Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Getting Boys to Read with Better Covers - a theory about Roald Dahl

Just after my second Jimmy Coates book came out, in 2006, I applied to be the writer in residence at the Roald Dahl Museum & Story Centre in Great Missenden. I didn't get the job. They said they wanted someone "more passionate" about getting kids to read.
I have no response to that.
Anyway, in preparation for that whole episode I re-read a lot of Roald Dahl books. I'd read some of them when I was younger, but I have to admit I never got on with them. I can appreciate them now, I can see that they're great stories, very well written, but I've still never fallen in love with them.
I have a lot of difficulty seeing Roald Dahl as any kind of 'master storyteller' simply because when I was a kid I was reluctant to read any books, but some writers managed to reach me. Roald Dahl didn't. I never really connected with anything by Roald Dahl - but why?

I'd not been able to put my finger on it until yesterday. Now I have a theory. It's a theory I think might be useful for writers, publishers and cover designers if they want to get more kids to read: kids who are, like I was, less inclined to pick up a book.

For some reason I think this theory will apply particularly to getting boys to read. See whether you agree...

I had this revelation yesterday while staring at the art on my living room walls. Here's a little sample:
Sorry about the poor photography - but isn't the art great? One day I'll tell you what that Japanese writing means. But for now, here's another piece of art from my living room. (Bear with me here, this DOES get relevant and it WILL explain why I don't like Roald Dahl as much as I should.)

Can you spot my taste emerging? My rather inflexible taste? Here's a final clue. My all-time favourite piece of visual art, 'Whaam!' by Roy Lichtenstein:

I've loved that picture since I first saw it when I was 8. I had a poster of it on my bedroom wall for the next 14 years.

Now have a little peek at some artwork I can't stand. I can appreciate its technicalities; I can understand that it was painted my a master. But I can't stand it. It's 'A View of Luxembourg City' by JW Turner:


It's very easy to pick out art I'll like: strong outlines, lots of white, lots of bold colours arranged in blocks, with no shading and nothing at all vague. I like brightness and clarity. I always have.

So, with that in mind, have a look at some book covers. (Phew - finally my ramble reaches its point.) This is what the covers of Roahl Dahl's books looked like when I was growing up:

Ugh. Shading. Pastel colours. Vague, sketchy outlines. Busy-ness. Like the Turner painting, it's clearly a brilliant picture. I can appreciate Quentin Blake's genius, but I can't stand to look at any of his illustrations.

Here's another one:

Double ugh! A brilliant, brilliant book, but how was I ever meant to discover that when the front was covered in this vague, pastel horror?! It's not just the fact that it's basically yellow and pink (you expect me to read a book that's yellow?! And PINK!?), it's the tremble on every line, the thin, quivering scratches that don't connect with each other.

Of course, I didn't think any of this consciously when I was presented with any of these books. I didn't know what was putting me off. The rational part of my brain understood that Roald Dahl was considered a 'great' author for boys like me. Yet I never thought of his books as being the sort that I'd enjoy. When I did give them a go (and I did), I never fell in love with them.

Here's what a Roald Dahl cover looks like now:

It's better, isn't it? But it's still not great. Still all those vague, quivering lines. Even the author's name is written in a font that wobbles about and doesn't sit anywhere, connected to anything. The lovely, clean block of blue is ruined by indistinct scribbles of... who knows what.

I would never have connected with that cover as a kid, and I reckon there are thousands of kids today who are just like I was. OK, just like I still am. I still can't look at any of those Roald Dahl covers for any length of time without getting all twitchy. How am I meant to relax and enjoy the book?

OK. So far this is just a rant about Roald Dahl. So far, it might have been nothing to do with the covers. Maybe I just didn't like his writing. If the publisher had sacked Quentin Blake and employed Roy Lichtenstein would I have loved the books? Um, actually... yes.

Take a look at the books I did love. My favourite author between the ages of about 8 and 11 was Dick King Smith. Here's the cover of the edition of 'Magnus Powermouse' that I read when I was 8:

I'm sorry it's out of focus. I don't have my own copy of this edition any more, so I had to track down the right image on the internet. This is the best I could find. But do you see what I'm talking about? Lots of white. Clean, clear outlines. Crisp detail. I love it.

Here's an even better example, (but sadly the photo is even more out of focus):

Bold. Bright. Crisp and clear. Dynamic. None of that wispy pastel shading and the only yellow is a really bright, solid yellow, on letters so sure of themselves they have a red shadow. That's a book I'll read. It's a book I couldn't put down when I read it as a kid.

Have another look at the first Roald Dahl cover, above - the cover of 'Boy'. Imagine that same scene executed in the style of the cover of 'The Fox Busters'. Or, even better, the style of 'Whaam!'.

Wow: The cheekiness of the boys. The thrill of being caught. The colour of the sweetshop. Now it's coming to life - all set off by a stunning, clean white background and some bold, black outlines.

All the Dick King-Smith books have different covers now, of course. Personally I prefer the old versions, but these aren't bad. By now you'll be able to spot what I do or don't like about them:

Nice format. Not keen on the purple. Even less keen on the pale, pastel lavender of the author's name and the wibbly font. I'd also prefer some beefier, bolder outlines on that drawing of Magnus. But it's still better than the Roald Dahl cover.

Ah, now this looks good:

Brightness! Still not perfect, and still not as good a cover as that old edition of 'The Fox Busters', but it's pretty good. I'd pick it up.

So what am I saying with all this?

I'm saying that whether we like it or not, our experience of a book is tainted or enhanced by our first impressions of the front cover. There's a particular sort of mind that responds far better to bold colours in solid blocks, clear black outlines and a lack of wispy, pastel-like shading. Those minds tend to be inside the heads of boys. Those minds tend to be labelled 'reluctant reader'.

So if you want a boy to read, and if you want a boy to fall in love with a book once he's made the huge effort of picking it up, please can we have more covers like this:

And, for that matter, more covers like this:




Catherine Czerkawska said...

Great post - and as the mother of a (now grown-up) son - I agree with you. Impossible to overestimate how much many (most? I don't know!)boys, even the sons of feminist writer mothers, will resist anything soft and pastel, but will go for big bold outlines and bright colours. Son is now a video games designer and would, I think, entirely agree with your judgement about Dahl's cover art. He actually liked Dahl - but only when it was read to him or when he could listen to a recording. He seldom read the actual books. I also think there's a lot of angst about 'getting boys to read' when many boys actually do read, but read non-fiction (shipwrecks, trains, traction engines, airships...) and get round to fiction later. I reckon any reading is good and it doesn't much matter what it is.

Joe said...

Thanks Catherine. I agree with you on all counts! I've always read a lot of non-fiction but throughout my teens I didn't realise it 'counted' - which didn't help my perception of myself as a non-reader.

Miriam said...

Fascinating! Extremely convincing argument. Much more convincing than your 'Feed a cold' theory.

Anonymous said...

I always judged a book by its cover - a stupid saying when the cover is all that's available at the beginning! Can't read a book with a rubbish cover,nor can I eat chocolate mouse if it's been piped out of a bag...
I shall make it a point to look for unfussy covers for the boys' section.