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
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.
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How to read a picture book, the Caldecott edition - The Horn Book

[...] might include the written text, the overall design of the book, etc.” I refer you to my rant last [...]

Posted : Sep 11, 2013 04:27

Big G

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. Grump.

Posted : Oct 08, 2012 08:55

Meeting reminder and two recent articles worth a look |

[...] 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: . [...]

Posted : Oct 08, 2012 07:29

patricia storms

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.

Posted : Oct 04, 2012 09:53

Roxie Munro

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.

Posted : Oct 04, 2012 08:59

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