Sunday, 26 April 2009

What's in - or on - a cover? - Katherine Langrish

I happened to be in the British Library this week, and there's a walk-in exhibition of children's poetry. I'd really recommend a visit if you can spare the time: one highlight for me was a notebook with Christina Rossetti's 'Who has Seen the Wind' in her own writing. There's also a letter by Ted Hughes, but the bulk of the exhibition is of printed books, old and new, open at some utterly wonderful poems, together with illustrations, some charming, others spine-tingling. Among the spine-tingling ones I'd include a version of 'The Highwayman' by Alfred Noyes, illustrated by Charles Keeping in his inimitable scrawly ink and wash. Atmospheric, menacing, and ever so slightly camp, his masked highwayman glitters in the moonlight on a pale ribbon of a road, under bare trees whose branches appear to undulate as if underwater.

As my new book, Dark Angels, comes out this week, it set me thinking about the relationship between art and text: particularly cover art. We set a great deal of store on the perfect cover these days: publishers, authors and booksellers alike worry over the exact impression the cover should make: will it stand out? Will it have 'pick-up-a-bility'?

This seems to be a fairly modern phenomenon; and I'm not sure that children are as fussed as we are about superb covers. The Harry Potter books fared quite well without them. And while some of the classic books I loved best as a child had amazing covers, others did not: some (like my version of The Wind in the Willows, which was a wartime austerity volume passed on to me by my mother), had no artwork on the cover at all, and none inside either, and it didn't put me off. In fact, thinking about it, that's probably where I gained my habit of pulling out the most obscure looking books from second-hand shelves - to see if a dull cover hides some treasure within. To the left here is the 1959 cover of Lucy Boston's The Children of Green Knowe. It wouldn't exactly stand out on the shelf, but I loved and still love its dark mystery.

Perhaps we didn't have great expectation of covers when I was a child, as witness this 1968 Puffin edition of Meindert DeJong's The Wheel on The School. No self-respecting modern publisher would dream of putting out anything so dull. Would they?

Yet really, it does everything necessary: it's got the intriguing title, the author name, and a mildly interesting picture - even if the cartwheel with nesting storks appears to be hovering in mid-air. Compared with my modern cover, above, it could even be regarded as pleasingly uncluttered. At any rate, with such a book one wasted no time in opening it to see what it was about, and so the decision whether to read it or not was prose-based...
Others were better. Here's my much-read 1965 copy of Alan Garner's The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. I don't know what the first edition cover looked like, but this picture has stuck with me for life. I love the brooding gaze of the dwarf and the rich, magical colours. All the same, it's quite clearly an 'old' look. You wouldn't get that framing effect today: the separation of artwork from title and author name. And here's the 1961 cover of Rosemary Sutcliff's classic Dawn Wind: it looks more modern, perhaps because Charles Keeping, who illustrated nearly all her books, was such an strong and innovative artist. In fact, the art here is almost more important than the title, and the author's own name all but fades into the dark shadows at the children's feet. Today we'd be wailing for gilt or silver foil to 'lift' the cover. And yet I'd hate to see this changed. You could recognise 'a Rosemary Sutcliff' at a glance, precisely because Keeping's style twinned with her historical genius made such a fantastic pairing.

Back then, of course, books even for older children were full of wonderful illustrations, and nobody thought it babyish. (Even today I can't see that anything by Charles Keeping could be regarded that way.) My Dark Angels, in common with many modern books for the 9+ 'market', has no illustrations at all, which is a shame, really. Edward Ardizzone was another artist whose work was instantly identifiable: here's a cover he did for one of my favourite books by the much-neglected Nicholas Stuart Gray: Down In the Cellar (1961).
Here again, the artist is as important as the author and shares the credit on the cover. His work wonderfully expressed the spooky, yet homely world that Gray conjured up (a bunch of E Nesbit-style children come across a wounded man in an old quarry, and discover he has escaped from a nearby fairy mound.)

I do love the cover HarperCollins has provided for my Dark Angels, but it will have to make its way in the world without a friendly artist to interpret some of its scenes between the pages. I can't help feeling a bit wistful - but I'm sure that one thing hasn't changed over the years: what matters most is what is under the cover, not what is on it.


Charlie Butler said...

Congratulations on Dark Angels!

I'll let you into a secret, though. I really, really like Rosemary Sutcliff's books - but I simply can't abide Keeping's illustrations, which seem designed to make everyone and everything in her world uglified and somehow grimed with industrial soot. (The ones for The Silver Branch are particularly vile.) I know I'm in the minority, though!

Katherine Langrish said...

Oh NO, Charlie - I adored them! The only illustrations he did which I didn't like so much were of Drem in 'Warrior Scarlet' - those annoyed me, as it wasn't the way I imagined Drem to look at all.

Asakiyume said...

That cover for Dawn Wind certainly has stuck in my mind over the years--I'm not sure if I *liked* it, especially as a kid, but it was definitely very memorable.

Linda Strachan said...

Isn't the problem that children these days (in fact all of us) are bombarded with glossy images from adverts, TV, and even on a packet of cereal!

Although we love these older styled images, possibly also with a kind of nostalgia, I wonder if they have may not have the same effect on any but the most ardent (chld) reader?

catherine johnson said...

Really interesting post- and congrats on the new book, the cover does look great. I am a Charles Keeping but not Rosemary Sutcliff fan, but my favourite books with occasional pictures are the Moomintroll books.
I love the new Siobhan Dowd cover for Solace of the Road, but would be interested to know what young readers think.

fionadunbar said...

Great post, Kath! Though if my post bag is anything to go by, kids are very strongly influenced by cover art; so many have remarked on how it has made them pick the book up in the first place. I think Linda makes a good point.

I think we learn from experience; I have long had a theory re: music album covers (obviously more pertinant in the Vinyl Age) that the naffer they are, the better the music, because time after time that seemed to be the case. You learned something similar from the books you read.

Catherine, I'm afraid I don't like the Solace cover, although I loved the Bog Child one. The cover for A Swift, Pure Cry has an interesting history; the original (very nostalgic watercolour) version bombed with the booksellers; none of the chains would take it. Yes, you read that right: none of the chains were prepared to stock Siobhan Dowd's A Swift, Pure Cry.

Anonymous said...

congrats kathryn - will look out for it.

fiona - i liked that watercolour cover.

Anthony said...

Long after you post I have found it again. Interesting. I loved Charles keeping's illustrations of Rosemary Sutcliff's books, as she did. (She was a close relative and I grew up with her books and her writing. Hence a blog where I have linked with your post and the blog as a whole.