Douglas Martin reflects on the past, present and future of what the book trade calls `flats’.
Prior to the beginning of the modern period (which can be dated conveniently from the appearance of Brian Wildsmith’s ABC in 1962), the work of illustrators was so highly individualistic it was difficult to think of picture books as making up a distinct genre at all. Only a handful of titles was available when compared to today’s plenty. The diversity of format and style was further emphasised by the variety of techniques in which artists were encouraged to produce their own separated drawings for the number of colours available and the printing process in use. This represented a great economy for printer and publisher, but was laborious and often restricting for the illustrator.
Once it would not have been exceptional for an artist, dissatisfied with the printed effect in ten colours, to draw for an eleventh plate! Much of the attractive, almost folk-art quality of early children’s books results from the artists’ direct involvement with the intricacies of imperfect processes. Some of the equipment in book printing houses and binderies had survived from Victorian times into the early 1960s, but, with the scrapping of the formerly dominant letterpress printing method, out went all those ingenious machines for adding optional extras and finishing touches, in favour of the standard four-colour offset press and automated binding line. The ensuing rationalisation affected books of all kinds, but a recognisable formula soon emerged for picture books, or `flats’ as they’re called in the trade.
The panache of early Wildsmith was exactly right for some of the early trials, for he worked as a painter, and his artwork was originally sent to printers specialising in fine art reproduction to establish what standards could be expected in terms of fidelity to colour, texture and detail. Of course photographic colour separation was nothing new, but in the children’s book field it had rarely reached the heights of Wildsmith’s plates for Tales from the Arabian Nights (Oxford, 1961).
The Rise of the Co-edition
It soon became clear that offset lithography was the future path for colour printing, and that it would become progressively cheaper as technology improved and demand increased. The international co-edition was born at this time out of a need to share the high colour origination costs between as many language editions as could be mustered. The notion of shopping round the globe for the cheapest colour printing also came about and remains an equally burning issue today – where the artist’s freedom to create fresh effects often results from the revival of labour-intensive operations and obsolescent processes in places as diverse as Taiwan, Malta or Colombia.
The first generation of illustrators to enter this new field had the pick of the subject matter, and there are still some excellent alphabet and counting books, and collections of fables and rhymes, reprinting and selling steadily after almost twenty-five years. Later, in order to make the product acceptable in as many countries and languages as possible, editorial and pictorial standards levelled. This led to the bland suppression of local detail and national character. After an initially high level of creativity, some mediocre and commercially motivated exploitation was only to be expected as publishers deliberately used artists with less talent to keep pace with rapidly rising publishing output. Just a few years ago it was beginning to be felt that a limit to expansion had been reached and that there was a real risk of over-production, but shorter print runs and lower shelf life are realities which have enabled far more titles to see the light of day recently, and for the best of them to reprint frequently.
Moreover, every three years or so each age group has effectively renewed itself. In any case the age range formerly assumed for the picture book seems to have been an unduly narrow and hypothetical one. It now seems that this could be developed virtually without limits from the cradle to the geriatric ward, with such books as Raymond Briggs’ Snowman at one end of the spectrum and the same author’s When the Wind Blows at the other.
Back to the Future …
The cross-fertilisation of picture book and comic strip approaches has added to this potential for growth, and the phenomenal success of the bande desinee (initially cult books for adults, notably Asterix) demonstrates the versatility of this medium in spanning gaps in readership and interest ages. So-called novelty books have never been long out of favour or supply. It’s been shown that cut-out and pop-up books can yield results of lasting worth in the hands of such dissimilar artists as Faith Jacques and Jan Pienkowski. The reestablishment of metallic printing and blocking techniques and also those which have come to be known under the specialised heading of `paper engineering’ have been intriguing features of the past decade, and the process of rescuing forgotten skills is far from over.
Look for instance at the historical and collecting attention that has been focused on Victorian and Edwardian gift book bindings and the dozens of stages in their elaborate manufacture. It would surely be possible to restore some of the more effective of these operations so that designers could have scope, not by any means to copy the past, but to produce effects in contemporary terms which would create an equivalent sense of wonder. All this is more than mere gimmickry. To the child the book is an object or a toy. At its best it has always contained surprises of these kinds, and designers may have become too dogmatic in their routine advocacy of sanserif and similar typefaces, and too blinkered in going along with unadventurous binding materials and styles.
Holography and After
Holography is on the horizon for book production, and in the 1990s may be one of the more over-exploited resources for the mass paperback cover – just as metallic foil blocking serves at present. But this should not preclude its imaginative use in the design of books for children. It’s at an interesting remove from photography (which has had surprisingly little to contribute to children’s fiction), and I’m convinced that it will be combined with illustrative styles in all sorts of imaginative ways. It’s now simply a question of who gets there first and at the right artistic level.
So prospects and resources for the future of the picture book are set fair, and I would suggest that the technical means of production will become more, not less, responsive – and that’s leaving aside the question of computer-aided illustration which will no doubt have its own contribution to make.
Input from the Designer
I’ve left until last the question of what the designer can bring to the making of a picture book. Often little more than a critical eye and an ability to judge the precise style, weight and placement for the text: but also at rare times an awareness of the alchemy of the interaction between images and words. This is an immensely absorbing area, where the picture book originator can be helped by an editor or a designer who’s sensitive to both.
The choice of size and design of typeface is critical to a picture book’s success, and this is generally governed by a sensitive reaction to three common sense factors:
1) the character of the artwork
2) the format of the book
3) the number of words in a line or on the page
No one can legislate or prescribe beyond that – even the age of the readership, be it infant or adult, can seldom be conclusively established. This isn’t always understood within the structure of the publishing world itself, where there is a curious assumption that the child is perpetually in the state of learning to read. This may be true for about 5% of childhood’s span, but scarcely for more on average, and my growing conviction is that the child can cope with all sorts of possibilities in the right setting – from the smallest size of type on a cereal packet to the largest in the supermarket display – just as soon as the journey towards reading proficiency has begun.
Admittedly we do not know which 5% is currently and individually involved. It may be prudent to allow that certain, if unspecified, damage could occur at any stage in acquiring reading skills, but experienced designers will ascribe these dangers mostly to bad spacing and arrangement of type rather than to the features which educationists will latch onto, such as nominal type-size or preferred forms of the letters `a’ and ‘g’.
How will the Book be Read?
Of greater interest to the designer is the reading position and focal length likely to be adopted. Insufficient research seems to have gone into this topic. Simply: if we make a volume such and such a size, will this encourage the book to be held with one or both hands or to continue to be read from its place on the floor, bed or table? It seems to me that Janet and Allan Ahlberg or Anthony Browne invite a quite different focal distance from that posed by, say, Brian Wildsmith or Quentin Blake. This may be just a matter of physical make-up, the artists’ as well as the readers’, but it’s the sort of consideration from which the designer must set out in judging the size and weight of type. The concentration and time duration demanded by any illustration is a similar issue that can’t be measured objectively, but nevertheless it’s one on which most people must have a fair idea in the case of specific works of art. This too can be important to designers in judging the pace of text assimilation in relation to the pictures which run in parallel. If that sounds like the abstruse side of book design, then think of it all as a process of discerning and making a trail to be followed. The author/illustrator has accomplished nearly all of the important work – it only remains for the designer to inspect and, where necessary, add signposts and other features which make communication viable.
The Picture Book Process
The ways in which picture books come about and how the originators present new ideas to their publishers is a fascinating study in itself. Usually there’s a preliminary rough or story-board which communicates all the editor and designer need to know in order to assess the market and the strategy for a given title. This will be followed through methodically in preparing the finished drawing for each spread of facing pages, unless of course there’s a basis for a serious critique of concept or construction. The late Charles Keeping used to submit each forthcoming title as a concertina fold that could be opened the length of the room to show the impact and planned variety in colour and progression. Of course the map could then be folded down again so that the cumulative effect of turning the pages could be assessed. This sense of almost cinematographic flow is all-important, but comes more easily to some illustrators than to others.
Again, some artists can manage their words brilliantly, others need to have them managed for them. At the lunatic extreme, I recall working with one editor who felt so strongly about the visual/verbal divide that he was in the habit of commissioning picture book texts of 150 words or so from eminent writers at vast expense in order that we could then rack our brains deciding whom to persuade to illustrate them! The whole situation has changed greatly over the years so that the craft of picture book making is now well understood. Alas, though, the risk which follows from such a complacent admission is that routines and formulas can emerge which tend to suppress idiosyncracy and originality. Kathleen Hale’s Orlando (recently reissued), for example, is allowed to ramble on in a way that would attract immediate editorial attention today; but as a child I loved this uncondescending verbiage: there was something there for reading to unlock.
Coming Full Circle
Years of involvement in the design of children’s books have taught me to be wary of most adult views on the kinds of illustrations and typefaces which are supposed in general to be suitable for children – particularly those expressed in training colleges for artists, teachers and librarians. For the practising designer all decisions must be taken in the light of the unique circumstances which surround each individual job. No golden or prescriptive rules can be applied. The approach to book design for adults differs from that for children only in that designers and illustrators share a visual outlook with the child. Sadly, this is one which most adults suppress. It reasserts itself again in parenthood. The pattern for modern parents is that they grew up used to looking and being read to, but lost interest in the counterpoint of words and pictures soon after they could read independently. Then, after a gap of two decades or so, they return to the children’s library to recognise many an old favourite as well as many a colourful new creation. This would have been unthinkable in former times.
Douglas Martin is a practising freelance book designer. He is also the author of The Telling Line: Essays on Fifteen Contemporary Book Illustrators, Julia MacRae, 0 86203 333 0, £35.(x) and An Outline of Book Design, Blueprint Publishing with the Publishers Association, 0 948905 40 9, £ 19.95.
ABC, Brian Wildsmith, OUP, 0 19 272122 4, £3.95
Tales from the Arabian Nights, ill. Brian Wildsmith,’ OUP, o/p
The Snowman, Raymond Briggs, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 11704 6, £5.95; Picture Puffin, 0 14 050.350 1, £3.50 pbk
When the Wind Blows, Raymond Briggs, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 107210, £5.95; Penguin, 0 14 00.9419 9, £3.95 pbk
Asterix titles published by Hodder & Stoughton in hardback and by Knight Books in paperback.
Orlando the Marmalade Cat Keeps a Dog, Kathleen Hale, Frederick Warne, 0 7232 3650 X, £9.99
Orlando the Marmalade Cat: A Camping Holiday, Kathleen Hale, Frederick Warne, 0 7232 3648 8, £9.99