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December 2009

Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

New York Times:

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Jeanette Winterston on The Talented Miss Highsmith by Joan Schenkar: "Concealment was her game, and her way of life. Dating three women at a time was not difficult for her. She collected snails, liking their portable hiding place and the impossibility of telling which was male and which was female. She traveled with snails in her luggage and kept hundreds at home. If she was bored at dinner parties, she might get a few snails out of her purse and let them loose on the tablecloth. As she didn’t eat much, she was often bored at dinner parties.... This is a biography of clarity and style. A model of its kind."
  • Andrea Wulf on Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England by Amanda Vickery: "Few writers have such a talent for transforming the driest historical source into a gripping narrative, for teasing stories from account books, inventories, ledgers and pattern books.... If until now the Georgian home has been like a monochrome engraving, Vickery has made it three dimensional and vibrantly colored. 'Behind Closed Doors' demonstrates that rigorous academic work can also be nosy, gossipy and utterly engaging."
  • Suzanne Vega on Paul McCartney: A Life by Peter Ames Carlin: "Our eyes dry in a hurry as we careen from breathless fan-boy writing to dusty travelogue descriptions of Liverpool at the turn of the 20th century, while Carlin describes some immigrants flooding in and others flooding out, 'departing for the untrammeled shores of the New World.' Yawn. Why are shores always untrammeled? No one ever seems to write about how trammeled most shores actually are these days."
  • Barry Gewen on In Search of My Homeland: A Memoir of a Chinese Labor Camp by Er Tai Gao: "It’s tempting to try to read Mr. Gao’s story optimistically, as a lesson about the strength and resilience of the human spirit, with this book as the happy ending.... Mr. Gao is less sentimental; he understands how little his own choices had to do with his survival. If he hadn’t been a painter at a time when the government needed painters, he probably would have died at Jiabiangou like most of the prisoners there. At many steps along the way he had the good fortune to find mentors who taught him, patrons who protected him. We don’t hear the stories of those people who didn’t happen to find patrons because they aren’t here to tell their tales."

Washington Post:

  • Charles on The Anarchist by John Smolens: "Have you ever cut yourself on a piece of glass without realizing it? Just like that, Smolens slides through gruesome episodes in such muted, unadorned prose that you barely realize what's happened until you see the blood. The genius of this novel is the tension he creates by moving quickly from quiet, moving scenes in the president's sickroom or Czolgosz's prison cell to raw, startling flashes of violence during the criminal investigation.... It's an enthralling descent into the dark byways of the criminal mind and the vast system of canals that ran through Buffalo. Here is the crime that launched the 20th century, the unlikely imprint of a lonely man's delusion on the soft metal of the world."
  • Seth Faison on When China Rules the World by Martin Jacques: "The result is 'When China Rules the World,' a compelling and thought-provoking analysis of global trends that defies the common Western assumption that, to be fully modern, a nation must become democratic, financially transparent and legally accountable. Jacques argues persuasively that China is on track to take over as the world's dominant power and that, when it does, it will make the rules, on its own terms, with little regard for what came before."

Los Angeles Times:

  • James Marcus on The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam: "It is very difficult to write even a small masterpiece. But there is something harder still: writing a sequel to a masterpiece.... There are scenes of exquisite power, including a couple of encounters with the slippery Veneering (perfect name, by the way). So why does Betty's story pale next to that of her husband [in Gardam's Old Filth]? ... 'The Man in the Wooden Hat' retains the feeling of a subsidiary work. And yet without it, these scenes from a marriage would be woefully incomplete. It turns out that even a (relatively) silent partner has something important to say."

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

The Best Book Cover of 2009: "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies"

I thought the ancient proverb that would come in handy for our inaugural Best Book Covers of the Year poll would be "Don't judge a book by its cover," but the one I keep thinking of instead is "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Starting with the nearly unanimous disgruntlement our slate of nominees were met with, followed by some surprise upsets in the first round of voting, and finishing with an eeked-out victory by a cover I didn't expect to see at the top (although its charms are completely understandable), I was reminded again and again that what makes a good book cover is not, well, a truth universally acknowledged. Next year, we'll try to figure out a way to take advantage of those disagreements and open up the voting (without making it a self-promoting free-for-all: I should mention that almost all the write-in suggestions we got via the feedback button in our voting widgets were from authors nominating their own books--including some pretty well-known authors.)

But for 2009, our winner, in a stirring last-minute comeback that would have been close enough to send back for a recount were this, say, a Minnesota senatorial race, is the flesh-hungry mashup Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. After upsetting Dave Eggers's furry Wild Things to win the Classics Reimagined category in the first round, P&P&Z, designed by Doogie Horner, passed the black-and-white grandeur of Nick Brandt's A Shadow Falls in the homestretch. Here are the final voting totals:

  1. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: 16.8%
  2. A Shadow Falls: 16.4%
  3. Marcelo in the Real World: 13%
  4. Wicked Plants: 13%
  5. The Girl Who Played with Fire: 10%
  6. The Interrogative Mood: 9%
  7. How to Be a Movie Star: 8%
  8. Rose's Heavenly Cakes: 7%
  9. City Boy: 4%
  10. Vanished Smile: 3%


Beechey_original P.S. After I typed "Doogie Horner" above, I dug a little further (mainly to see whether he was a real person and not himself some weird mashup of Neil Patrick Harris and the 1978 National League Rookie of the Year). And I'm glad to report that, by Internet standards at least, he is a real person--and better yet, he's a combination standup comedian and graphic designer, who works for Quirk Books, the publisher of P&P&Z, and its inevitable followup, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, and also helms a Philadelphia standup series, the Ministry of Secret Jokes. According to Carolyn Kellogg at Jacket Copy, Horner "zombified" a portrait by Sir William Beechey (original to the right). Want more? Read a profile from the Philadelphia City Paper (from which I have borrowed the excellent beard montage below by Mike Reali), and listen to this Comic Vs. Audience podcast (both pre-zombie). Also see a lengthy discussion of the S&S&SM cover, in which Horner himself weighs in. Clearly I need to track down this guy...


Omni Personal Shopper: Let's Do Something

This Omni Personal Shopper project is not getting any easier. Jude says:

One of my kids doesn't have lots of interests. He's 15 years old, plays bari sax in band (but doesn't really care about it), gets straights "As" without trying (and feels no passionate interest in any of his classes, although he likes a few of the teachers), and seems to only be truly happy when we're driving, so I try to take him driving a lot (he's still in the learner's permit stage). He complains that his friends only want to play video games instead of *doing* things like camping, hiking, or biking anywhere, but even though he complains about them sitting around playing games, he likes to play video games too, although he quickly loses interest in any particular game. He really wanted a laptop, but I can't afford one yet. He has a good sense of humor. He's a good person. He frequently counsels his older sister and attempts to make his irrational, older, angrier brother think more rationally. He likes using StumbleUpon when he uses my computer. I'm *really* worried about him because my other kids have strong interests. I'd like him to care about something passionately.

I'm guessing there's more than one of us here that share/shared similar traits with your son--for example, I'm still theoretically interested in video games, but my patience for them maxes out at about 10 minutes. Fortunately, your son is only 15 and has ample time to grow out of this, whereas I am apparently a lost cause. Unfortunately, 15 is probably the worst age to shop for. But let's try.

Tom's first thought was The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, a story in words and drawings of a painfully precocious boy that has the sort of restless (and funny) intelligence that seems like your son might grab hold of. Another very funny story of a bored fellow who finds more adventure than he bargained for, which he loved at that exact age and attitude, is The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (and all the sequels).

Anne suggests John Green's Paper Towns as a book that will also appeal to his sense of humor, calling it a work of "this breathless energy and wit and just truth--the kind of truth that makes you dog-ear page after page so you can find that line again when you need it." She also thought that To Kill a Mockingbird might resonate in a "good person," (it will) and that his inner mentor/moderator would relate to Dave Eggers's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

My inclination is toward books about people (kids especially) that do things like "camping, hiking, or biking," because those are things that I like to do (and forgive me, I am about to ramble on a bit). At 12 or so, I loved The Tracker, Tom Brown, Jr.'s autobiographical account of learning how to identify and follow animals based on prints and sign, as well as developing wilderness survival skills--knowledge that ultimately led to work with law enforcement and his own tracking school. Strangely enough, the jacket hasn't changed at all in the 30 years since I tore through it.

At about the same time, I read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (maybe the ultimate book about a kid really doing things) and The Call of the Wild (even though it's ostensibly about a dog, trust me: a kid can identify) If he's read those (or if you think he may be interested in some true-life drama), there's always the armchair adventurist genre, with books like Jon Krakauer's take on the disastrous 1996 Mt. Everest expedition, Into Thin Air, and mountaineer extraordinaire Ed Viesturs's survey of K2 attempts (both successful and spectacularly not), K2: Life and Death on the World's Most Dangerous Mountain. These books are aimed at an adults, but there's really nothing to them that would challenge a smart teenager. However, they do recount serious, real-world consequences and probably (if I remember correctly) contain a little bit of coarse language. But I would have eaten these up at age 15. (Note: I'd avoid Krakauer's Into the Wild for now.)

I'll add one more suggestion before moving on again to other people's recommendations (especially if I've really gone down the wrong track here). You mention that he's happy when driving, and I thought that might translate into an interest in maps and route-finding. Wilderness Navigation is a readable and informative manual on finding your way in the woods and hills, and its concepts can be practiced at home. Of course, he'll need a compass. Anne also recommends the ultimate on-the-road book, Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Adult themes here, though some might argue that they're overgrown child themes.

Ok. Time for something different.

Kind of. Dave, well, he had the same idea as me. He says, "If living life in the great outdoors is what your son craves, I recommend Jean Craighead George's classic, My Side of the Mountain.  It's a great story for any budding naturalist who also might need to be reminded that the modern world isn't really all that bad.  (However, I don't support the befriending of raccoons. They are nasty critters.)" Agreed.

Alex, our resident comic book/graphic novel expert thinks that kids like comic books. I don't know, he might be onto something. He brings three recommendations (and the attached comments):

Scott Pilgrim Vol. 1: The first installment of this charming, funny, and frenetic series aimed at teens.  Videogames play heavily into the style and tone of the main character’s perception of everything around him, from girls to bullies to homework. 

Calvin & Hobbes: Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat: This classic collection of daily and Sunday strips will be perfect for the reader whose attention span is on the go. Plots never last longer than a page or two, and they vary enough to prevent stagnancy or repetition. Bill Waterson’s artwork is action-packed, chameleon-like, and matched only by his wild sense of humor.  There isn’t a bad Calvin & Hobbes book in print, but this one is a personal favorite. 

Batman: The Long Halloween: If your son is looking for more of a reading commitment, the 12 chapters contained herein make it easy to stay focused and entertained. Batman faces his entire rogue's gallery as he hunts down a mysterious villain behind a series of holiday-themed murders. Lots of colorful, kinetic artwork from Tim Sale, and an explosive plot by Jeph Loeb. 

Finally, Lauren points out that it might be worth calling out the Top 10 Picks for Reluctant Readers from author (and former school teacher) Rick Riordan, who has managed to get millions of kids to crack open a book.

Jude, I hope that gets you started, or maybe fuels more ideas of your own.Good luck, and happy holidays.


Omni Daily Crush: "The Imperfectionists"

We're a fortnight away from the end of '09, but I've already found my first favorite read of '10:  Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists (available April 6, 2010).  With a narrative that shifts between humor and despair, Rachman's debut novel peers into the world of a once-proud (but increasingly dysfunctional) international newspaper.  The staff is an eclectic bunch (to put it nicely), and each chapter is devoted to the inner workings of a different character.  Yet when the spotlight is not on them, they fade into supporting roles and public personas.  The result is frustratingly brilliant, as no matter how personal the tales get, Rachman only allows us a few dozen pages before moving on to the next subject.  Happily, nothing feels forced or unfinished, as I found myself turning pages at a furious pace in anticipation of where each story was taking me.


Omni Daily News

Figures it was the punter: Former Cincinnati Bengals punter/wide receiver Pat McInally recently auctioned off 101 books from his impressive collection, including Beatrix Potter's personal copy of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. (

Human see, human do: Dinotopia author James Gurney turns his view from the extinct to the critically endangered, unveiling a series of arresting great ape sketches drawn up-close-and-personal at the North Carolina Zoo. (via

One family's shameful secret:
A crisis of conscience spurs a Mansfield Massachusetts man to return a library book that was due May 2, 1910.

Moving and Shaking
: There's a wasket in the basket, a woset in the closet, and six Dr. Seuss titles in the top ten slots of our Movers & Shakers list.

Graphic Novel Friday: Wasteland, The Apocalyptic Edition, for the Holidays

Just a glimpse of some of the cool extras in this Apocalyptic Edition of Wasteland...

I've been a fan of Antony Johnston and Christopher Mitten's Wasteland for awhile. It's a complex, always exciting look at the world many years after the fall of civilization. When Johnston contacted me about doing an intro for a deluxe hardcover to commemorate the first few years of Wasteland, I jumped at the chance. It's a beautiful book, definitely something the comics lover in your life would appreciate as a gift. Here, as a Graphic Novel Friday web exclusive, is part of my introduction, to give you a sense of the flavor of the comic if you haven't yet read it. - JeffV


Sometimes Big Ideas come out of deceptively small beginnings. In the first issue of Wasteland, a wanderer named Michael comes out of the desert into a small settlement. It’s a century after the Big Wet has destroyed the world as we know it. Michael wants to sell the flotsam and jetsam he’s picked up during his travels, including an enigmatic machine. He’s a survivor with hidden powers, but he meets his match in the person of the healer Abi, among the best female characters in comics. Not only will Abi not let him alone, she won’t even let him bleed out in peace.

What happens next is similar to what happens in Stephen King’s iconic Dark Tower series: the world created by Antony Johnston opens up in continually unexpected and complex ways. It’s not just the ingenious religion-mythology of people trying to come to terms with both the why of a now-remote disaster and the here-and-now of dealing with the after-effects. Nor is it the attention to detail in depicting the politics of the city of Newbegin, or in creating a fiercely dangerous environment that adheres to an unbending logic of survival.

No, it’s really about the characters. The world opens up because in the person of Marcus, ruler of Newbegin, Johnston has created a creature of political intrigue and mystery. It opens up because other characters like Jakob, Golden Voice, and Doc not only behave as to their natures but also reveal new traits and gain our loyalty by being, if not always honest, then always true to themselves.

Did I mention the villains? I’m not just talking about Marcus—who I rate as ambiguous, because part of keeping power requires keeping order, and in this milieu order can’t be underrated—but the Sand-eaters, with their jagged, sawed-off speech, and the dwellers in the abandoned precity that rings Newbegin. These creatures act as to their nature, too, and they’re pretty bad-ass. There’s no slow zombie shuffle, here. These guys mean business. You come up against them, you suffer consequences. People die.

Have I praised the art, yet? As the plot of the Wasteland series widens and deepens, the slow rhythms and wider spaces of the desert are replaced with smaller panels that convey the hectic pace of intrigue and betrayal. But Christopher Mitten is up to the challenge, giving us what we want: complexity of character and situation while still rendering the action scenes in clear, pulse-pounding sequences. Then, too, Johnston and Mitten have a great knack for getting close-in to the characters, only to pull back and show us scenes that convey the true fallen majesty of the setting. I’m thinking of the wonderful art showing the precity, and then, a little later, the full-page introducing us to Newbegin. Note also how Mitten changes his style for recountings of the distant past—it’s a brilliant contrast, with a texture that boldly conveys archetype and myth. I also like the deliberate blurring of backgrounds in certain panels to accentuate the foreground or depict motion, creating an extra layer of comics realism. 

But even with the additional nuance introduced into the story, Johnston understands where his focus needs to lie: with Michael and Abi. As Newbegin comes under threat and Marcus’s conflict with those he considers heretics intensifies, Johnston remembers to anchor the story with those two pivotal characters. Abi, in particular, strikes me as somewhat unique in comics, and in keeping with Johnston creating female characters as strong as the men.
 In short, if you haven’t read the Wasteland series yet, you’re in for a huge treat—the combination of science fiction, intrigue, adventure, myth-making, and mystery add up to the kind of thrill I remember getting at the beginning of the first Planet of the Apes movie, or, heck, even the desert scenes in Star Wars (still the best part as far as I’m concerned). And, like such iconic series as Lord of the Rings, Wasteland has a knack for being both epic and personal.  

The even better news? The series isn’t even at its zenith yet—the plot is still unfolding, the adventure still gaining strength and power.




Omni Daily News

Rock Out:  GalleyCat wants to know your go-to Pandora playlist for writing.  Me?  I'm a Rage Against the Machine man whenever a deadline looms (which explains the random hostility of my reviews). 

Basketball Jones: I recently sat down with bestselling author and writer, Bill Simmons, to talk about his latest book, The Book of Basketball, and whether or not pro hoops will *ever* return to Seattle. 

Moving and Shaking:  A chilly collection of polar portraits, Polar Obsession by Paul Nicklen, is among the top titles on our Movers & Shakers list.

Against Eternal Provincialism: An Interview with Aleksandar Hemon


Bosnian novelist and MacArthur “Genius-Award” winner Aleksandar Hemon took on a modest project this year: bringing Europe to America.

As the editor of the Best European Fiction 2010, his task was to give American readers a taste of what they are missing by not reading (mostly due to lack of available translations) the diverse, entertaining, and innovative literature coming out of Finland, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania... really, countries all over Europe.

Reading these 35 writers, from 30 countries, was invigorating--and intimidating (so many new people to read!). This expansive volume is more than a literary sampler from the field of contemporary writing on the other side of the Atlantic, it's a jumping off point to fictional possibility. A few favorites to give you a sense of the range: Jean-Philippe Toussaint's musings on Zidane's infamous head-butt; Elo Viiding's subtle trashing of Western women, poets who visit the narrator's Soviet intellectual family in the early '80s; and Cosmin Manolache's list of the "Three Hundred Cups," imagined toasts of two cosmonauts (things they might raise a cup to), starting with the cup of banality and ending with the cup of beginnings. It's essential reading for anyone who wants a broader sense of what's happening in fiction today.

Hemon-thumb-200x298 Hemon answered my questions about the project: In a recent interview with the Paper Cuts blog, you said: "I think American literature is crippled by the shortage of available translations." Do you mean that the body of literature available to us as readers is incomplete, or also that American literature as an art form is not developing as fully as it should because emerging writers are not reading widely enough?

Aleksandar Hemon: Both. Literatures, cultures, writers need to communicate among themselves, to reach for and explore what might seemingly be outside their experience. In your introduction to the anthology, you expressed an urgency for translation to keep up with the "rapid developments in European literature." What are some of these developments, and do you see them happening more rapidly in Europe than in America?

Hemon: Europe is a rapidly changing place, on every level. Immigration, post-communist transitions, the unification, steady presence of war and conflict, the inescapable challenges to the notion of national literature/culture--it all exerts pressure upon writers who must be aware of the transformational possibilities of the situation. In your mind, what needs to happen in order to get more of this writing translated, so it can be more readily available to American readers?

Hemon: You cannot wait for the mainstream publishing to snap out of their profit dreams, which have recently turned to nightmares. There has to be a kind of grassroots push, a movement, as it were, against the inherent isolationism of American capitalism as practiced in the publishing industry. There need to be grants and government support and a few publishers, mainstream and independent, who are not afraid to challenge American readership. We need to build a network of translators, publishers and readers. We hope that our annual anthology might provide an upsurge in interest for European fiction and then, as we publish it every year, become a habit to many readers. In your introduction, you also talk about Europe as "a fragmented place that always strives toward some form of integration." How do you see this playing out in the literature that's being written now?

Hemon: You can see the diversity that pieces in the anthology represent, and then the interconnections--obvious and less obvious--between various stories or between various modes of storytelling. Diversity generates need for conversation, conversation generates common interests, as well as differences. Literature, as a human project, is all about that. Do you get a sense of an emerging or existing "European" voice or aesthetic?

Hemon: No, other than the democratic multitude of voices. As a European-born writer who lives in America, do you feel a sense of responsibility to put American readers in touch with European writers?

Hemon: Yes. But there is also a personal need. My books have been published all over Europe. They read me there, and I want to read them back. I also spend a lot of time in Europe, often meeting writers, and I'm sick of apologizing for the embarrassing shortage of translations in America. This is such a diverse collection, in both style and subject matter. Did you have a sense of how diverse and vibrant contemporary European literature was prior to editing this volume? How much did a desire to showcase this diversity guide your selections?

Hemon: Yes. I was aware. Europe has never been a monolithic space, it contains a lot of people, a lot of languages and infinite supplies of history. I didn't need to do anything to showcase diversity. It is a condition of life and art in Europe, contained in every random sample. How much does country, language, or culture influence style? Did you find particular styles or influences to be more prevalent in some countries or regions vs. others?

Hemon: Every writer owes something to a particular tradition he/she grew up in. But no serious writer--other than the militantly nationalist ones--would reduce his/her domain of influence to a single tradition. Furthermore, historical breaks are so common and large in Europe that there are ruptures in every tradition which then connect the same generations across national borders. Younger Eastern European writers, for instance, have more in common with other writers of the same age in Europe, than with the previous, communist-era generations in their own countries. My biggest takeaway from this book, aside from many hours of enjoyable reading, is a huge list of authors whose work I now want to read. Did this happen to you, as well, or were you familiar with most of the writers before you worked on the anthology?

Hemon: I learned a lot editing this anthology. I knew a few writers by name, a couple I know personally, but most of the names in the book were new to me. What percentage of these stories or excerpts were translated specifically for this book? Did the anthology launch any further translation projects?

Hemon: Pretty much all of them. Moreover, for each published piece there were 3-4 translated ones, which are now circulating in various ways. The anthology in and of itself generates translations. For you, what was the most exciting outcome of this project?

Hemon: The project is already indelible. There is no way to go back from this point--the moment it was published the anthology became essential and necessary for American literary life. If the project, somehow, failed to live on, American literature and culture will be sentenced without parole to eternal provincialism.

Aleksandar Hemon is the author of Love and Obstacles (2009) and the National Book Award finalist The Lazarus Project (2008). He lives in Chicago.


Wrestling with the Question: Questions for Designer Alison Forner

As voting among the 10 finalists in our Best Book Covers of 2009 heads into its final 24 hours (balloting ends on midnight Pacific time on December 17), we checked in with the designer of one of the finalists (and one of my own favorite covers of the year) for some of the story behind this cover and others: Alison Forner, whose cover for Ecco's edition of The Interrogative Mood by Padgett Powell is one of two finalists to feature a giant question mark as their central design element. (The other?) In Forner's case, the question mark, you might say, wrote itself: Powell's novel is, notoriously and hilariously, composed entirely of questions.

The front cover of the book lets the punctuation speak for itself, with no mention of the author or the title, and just the figure of a man literally wrestling with the question. The full cover, including back cover, flaps, and spine, takes that motif and extends it elegantly:

Forner has already told the story behind the cover to Jason Gabbert on Faceout Books, so I didn't ask her to repeat herself, but I recommend stopping over there to read her story and see a failed first attempt and the archival source material for her wrestling men. Here she explains what went wrong the first time:

I thought it might be cool to cut question marks out of printed books (sampling books with different paper shades and typefaces) and create a collage out of them. In my mind, it would have a dynamic energy, the question marks would become abstract forms the longer you looked at them, and the jacket would have a toothy, tactile feel. Once I exacto'd the questions marks, pasted them together, and finessed them in photoshop, it was clear this idea was, in a word, hideous.

The second time, though, was the charm. Here is our own exchange with her. (For more book design talk, also see our recent Q&As with designers Peter Mendelsund and Michael J. Windsor.)

Forner_Alison_250 With The Interrogative Mood, you had a distinctive book that would demand an equally distinctive cover. Was it a daunting design assignment, or an ideal one?

Forner: This is actually my favorite kind of assignment—the more abstract, the better. It’s always much easier for me to design something that requires its own language, that doesn’t exactly fall into a predictable slot. At least I feel most comfortable designing those types of books. So I was thrilled and excited to work on it! You mention two versions of the cover in your Faceout Books account of its creation. Is that all you put together for this book? How often does it come together that quickly?

Forner: Often I’ll design several rounds of covers for a single title--sometimes it’s nearly impossible to get everyone to agree on a particular direction. Fortunately this was not the case with The Interrogative Mood. But I’m thankful the first round of covers was nixed—sometimes the first idea isn’t necessarily the best (in this case, it was downright awful). I’m here to say that rejection can sometimes make for a stronger, more realized design.

Amazon,com: How did you get into designing book covers? Were there some favorite books whose design you loved before you started designing them yourself?

Forner: I was initially drawn to book cover design because I've always been in love with books--both as sources of information and escape, and as physical objects. Also, the idea of reading a manuscript and giving it some sort of visual identity is really exciting to me. I'm a visual learner and thinker, so the process of making a book cover comes very naturally. I took a fairly circuitous route to this career, however—I was a poet, a professional dancer, and a print production manager before ending up here.

As a reader, I was always drawn to the Vintage paperback series art directed by Susan Mitchell [Ed.: e.g. Dispatches and Blood Meridian, from the Vintage International line in the '80s]. Those designs perfectly represented what was waiting for you inside. Plus they used a very nice, smooth cream stock—those books felt substantial in your hands.

Forner_Poem_Covers You've designed the covers for a number of poetry books for Ecco. Since a collection of poems often has a less focused subject than a novel or a nonfiction book, how do you begin thinking about a poetry cover? And how do you end up with ones as different as, say, James Tate's The Ghost Soldiers and Jorie Graham's Sea Change?

Forner: I absolutely love designing covers for poetry. When I was writing my own poems, I often thought of them as small abstract paintings or collages translated into words. So the process of reading a poetry collection and responding to it visually makes complete sense to me. I don’t have any particular approach to designing poetry books—the manuscript usually lets me know how it wants to be represented. There’s often one dominant perspective, feeling, attitude, etc. that leads you down the right path. Have you thought much about the idea of book design in an age (which we may or may not be heading into) of electronic books? Do you think design will still be a way of giving a book a distinct character?

Forner: Actually, it’s all I think about! Seriously though, I’m a print person and an avid reader who cannot part with any of my books, so I have to be honest—I’m not crazy about the idea of electronic books. I love ink, paper, and binding! I just can’t imagine the printed book would go away entirely, but if it did, I’m sure I would adapt and grow to love the screen. (And I hope it would love me back and let me design for it.)

Omni Daily Crush: "little blue and little yellow"

I'm falling in love (all over again) with the children's books of Leo Lionni (1910-1999).  During his long and prolific career as an artist, graphic designer, and author, he created more than 40 marvelous books for young readers.  Lionni was awarded the Caldecott Medal for children's illustration a wildly impressive four times in the 1960s.  Here are the medalists in order:  Inch by Inch (1960), Swimmy (1963), Frederick (1967), and  Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse (1969).  Each tells a unique and memorable tale about a small creature (an inch worm, a tiny fish, a little mouse, and another little mouse) through incredibly colorful and textured collages that make the reader want to reach for a pair of scissors, and some paper, fabric, and glue. The use of bold and tactile collage immediately reminds one of Eric Carle's books, and Carle has frequently expressed his admiration for Lionni, citing him as an important artistic influence.   Lionni's influence also extends into the 21st century through the work of rising star Steve Jenkins--an Amazon editors' favorite--who seems to be building upon the artists' legacy by relating stories about the natural world through a one-two punch of striking collage illustrations and scientific information.

But, back to Lionni.  With dozens of books to choose from, where does the first-time reader of Lionni start? Well, at the beginning, of course, with his groundbreaking book little blue and little yellow. (The absence of capitalization in the title is deliberate; I'll leave it up to the reader to ponder what Lionni had in mind.)  At the time of his small square book's publication in 1959, Lionni was already a very famous art director who influenced Madison Avenue advertising during the Mad Men era.  He launched his second career one day while riding a commuter train from New York City to his home in Greenwich, Connecticut with his two grandkids in tow. In the crowded train, it wasn't long before the three year-old and five year-old started to get antsy, and Lionni had to put his creative powers to good use, and fast.  In his autobiography he relates how inspiration struck:

"I automatically opened my briefcase, took out an advance copy of Life, and showed the children the cover, and tried to say something funny about the ads as I turned the pages, until a page with a design in blue, yellow, and green gave me an idea. 'Wait,' I said, 'I'll tell you a story.' " --Excerpt from Between Worlds:The Autobiography of Leo Lionni

Like a conjurer-philosopher, Lionni captivated his audience with a story of friendship between two very different colors who together created something entirely new and unexpected.  Not only do they learn about the creative potential of primary colors, but they also teach their families and friends a few things about mutual appreciation and understanding along the way.  little blue and litte yellow tells these important lessons through seemingly simple shapes of few colors set against the background of the square white page.  The text is equally economical. Much of the story's narrative is told not through words, but rather through the careful choreography of the colorful shapes in relation to each other.  Children immediately grasp the dance between the visual and verbal cues.  

The occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of little blue and little yellow is the perfect time to introduce preschoolers to Lionni's timeless classic. This and Leo Lionni's other magical picture books just might inspire a new generation of creative heros.