As a writer and editor of children’s books, I find it difficult to understand how illustrators can take on the job of creating illustrations for a story they have not read. Very often, I am told, the artists have no time to read a manuscript, just give them the art brief. I contend that, with the best will in the world, an art brief cannot capture the nuances, the mood, the essence of a story to feed the artists’ creativity, so they are sometimes surprised at the requests for changes as they do not fully understand what is required to complement the story. No wonder some persons complain that the book covers and illustrations for Caribbean children’s books are rarely exciting, and we don’t get anything new by way of technique or vision.
My other complaint is the blanket expectation that a children’s book automatically means whimsy or cartoons; and the lack of appreciation for the requirements of stories for the different age groups within the genre of children’s books. Writers often choose to specialize in writing for specific age groups, perhaps illustrators should do so too. But, since this section of publishing is not well developed in the Caribbean, perhaps there is little incentive to invest time and talent here.
What goes into the design of a book cover? Obviously the intended readership is of extreme importance. If we think of children’s books as covering the age range 0 to 14 years, we need to remember that there are several divisions within this range.
0- 3 years –picture books
3-6 years – picture books
6-8 years – picture story books/ early chapter books
8 to 12 years – chapter books/novels
12 to 14 – chapter books/ novels
These age divisions may vary for different publishers. For example, some publishers now use
9 to 13 as a ‘tween age – not quite young adult not completely past chapter books.
These divisions are necessary as guides to writers, illustrators, and readers/purchasers of books. Children's reading readiness, their interests and needs vary from one group to the next, and books should reflect this.
Can you tell, just by the covers of the books in this post, which age groups are being targeted?
Unfortunately, there is still a tendency to respond to the term children’s books as covering just the picture book ages. Whenever I am asked to read in the children’s section of any function, I point out that although I am an author of children’s books, my stories are for ages 8 and up. I was once asked to read at a morning session at a bookstore where the normal attendance was in the 6 and under age group. I had to abandon my reading plan in favour of something suitable for that age group. Fortunately, the bookstore now has an afternoon session for older children, and both audience and myself were more comfortable when I returned to read for this group.
I bring up the importance of the age divisions again, because in the Caribbean, the production of books for children is still, for the most part, in its infancy. The Book Industry of Jamaica (BIAJ) has just recently,for 2011, introduced two sections for children’s book awards- Picture books and Chapter books. Previously there was just one section.They need to consider adding a third, for the YA group (Young Adult).It is not fair to lump together books meant for different age groups in any competition. What standard criteria for judging can be used? A book meant for the YA group will differ from books for adults and should be judged separately. Notwithstanding all this, the fact is that many adults enjoy books for children, and many children
can enjoy books meant for older age groups.
Which brings me back to the problem of book covers. Book designers, of necessity must consider the ages of the intended readership. Illustrations for books in the different age ranges must obviously reflect the difference in the interests of the readers. What works for one group will not necessarily work for another.
In light of this discussion, I pose this question - who is the best judge of a good book cover?
We all know what we want a cover to do – attract readers and buyers. A good cover will also reflect the story’s purpose and appeal specifically to the target age group. In the long run, many of us use very subjective judgements, and your guess may be as good as mine.However, a good story with popular appeal will sell whether the cover has or doesn’t have outstanding artistic appeal. My guess is that many Harry Potter fans, for example, would not really care if the book cover was just plain brown paper with title and author.