Designing Covers

I’m always interested in learning about design from the professionals.

Here’s Tom Forget talking about the design of young adult book covers. And here are some key points:

  • Designers of YA covers are less likely to use images that are cropped or obscured than what you might see on adult covers.
  • YA covers are not as abstract as adult covers. (“Don’t outsmart” the readers.)
  • Trends are more important when it comes to the younger audience. Less so for adults.
  • Don’t fall head over heels with your work because it may not be right. Which means you’ll have to scrap it.


Stories: Truthful metaphors for life

While a story’s inspiration may be a dream and its final effect aesthetic emotion, a work moves from an open premise to a fulfilling climax only when the writer is possessed by serious thought. For an artist must have not only ideas to express, but ideas to prove. Expressing an idea, in the sense of exposing it, is never enough. The audience must not just understand; it must believe. You want the world to leave your story convinced that yours is a truthful metaphor for life. And the means by which you bring the audience to your point of view resides in the very design you give your telling. As you create your story, you create your proof; idea and structure intertwine in a rhetorical relationship.

– Robert McKee, Story

3 New Zealand Books For Junior Readers

Kate De Goldi and Kim Hill discuss three books on Radio New Zealand.

The Queen and the Nobody Boy by Barbara Else

This is the second installment, following The Travelling Restaurant, which is hysterically funny.

Sequels can fall down a bit but this is very good, if not a little more taut in its storytelling than the first.

Queen Sibilla is about to come of age and everyone hopes she’ll come into her magic, though there’s some anxiety around this. The story is told from the point of view of a young man. – Hodie, the odd-job boy. He’s a boy of character and sensibility and kindness. He ends up doing good against his better nature. This is a story of a growth of nature.

Else has a very arch way of poking fun at the inflated egos of people of status. For a fantasy writer she is very good at describing the material. There’s a lot of food in here too.

Highly recommended, especially for junior readers.

Guardian Review.

Here is the official Fontania Website.

The New Zealand Art Activity Book

This is allegedly for kids, but adults may want to keep it. Strongly reminiscent of a previous book about creative writing in the classroom. [If anyone knows what that book is, let me know!]

This book tries to jump would-be artists out of their comfort zones when it comes to making art. Exercises on every page narrows the process to give readers a specific way in to a project. There are ways of translating noise into art, ‘taking a line for a walk’, ‘sticking two pencils to your hand’, and other activities that wake up the kid inside the adult, or actual kids. You’re asked to cut things out of the book, so De Goldi recommends buying two — one to keep, because you don’t really want to cut bits out of it.

This book is full of fantastic ideas. Published by Te Papa Press.

A Winter’s Day in 1939

A really riveting first novel. Set during WWII. There are all the coordinates of people being taken away to camps. Adam and his family live in a part of Poland that was once the Ukraine. Their father has been given land as a reward for services to the army. He’s done good things with the land.

The story includes wonderful detail about living from the land. Readers will learn so much from that.

The story is not complicated, though there is a lot going on.

A device used is italicised, interpolated narration to explain what’s going on in the wider world of the war.

The story is told through the view of Adam, the second child in the family, and pretty immediately they are the victims of what’s going on between countries. Their farm is taken from them and so begins an enormous journey across a huge amount of the USSR. The author makes the reader wonder what it might be like to lose absolutely everything. Every now and again she reminds us clearly and sweetly that this is from a boy’s point of view (rather than an adult’s) because he’s feeding a rabbit.

The soviet labour camp is just dire, but their capacity for survival blows you away. There are many tales about children surviving through war, and this one can stand proudly beside them.

There is a big surprise at the end which will make you sad. The family eventually comes to New Zealand. This is the author’s father’s story blended with facts from other people’s lives. He had kept documentation. There is much attention to material detail. The relationships are fascinating, with the boy having a difficult relationship with his father.

There are small and big kindnesses from the people they eat.

There’s a strong sense of the family coming from the land, with the land being their life blood, which is surprising in a story with a backdrop of war.

Highly recommended for anyone between about 8 and 12, or even adults. Would be good to read aloud.

Unusual Eating Phobias

Getting annoyed at someone when we listen to them eating or breathing is called Misophonia, and it’s an actual neurological disorder.


Here are some more strangely specific fears:


Air swallowing- Aerophobia

Alcohol- Methyphobia or Potophobia

Chopsticks- Consecotaleophobia

Cooking- Mageirocophobia

Crystals or glass- Crystallophobia

Dampness, moisture or liquids- Hygrophobia

Dining or dinner conversations- Deipnophobia

Eating or swallowing- Phagophobia

Eating or food- Sitophobia or Sitiophobia

Eating or swallowing or of being eaten- Phagophobia

Food- Cibophobia

Garlic- Alliumphobia

Meat- Carnophobia

Mushrooms- Mycophobia

Sourness- Acerophobia

Taste- Geumaphobia or Geumophobia

Teeth- Odontophobia

Vegetables- Lachanophobia


Fantasy vs Reality In Children’s Stories: A hard balancing act

Fantasy is the metaphor through which we discover ourselves.

– Susan Cooper

“I think a lot about the fact that, for most of the history of literature that we know about, most literature was fantasy. Up through Shakespeare, it was not looked askance upon to have witches and magic and spirits in your stuff. The more time I spend reading and writing fantasy, the more perverse it seems to me that fiction has to pretend to act like the real world and obey the laws of thermodynamics.”

– Forget why fantasy matters. Why does realism matter? from io9

See Also: Four Techniques To Mix Fantasy With Realism from The Write Practice


In some ways, kids like things to be rightHere is a video of a four-year-old girl complaining that the picture of a toy dinosaur is anatomically incorrect. (I’d like to see her do some work with Barbie.) In other ways, kids love to be drawn into fantastic worlds. Picturebook creators tread a fine line between the two expectations.


Small Presses Contributing Great Books

Book Island is a new venture rather like Gecko Press in Wellington, bringing in European books to translate into English. There is room for two such enterprises — there must be because Gecko haven’t done these two particular books. Book Island is focusing on Dutch and Belgian books.

Sammy and the Great Skyscraper Sandwich by Lorraine Francis and Pieter Gaudesaboos

An incredibly simple story about Sammy who is very hungry and builds himself a massive sandwich.

The illustration style is 1950s formalism. This book asks you to hold it up and be a part of the story. There’s a lot of food in it, and there are lists of what will be put in this absurd sandwich. At the end he decides to just have a banana, which depicts the feeling you sometimes get after cooking something.

Bernie Loves Flora by Annemie Berebrouckx

Bernard derives from ‘Bear’. This is a take on that old story The Gift of the Magi. You can see what’s going to happen. At the end is a lovely index for the meaning of different flowers. It’s very sweet, very charming, a beautiful production for under fives, but a book to be appreciated by adults as well.

The Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and Oscar Wilde are magnets for illustrators, particularly European illustrators (for obvious reasons).

See: How Hans Christian Andersen Revolutionized Storytelling, Plus the Best Illustrations from 150 Years of His Beloved Fairy Tales

The Little Mermaid

(This mini edition also happens to be a book app, developed by Auryn Apps.)

The number of times this has been either filmed or used as the basis for another story or otherwise recreated is astounding. The controversial thing about this story is the ending. Hans Christian Andersen was somewhat excoriated for in her time. Mary Woolstonecraft would not have approved. The basic idea is that unlike humans, mermaids don’t have a soul. They fuse with the foam in the tide and they die. It’s all about yearning and endurance. This has been appropriated in gay scholarship because Hans Christian Andersen may have written this story as a disguised love letter to the son of his mentor.

So the ending is often left off, because Andersen added a new ending a few years after writing the original, in which the sky fairies come down and tell her that there is a way of immortalising herself even though she is a mermaid. She has to do good and help others. Andersen’s ending said that every time a kid did a bad deed it took away a year in the life of daughters of the air. They cried, and every time a good deed was performed it added a year.

It’s interesting to see how this story is concluded in modern times. The original ending is simply not used. P. L. Travers, the real expert on fairytale, lambasted Andersen for the ending.

This particular edition has been illustrated most beautifully by the Viennese Lisbeth Zwerger, who has illustrated just about all the Grimms and Andersen stories. If you’re looking for a gorgeous edition of a classic fairytale, look for one illustrated by Zwerger. The pictures are in the tradition of Arthur Rackham, an English illustrator who used sepia tones, but she’s got a lot of colour in her work now. She also won the Hans Christian Andersen medal when she was only about 36 or 37, which is pretty extraordinary. She has exquisite perspectives. In these particular pictures the hair of the characters is quite arresting and is a standout feature. The pictures make you want to blow them up and hang them on the wall.

The translator, Anthea Bell, is also fantastic, and was the person charged with the formidable job of translating Asterix for the English speaking market.

It’s about six years old now, and if you buy the hard copy it makes a beautiful gift. [De Goldi does not mention the app version.]

View entire book online.

For more on The Little Mermaid, see: (Un)dressing The Little Mermaid: Disney Adapts Andersen from Bad Reputation


For a list of books about Mermaids, see this list from the Miami University Database

funny-reasons-mermaid-pant-perfect-hairbook of mermaids robin jacques cover

The Selfish Giant

This is a very sad story, along with The Happy Prince — a Christian allegory. This is a very beautiful edition illustrated by Australian based artist Ritva Voutila, published by Allen and Unwin. The illustrations are reminiscent of Maurice Sendak, bordering on the grotesque occasionally. The Giant looks rather attractive in a sort of soft, gentle way and he’s been depicted variously over the years, often as a skinny, fierce fellow depending on the period in which the artist is working. The pictures are dark and illustrated, scanned from full-blown oil paintings. This is one of the most beautiful retellings.

The stigmata is not too explicit in this version. At any rate, the child isn’t depicted ever. You find yourself looking for the child all the time, so it can be interpreted as the giant being a believer, but not everyone is. This is a product of a post-Christian era.


More in the gallery here.


Things Possible With Digital Stories Which Are Not So Possible With Paper Stories

A lot is still being said about all the ways in which ebooks and tablet books are not as good as ‘real books’: you can’t smell them, there’s screen glare, you don’t know where you are up to in the book…

Ebooks: “I hate them. It’s like making believe there’s another kind of sex. There isn’t another kind of sex. There isn’t another kind of book! A book is a book is a book.”

Maurice Sendak

Then there are the dissenters and skeptics who think that excessive focus on the physical beauty of books undermines the real purpose of literature, which can be found in the text and not in the vessel that delivers it.

Internet Book Fetishists, from The New Yorker

But there are also some excellent things that are newly possible in the age of digital books. I focus here on digital picturebooks in particular.


Postmodern Non-linearity

I know from book club that endings pose a particular challenge for authors; no single ending can satisfy all readers. But with eBooks and apps, technically, it’s possible to offer a few different endings. Whichever one the reader gets might be based on a few simple questions at the very beginning of the book, such as, ‘Do you have a high tolerance for ambiguity?’ or ‘Are you a fan of happy endings?’ or something like that. Or the reader might simply be asked, ‘Do you want the happy ending or the tragic ending?’

I can’t see publishers ever embracing the option to encourage readers not to read every single book in a series — publishers are making most of their money from series after all — but I write now of pie-in-the-sky possibilities afforded by the electronic age.

It’s possible that most readers don’t want to choose when they sit down with a book, though this doesn’t explain the popularity (though niche) market of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure series. It’s possible that paper books do best when it comes to lengthy, linear works:

“Printed content also tends to be packaged in a way that encourages the reader to consume it, if not in its entirety in one go, at least in a linear fashion. In doing so, the reader leaves mental footprints from the beginning, through the middle, to the end of the textural landscape. Some psychologists believe these mental maps of a reader’s journey through a piece of text provide the deeper sense of understanding that distinguishes reading on paper from reading on a screen.”

The Paperless Dilemma

But what about the non-linear works? Speaking of her book Paradise, Toni Morrison said:

“People’s anticipation now more than ever for linear, chronological stories is intense because that’s the way narrative is revealed in TV and movies,” she says. “But we experience life as the present moment, the anticipation of the future, and a lot of slices of the past.”

Might we be on the cusp of a new age of non-linear storytelling?



After realising that our three-year-old had remembered one of the more scary pages in a proto version of Midnight Feast, and that she was requesting this page before bedtime, I worried that she might start waking from nightmares. As it happened, she didn’t, but at the time I had been mulling over whether a certain scene in our next story was perhaps too scary for the more tender individuals in our target readership.

So for the Midnight Feast release version readers or parents can turn off the scariest elements of the story for younger or more sensitive readers. This is definitely something which might be more widely implemented if time and money were no object.

Related to this: Same book but not: Publishers offer titles in adult, kid versions (from the Los Angeles Times).



Depicting the flow of time in a picturebook isn’t easy, especially if the story is for younger children, who haven’t yet learnt the usual codes. For instance, in Eva Eriksson’s illustration of The Wild Baby, we see six different babies on and around the stairs. The wild baby is doing a different naughty thing in each picture, and older readers will easily pick up that there are not suddenly six different wild babies — this is the same baby doing different naughty things successively. Young readers can get confused, wondering where the other wild babies came from.

A storybook app can avoid this problem, if touches to the screen get rid of one baby before the next one appears.

(Over at The Guardian, Naomi Alderman has contributed an excellent article in her capacity as both games writer and ‘serious writer’ explaining how interactive technologies open up various possibilities in storytelling.)

art by Alice and Martin Provensen. The Odyssey.
by Alice and Martin Provensen. The Odyssey.



The element of surprise in a picturebook is constrained by the page turn. In order to reveal something unexpected, an author/illustrator team must sometimes contrive the prose so that the surprise doesn’t happen on the recto side of a double spread, but rather overleaf. Lift-the-flap books do more with the element of surprise, though in my experience, are best man-handled by an older reader, even though the target readership are chubby little destructive fingers! In an app, a surprise can be hidden until it is found via touch.



Related to this is that sometimes in a picturebook (though more often in illustrated stories) the words and pictures are somewhat out of sync. I notice when reading illustrated chapter books to my six year old that she’ll often ask about some element of a picture but if she were to wait for me to read all of the accompanying text she would have her questions explained. Sometimes questions are good; other times they are distracting, and occur only due to the constraints of the physical page. An app can manipulate timeing with touch interactivity; text and the relevant part of an illustration can appear together, or not, as best serves the reader.



For Hilda Bewildered we are playing around with various light effects in the screen transitions. Done badly, these can look like a terrible PowerPoint presentation. On the other hand, various film camera techniques can enhance a picture book in an unobtrusive and subtle way. For example, a ‘pan’ can be emulated by swiping to reveal more of a scene; a zoom effect can get around the limitations of the fixed-size screen; tilt-shift can be emulated to draw attention to a certain story element; the list is endless, if only the budget were.



I haven’t seen this yet (not to say it doesn’t exist) but there are many possibilities for word placement. In a printed book, the words are static on the page, which is indeed fine for most stories. But there is plenty of scope for an imaginative development team to come up with an interactive picturebook in which the movement/substitution/reader-selection of words becomes part of the story, and fosters a love of language via word play. Inspiration can be drawn from (rather old-fashioned, now) tomes of word puzzles (you know the kind, printed on newsprint, designed to be written in), or perhaps inspiration can come from some of the many word game apps on the App Store today. In an app, words could be flung off the page, arranged by the reader (a la Endless Alphabet), shuffled around to create something new (like fridge magnet poetry with pictures to match)… The possibilities are endless for developers who are adept in storytelling.



This style of painting by Tang Yau Hoong is perfectly suited to rub-to-reveal interactivity.
This style of painting by Tang Yau Hoong is perfectly suited to rub-to-reveal interactivity.

The rub-to-reveal feature of some book apps is sometimes used to no real effect, but we have used it with a definite purpose in mind: The image which is revealed beneath the rubbings reveals the inner-world of a character, or in Hilda Bewildered it reveals a different interpretation of the same event. The underlying picture can be completely different or it can be mostly the same. In a printed book, palimpsestic relationships between spreads work well if the picture is completely different; harder to convey is where the picture is only slightly different. The rub-to-reveal abilities of touch screens draw readers’ attention towards similarities in a way I’ve only seen in ‘Spot the difference’ type gamification in printed books.



This is yet another area to get badly wrong, but when done right, sound effects and music can really enhance the mood of a story. Print books sometimes come bundled with CDs; others such as the Little Einstein publications have a panel of buttons which the young reader can press when told to inside the story. In picturebook apps, sound is more flexible: Sound can either autoplay, or it can be activated by the user, depending on how the developers would like to manipulate the reader’s experience of the story. Sound effects can be calm and unobtrusive or they can be surprising and comical. It almost goes without saying, but the read-aloud benefits of narration help emerging readers and readers with dyslexia. Even competent readers can be helped though difficult texts via narration. Other apps may avoid the option of narration, opting instead for a soundscape that sounds best on its own.



A cinemagraph is like a GIF. Well, it is a GIF, except the difference between a cinemagraph and a GIF of a cat falling down a crevice over and over again is that a cinemagraph is more subtle, and often loops seemlessly. For instance, the only moving part in a cinemagraph of a woman sitting on a park bench may be the slight up and down movement of her foot. This simple movement can signify her impatience in a way a static picture could not. In short, the cinemagraphic possibilities of pictures in apps allow for even more telling of the story via pictures, which is good, because picturebook apps don’t tend to do well with large blocks of text.



I’m looking forward to emerging research on this.

Reading Difficulties



But in the end, is it right to expect more of a storyapp than of a picturebook? Is it not enough to expect the same immersive experience, preferably shared? Such discussions are taking place all around the Internet, with a variety of diverse opinions. As for me, I’m looking forward to seeing the research, which is by necessity behind the new technology itself.


Talk of ‘Babysitting’

Good apps or games should facilitate conversation between parents and children during this play, not get in the way of it.

– from a study from the Children’s Media Center at Georgetown University, summarised here.

But I don’t really buy the idea that gadgets can babysit. Kids need attention, and they demand it.

This chair sums it up perfectly.


It’s called The Abooba Chair. Someone without kids — or else someone with an amazing tune-out ability — designed it to allow parents to read while their children play.


Do We Have Free Will?


Graham Lawton: Even people who have largely come to terms with neuroscience find certain ideas troubling—particularly free will. Do we have it?

Patricia Churchland: A better question is whether we have self-control, and it’s very easy to see what the evolutionary rationale of that is. We need to be able to maintain a goal despite distractions. We need to suppress certain kinds of impulses. We do know a little bit about the neurobiology of self-control, and there is no doubt that brains exhibit self-control.

Now, that’s as good as it gets, in my view. When we need to make a decision about something—whether to buy a new car, say—self-control mechanisms work in ways that we understand: We decide not to spend more than we can afford, to go with the more or less practical car. That is what free will is. But if you think that free will iscreating the decision, with no causal background, there isn’t that.

Slate: The Self As Brain