Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Layouts and Spreads

I am fortunate in that when I write a book I work closely with the designer in developing the layout, the design of the book. In some cases that is because the book -- while "published" but the publisher whose name is on the spine -- was actually "packaged" by the tiny company I run with my friend and partner John W. Glenn. That is, we hire the designer, we find the art (or the artist), we find the copy editor, the indexer, the proof-reader. We show stages of our work to the publisher as we go along -- adjusting and changing in response to their comments -- and then ultimately hand them a file they can print. Indeed this process can go on after we hand in the file: John took the print file of The Skull in the Rock and crafted an ibook out of it which Kirkus selected as one of its apps of the year last year.

Why package books? Or, even when I work without John, why would I be involved in layout? In part this is personal. Like Jim Murphy and Tanya Lee Stone (both of whom also take an active role in layout) I was an editor before I became an author. All three of us think of narration as an experience, not as words, or words plus images, because that was our training. My parents were also set designers on Broadway, and my father in particular spent a great deal of time trying to think through and "solve" a play. That is, he did not begin by researching the color of the wallpaper in the era of the play (though he did that). He began by exploring with the director and author to figure out a visual key, an image, a metaphor, that was the essence of the lived experience of the play. That sometimes took as much as a year to go from script to stage, and the play might close after one night. So our family business was that combination of art, thinking, exploration, talk, debate, research, intuition plus the boom or bust of first night reviews (much like the boom or bust of book reviews and award selections).

If Stones Could Speak is a book John and I packaged. In one way, it is an explanation of a relatively new theory about Stonehenge. A challenge there is that some, but not all or even most, 5th graders know what Stonehenge is. So to explain we also, relatively early on, had to define. In another sense the book is about one archaelogist -- Mike Parker Pearson -- and his Riverside Project team who had made some signal new discoveries near Stonehenge. Mike allowed me to visit and work with his team over parts of two summers, so I both had the story of their discoveries before I arrived and a hands-on sense of their personalities. Finally, though, the book is about discovery itself, about seeing and looking in new ways -- in which neither Mike nor even the explanation of Stonehenge are most important.

The design challenge is to figure out how to flow these three themes in a way that seems natural. So that while the reader is just carried along, they are feeling these swells, these currents, which come together at key moments of revelation and explanation. I really do see the combination of writing and design as most similar to musical composition -- the way a musical piece may have a small melody or theme stated at first that is changed, enhanced, reversed, then returns in a new form -- or, similarly, the way a novelist, playwright, or poet may foreshadow later plot or character developments.

If Stones was published by National Geographic, a sponsor of Mike's work. That meant we had access (though neither unlimited nor free) to wonderful photos of the site. We used one as scene-setting spread on the title page -- to give a visual anchor to all readers. But then the first illustration, on page 6, facing chapter 1, is a drawing from 1570 of a man on horseback amidst the stones. an inset drawing from 1740 on 8 is an imagined Druid (Druids in fact had nothing to do with Stonehenge); on page 9 we have the first known drawing of Stonehenge from the 1300s; 10-11 is a drawing of a Bird's-Eye View of Stonehenge; 12 is a black and white photo of the road to Stonehenge in 1930, with a color inset of a few stones on the facing page. You then see more stones in color on top of 14.

The idea behind this sequence was to make the reader feel the passage of time. You see a sequence of drawn images then a black and white photo. Beneath any thought, you feel time -- different views, different media, an older form of photography, until finally you arrive at the present in full color. If we had begun with This Is Stonehenge --with a tour of the site in wonderful full color -- that would have served a purpose. The reader would have an immediate You Are There experience. But that would only serve theme one. By leading you through time as we described Stonehenge we gave you information while, at the same time, took you on a journey and gave you a sense of arrival. Then, turning the page to 16, we started you on a second journey through Mike's life, leading to the key moment on 23 when Ramilisonina -- an archaeologist from Madagascar -- asked the key question that spurred Mike's discoveries. Those discoveries, then make up the rest of the book.

Think of this as scenes and acts. Act 1 establishes the three themes of the book, while, like an overture to a musical, carrying you into the experience. Act 2 is Mike to Ramilisonina. Act 3 is the discovery. Act 4 -- well, read the book.



  1. Thank you for such an eye-opening post. This really helps me understand the book. So my question is, How do different books pose different visual challenges? Could you give an example? I had no idea that some authors are directly involved in the layout. How can we learn more about this? I think teachers would like to know this. I would. Again, thanks for such a wonderful post.

  2. each book is a distinct visual challenge, I will post about this next week -- there is more to point out in If Stones, then on to Skull. The key point is this: everything, I mean literally everything, in a NF is a choice. Each choice -- words, punctuation, type face, folios, images, layout, backmatter -- influences the experience of the book. Some of these choices are made, or severely constrained, by factors such as budget, availability of images, audience. There is no slam dunk way unless the author writes or posts about it. Tanya has spoke some about Courage, I believe, and Jim about An American Plague. Candy Fleming has written about design in some of her books, I believe.