Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Behind the Books: Playing with Layout

Ever since desktop publishing software became available in the early 1990s, the visual appeal of nonfiction books for young readers has grown by leaps and bounds. These programs make it easy to experiment with a book’s layout.

As a result of this new freedom, many books now include multiple illustrations per spread and make clever use of white space. Examples include Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, An Egg is Quiet by Dianna Aston, and Born to Be Giants: How Baby Dinosaurs Grew to Rule the World by Lita Judge.

One of the true masters of nonfiction book design is Steve Jenkins, who often works with his wife Robin Page. Books like How Many Ways Can You Catch a Fly?, Never Smile at a Monkey, What Do You Do with a Tail Like This, and Move! are all about animal adaptations. The fun, innovative design of these books couple with the brief, clear text is irresistible. Jenkins does a remarkable job of selecting animals with unique adaptations and organizing them into clever categories to create books with a game-like feel.

A current trend in science-themed titles for the picture book crowd is layered text. Books like Beaks by Sneed B. Collard III, When the Wolves Returned: Restoring Nature’s Balance in Yellowstone, Meet the Howlers by April Pulley Sayre, and my own book A Place for Butterflies feature two kinds of text that serve different purposes and that is distinguished visually by size and font.

For the most part, a larger, simpler text provides general information and can stand on its own. The smaller text presented in sidebars provides additional details to round out the presentation. These books are perfect for the Reading Buddy programs popular in many schools, and they also work well as family read alouds.

Can you think of other nonfiction books with innovative, eye-catching designs? I’d love to hear your recommendations.

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