Thursday, 19 February 2015

What's It All About? By Pippa Goodhart

What comes first; the story or the title?  In my experience each book's writing process tends to be as individual as the book it results in.  Sometimes a title is just there for the picking, seemingly obvious.  I have a picture book called Chapatti Moon that’s being illustrated at the moment.  I couldn’t have been called anything else.  It's right for the story, and I love the sound of it.  But on other occasions I have tied brain into knots, trying different word combinations to come up with a title I like. 
Titles are important because, along with cover artwork, they act as the lure to the story waiting inside a book.  They give the reader clues as to what kind of story it will be, and they must tempt the reader inside so that the story itself gets a chance to grab them.  A book cover is, almost literally, a door.  We want people to open those doors.  So, what few words writ bold on the front cover will make them do that? 
A title might challenge us -

There’s a lovely threat of mayhem in the just the idea of a pigeon driving a bus.  How will it work out?

They might be an instruction as to how you should use the book –

Simple, but hopefully tempting?  What will there be to choose from?

They might boggle us with intriguing unknown words -

Now, of course, 'gruffalo' is a very well known word, but it was Julia Donaldson’s invention, designed, I gather, to offer lots of rhyming potential!

They can puzzle with something too obscure to let you guess what might be inside –

Why make a statement about a hat NOT being yours?

They might offer something tempting, but not give much away - 

What IS the surprise?

Or they can be very straightforward –

That’s a clear label, but far from dull because we have the intriguing combination of an elephant with a 'bad' baby.  In what way is the baby 'bad'?
This title is a very straightforward summary of the story.  Boring?  No, because we immediately think, but surely a tiger would already be wild?  What’s going on here? 

            I think that the key to a good title is making the reader question.  They know that if they open the book and read, they will find the answer.    And the title must give something of the flavour of the story to come; perhaps to set its tone.
Long titles usually mean that the words are there in a smaller font, perhaps even running into two or more lines, taking centre stage away from illustration. 

 On the other hand, a single word can be bold -

            Familiar words can trigger particular expectations.  Many years ago when I was a bookseller, a publisher told me that some market research had been done into titles, and it was found that certain words would make book sales spike noticably.  What were the magic words?  Well, she said that the absolute optimum possible title for a children’s book (because it contained so many of the magic words) was The Little Lost Christmas Kitten.  Guess what?  There is no book of that title listed on Amazon.  I offer it to you as a gift!

            What I don’t offer you is a picture book that I want to write.  I don’t know what the story is yet.  But I want the title to be Mr Dull.  My hope is that nobody would believe it.  They’d instantly suppose that actually Mr Dull isn't dull, and they’d want to know how and why!  Am I right?  Is that how people would react, or would they be literal in their thinking and so pass that book over without a glance? 
            What are your favourite picture book titles, and why?


  1. Great post!

    My favorite book titles among many are-

    "The Wainscott Weasel" by Tor Seidler (illus. Fred Marcelino)

    "The Snatchabook" by Helen Docherty (illus. Thomas Docherty)

    Like "The Gruffalo" mentioned above, this title uses an invented word to describe not only the unique creature in this book, but also invoke the nonsensical wordplay that Dr. Seuss employs, and I assure you, I don't say that lightly.

    "Ballerino Nate" by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (illus. R.W. Alley)
    Usually books about young ballet dancers star girls, but this book makes it clear a boy's at the bar.

    Plus the use of "Ballerino" (star or or lead male ballet dancer) versus "Ballerina" (the star or lead female ballet dancer) is a subtle, but key difference that shows this story.

    While some girls might be nicknamed "Nate" short for "Natalie" Nate is clearly a boy who loves the grace and technique behind ballet, but his "Know-it-All" (i.e. narrow-minded) big brother points out only girls do ballet, and while Nate tries to tune him out, he does start to wonder if he can belong in commonly female-dominated world.

    For all the talk about girls and women entering in male-heaven lines of work, we rarely consider how boys and men might feel out of place in (nearly) all female-dominant lines of work.

    Or at least we don't always see depicted in books, whether for kids or adults, as we might in life. Same with fashion. While most attention is put on women's fashion, many of the best and most well know fashion brands, designers, experts and/or historians are men.

    While the majority of nurses are women, there are MORE THAN 5 male nurses in the world! (LOL)

    "The Blues of Flats Brown" by Nina Laden
    Anyone who loves music might find the title intriguing, but also it give the sense of the rhythm and tone.

    The "Blues" is genre of music that's often sad and reflective in nature, which signals the title character goes through some hard times,

    "Wolfie the Bunny" by Ame Dyckman (illus. by Zachariah O'Hora)
    Usually writers are told to avoid names in the vein of "Zach the Zebra" but this title works because it plays up the title character against type.

    Wolfie is actually a wolf pup, who was adopted by rabbits, and wears pink bunny pajamas to
    "hide" his more wolfish features. (well, except the teeth)

    "The Mousehunter" by Alex Milway

    Again, another title that describes an unusual concept.
    Mice are often considered prey, yet this title infers they're more predatory.
    In this book's world, there are as many types of mice as days in the year,
    and it's job of mouse-hunters (like the book's heroine) to track them down.

    It's like Pokémon crossed with Monster Hunter.

    "Mr. Brown's Fantastic Hat" by Ayano Imai (今井 綾野)
    This book uses mentions a specific object in this title (i.e. the hat) for a reason. It's through grouchy Mr. Brown's unusually tall prized hat that he makes friends he didn't know he wanted until they're gone.

    1. Oh, forgot to mention why I like "The Wainscott Weasel"
      IT gives a warm, old-fashioned feel to the story and it's RARE to see a weasel starring in a story who isn't typecast "Evil incarnate" or some two-bit crook. While the title doesn't give that away, the cover image lets you know that while we're dealing with a bit of a tough guy, he's not a rugged he-man kind of tough.

      A big part of why I love this book and I'm overjoyed it was reissued last year after being out of print for YEARS.

    2. Wow, those are wonderful examples, Taurean! I think I'd HAVE to open up and find out what Wolfie The Bunny was about!
      And you make a very valid point about the lack of books that show males in typically female roles. I don't know Ballerino Nate, but it sounds as though it does a similar job for a younger audience that Billy Elliot does. Yes, more of that kind of thing is needed, perhaps also with animal characters who tend to be even more stereotyped into male and female roles.
      Thank you for such interesting comments.

    3. Thanks for replying, Pippa, I actually thought of "Billy Eliot" in writing my review of "Ballerino Nate" so you're not far off. This book is certainly more kid-friendly take on this subject versus the R-rated film.

      It's sadly out of print. But I cherish the nice used copy I found online, and I hold out hope it'll get reissued at some point as I feel this book would be a great comfort for young male ballet dancers who might be a "rare breed" in not only the class itself, but in the culture at large.

      It tangibly shows that boys and men can thrive in in just the same way girls and women do in male-dominated fields.

      I even made a fan book trailer for it, because I do believe this, and other books I review at "Talking Animal Addicts" were slightly ahead of their time.

      While I do focus on animal stories, I still review and discuss stories of the human experience, too. (Wink)

      While we have a burgeoning surge of the many ways girls and women are positively and proactively portrayed, we still seem stuck in the "dark ages" of evolving male roles depicted in books not catching up to what we see in everyday life overall.

      While picture books are making ground and even some major strides, middle grade and YA novels are still a bit stagnant to reflect diverse portrayals of boys and men, and as a novelist primarily (though I want to do picture books down the road) I hope I can be some part of the wave that let boys and men join in the gender role revolution girls and women have been in on since long before even my great-grandmother's time!

  2. Thanks for an excellent blog! Titles are key! Consumers get to see a book in a split second - on the bookshelf or the internet - and make a fast decision on whether to explore further. I like a funny teasing one - and a long one, too. If I were doing 'Mr Dull' I'd be tempted to add something mischevious and mysterious to the title (partly to avoid people thinking it's a Mr Men parody) that suggests Mr Dull is about to get the daftest and most life-changing adventure! Free Mr Dull!

    1. That's a good idea, Moira. Hmm. What could the added word be? It depends on the story, of course, but I'd love to do that Wolfie The Bunny kind of a trick! Food for thought!

    2. Mr Dull is saved by his socks
      Mr Dull accidentally saves the world
      Mr Dull Wins a Rainbow
      Mr Dull finds a dinosaur
      (I've just started improv classes - and could go on like this for many hours)

  3. I just had to read Click, Clack, Moo, Cows That Type (Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin) to see what that was about!

  4. Of course you did! That's a lovely one. Thanks, Jane. I love your Chewy Hughie title - it's stayed in my head for a good many years, and that stickability must be one test of a good title!

  5. "How to Hide a Lion" is a current favourite for us, with a nice intriguing title... Or that classic big cat "The Tiger Who Came To Tea".

  6. Yes. How To Hide A Lion immediately makes you want to know how that might be done - it begs a question. And I love the matter-of-factness about The Tiger Who Came To Tea title. It exactly reflects the way that the story, too, just takes that tiger arriving and eating and drinking everything completely in its stride. It's somehow more exciting for their treating it as ordinary when we think that we know what tigers are really like!

  7. Going back in time, Joyce Dunbar and Debi Gliori's gentle picture book 'Tell Me Something Happy Before I Go To Sleep' was a book that was first published in 1998 and then three years later became an enormous seller in the US after 9/11 - Joyce's title says it all.

  8. Yes, that's a good example of a 'what it stays on the tin' kind of title, and of course ideal for parents flipping through books to choose one that offers exactly that for a bedtime read. Thanks for that, Paeony.