book design that can be subtle but points out critical flaws: . […]

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