As part of Sydney Writers’ Festival, this talk explores what sets a book apart in the saturated market of children’s publishing. Is it the story, the illustrations, or the overall design’
A d factory presentation at the Powerhouse Museum on 25 May 2006.
d factory is a free monthly exploration of design issues at the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney
Nell Schofield: Now, despite the onslaught of computer games and other cyber-realities, children’s books are still incredibly popular. I don’t know what it is, maybe it is their tactile quality, maybe it’s the way kids can imagine their own worlds while reading these books that makes them so enduring, but whatever it is, they’re here to stay. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of design challenges in this world, and we have gathered together here tonight three people who know quite a bit about them.
Mark Mcleod is a publisher, and he is also President of the Children’s Book Council of Australia. We also have Sandra Nobes. She is a designer of children’s books, and she is responsible for the look of books like Keys to the Kingdom–that’s a series, as is the series, the Tashi series. Now, the Tashi series was written by Anna Fienberg. Anna also writes other children’s books, and has worked as an editor of School Magazine, a literary publication for children. So welcome to you all, and thanks for joining us.
Now, we are particularly delighted tonight at D factory because we are facilitating the very first meeting of Sandra and Anna. They have been working together for 15 years, and I want to know how it’s possible that you can have done this without having met each other.
Anna Fienberg: I’ve just admired in silence, actually, all these years. I realized, talking to Kim the last few days, because we were going to do this talk, Kim says, “Sandra!” You know, the goddess of design. When Kim and I did our first book together in 1992, The Magnificent Nose, and you were the designer, and it was a fabulous experience because it just was one of those books that came like a dream in terms of the text and then the illustrations, and then the design of it, which reflected so beautifully what we had set out to do; and then winning the Book of the Year Award for that first book, it was a dreamlike experience.
Sandra: Well, it was a fantastic job to work on because it was such a wonderful story, or number of stories, and Kim’s illustrations are so luxurious, and the colours were so beautiful. It just came together in a lovely package.
Anna: We actually met through that book because I was editor of the School Magazine at that stage, and Kim had sent in his drawings, he was the friend of a freelance artist for the magazine and he needed money.
Sandra: He got yours.
Mark Macleod: You better say who Kim is.
Anna: Oh sorry! Kim Gamble, who illustrates–well, he has illustrated, I think, about 53 picture books by now, and he is 53.
Sandra: One a year.
Anna: But he didn’t start when he was one. He has done all the Tashi series, as well as many other books. The Minton series.
Sandra: The “Minton” books, and Joseph, and The Magnificant Nose.
Nell: Now you mentioned The Magnificent Nose, which won the Children’s Book of the Year Award. What was it about that book that gave it the edge’
Anna: Well, it began because–it’s a book of five different stories, each about a child who has a magical gift. One of them has a magnificent nose, he can smell danger, fire, from over in Spain, which is handy; there’s another child who can understand animal language; and Valentina Lookwell, who can see right into people with what their true passions are, and so on. So there was this sort of fairytale quality to it, although they were very modern children, and Kim’s illustrations, I felt, really reflected that.
Sandra: They did.
Anna: They were modern, they were quirky, but also had this magical feeling to them. There is something about, with a good illustrator it’s as if they dive down beneath the words and bring up kind of a pearl, in a way. They don’t just illustrate your words, do they’
Sandra: No they don’t.
Anna: They sort of create their own worlds.
Sandra: But they also enhance the words, and give extra to the words, which is nice for kids’ imaginations, sort of taking the words and actually make more of them.
Mark: What year was that, because I’m forgetting’
Anna: That was 1992.
Mark: OK. The thing that I remember struck me about seeing that book was that it was old-fashioned in a very appealing way. I think it was at a point where the economy was in a bit of trouble, and people, particularly adults buying children’s books, were looking for comfort in certain ways. There was an exquisite kind of detail about the illustrations in that book, and about the beautiful design, which reminded some adults and some grandparents of their childhood illustrated storybooks. So I think it really stood out for, it sort of said to the adults who were picking this book up, “This is good quality. I care about my children, my grandchildren. I’m going to give them the best.” And I think that was what you all succeeded in creating that book. I had a really strong impression of that.
Nell: Is that a nostalgia factor that you’re tapping into, then, in the design of that book’
Sandra: I think not.
Sandra: But not nostalgia; more harking back to the, giving a book a classic look that is not going to date in two years, that is not going to look like it comes from 1992, that is going to leave on for years and years and still be a beautiful thing to have, a beautiful book, a beautiful story; and not to be fashionable and of its day, like a lot of books these days are.
Anna: Although, what I loved about the design was the–and perhaps that is a classic thing–but there was a playfulness which reflected Kim’s drawings. He had a lyrical playfulness with the nose out of the O, the little boy was there smelling the rose, so it had a double function. And there was a border around each page…
Sandra: Yeah, hand-drawn.
Anna: … hand-drawn in a very child-friendly and accessible way.
Sandra: And that was the day before computers came in and everything, so it was pasted up, I think.
Mark: But you said, “No, no, no,” where it was nostalgia because I didn’t…
Sandra: Well I just think of John Howard…
Mark: No, no, no! Listen, there are other people than John Howard who like sausages and mash. It doesn’t mean that you have to vote Liberal. I think there are times at which we look for comfort from our own childhood, and I think that was one of the times. But you see, exactly, you know that crap they say in fashion, that if you hang on to something it’ll come back into fashion in 20 years time. It’s a lie, because it comes back a little bit different. So you look like a total nerd if you are wearing, in the 80′s, if you were wearing those big flared pants from the 70s and ’60s, you would have looked like an idiot, because one of the things they told you to do in the ’70s is wear them right down over your shoes; but when they came back, they were up above your ankles. So you would have looked like a turkey.
So it’s not true. I didn’t mean to imply at all that it was like books done in the ’30s or something like that. It was fresh and new, but it gave also a little bit of reassurance. People go, “I had a good childhood. I really enjoyed childhood books. I want to pass that on to my children.” And there’s nothing wrong with that idea at all.
Nell: You have brought up something very interesting, which is the fact that most children’s books are bought by adults, so you have to appeal to adults really, don’t you’
Mark: Yeah. Well, it’s true that even with teens there would be very few adults who give their children $20 and say, “Go and buy whatever book you like.” We all know some, and so we think that that’s common, but it’s not. It’s like a couple of percent. In most cases, children’s books are bought by adults, whether they are teachers or parents or grandparents or librarians. So you have got this balancing act of needing to appeal to adults as well as to children in the one go. That’s hard.
Nell: Well how do you do it, Sandra’
Sandra: Well, I think primarily a kid’s book is meant for children to enjoy, but Mark’s right. Adults buy them. I don’t know, it’s difficult across the ages because children range from little ones that read board books to young adults who are quite sophisticated in their tastes. So you really have to design for a certain age group. And within that age group, even though a lot of… I mean, the problem is, that children’s books are bought and promoted by a lot of librarians, and people[''] teachers, and they tend to be a little conservative, so you have to bear that in mind I think and try and get around that.
Nell: Anna, you actually write with your mother, who is an ex-librarian.
Sandra: Sorry, I didn’t know that!
Nell: I’m just wondering how that influences your writing.
Anna: She’s about the same age as me, which is eight, you know.
Anna: When we’re doing the Tashi stories. It does influence it, in that the idea of Tashi really began with her, when she was telling me a bit about her childhood, and how she was a great tall tale teller, which she told whopping great fibs to her friends to entertain them, and I think it was a way of making friends. And even now she’s such a great storyteller; you miss an episode of The Sopranos or something, and she’ll be there, she’ll have set the scene, she’ll have all the body language, the gestures, it’s almost as good as actually seeing the episode. So when we began, I thought, she’s such a great storyteller and she had this history of telling stories, wouldn’t it be great to have a character like that who told tall tales, to perhaps his best friend. And it didn’t matter if the tales were really true or not, but you wanted to know what happened next, so I often think of Tashi as a small version of my mother, really. And because she’s a librarian, and she has a wonderful imagination herself, a lot of the ideas are from books that she read me when I was little, about giants, and you know when you think about when you’re little, and you’re looking up at adults, and mainly what you see are their knees. You know, they look like giants, don’t they’ So a lot of those figures are in Tashi’s world.
Nell: You’re about to release the 13th book in the series.
Nell: When you started, did you realize you were on the epic journey’ Were you planning a series’
Anna: No! And in fact, the actual design for a series, the idea of having a series, came from the publisher, Alan Lunwin because we wrote the first story of Tashi, thinking, oh, having already Kim in mind, wouldn’t it be lovely to have Kim illustrate them with these full-colour watercolours and so on and how exotic it would be, and presented the manuscript, and Rosalyn Price at Alan Lunwin said, Yes, I like it, that’s good. But why don’t you do a series’ Why don’t you do a little format, a paperback format, with various adventures that will go on ad infinitum’ In black and white, so it would be cheaper to collect, and cheaper to publish, but also can be a collectible series. And so that actually influenced the whole format of Tashi.
Nell: And what about you, Sandra, did you think you were doing a series there when you started out on this venture’
Sandra: Well I don’t think I actually did the first Tashi. I took it over from the second one, and yeah, the publisher realized that it was a series, but I think in those days, as designers and packagers of marketing books, we didn’t look at branding certain things as we do now. It’s the big word today. You sort of give a book a look and it runs away with it and has a life. But I think Tashi just happened to luckily fall into it with that type that Shane Nagel had done for the Tashi logotype, which is just perfect.
Nell: So who found that’ You know, there’s a logo of Tashi…
[everyone talking at once for approx five seconds]
Sandra: It was. Shane Nagel was the illustrator that did the typography, and the original designer, Rosanna Dorizio must have briefed him to get that. Because it’s the hair of Tashi, isn’t it, the wonderful roundness of Tashi’s top. Hat’ Is it a hat’
Anna: It’s not a hat. It’s the hair.
Sandra: Yes, that’s right.
Sandra: Because Sue Flockhart and I, it took us about six books to realise it was hair and not a hat.
Anna: That’s what children always ask when you go out to schools, apart from “How old are you’” “How much do you earn’” “Do you dye your hair’” or you know, whatever.
Anna: They ask about Tashi’s hair.
Anna: You know, which is like this big question mark he’s got on top of his head. Which I find that sort of look like a state of confusion about the world, which I relate to.
Sandra: That was a bathy auger wasn’t it’ When he got put into the oven, and he found a hat for the grease’
Anna: Yeah, that’s right.
Nell: Now the latest one, I understand, was going to have a sticker on it, a special little sticker, but you didn’t like that idea, did you, Anna’
Anna: No, not if it was going to be changing the cover so that it does look more like a series, and the subtitle is going to be in a different typeface and so on. And I gather you were looking at different ways of presenting that subtitle, and it was going to be on a sticker like those little things that they have on fruit.
Sandra: I didn’t think it would be that bad.
Anna: I didn’t like that one. But I really liked the other one.
Sandra: It’s a very difficult thing, because we’ve just redesigned the whole, so number 13 is coming out, and that follows the new series, but to keep Tashi true to himself and the world means you can’t lose the logotype, you can’t lose Kim’s illustrations, so how are you going to repackage it so that it looks fresh and new, and has a certain sparkle to it, and gives it a new lease of life’ And to do that, was a job to come up with… because the illustrations are so important, you can’t reduce them down, you really need to use them as they are. So how to brand Tashi and make the subtitles related to give them a whole series look was a process, but it was a fun process.
Nell: I guess this idea of branding and standing out on the bookshelf is really important. What kind of gimmicks or eye-catching things are being used at the moment’ Because I understand there was a book that was a best seller last year or a few years ago where they had a badge accompanying the book.
Mark: Yeah, this is interesting what you guys are saying about series, because the problem is that you want the books to be recognizable, our research say that people spend a maximum of seven seconds on a cover in a bookshop before they move to the next one. So it really needs to be instant, whether we like it or not is a completely different point, but that’s what our behaviour is. So, given that, you need to be able to walk into the store, and recognize that’s Tashi, but there’s another side of human beings, and that is that we get bored really quickly. And so, when a series looks too much the same, people go “Oh yeah, I’ve seen that one.” It may be the new book, it may be the number 14, but they feel they’ve seen it. So that’s the tightrope that designers and publishers are walking all the time. And one of the difficulties with series is, is that authors and illustrators love them because they think, “Here’s some secure income for the next five years.” A publishers just run a mile, because a series frankly means, how much marketing money do you have to throw at the series to keep reminding book buyers that it’s there’ I mean, I always ask myself, why is it, if Coca-cola is the world’s leading branded soft drink, why is it that we’re surrounded by ads for it all the time’ The answer is exactly that. The Coca-Cola Company knows that if they stopped advertising, we’d soon forget, because it’s like “Oh yeah, Coke, that’s always there.” It’s the Tashi that’s always there thing, that publishers are terrified of. Which is really hard. So it’s hard for you, because you have to make it look fresh, and yet recognizable and not untrue to the creation that you and the illustrator have made. It’s hard.
Nell: We spoke a little bit about the nostalgia factor, but what about the introduction of computers’ For instance, you were saying “The Magnificent Nose” was created before all those… What impact has the introduction of computers and all that design technology had on book design’
Mark: Well I think, first of all, in illustration it’s made a big impact, because it’s really divided the audience for children’s books between the adults, who often look at computer-generated art or design; they associate that with manipulativeness, with commercial billboards, with slickness and superficiality. The kids don’t have that association at all. So you can produce a book cover, which the kids will totally love.
For example, one of my favourite Australian illustrators or artists is Jeff Raglus, who was early on associated with the Mambo franchise. His illustrations are kind of wild and all over the page and so on. They’re funny, and they’re a bit cheeky and rude, and so on. I don’t know any adults who like them. Every time you use Jeff Raglus on a book cover or as an illustrator, you know that the kids will love them and the adults will just hate them. So that’s really hard.
Nell: Will they sell’
Mark: Well, here’s the interesting question. For example, Andy Griffiths’ “The Bad Book,” last year. The most notorious book published in Australia last year. Hit the front page of the “Sydney Morning Herald,” with a bookseller saying, “In my 15 years of running this bookshop, it’s the first book I’ve refused to stock. I went home and I vomited when I read one of the poems in the book.”
School visits were cancelled, and so on and so on. And it was also one of the biggest-selling Australian books last year. So go figure. Does that say that adults are just saying, “Oh well, at least you’re reading something’” Does it say that “pester power” is the most powerful thing now’ Does it say that adults are full of hot air, and they say they don’t like the book, but really they will buy it’ It’s a very interesting puzzle. And publishers are risking millions of dollars on these sorts of questions. So it’s an interesting and tough one.
Nell: How much input do kids actually have in the whole process’ I mean I know, Anna, you go out and talk at schools and do readings in schools. What kind of feedback do you get from the kids’
Anna: Well, they’re always very direct. That’s the lovely thing about children: you always know where you are with them. So when you’re talking from the author’s point of view, there isn’t so much that struggle, obviously, is there, about appealing to adults or children. You just appeal straight to the children. Their enthusiasm is quite life-giving, actually.
It does probably influence, then, the next stories you write, because you know what they’re interested in; you get a good idea. So I think I don’t have to quite do that tightrope in the same way — although there’s obviously self-censorship about it.
Mark: And there’s also the conscious stage of composition, where, presumably, the thing that you value the most is the unconscious creation of the story. But then some sucker like me steps in and tells you, “You know what, you can’t say that three times in the one paragraph,” or whatever. So there is a level at which the adult preference or the librarian’s censorship or whatever can step in.
Mark: You just hope it’s minimal.
Nell: And what about the education system’ What part do they play in it’ I mean, you worked for “School” magazine, didn’t you’
Anna: Ah, well, hmm…
Nell: How much censorship is going on’
Anna: I remember at “School” magazine, in fact, it came up again recently, with “Tashi and the Demons,” or “the Ghosts” There’s a certain religious element who really object to witches and demons and so on. We used to get letters quite constantly about not having… objecting to having… Well, to me, it’s fantasy. It’s “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.”
Sandra: Well, this happened with Harry Potter now, it’s happened with every movie that’s come out and every book that’s come out. The churches come out and said it’s satanistic.
Mark: But look at “The DaVinci Code!” I mean, on what day did anyone think that that’s a guidebook for life, you know’
This is what I don’t get. When people tell us… And it’s the lawyers rubbing their hands, and this isn’t going to change in a hurry, because who are our governors in this country’ Lawyers! They love this; they’re warming their hands on it, you know.
So somebody says, “Oh, you can’t have a picture of that little boy…” OK, let’s take an example. “Thank You For My Yucky Present,” which is about this child who gets a present from his grandma. He thinks it might be a submarine or a helicopter. He opens it up and it’s a rainbow-striped jumper that Grandma’s hand-knitted for him, and he just hates it. His mother says, “Go and thank Grandma for the present.” He says “no” several times, and then finally gets on the phone and says, “Thank you for my yucky present.”
And then the present turns out to be magical. It finds its way onto the top of a wardrobe, and the jumper finds its way under the bed, and out into the garden. Then one night, when the little boy’s asleep, the jumper says, “I have to go and look for my rainbow sheep. You can come with me if you want.” So this little boy, who’s like four or five, something like that, puts the jumper around his neck like a cape and they fly out the window.
Now, the immediate response of teachers and book clubs was that this could be liable, that the illustrator could be liable and could be sued, because if a child put a rainbow jumper around their neck and jumped out a window thinking they could fly…
It’s like, What are the lawyers on’ They’re still on something from the 60s, you know’ It’s just insane!
You go, “Lighten up, this is a picture book! It’s entertainment, it’s fun, it is not a guide book!” And that’s where I’m going. We’ve got it really screwed up in our society when we’re starting to look to novels and going, “Boy, this is real life.” I better be careful what I say in a novel, and I do. It’s insane. I just don’t think children respond to books like this, I really don’t.
Nell: So how much freedom do designers have in the whole process’
Sandra: Freedom to do what’
Nell: Freedom to design what you want. Are you under the auspices of lots of different people, like the publisher, like the author’
Sandra: You are, in that you’re just part of the process. The book doesn’t belong to me, it belongs to a lot of different people, and mainly the author and perhaps the illustrator. But there are a lot of constraints about marketing mainstays and whether gardening books have to be green, but no other books can be green because they don’t sell…
There are all these rules out there that people have about books which are pretty ridiculous, but you just have to live with that. “OK, fine. If it’s a gardening book it has to be green.”
I’ve had a few publishers say, “No, we can’t have a lime-green cover on it because lime-green books don’t sell.” So there are all those constraints, but they’re all to do with different people’s idiosyncrasies, I think, so each client is different. Some publishers I have don’t like script on their books. But you get to know people and what their foibles are.
It’s also, designing books is about making them accessible to kids. To do that, you can’t over-design anything. You have to step back and sort of navigate the way for the reader through the book. No matter whether it’s a picture book or a young adult book, it has to make sense to them, and that’s the job that I have. So I can’t be too visible; my work can’t be too visible, because it interrupts… the package, yeah.
Nell: And yet you’re working, now, in a few rather exciting mediums, like glitter!
Sandra: Oh, yeah, I’ve got glitter coming up.
Nell: Glitter and foil!
Sandra: Oh, yeah. But like I said on the phone, that’s a bell on a whistle. They call bells and whistles are big. Tashi has got a little whistle that’s got embossing. So it’s got shininess there.
But they’re just little catches too that kids like. They like a bit of glitter. They like a bit of, you know it’s just that little, oh that’s got glitter on it, especially girls!
You just have to look at all those total girl books. They are books for this tween market. They’ve all got that little bit of silver or little bit of this or pink.
Nell: And what about the boys’ You are doing a series for boys too. That’s a much-neglected market isn’t it’
Sandra: Yeah. It is, and they can’t have pink glitter on them. That’s just a no-no.
Anna: Tashi couldn’t wear pink glitter.
Mark: What’s really interesting I don’t think you designed Deborah Niland’s new book.
Mark: Annie’s Chair. I was listening to a group of teachers recently saying the only shame with this fabulous book is it’s got a pink cover, because we can’t get the boys to pick it up.
Sandra: Yeah. It’s a big thing.
Mark: Whether you like it or not, it’s still a sexist world. When you say to boys, would you read a book about girls, they’re kind of like go, “yech, yech!” like this, you know. Girl’s germs. Then you say to girls, would you read a book about boys’ They look at you like you are nuts. They say, “Yeah.”
So it’s really interesting. It’s not even a question for most girls. But that pink cover has really worked against that book in the areas where boys might be asked to read it in school. In the shop, let’s get real, no boy is going to walk up and pick up a book called Annie’s Chair.
Sandra: Yeah. That’s right. It’s like Dolly magazines, yeah.
Mark: They’re just not going to do it. It’s not going to happen. So you could worry a lot about nothing. So I think colour is interesting. I guess from before the time I started publishing I was told that green covers don’t sell. If you remember Oscar and Lucinda, the first version of that was a dark green colour. All booksellers said it wouldn’t sell. Well, they kicked the green cover pretty early.
But I do remember something really weird happening when Susan Faludi’s first book came out. It was in this disgusting chartreuse and lilac. Everyone looked at it and said how gross. In the United States the book had red white and blue and they said how gross for another reason. But in Australia it had this chartreuse and lilac.
I have to tell you it was the only book in Australia with those colours, and it just leapt out of the shelf. When you walked into the bookshop, it was the first thing you saw.
So, colour can really work and I know when I was at Hodder Headline and we started Andrew Daddo’s series of short stories, the designer was Ellie Exarchos and she chose purple for the main colour of the book. When it came in I said, what boy is going to pick this up’
Well, it was the only purple book in Australia at the time and it really, really worked.
Nell: Can you make sure that you are the only purple book’
Mark: Well, it’s a bit of a case of timing and Sandra would know more about that. But one of the things that someone at Harper Collins didn’t notice about a year ago was that there were a lot of red and green covers in fiction. Three major fiction titles came in with almost identical palettes on them and they were very confusing.
Every taker spends a few minutes on each cover. See everybody in this room is going to be the sort of book buyer who thinks about their book and studies it and even looks at it as an art object. So this might seem to you to be an offensive thing to say. But the general experience of booksellers is that’s how people go. They go, “Yeah, that’s that red and green book.” Voom. In, out.
Mark: So colour can really be important.
Nell: Yeah, no pinks, no greens.
Nell: We called this session Pop-ups, Foldouts and other design adventures. How much popping up and folding out is there actually going on in this area’
Mark: [laughs] Well, a lot less than there used to be. One of the things I think happened during the ’90s was that everybody got really caught up in the special effects of publishing. People were terrified. If you go back to 1990 91, where we had the shortest burst of technology in history and everybody thought CD-ROMs were going to take over the world and that lasted for about five minutes. They had no idea that the Internet was going to even be. If you go back to 1993 I think there were 1500 websites in the world.
So you can see how rapidly that changed. No one had any idea then. So everybody was terrified that we were seeing the end of the book. So books had to be somehow more like a movie. So you had holograms in pictures and you had the pop-ups.
Well, I have to say that I have a moral and political objection to pop-up books, because they’re not made in Ecuador now they’re made in China, but to expect a woman in Ecuador to end up with arthritic fingers for a few cents for the delight of a child in middle class Australia who’s spending or his parents are spending $30, is just obscene to me.
So I can’t really support that. I see that they were fun. But I think that one of the things that happened during the ’90s was that we found out that it didn’t matter how kinetic the book was, it was never going to be a computer game. You just can’t be as fast and as inventive and fantastic as computer games.
So, what do you do’ You go back partly to valuing the things that books can do that computer games can’t. So, well. One of the things we’ve found we love about books is their slowness. We thought that was a disadvantage. Now we think it’s a real advantage because you can make the book last for one year if you want.
We love the language of books; we love the thought and philosophy of them, and you’ve seen one response to the pop-up thing and the failure of that project in the book as art object. All those beautiful bijoux editions, those small hardbacks with beautiful paper.
Well it didn’t save Peter Karian’s last book I have to say. The most extraordinary book packaging I’ve seen in Australian fiction with those corrugated end papers and cover and everything like that. It’s totally beautiful. I got a quarter of the way through the book and thought this is boring crap and closed it.
So, it may make you buy it, but it won’t make you buy it again. I certainly haven’t bought the new one. So that sort of thing is dangerous. I think there have been really interesting results to that. Yes there are pop-ups but nothing like you saw in the ’90s at all.
Nell: The other thing that books give us, particularly children’s books are illustrations, beautiful illustrations. Both of you, Anna and Sandra are married and living with illustrators. What sort of insights has that given you into the job of an illustrator and to the collaboration that you must engage in with an illustrator’
Mark: Total silence.
Sandra: Well it gives you a greater understanding of what a person does. Most people don’t know what a designer does on a book. I think my mother now understands what I do, but it took a while.
The job of being an illustrator is like writing, it’s being creative. It’s creating a world, a character and a feeling. It’s become a lot harder I think over the last 10 or 15 years since computers have come in. It’s not fashionable anymore I think in the advertising world. It is in books and I think it always will be.
It’s hard because there are a lot of people out there that want to do it. Want to illustrate a children’s book’ I’d love to illustrate a children’s book! It’s difficult for illustrators to just to make their mark and just find their place.
Anna: Or even, does he ever get, “If I just had the time, I’d do a children’s book or write a children’s book or illustrate. It’s just the time.
Mark: Do you think that’s just because of the money that the amount of time you’ve got to spend you’re only getting a few thousand bucks’
Sandra: Oh, it’s dreadful money. For illustrating and publishing it’s just woeful. Why would you do it if you were a sane person really’
Mark: It’s one of the difficulties that you keep coming back to all the time in a small market. If you think of the Scandinavian countries it’s even worse there because they don’t have the access to an international language. It is hard because a lot of the things that designers would love to do I think every designer I know wants to do board books because they’re so fun and some of them are so boring and they’re so important. You know they’re the first books a child reads. And you go, “I’d love to do something fresh.” It’s very hard to make them economically viable in a small market like Australia from a big publishing house. If you’re going to go small, and that’s certainly where a lot of renewal has come in the United States and New Zealand publishing has always been good at New Zealand publishing houses you can do it without the overheads, but it’s hard. It’s tough to make. There are things like Jeanette Rowe’s “Yo Yo” Books and the “Whose Nose’” and “Whose Feet’” where you’ve got the fold out pages and paperback. You could only do that if the ABCs doing a massive international print run. You couldn’t do that for Australia alone.
Sandra: Don’t you think that in this country we’re so overwhelmed we have such a small market here we’re so overwhelmed by imports of beautiful books and not so beautiful books from America and Europe and England.
Mark: You’ve got a lot of dumping. Sure.
Mark: As soon as you try and reverse the tide it’s worse from the U.K. Frankly, it’s easier for a publisher to sell one of your books to the U.S. than the U.K. because the U.K. will always be very kind of pompous and say, “Oh I’d really love to publish this book.” Well you could do without that response for a start. Do you want it or don’t you’ Don’t give me “I love Australia and I watch ‘Home and Away’” and all that crap. Then they go, “But you know, we don’t have kangaroos.” And you go, “Yeah, like we don’t have badgers.” It’s sort of like tit for tat but the one with the cultural power wins and that’s the U.K. I think that it’s very hard and one of the results of that could be that a designer says, “Well I’ll do what I like,” like “The Little Red Hen”, “Well I’ll just suit Australia.” You can go that way and I think a lot of people have gone that way and just said, “if they want to pick the book up then fine but I’m not going to try and second guess whether this is going to be loved in New York or London or Los Angeles.”
Nell: What about a book like “Snugglepot and Cuddlepie”, for instance, an Australian children’s classic that has amazing illustrations. Has that done any business overseas’
Mark: No. They just don’t get it. The first thing that you’d get from that now is the phrase – which has to have been invented by an American “text heavy.”
Nell: Text heavy.
Mark: Yeah. You can see them at Bologna at the Children’s Book Fair and publishers will go through a picture book and just go, “Sorry, text heavy.” Yet on the other hand go figure adults on this you present them with a wordless picture book and many people in bookshops go, “Oh, I want a bit more value for my money than that. I want a few more words in the book.”
Nell: You can’t please everybody.
Mark: No, it’s hard so stop trying.
Nell: Back on illustrators for a moment. You’ve been blessed, Anna, with a very fine illustrator and one of your choosing. It doesn’t often happen that an author gets the illustrator of their choice. Have you ever had any experiences where you haven’t had that luxury’
Anna: Yes. Actually it was meeting Kim at “School Magazine” and doing this book together, “Magnificent Nose”; it did become sort of a fate accompli that we work together. I think that one of the things that does work so well with us is that there’s an emotional expressiveness in Kim’s drawings. He’s obviously a consummate artist in many other ways but it’s getting the essence of that character and the emotional expression of it that’s so terrific. As a writer that’s probably where I come from, is the feeling world and the idea world. Before the “Magnificent Nose” I did a couple of books and one of them was “The Nine Lives of Balthazar” with another publisher. It was about a boy, Harold, whose mother was a scientist and she always said to him, “Don’t believe everything you hear. Always test it out first.” He always listened to his mother. One day the teacher was talking about cats and the teacher said that cats have nine lives. Harold immediately thought, “Ah, there’s something to test out.”
Anna: There was this real streetwise cat, Balthazar, up the street and he watched him stealing kids’ lunches and having fights with dogs and so on and so he said, “If anyone has nine lives this cat will.” He proceeded to experiment with this cat. He threw it down wells and he hired a plane and threw it out of the plane but it managed to find a kite and clung to the kite and drifted to earth. He always sort of got out of things. The way I had envisioned it until the last test, the ninth test where he was tied to the railway tracks…
Mark: You’re such a nice person. How did you get this story’
Anna: …until Harold went back to school. This is the ninth test, the ninth life and Harold thinks, “What if he doesn’t escape.” So at the last minute he runs out of class and down through the town and down the hill and there’s the train coming around the corner and “toot, toot” and he leaps on the cat. He’s there undoing the ropes and the train is coming and finally, just in the nick of time, he throws the cat out of the way and leaps out himself and the train comes past dead on time. The last page, the text says that now he’s called Balthazar and he’s Harold’s cat and he sleeps on the bed and he has anchovies and milk for dinner. Harold says that he obviously loves the cat and how could he have done that’ Obviously it’s more important to love the cat than to experiment on it. The message was something that I thought kids could really discuss in class about responsibility and looking after the pets that you have and each other I thought it could be a talking point. The way I’d envisioned the cat was this pirate cat that was tough and could stand anything so that you weren’t ever really in doubt as a reader that the cat could survive. The pictures in the book are half of it. I think the pictures really have to enhance and help tell the story. But I didn’t speak at all with the illustrator, who was living in South Australia, and I didn’t have any idea what she was doing with the story. Also it was my first or second book and I was so grateful to be published I said, “Anything, thank you.” They were lovely drawings, but the cat was the most vulnerable, winsome little thing and of course he looked like he wouldn’t survive someone breathing on him let alone throwing him out of a plane. So it was reviewed, “What does Anna Fienberg think she’s doing,” and “Don’t stock this in your library or you’ll have everybody catching cats and tying them up.” In that sense it was really interesting…
Nell: Damaging to the work.
Anna: …Yes, yes. It showed me the power of illustrations and how you present a story and what it can do to the message within it.
Nell: So what does make a good illustrator do you think, Sandra’
Sandra: Well to be well drawn is a good plus. [laughter] I think the drawing is really important, with somebody who’s a good illustrator or a bad illustrator, the actual draftsmanship is important. But it’s that thing about capturing the story and giving it that extra life that Anna was talking about. Taking the story and just giving it that little bit more, like Kim in the “Tashi” books. He’s given Tashi this wonderful personality that adds to the story – that enhances it – like his hair and his clothes and everything.
Anna: And I have to say when we were writing the first stories of Tashi, both of us thought that Tashi would be well we set it in somewhere in Asia but didn’t want to say exactly where because we wanted the child to fill that in an Asian looking boy. But we just gave the manuscript to Kim and he said as usual, where exactly does he come from’ How old is he’ What do you want him to look like, and so on’
And we just said that’s your problem. Because when you’ve got faith in an illustrator to and he was the one who came back with this extraordinary looking little boy with the hair like the question mark. A little bit like Noddy but in a Santa Claus outfit. He has all these gifts and surprises inside him, and so exotic looking, magical looking. In fact I think that’s illustrated and influenced the way we’ve gone on to write Tashi with a more magical feel to it because of the way he’s made him look. So, there’s been a real connection there.
Mark: That’s really cool. Yeah. One of the things I was thinking that you guys make, that designers make is sometimes, and this doesn’t apply to Kim quite obviously; an illustrator will be fantastic on character and a great draftswoman but not very good on composition. I’ve seen so many books saved by the designer who knows how to frame the picture, just as the camera can so much create a great composition or a lousy one.
Have you ever saved a book, or were you aware that you had a hard task’
Sandra: Not a lot, but there are a few illustrators that you work with that you work with from the beginning. You work from the pencils and you say no, this is very flat looking we need to get some action into here, we can’t have a stilted looking cover. It needs to go somewhere. It needs to be a snapshot of what’s about to happen.
Anna: Some books work so well with a lot of white space around them and others bleed off. I always wonder I guess that’s a more detailed question but I.
Sandra: Well, white space is good. Designers like white space.
Anna: Yeah [laughs].
Sandra: And we don’t often give them the luxury of it.
Mark: In Australia that was really Julie Vivas and Sue Williams from Omnibus who revolutionized the look of picture books. If you go back to the heyday of picture books before colour reproduction in the ’60s, when suddenly artists could use every colour on their palate, and it wasn’t too expensive to do; you’ve got artists like Brian Wildsmith in the U.K., with this riot of colour and texture all over the pages, which was really celebrating the fact that you could print that. By the time you get to the ’80s and Julie Vivas and Omnibus are doing it, they’re going, no white space is really good because it highlights the characters.
One of the things for literacy that’s so important for white space is that and this is where typography comes in and some designers are great at typography and some are not great that breathing space helps literacy. It helps a book to feel accessible or not.
Sandra: Yeah, it does, especially a book that’s text heavy for example. But if you’ve got a kid that’s struggling to read in upper primary school or middle primary school and they open a book up that’s very black that has a lot of text on the page, that’s got very bold type and not a lot of space between the lines, they’re just going to open it up and say I can’t read this, it’s too hard. It doesn’t matter how hard it is to read. If it looks hard, it will be hard.
Mark: Well one of the things that’s been very difficult in recent years is that a lot of book designers have been seduced by magazine style design, which often has the text layered over the top of a fairly densely textured image.
That’s almost impossible to read for people who don’t have confidence in their reading or who are quite young. While it’s fun and interesting for the designer, it’s going to be really counterproductive for the young reader. It’s really interesting, and I’m sorry for saying this but, sometimes designers Donna Rawlands said to me once years ago illustrators and designers are gifted from the wrist down.
Mark: And I have to say that there are designers who are lovely people, who know exactly where to find the right image from the image bank. Then you go, “I can’t read the title or the author’s name.” And they go, “Ah, right!” And a book cover is like a billboard.
Sandra: Well that’s right, I hope I don’t do that.
Mark: You’ve just got to be able to read it. No you’re great. All this was present company excepted, Sandra! [Laughs]
Sandra: But it is, that’s the thing about younger designers now maybe, and computers and what we’ve lost over the years and the craftsmanship that typesetters and designers had before. A lot of designers look at a computer as something that will help them out of a problem and solve the problem.
But it’s not. A computer is just a glorified pencil really. It’s not going to help you think creatively. It’s not going to solve problems. There are lots of little pencils in that box that will help you get out of situations but you have to think about design. It sounds wanky, but it has to be an intellectual process. It can’t just be a matter of getting a fabulous picture and whacking a bit of type on it.
It has to be part of the book. It has to make sense, to be legible because otherwise it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work as a book cover. It doesn’t work as an inside text.
Anna: In fact, I’ve been wondering, thinking about tonight and discussing it with my sister, Linda, who’s interested in design. We were wondering how much the visual design of a book also reflects the process of the literary design.
When you’re writing the book, you could call it design or structure. What you were saying about the relationship of elements on that cover; the relationships in the book are structured perhaps in a similar way. They have to be connected in a pleasing interesting and stimulating way.
Perhaps there is a similarity in that sense.
Sandra: Well, I think so. The book cover needs to tell a story to a certain extent. It can’t tell the story of the book, that’s just dumb. You can’t get everything that’s inside a book onto a cover, that’s just impossible.
But you can evoke what’s inside to the reader by using certain signposts. For example, kids’ books do it with illustration and perhaps typography. Young adult books do it more with typography and images. So there are those things.
But you need to, yeah, be smart about how you use them and to be appropriate.
Mark: Yeah, I think one of the things that the computer has done for us is make huge contributions to design. I can work with a designer in London and in minutes I can have the files. In the past it would take a six-week trip on a ship and then get lost, as some terrible horror stories have been.
One of the bad things it’s done is that you have all the fonts in the world at your disposal. You have all the little dinkuses you could ever have. And a little bit like somebody’s who’s got a new synthesizer or something like that, and they think they’ve got all these sounds; they’ll use them all.
Actually the cleverest design is leaving all that out. I think if you go back to look at typography in Australian book design, Mary Callaghan has probably won more prizes than almost anybody. Sometimes when you look at her design, you go, “Big deal.” There’s just the type, you know. But she’s chosen exactly the right font for the subject and she’s got exactly the right layout on the page.
The choice of that can really make the difference of whether it’s appropriate or compatible or not. Not all are special effects in typography and design at all. In fact, that usually looks tizzy I think.
Nell: What I might do is open it up to the floor if there’s anyone with any questions you might like to raise your hand. And Lily has the microphone there. She’ll bring it to you if you’d like to ask a question of our esteemed guests here tonight. Anyone with a burning question’ Someone out there’
Male Questioner 1: I hope you could comment about the large, more corporate side of publishing houses, as opposed to the smaller, independent ones, in terms of variety of success or whatever.
Mark: From my point of view, the bigger a publishing company goes and the more investment that’s at stake, the more people it has to please in order to get its revenue – and therefore the fewer edges there can be on the artwork.
It seems to me that that’s true of Hollywood. People are saying, at the moment, in American cinema, “Oh, my God; everybody’s staying home; no-one’s going to movies. That’s because they all have DVD players.” No, it’s not: it’s because the movies are lousy. It’s because the accountants have sorted out a great idea – “Let’s put Brad Pitt with blank” and tick them off – and the audience goes “You know what’ There’s absolutely no chemistry between those two at all. There’s nothing going on in that movie.”
And I think that’s what the problem is: you can have all the accounts in the right place; but – unless you have the art right – unless you have that inspiration from the designer, the illustrator, the writer – it’s not going to happen.
So, really, the risky project – and, if you’re a designer with something that you think is a bit new and edgy – probably the bigger publishing company that you go to is going to be scared off by it. And, probably, even though this isn’t going to please you financially, your better bet is to go to a small one. Find a small publisher who’s just going to totally love it, and who works out of the lounge room at home and produces really high-quality books that will please someone in the marketplace.
As soon as you start trying to please the world, there are the artistic risks.
So, the Australian film industry is certainly – Noah and I were talking about this today: we’ve found, I think, that, if you go for the big, international-star movie, you’re going to fall flat on your face, because it’s like the one big international book that everyone’s writing. I think it’s much better if you go for something with a lot of integrity, artistic integrity, and trust that there’ll be enough other people who have that response inside that you had when you first wrote it, illustrated it, designed it, published it.
Nell: And, yet, it’s interesting that you say that, when you do something that’s too local, too Australian perhaps, it’s not going to appeal to a British audience – they’re not going to even want to go there.
Mark: Yeah, it’s quite interesting, that, isn’t it’ But you can’t predict it. I think all of us would have had books about which you go, “This, for sure, is going to work” – and then it just doesn’t, for some reason. They didn’t like it. I don’t know why. What else was available in the market that week, or the mood – the country does have moods.
And, for example, right now, there’s a fabulous book, by Margaret Wild, called Walls in the City, which is all black-and-white except for a few colours. I think it’s going to be really interesting to see how that takes off, because my reading of the Australian public at the moment is that they want colour. I think they’re not ready for stark black-and-white right at the moment. But I could be wrong; I hope I am, because it’s a fantastic book.
Nell: What about some other trends’ I think Susan Wyndham recently wrote that there was a trend towards embellishment in design. Do you see that happening’
Anna: Yeah. It’s been going on. Since computer technology has come up in printing, it’s become a lot more accessible.
And you know what a lot of things are going to look like. But I remember trying to do my first spot gloss on a user guide for Bob Sessions, before he even – oh, no, we can’t do this. But, now, everything has to be matte-varnished with a spot of gloss and a bit of embossing if you can -
Mark: Have you done any debossing’
Anna: I have. It didn’t work very well, but -
Mark: Limelight Press, in Sydney, I think, did the first debossed picture-book title. It’s pretty groovy, you know.
Anna: Yeah. Well, at least it’s on a little non-fiction, but, yeah.
Nell: Any questions’ Oh, there’s one question.
Woman Questioner 1: In choosing stories and illustrators, is it a choice by a board, or is it done by individual people that sort of run with the idea just to say somebody will back us, or is it determined by sales and marketing and all those other things that might get in the way of possibly something new and amazing’
Anna: I think all of the above. Authors and illustrators that have a reputation in the industry will find it a lot easier to be republished and to explore other areas, perhaps, in publishing.
Commissioning editors and publishers, for the companies that I work for, are very important in sourcing new authors and illustrators, because there are many people out there that want to be published, so there’s a lot of unsolicited manuscripts that come in and there are a lot of illustrators that send their folios in that want interviews to show their wares.
So there are many up-and-coming young people and I think – it’s not my job, but more Mark’s – that publishing companies have certain people that make that kind of decision; and they tend to be the commissioning editors and the publishers that are willing to take those risks about whether someone’s going to sell or not.
Mark: There are some parameters based on sales figures and marketing. I gave you an example of that before with Jeff Raggless. From a publishing and editorial point of view, I totally love him; and I also know that it’s going to be death at the box office, if I’m hoping that parents will be buyers, or rather conservative teachers and librarians maybe.
One good bit of news is that there are opportunities for untried illustrators to get a book with a well-known author. Sometimes, what you can do is – you need one marketing hook. So that could be a well-known author or a well-known illustrator. And, if you have Anna Fienberg, and she and her publisher say “Yeah, let’s try a new illustrator,” they know that they can go and sell it as a new Anna Fienberg book, and so they have a certain guaranteed market in which people will get to know and like a new illustrator.
It can work the other way around, too. You can have a completely new writer, and put him or her with Julie Vivas, and you have your sales.
It’s very, very hard. Look at how many children’s books get written about in the Australian papers: almost nothing, except when they want to slag them off and say how offensive the books are, whatever it is. There’s one day, when there’s no news going on in Iraq or wherever, and they decide they hate children’s books and that we should all be really worried.
And I’m sorry – but, when Brendan Nelson was the Education Minister – when he and Archbishop Pell both start, in the same week, to lecture us on the appropriate books for children in schools, I’m going “Game over. I don’t want to know about it.”
There are good opportunities. And you shouldn’t feel, if you’re a new designer, a new illustrator – for example, I have never met Georgie Wilson, but I love her design. It’s very fresh and quite young. And, when I started publishing, I was told that there were only two fonts that you could use in children’s books. And, instantly, as soon as someone says that to you, go “I’m going to find four.”
Well, I love that Georgie Wilson’s been using sort of hand-lettered fonts and so on – which would have horrified people 20 years ago, for a book going into school and people saying “Oh, yeah, the kids can read that.” And she’s great; she has this really young, fresh look, which has been applied to books with very famous writers and illustrators, and I think that’s great.