Monday, February 4, 2013

The Backbone of a Book is its Spine

My first-ever blog post for Blogsmith. I'm very excited and intimidated to be here!

I'll start with a confession. I'm afraid I do, in fact, still judge books by their covers. Worse than that, I judge books by their spines.

To be fair, the world of children's literature grows exponentially on a weekly basis. There is so much out there and even for those of us lucky enough to spend our days buried away in the Booksmith's magnificent children's department, it's daunting to be asked for a book for an advanced ten-year-old who likes model cars, ponies, Saturday morning cartoons, and cooking. My hunt for the perfect book for this reader is likely to begin with a spine, which is likely the first part of the book that I will see.

It's worth noting that book jacket design is a huge and critical part of the publishing process. Whether the art belongs to the author/illustrator, the illustrator, or a graphic designer contracted by the publisher, it's critical that a book's spine be as eye-catching as its cover because even if a book gets some face-out time on the shelf, chances are it will spend the bulk of its time flashing its spine and hoping to be noticed by wandering eyes.

I should just mention that I wanted to do this post because it came to my attention recently that there are quite a few seriously cool book jacket designs kicking around our bookshelves right now with some really eye-catching spines. I've pulled a few of my favorites from different parts of the department to try and figure out what about them that stands out. Why did I pull these off the shelf (and why might you)?

Tess's Guide to Awesome Spinage 
Seriously cool book jacket designs with eye-catching spines
Imagery If you have a thick spine, use it! If you're lucky enough to be Caldecott medalist Brian Selznick, you got to design your own cover using your own artwork. His most recent novel, Wonderstruck, looks fantastic next to his debut novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, because they both literally stare at you from the bookshelf. Wonderstruck really stands out, though, because of the vivid color Selznick uses in his cover art (though the interior is black and white). Another important feature of imagery used in the jacket design is how active it looks, as though the spine is brimming over with action from the cover art. In the case of YA novels, some jacket designers make really good use of action imagery in their book spines. Ally Condie's Crossed (jacket design by Theresa M. Evangelista) simply recycles the photo and gargantuan title letters from the cover art. The combination of active imagery, large font, and reversal of a single letter, added to the Matched trilogy's coordinating designs for Matched and Reached, make this series' spines eye-catching ones. Chris Beam's I Am J doesn't have the advantage of belonging to a series but it does the job of being eye-catching by using an image that looks both like it's moving and like you could reach out and touch it (which you probably will, thereby choosing it over its competitors and making its parents very proud). 

Color One of the most challenging jackets to design is that of a picture book. While you often have twice or three times the cover space, you also have a long, narrow spine that is crammed it next to fifty other long, narrow spines. An effective means of drawing attention is to use bright (or even jarring) colors on the spine. Take, for instance, Matthew Luckhurst's Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. Luckhurst worked with Chad W. Beckerman in the book's design and they could have done much worse in their choice of bright, pastel yellow. Likewise, the text on the spine is glaringly bright pastel blue, red, and green so it's easy to spot beside other books. Though not often found mixed in with picture books, Ingri and Edgar Parin D'Aulaires' classic, D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Mythology goes with a violently yellow spine and simple, bold black text. You're never ever going to lose track of this one on the shelves. And in Mo Willems' newest gem, Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs, jacket designer Martha Rago makes use of block lettering filled with several bright colors against pastel green so that Willems' name and the title pop.

Artwork If you're designing a jacket for a tremendously gifted illustrator, why not slap their artwork on the spine? Inga Moore illustrated Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic The Secret Garden and the elegance of the spine, with its straightforward color scheme and lettering, is enhanced by one of Moore's images of Mary Lennox peering down a garden path. The image is small but gives a taste of the clarity of the illustrations (also indicating that they're in color, which is a big draw in intermediate fiction right now. For another great taste of full-color chapter books, check out Roald Dahl's classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or E.B. White's Charlotte's Web).

Contrast It's important for the spine to stand out so another effective method of drawing the eye is by designing spines with contrasting colors and patterns. Instead of relying on a brightly colored spine to draw the eye, the contrast on the spine itself does the job for you. Take, for example, Tad Hill's How Rocket Learned to Read and Rocket Writes a Story.     

Cleverness When in doubt, do something clever. Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo's Asterix comic strips now appear in omnibus form. If you fit the spines of the omnibus editions together, they form a complete image from one of Uderzo's illustrations. Since even the omnibus editions don't actually have large spines, it's a smart move to make the series itself eye-catching by making sure that even a single copy of each volume draws attention on the shelf.

My judgment of a book's worth certainly doesn't end with its spine. But it's definitely a place to start. What book spines have caught your eye recently?

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