Friday Book Design Blog: Pushkin Children’s… or children’s books: designed for whom?

Jonathan Gibbs

house without mirrors Friday Book Design Blog: Pushkin Childrens... or childrens books: designed for whom?Designing books for children comes with its own specific set of problems, especially when you’re designing a, shall we say ‘good’ book, a book that you might expect an ambitious and book-loving parent to buy for their child, or encourage them to pick in the bookshop, rather than the latest shiny, garish series paperback adorned with, perhaps a unicorn, or a generic moping Victorian orphan, or swish-haired boy with sword and shield, or logo of a secret international crime-fighting organisation staffed entirely by children.

Basically, book design sends messages to prospective buyers and readers, and when it comes to children’s books, the fact is that those two roles are often split. Parents often buy the books their children read. So a book designer has to decide how they are going to orchestrate their sly messaging, whose attention they’re going to try to grab.

Shiny embossed covers may appeal to kids, while something a little more refined may lure a parent, who wants their loved one to be reading something a little better than another by-the-numbers thriller or lumpen comedy ground out by committee or celebrity.

(Arguments about how parents should try to control their children’s reading are sent to Daniel Pennac’s The Rights of the Reader (illustrated by Quentin Blake) – and are then made to sit down and read aloud all 78 Beast Quest books, back to back.)

Does my own preoccupation nudge through the objective journalistic coverage here? Perhaps it does. The shelves at home are… well, not littered, but sprinkled with the occasional expensive, classic-looking children’s book that has been bought for a birthday or Christmas, politely examined, and then never looked at again.

Eg? Well, a quick survey discovers the lovely Walker Books hardback of Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls, with its sinister cover illustration by Jim Kay; David Lucas’s The Lying Carpet (Andersen Press); and even the NYRB Children’s Classic edition of the American children’s classic, Uncle, by JP Martin. Now, I’m not a total control freak, but I’m pretty sure none of those books has been read.

dracula H Friday Book Design Blog: Pushkin Childrens... or childrens books: designed for whom?On the other hand, one of my ten-year-olds is totally taken with the Penguin Classics cloth-covered edition of Dracula, with its beautiful and insidious garlic flower  pattern (design by Coralie Bickford-Smith), and happily carts it to and from school with him. Next, he wants to read Frankenstein – but not the cheap Puffin paperback, thank you very much, with the vaguely teen zombie-looking monster on the cover… nor the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, with retro comic design, nor the…

Well, let’s just stop here for and take a moment to consider the fact that Penguin UK currently has EIGHT different physical book versions of Frankenstein in print: Penguin Classics, Pocket Penguin Classics, Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, Penguin Classics Horror Series (selected by Guillermo del Toro), Puffin, Puffin Classic, Penguin Classics Cloth-Bound Edition, and the Penguin English Library (essentially the cloth-covered edition in paperback), prices ranging from £5.99 to £14.99, with the ebook £4.99 (and of course you can find it for free plenty of places).

Is this a record? Is this something Penguin is proud of? Is this – what would you call it – niche marketing? scattergun marketing? Is it the way of the future? Targeting every last single person still willing to buy a paper book with an edition individually designed for them? Frankenstein The Dyspeptic Pigeon-Fancying Hipster Edition? The Double-Jointed Occasional-Jogger Green-Fingered Macaroon-Lover’s Edition?

Suffice it to say, it’s the beautiful Bickford-Smith clothbound edition he wants. And who are we not to encourage him?

The latest entrant into this tricky territory is Pushkin Press, already well known for their international fiction, mostly in translation. This year saw the launch of their children’s imprint. To be fair it’s not just classics, but a mixture of the old and the new, the ‘parent-friendly’ and the kids-oriented, but all foreign and, again, mostly in translation.

 Friday Book Design Blog: Pushkin Childrens... or childrens books: designed for whom?Looking at the current and future lists, there seems an admirable attempt to cover all bases – Oksa Pollock by Anne Plichota and Cendrine Wolf gets the full-on hardback fantasy treatment, with shiny bits, flouncy olde worlde font, computer-generated flames and generalised come-hither blurb (“A new heroine, an old evil, an unforgettable adventure”), while the Danish Vitello series go big on their scruffy cartoon hero, in paperback.

Among all these, though, are a series of comparatively restrained, if not quite austere hardbacks that seem well designed to split the difference between kids’ tastes and grown-ups’. They are Pierre Gripari’s The Good Little Devil and Other Tales (modern, skittish fairy tales that reminded me of Terry Jones’s ones, though 20 years older), Bernardo Atxaga’s The Adventures of Shola, and, coming in at a slightly more mature angle, Mårten Sandén’s A House Without Mirrors. They all have nice big print inside and come with their original illustrations – though this is not always necessarily a good thing.

a house without mirrors pages1 Friday Book Design Blog: Pushkin Childrens... or childrens books: designed for whom?
If relatively few foreign children’s books get translated, that also means we see relatively little in the way of foreign illustration. Moa Schulman’s black and white pieces in A House Without Mirrors suit the spooky narrative very well, but I can’t help but wince at Mikel Valverde’s colour pieces in Shola. The dog (Shola herself) is quite lovely, but her owner, Se­ñor Grogó, seems a remarkably unhappy creation – done in a style that I can’t quite ‘read’. He’s ugly, yes, but not in a way I’d call sympathetic. It would be interesting to know how a Spanish reader would see him.

shola pages1 Friday Book Design Blog: Pushkin Childrens... or childrens books: designed for whom?

I’m happy to report, though, that the nine-year-old, caught between books, picked Shola up quite happily to read in bed last night, and slipped it into his bag for school this morning.

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