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).

2 Responses so far

  1. 1

    Wow, this is all really intuitive. I have wanted to get into graphic design/typography and I completely forgot about how much of it impacts when looking at children’s picture books! Haha, how funny. Loved this post, I enjoyed strolling through it. Definitely following your blog.

  2. 2

    G.B. Koening said,

    Great post! I love Scieszka and Smith’s work, both really lift the world of children’s picture books.

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