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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Books and Their Covers, A Designer’s Dozen

Edie Weinberg has been a children’s book designer for over 20 years. She’s art directed picture books, nonfiction books, and novelty books. She currently works on freelance design projects while employed full-time in educational publishing. Here are here thoughts on nonfiction book design:

In looking at covers to talk about what I think works or doesn’t, you can’t
help but notice books on similar subjects which take very different
approaches. For example, ESCAPE NORTH!, FREEDOM TRAIN , and NIGHT RUNNING all
deal with the underground railroad. NIGHT RUNNING has real pathos and
tension on its cover, it’s dark and mysterious, you can tell from the body
language of James on the cover that he’s in danger. The other two, while
different in that they’re both telling The Story of Harriet Tubman couldn’t
have greater contrast as far as emotion and effectiveness as covers. FREEDOM
TRAIN has dramatic lighting and a moving composition while ESCAPE NORTH! Is
very static. The three figures look like they’re out for an evening stroll,
not escaping from anything.

There are many books with space exploration as a subject. The two examples
here, SPACE HEROES and MOONWALK while similar in format, are very different,
one successful to my eye, and the other much less so. MOONWALK has a clear,
focused image.  SPACE HEREOS is dealing with a broader topic, but it’s
montage is too diffuse, it’s difficult to focus on any of the image’s
elements.

I also noticed a number of covers featuring birds that were just wonderful.
Look at the gigantic pigeon on JOURNEY AROUND NEW YORK FROM A TO Z, it’s a
riot! UNITED TWEETS OF AMERICA has many different state birds all with their
wings spread in the classic eagle-on-quarter pose. On both of these covers,
I like the way the image and typography interact to create a tight
composition. A very different bird cover, PATHS TO PEACE, uses symbolic
silhouettes and muted colors to set the stage for a very different sort of
book, profiles of "people who changed the world".

GEORGE VS. GEORGE has a strong face-off filling cover image. I also love the
readable though period reminiscent type treatment worked into the cover’s
architecture. I find the MARK TWAIN: AN AMERICAN STAR cover less successful,
the background elements are ill defined and distracting and the type
treatment indifferent. I like the use of the classic photo on the ROSA
PARKS: MY STORY cover, and her name comes through loud and clear, but the MY
STORY against the photo is unreadable. The HOUDINI cover is great, strong
image, strong color, and strong type treatment.

I remember first seeing MARTIN’S BIG WORDS. Bryan Collier’s painting is
direct and accessible and beautiful. But what made it stand out most of all
is that there is no type on the cover, it’s just the portrait. You can’t
consider that treatment for too many subjects, but it’s a strong book cover
now muddied somewhat by the string of awards decorating it. The price of success.