Archive for Miscellany

The Horn Book: Design Matters, by Jon Scieszka

For some time I had been working on a post about the importance of design in books, an element that is often overlooked but plays a decidedly essential role in the creation of a good book. Skillful design can make an otherwise deficient book seem superior; a poorly designed book, that is in all other respects a worthy book, may be quickly overlooked. But a masterfully designed book that contains a captivating story and engaging illustrations is a work of art. Ironically, exceptional design may go unnoticed, as all the reader remembers is having experienced a wonderful book.

Then I read the below article by Jon Scieszka from the March/April 1998 issue of The Horn Book in which he perfectly articulates why book design matters, with a much more funny and entertaining approach. 

Scieszka was the first National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature and is the creator of Guys Read, a web-based literacy program for boys. He has written many books for children including The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, Cowboy and Octopus and Robot Zot.

The supremely talented Lane Smith illustrates many of Scieszka’s books. Smith, an author as well as an illustrator, has written many books, including It’s a Book, Grandpa Green and John, Paul, George and Ben.

The consummate designer Molly Leach, who is also Smith’s wife, designs all of his books. (Check out this great video of the two of them discussing the book making process.) Leach makes every book she puts her name to spring to life.

Together, Scieszka, Smith and Leach have created some of the most ground breaking and memorably funny best-selling picutre books of the last twenty-five years.


From the March/April 1998 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

design matters

By Jon Scieszka
Designed by Molly Leach [original print version]

esign is an essential part of any picture book. It is the first aspect of a book that a reader judges. It is the framework for the text and illustration. It is the subtle weave of words and pictures that allows both to tell one seamless tale.

And because good design is, by its very nature, nearly invisible in the final product, most people have no idea what design contributes to a picture book.

My idea of what design contributes to a picture book pretty much starts and ends with the first sentence of this article. But the editors of the Horn Book refused to run 478 different designs of that one finely crafted sentence. So I ran off to ask Molly Leach (designer of The Stinky Cheese Man and Math Curse) and Lane Smith (illustrator of The Stinky Cheese Man and Math Curse) exactly what it is that design contributes to a picture book.

After many intense, soul-searching question-and-answer sessions at Molly and Lane’s studio, I can now tell you:

1. Design is an essential part of any picture book.
2.  I am the best ping-pong player.
3. Asking a designer “How do you do such good design?” is a lot like asking a writer “Where do you get your ideas?”
4. Don’t let Lane keep score all of the time.

The job of a designer, in its most basic form, is to pick the style, size, and color of type, maybe pick the kind of paper and size of the book, and arrange how the type and illustrations are to be displayed on the pages available. But Molly does so much more than that in our books. When she’s done, the design tells as much of the story as the text and illustrations do.

Maybe good design is magic. How else could text plus illustration equal more than the original words and pictures? I can’t think of any other way to explain what Molly does. Though I think her work is described most succinctly on the back flap of The Happy Hocky Family (written and illustrated by Lane, designed by Molly): “Designers make pictures and words fit together in books and look nice.”

I suppose I could just list the “Top Ten Worst Design Mistakes in Picture Books.” Or maybe I should reveal “Molly and Lane’s Pet Peeves of Bad Design” — fake kid print typography, kidz

heavy-handed overstyling forboldtext,

or the same old boxed image with type underneat layout...

But that wouldn’t be nice.

The best way to explain what design can do in a picture book would probably be to look at some examples. So at the risk of sounding like a nightmare party guest explaining his favorite jokes, here is an analytical look at some of the design of our books:

EDITORS’ NOTE: Any similarity between Mr. Scieszka’s description of how he, Lane, and Molly work and how the rest of the world works is purely coincidental.

Molly designs all kinds of things, from magazines to books to CD covers. She is asked to do elegant, bold, hip, or striking design (to name just a few styles). But the most important thing she does is to find the design appropriate for the piece. Business Week’s Mutual Fund Report is not the place for “zany.” The Stinky Cheese Man was not the place for “stuffy” or “quiet” design.

When I wrote the stories in The Stinky Cheese Man, I wrote them with an ear for how they would sound read aloud. My finished version of “The Really Ugly Duckling” looked like this:


     Once upon a time there was a mother duck and a father duck who had seven baby ducklings. Six of them were regular-looking ducklings. The seventh was a really ugly duckling.
     Everyone used to say, “What a nice-looking bunch of ducklings-all except that one. Boy, he’s really ugly.”
     The really ugly duckling heard these people, but he didn’t care. He knew that one day he would probably grow up to be a swan and be bigger and better looking than anything in the pond.
     Well, as it turned out, he was just a really ugly duckling.
     And he grew up to be just a really ugly duck.
     The End.

Which might explain why it got rejected by so many publishers. The final line, “And he grew up to be just a really ugly duck” looks a little harsh in its bare typewritten form.

Lane illustrated a goofy little duck. He and Molly designed a page turn so the duckling grows into a bigger, goofier duck on the next page (working almost like a flip book). And then it was Molly who came up with the idea to have whatever words were on the text page expand to fill the space. The final punchline sentence of the story, the transformation of the illustration, the turn of the page, and the blown-up type — text, illustration, and design — all combine to create one hilarious ending:

Ha. Ha. Ha.

Well, you’ve got to at least admit it’s funnier
than the typewritten version.

Some people have described our books as “wacky” and “zany” and “anything goes.” I wouldn’t want to say they’re wrong (because that wouldn’t be nice either), but I would like to suggest that they’re not exactly right. In order to create the humor and illusion of wacky/zany/anything goes, there has to be a reason for everything that goes. And this Law of Reasoned Zaniness applies just as inflexibly to design as it does to writing and illustrating.

In The Stinky Cheese Man Molly chose, for the entire book, a classic font (Bodoni) and used it in unusual ways (expanding, shrinking, melting) to emphasize the fact that these were classic fairy tales told in an unconventional way.

The flexible font size also made it easier for Molly to break the text at any given point to give the punchlines of the tales more punch.

The expanding text pushing the boundaries of the page (less than Molly had wanted — the printed version being a compromise between the production department insisting on borders and margins and Molly designing the type all the way out to the trim . . . “Who cares if a serif gets chopped off?”) says the book is bursting with stories.

The Red Hen speaks in red type throughout (no other character speaks in color) to visually accentuate her annoying voice.

I thought it would be funny if Jack’s neverending tale in “Jack’s Story” ran right off the page.

Molly showed me it would look funnier and more like Jack’s voice fading into the distance if the words got smaller and smaller:

The type and edge of the Stinky Cheese Man illustration melts because he smells so bad:

The title bar of “The Other Frog Prince” is crooked because it’s caught on the frog’s sticky tongue:

And every tale’s “Once upon a time” and “The End” are in color to highlight the fact that these are stock parts of a fairy tale. None of these details are specified by the text. They are design decisions that enhance and amplify each Fairly Stupid Tale.

Design sets the tone for everything

Don’t you suddenly feel like you’re reading a wedding announcement? You may not consciously know it, but when you pick up a book, you are reading its layout and typeface and color palette for clues about the story.

Modern kids are even more demanding readers of these design clues than most adults. They have been raised since birth in the ever-more visually intense world of TV, movies, and video. They are more visually literate than generations before them — quicker and better able to read what design has to tell them. They deserve good design.

Math Curse was an entirely different design challenge.

I thought it would be funny to write about a kid’s day where everything turns into a math problem. Lane thought it would be funny to paint the kid actually inside the nightmarish grip of the curse.

We both thought it would be funny to ask Molly to make (8 pages of text and problems) + (19 paintings) + (1 copyright page) + (1 dedication page) = one 32-page book that looked kind of like a math book but not so much like a math book that it would be ugly and scare people away.

Here is what a couple of problematical math text pages could have looked like:

Here is a finished spread from Math Curse designed by Molly:

 Which of these statements is true?

A. The first design looks ugly.
B. In the second design, Molly boxed problems and broke the text into sections like every ugly math book does, but she used a bold (Franklin Gothic) type clustered in funny tangencies (shifting blocks of copy) to enhance the frantic feel of the illustration.
C. Molly also used bold colors and background tints in geometric shapes to give an overall playful feel.
D. Jon is still the best ping-pong player.
E. All of the above.

If you answered “e,” multiply your Designer SAT score by your shoe size and continue on to the next section.

When Molly, Lane, and I work on a book, I usually write the text and polish it with my editor first. Lane draws preliminary sketches. We decide what to keep, what to cut, how to order things. Then Lane and Molly fiddle with the design and illustration while I perfect my topspin forehand smash.

With the three of us working in close collaboration, Molly, Lane, and I take advantage of the opportunity to play off one another’s ideas throughout the process. Words can be changed to accommodate design. Design can be juggled to allow a new illustration. Illustrations can be altered to fit a new story twist. We also get to use every last part of the book — price, flap copy, dedication, and copyright — to tell the story.

In conclusion, I would just like to say the only thing that can be said, what you know I’m going to say, what I can’t help but say: design is an essential part of any picture book.

Pop Design Quiz

Now that you are a design expert, here’s a chance to use your new skills.

Our next picture book is a collection of twisted fables.

Here is one of the stories:


     Elephant and Mosquito stayed out late one night and completely lost track of time.
     “Oh no,” said Elephant, when he finally saw a clock. “I was supposed to be home twenty minutes ago. I better call home now.”
     “Why bother?” said Mosquito. “You’ll be home in five minutes. What’s the big deal?”
     So Elephant didn’t call.
     When he got home, he got grounded for a week because he didn’t call to say he was going to be late.

MORAL: Don’t ever listen to a talking bug.

Here is one of the illustrations:

Combine the text and illustration in a two-page design that says “fable” and “twisted” and still looks nice.

Pick the sentence or sentences that best describe the main idea of this article.
      • It is important to be nice.
      • Kids are visually literate and deserve good design.
      • All hail Molly Leach, Design Goddess.
      • Jon is the best ping-pong player.
      • Design is . . . you know what (see opening sentence).

Comments (2) »

It’s snowing! Snuggle up and read a book, about snow!

In honor of the epic snowstorm burying my corner of the world (and pretty much all of the Eastern United States) I am reposting this list from February 9th, 2013.


The Mole Sisters and the Way HomeWayHome

Picture Book

Ages 2-5

By Roslyn Schwartz

32 pages

Annick Press



The Mole Sisters are two of my favorite characters in children’s books. They’re sweet, funny, playful and irresistibly adorable. See my review of the whole series here.

The sisters are headed home when it starts to snow. And snow. And snow. Making their way through the drifts, they are diverted into a wonderful, magical cave, where they add themselves to some prehistoric cave paintings.

Not to fret, the sisters make it home safely and warm themselves by a cozy fire.


The Snowy Day SnowyDay-001

Picture Book

Ages 2-6

by Ezra Jack Keats

32 pages



1963 Caldecott Medal Winner


This timeless classic is a simple story about a young boy as he plays and experiments with the snow that has covered his world overnight. Follow the boy in his trademark red suit as he experiences the wonder and possibility of freshly fallen snow.

An interesting and important note: The Snowy Day was the very first full-color picture book to feature a black child protagonist.


Tracks in the Snow Tracks-001

Picture Book

Ages 2-6

by Wong Herbert Yee

32 pages

Square Fish

Reprint 2007


A young girl heads out into the snow when she notices some mysterious tracks. As she follows the prints over a bridge, across a pond, through some woods and right back to her home she realizes that the footprints are hers from the day before. She settles in at home for some cookies and tea.

Tracks in the Snow celebrates one of the best parts about playing in the snow, coming back to a warm house for some delicious treats.


Over and Under the Snow OverUnderSnw

Picture Book

Ages 2-6

by Kate Messner

Illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal

44 pages




While out cross-country skiing, a young girl and her father discuss the world of activity under the snow. There’s voles running through tunnels, frogs sleeping in the mud and black bears hibernating.

Simple cut paper illustrations perfectly highlight the contrast between the frozen white world above and the living earthen world below.

For those that are curious, the back of the book offers facts about all the animals and their winter activities. Interestingly, the area between the packed snow and the ground is called the subnivean zone.


Red Sled RedSled

Picture Book

Ages 2-6

by Lita Judge

40 pages




Pure joy fills this mostly wordless picture book. The only text is reserved for the sound effects made by the happy animals and their new-found toy.

A small red sled has been left outside and various woodland creatures take turns going for rides, until the owner of the sled finally returns.


The Happy Day HappyDay-001

Picture Book

Ages 2-6

by Ruth Krauss

Illustrated by Marc Simont

36 pages



1950 Caldecott Honor Book


Though technically a book about spring, the book begins under the cover of snow with all the animals sleeping. Soon they are waking up and sniffing. What is it they smell?

They emerge from their burrows and start running and sniffing. They stop, and laugh, and dance! There, in the midst of all the snow and white and cold, a burst of color appears in the form of a beautiful yellow flower.

The delicious, buttery yellow of the flower is the only bit of color in an otherwise black and white picture book.


Bear Has a Story to TellBear Has Story to Tell - Cover

Picture Book

Ages 2-6

By Philip C. Stead

Illustrated by Erin E. Stead

32 pages

Roaring Brook Press



This is not only one of my favorite books from 2012 but it’s also turning out to be one of my favorite picture books of all time. See my full review here.


Stella, Queen of the Snow stella-queen-of-the-snow

Picture Book

Ages 2-8

by Marie Louise-Gay

32 pages

Groundwood Books



Gay’s watercolor illustrations are active, unrestrained and bursting with color.

It’s Sam’s first snowstorm! He and his big sister Stella head outside to play and explore. Sam, ever full of questions, wants to know what snowmen eat and how many snowflakes are in a snowball. Stella, the helpful big sister, always responds with clever and ever so slightly true answers.


Snow SnowC

Picture Book

Ages 2-8

By Uri Shulevitz

36 pages



1999 Caldecott Honor Book


One of my favorite picture books ever! See my full review here.


Snow PDsnow

Picture Book

Ages 3-8

By P.D. Eastman and Roy McKie

61 pages

Random House



“Snow is good for making tracks…And making pictures with your backs.”

A simple story, told in rhyme, joyfully relating some of the many pleasures of snow. P.D. Eastman is also the author of Go, Dog. Go!, Are You My Mother? and many other Cat in the Hat Beginner Books.


Is That You, Winter?IsThatYouWinter

Picture Book

Ages 3-8

By Stephen Gammel

32 pages

Silver Whistle/Harcourt Brace



Gammel’s incredible illustrations make this a stand-out picture book. Colorful washes in every shade of blue are soon obscured by blowing white snow that seems to drip from the page.

Old Man Winter has woken up in a bad mood; he hates going to work. He jumps in his truck, flies through the sky, and spreads the ice and snow all morning long.

As he heads home for lunch, he falls into the deep snow and is rescued by a little girl.

“You make it snow for me,” the young girl tells him. Reminded that his work does have a positive influence in the world, Old Man Winter’s mood shifts and he’s happy again.

She picks him up to make sure he’s ok and readers learn that Old Man Winter is a small, wooden doll.


It’s Snowing ItsSnowing

Picture Book

Ages 3-8

By Olivier Dunrea

32 pages

Square Fish



Just before publishing the magic that is Gossie (see my review here), Dunrea created It’s Snowing.

Baby is fast asleep when mama sees snowflakes falling outside. She wakes baby and bundles him up. The two go outside to see, touch, taste and smell the snow, and share some of the magic and natural beauty life has to offer.


The Snowman thesnowman

Picture Book

Ages 3-9

by Raymond Briggs

32 pages

Dragonfly Books



In this wordless picture book, a young boy wakes up to a snowy day and heads outside to build a snowman. Later that night, when the boy cannot sleep, he heads outside to find the snowman has come to life. The two have a night filled with adventure.

Beautifully soft watercolor panels fill this book with the frosty feeling of snow and cold.


The Mitten The Mitten-001

Picture Book

Ages 3-9

by Jan Brett

32 pages




When a young boy asks his grandmother to knit him white mittens, she warns him that they will be hard to find if he drops them in the snow. As he goes out to play in the snow he immediately drops one of his new white mittens. Before long it becomes a cozy home to some woodland creatures seeking shelter.


Brave Irene brave-irene-1

Picture Book

Ages 3-9

By William Steig

32 pages

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Young Irene braves the wind, cold and blowing snow in this story of perseverance.

The dressmaker has finished the duchess’s gown for tonight’s ball but is not feeling well enough to deliver it. Though a big snowstorm is brewing, the dressmaker’s daughter Irene offers to bring the dress to the palace. Her mother is concerned but cannot make the trip herself and, reluctantly, allows her daughter to leave.

It’s tough going, but Irene is tougher and she completes her task despite the difficulties she faces on the way.

By the beloved author and illustrator of Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, the 1970 Caldecott Medal Winner.


Poppleton in Winter PoppletonInWinter-001

Early Reader

Ages 4-8

by Cynthia Rylant

Illustrated by Mark Teague

48 pages

Blue Sky Press



In the first chapter of this early reader, Poppleton and his new friend Patrick (a bird) make a fence out of icicles.

Next, Poppleton makes a clay bust of his good friend Cherry Sue.

In the final chapter Poppleton has forgotten his own birthday, but his friends have not. They all surprise Poppleton with home-baked goodies and a nighttime sleigh ride.

See my review of Poppleton here.


Katy and the Big Snow Katy_and_the_Big_Snow

Picture Book

Ages 4-9

By Virgina Lee Burton

40 pages

Houghton Mifflin



By the author and illustrator of the notable classics Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel (1939) and The Little House (1943 Caldecott Medal Winner).

Katy the red crawler tractor was a bulldozer in summer and a snowplow in winter. When a blizzard hits her hometown, all the people are depending on Katy to save the day, and she relishes the opportunity to show that she can do just that.


Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening StoppingByWoods-001

Picture Book

Ages 4 and up

By Robert Frost

Illustrated by Susan Jeffers

32 pages

Dutton Juvenile

Originally published in 1978

Revised edition 2001


Susan Jeffers beautiful illustrations of frosty New England scenes perfectly complement this famous wintry poem by Robert Frost. Capturing the silent beauty of a snowy night, her art offers answers to some of the questions raised in this well-known poem.


For readers interested in the science of snow, a few Non-fiction options.


The Story of Snow: The Science of Winter’s Wonder StoryofSnow


Ages 4-10

By Mark Cassino

36 pages




This excellent non-fiction picture book features illustrations as well as photographs of snowflakes and answers the questions about where snow comes from and how it’s formed.


Snowflakes in Photographssnowflakes-in-photographs-001


By W.A. Bentley

Ages 5 and up

80 pages




This book features over eight hundred and fifty photographs of snowflakes taken by American photographer W.A. Bentley (1865-1931) during a fifty year period.

Though it’s common knowledge now that no two snowflakes are alike, this was not the case when Bently began his ambitious project. In 1865 he attached a bellows camera to a compound microscope and photographed what he referred to as “tiny miracles of beauty.”

It is because of his work that we can know of and experience the wonder, magic and uniqueness contained in each miniature frozen sculpture.

(See also Snowflake Bentley, the 1999 Caldecott Winner, by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Mary Azarian.)


The Secret Life of a Snowflake: An Up-Close Look at the Art and Science of Snowflakes

Non-FictionSecret LifeofSnowflake

Ages 8 and up

by Kenneth Libbrecht

48 pages

Voyageur Press



The title says it all. Full of extraordinary photographs and detailed information about the cycle of a snowflake, this book is written by a scientist who studies snowflakes.

The universal love that children have for snow can be harnessed and redirected to foster a fascination for the fate of small frozen bits of water, crystals, and other scientific wonders.

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Grammy’s Schmammy’s. The Caldecott and Newbury Awards are where it’s at!

The 2014 youth media awards have been announced by The American Library Association (ALA)!


The John Newbery Medal for the most outstanding contribution to children’s literature goes to Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures written by Kate DiCamillo and published by Candlewick Press.

Readers may be familiar with her 2004 Newbury Award winner, The Tale of Despereaux or her 2001 Newbury Honor book, Because of Winn Dixie (one of my favorite books for middle readers). Also, DiCamillo was named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress for the term 2014-2015.


Four Newbery Honor Books also were named:

Doll Bones, written by Holly Black (the author of The Spiderwick Chronicles) and published by Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division.

The Year of Billy Miller, written by Kevin Henkes and published by Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Kevin Henkes was awarded a Newbury honor in 2004 for Olive’s Ocean and was awarded the Caldecott Medal for Kitten’s First Full Moon in 2005.

One Came Home, written by Amy Timberlake and published by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

Paperboy, written by Vince Vawter and published by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc.


The Randolph Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished American picture book for children was awarded to Locomotive, written and illustrated by Brian Floca and published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing. This phenomenal picture book will delight train lovers and quickly convert any non-train lovers.


Three Caldecott Honor Books also were named:

Journey, written and illustrated by Aaron Becker and published by Candlewick Press. This magical, wordless picture book is overflowing with beauty and adventure.

Flora and the Flamingo, written and illustrated by Molly Idle and published by Chronicle Books LLC. This (also) wordless picture book is bursting with pure joy! 

Mr. Wuffles!,  written and illustrated by David Wiesner and published by Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. David Weisner was also awarded the Caldecott Medal in 1992 for Tuesday, in 2002 for The Three Pigs and in 2007 for Flotsam.


Congratulations to all the award winners and honorees! Click here for a complete list of all the 2014 youth media awards.

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