Monthly Archives: January 2011

E-Readers: Design Democracy or Design Anarchy?

Picture yourself in a first-grade classroom.  The teacher has given out handfuls of jujubes as a way to teach addition and subtraction (“if you have 6 jujubes, and take away 2…”).  But the kids have different ideas – instead of a math lesson, they’d rather build gummy towers, flick the candies at each other across the table, or eat them and run around from the sugar high.  There’s 25 students, and only one teacher. Do you let the kids do what they want?

The obvious answer is no. The kids will run around like crazy and pelt jujubes at each other! They’ll pass out from the sugar high!  They won’t learn any addition or subtraction, which will prevent them from learning multiplication and division and… and… then they’ll never go to college and get a job!  Why don’t kids get to run their own schools?  Because they don’t know what’s good for them.

Here’s the point I’m getting at: there are over 300 million people in the United States. About 1 in 10 adults own an e-reader and, depending on their device, they get to choose the font style and size of the text they’re reading, rendering a book designer useless.  In the classroom, this amounts to handing the kids a bunch of jujubes and saying, “You don’t need someone to tell you how to do math, just go do whatever you want!”  Is it design democracy, or design anarchy?

At this point, you may be saying, Okay, it’s not fair to compare the American population to a bunch of first graders. But of those 300 million people, less than 1 in 1,000 adults are graphic designers. The vast majority, even those who are visual, are typography-illiterate.  And any designer who has had to explain what they do to folks back home can back me up on this.

So why even bother with the design of a book? Let’s face it, you can read the book no matter what — why not give the people what they want?  Well, great design equals great readability. People like me spend time making sure words flow easily from line to line, page to page, highlighting and minimizing what’s important and unnecessary. All so that you don’t notice the design – it’s as beautiful and transparent as glass.

More than that, design gives flavor and tone to the story, making every book a unique experience to enjoy. In e-readers, you only get a few different fonts, so that every book you read is the same, with the personality of, well, a Kindle.  In searching for choice, readers actually get homogeny.

I believe that people are more adept at recognizing great design than they know. That for the most part, they want a pleasant, well-designed reading experience. They may not know what they want, but they know when its bad.

I’m writing all this because Steve Matteson, the type director for Monotype Imaging, did a presentation at work the other day.  He’s on the forefront of this new frontier, and works with Monotype to create and fine-tune typefaces, in a process called “hinting”, so that they’re better for display on screens than in print.  It’s not all settled yet, but it’s fascinating stuff.

E-reader type design a slow process, but one day we’ll get the choice of thousands of clear and elegant fonts. The industry will set standards, and eventually, control of the book will go back to the teacher… I mean, designer.  In the meantime, as it was with computers and the internet, we’re stuck with a whole lot of ugly.  Or is it democracy?


Holiday Ideas for the Artistically Gifted

(as tested by Annie Beth Ericsson in Christmas 2010)

Prologue: Just Paint ’em Something!

I’m sure every illustrator, when asking what to get their family for Christmas, gets the response, “Just paint me something!”  It’s great that an artist can make their own gifts, but with a blended “modern family” like mine, there are just too many relatives… you’d be painting Christmas gifts all year!  A few special folks got real-deal paintings (shown above), but in case you’re not watercolor-inclined, here are a few creative alternatives I tried:

1. 4 Over 4 Cards

I have to give my shout-out to Queens… ever since my pre-graduation scramble for business cards and promos, 4 Over 4 has been, hands down, my favorite printer.  To prove my point, this Christmas, they had an amazing special on greeting cards — I got 75 full-color cards with free shipping, envelopes, the works… for only about $50!  Using the polar bear image I created, I gave little sets of 6 blank notecards to family and friends.  They were so well received, I think they’ll become an annual tradition!

2. A Personal Subway Map

One of my dearest friends, bless her, has absolutely no sense of direction, and is often calling me to ask, “Where am I?”  So I decided she needed a NYC subway map of her own, complete with favorite landmarks and frequent haunts.  It may not be the best thing I’ve ever drawn, but it’s a fun idea for an urban explorer.  On the other hand, she also got a smartphone for Christmas.  Let’s see which helps more.

3. Digitally Colored Photos

I stole this idea from my coworker, who was using this handy tutorial to enhance black and white family photos with a vibrant, hand-colored look.  For those who are better with the paintbrush tool than a paintbrush, this is a simple way to put a personal touch on old portraits, and all you need to know are quick masks and color balance in Photoshop.  I tried a few and framed them, but I’d love to see a whole album of updated photos!

4. Faux Quote Hoops

I’m constantly “starring” Design*Sponge’s DIY projects in my Google Reader for later, but this was one that I just HAD to try!  I love the idea of taking something vintage-inspired, and making it a little irreverent or clever.  In practice, though, this craft project has one fatal flaw — iron-on transfers.  Yes, downloading an embroidery font is much more appealing to me than actually sewing, but the transfer paper leaves a strange residue on the fabric, even where you didn’t print anything.  Maybe there’ s a trick to get this out, but I’m not trying this one again unless I can get a clean image!

My Princess Boy Part II: Books With Non-Traditional Gender Roles

Since writing my first post about My Princess Boy, I got to thinking about boys who wear pink, and other non-traditional gender roles.  Was there a place for them in children’s books before this news story?  Turns out, there was, and librarians and readers have been making lists for ages!  Here’s my own list, with some personal favorites for boys and girls:

(Note: I also went to the bookstore and read My Princess Boy. My two cents? I’m not a fan of an illustration style with faceless figures, though I understand the attempt to be “universal” and androgynous, and I know others that liked it. Ultimately, though, I respect the point of the story, and that’s satisfying enough for me!)

Little Women – by Louisa May Alcott / There’s no contest: Louisa May Alcott, in the guise of her autobiographical protagonist, Jo March, is the original tomboy.  She’s independent, stubborn, and refuses to accept the feminine societal norms that eat up the rest of her sisters’ time and energy.  Women for generations have idolized the way she bravely cuts off her hair (her one beauty!), but fans were a little less content with her refusal to marry Laurie… or anyone at all.  In fact, Alcott later wrote,

“Jo should have remained a literary spinster, but so many enthusiastic young ladies wrote to me clamorously demanding that she should marry Laurie, or somebody, that I didn’t dare refuse and out of perversity went and made a funny match for her”.

Listen to a great story about Jo March on NPR, here.

Hattie Big Sky – by Kirby Lawson / There are many wonderful contemporary novels featuring spunky historical heroines, but my favorite is “the one about the girl homesteader”, aka. Hattie Big Sky. Hattie is a 16-year-old orphan who winds up with a piece of land in rural Montana, and has to successfully farm it in less than a year to stay.  I love Hattie’s unique voice and the community that she creates for herself within a harsh setting… she can’t help but have guts to stick through her situation!

The Paper Bag Princess – by Robert N. Munsch / Since 1980, this princess has been kicking some serious dragon-butt, proving that girly-girls everywhere can get down and dirty, bring on some clever defense, and rescue the prince all on their own . . . even if he turns out to be not-so-Charming.

Oliver Button Is A Sissy – by Tomie dePaola / This story has a lot of heart, and with a main character who’d rather paint pictures and read than play sports, it’s pretty easy to spot that this is an autobiographical dePaola story.  This may have been the first time that male gender stereotypes were addressed in a picture book, and I’m happy to see that Oliver Button still resonates today.

Ferdinand – by Munro Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson / I didn’t think of this book immediately, because Ferdinand reminds me more of my shy 175-lb. Pyranese dog, Jaxon, than any kid I know, sissy or otherwise.  But when it was on all the related lists about books defying gender stereotypes, it gave me pause to think. Maybe this little bull could give comfort to a shy boy who’d rather pick flowers than wrestle himself.

Billy Elliot / Okay, okay . . . this isn’t technically a book (though it is now adapted from the screenplay!).  But this movie touched the hearts of so many, because a man doesn’t have to be gay to want to express himself creatively.  I loved the film, and can’t wait to see the Broadway musical this weekend!

Pinky And Rex series – by James Howe, illustrated by Melissa Sweet / Pinky and Rex defy traditional gender roles in a cool, easygoing way — by just being themselves.  Pinky likes pink and animals, Rex likes dinosaurs, but they’re best friends and brave enough to stick up for each other anyway. As a first-grader who was more comfortable playing with boys and animals in the mud than with Barbies, this was one of my favorite early-readers growing up!  And FYI? My favorite color at that age was blue.

Top Ten Award Winners On My To-Read List

1. Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool (Newbery) / I love surprises, and so does the Newbery!  So this underrated debut novel, set in 1930s Kansas, is sure to send booksellers and librarians scrambling to put copies on the shelves.  Can’t wait to see if it lives up to the top dog award!

2. Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi (Printz) / When it comes to YA, no trend sucks me in more than dystopian fiction.  The story of Nailer, a scavenger who finds a wealthy girl trapped among the wreckage of Gulf Coast oil ships, has intrigued me since it was nominated for a National Book Award.  I’m hoping the action is as gripping and bold as the novel’s graphic cover.

3.  One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams Garcia (Coretta Scott King, Newbery Honor) / If I had to place bets on a winner before the awards came out . . . this would’ve been my pick, because everyone’s been raving about it for ages. And something tells me those 3 sisters on their Brooklyn-to-California adventure are gonna steal my heart too.

4. Dark Emperor and Other Poems Of The Night by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Rick Allen (Newbery Honor) / Three cheers for a picture book getting a Newbery, not just a Caldecott, Honor!  It’s wonderful to see authors of books for younger readers be recognized, because it’s just as hard to say something beautiful in few words as it is to say in many.

8. will grayson, will grayson by John Green and David Levithan (Stonewall Honor, Odyssey Honor) / What can complicate high school even more than it already is?  Having two characters with the same name. What can make a book even more hilarious than anything that’s come before it?  Two authors: John Green and David Levithan.  I’m obsessed already.

6.  90 Miles to Havana by Enrique Flores-Galbis (Pura Belpre Honor) / Isn’t the cover just lovely?  The colors drew my attention, but its the story that kept me interested: the based-on-a-true-story tale of the children of “Operation Peter Pan“, which brought 14,000 kids as refugees from Cuba to the US.


7.  Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride (William C. Morris Honor) / The real awards for this book should be, “Coolest Title” and “Coolest Cover”.  In a sea of kind of dated-looking material, this is by far more edgy and teen boy-appealing than any of the other winners.  I’m all for funny-scary, or scary-funny… whatever.

5.  Dave The Potter: Artist, Poet Slave illustrated by Brian Collier, by Laban Carrick Hill (Caldecott Honor, Coretta Scott King) / This is the one Caldecott pick I haven’t read, and with two awards, I guess I better pay attention.  Seems like it has a pretty traditional vibe for a picture book.

9. Bink And Gollie by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee, illustrated by Tony Fucile (Geisel) / What a fun-looking study in character expression!  The amount of buzz I’ve seen about this book might just put Bink and Gollie in the realm of classic friend pairs like “Frog and Toad” and “Henry and Mudge”.  I bet it’ll get me moving on my own early reader!

10.  The Freak Observer by Blythe Woolston (William C. Morris) / Strange cover, and looks like a strange book. But isn’t strange what makes life interesting?  The dark themes might not make this the most pleasant of reads, but I’m hoping it’s just crazy enough to be wonderful.

My Princess Boy: Wearing Pink Isn’t Just For Girls

Since reading She’s Not There by Jennifer Finney Boylan, I’ve had a particular interest in gender studies.  Boylan’s memoir, in a hilarious, moving and honest way, explains the oft-stereotyped and overlooked issue of transgendered people. For me personally, this was a life-changing book – I’ll always remember reading:

“After I grew up and became female, people would often ask me, How did you know, when you were a child? … It seemed obvious to me that this was something you understood intuitively, not on the basis of what was between your legs, but because of what you felt in your heart. Remember when you woke up this morning-I’d say to my female friends-and you knew you were female? That’s how I felt. That’s how I knew.”

My heart goes out to the transgender community, who are dealt one of the most difficult hands I think a person can get.  There is very little education or acceptance of the issue, and I hope that in the future, as with race and sexuality, that can slowly start to change.

So I was immediately drawn to the story of “My Princess Boy“, Cheryl Kilodavis’ self-published story that was recently picked up by Simon and Schuster.  Michel Martin of NPR’s Tell Me More interviews Kilodavis, the mother of the inspiration for “Princess Boy”, as well as Sara Mindel, director of clinical services at the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League in DC, and Bonnita Spikes, the mother of an older transgender male-female.  Listen to the story here.

Kilodavis’ 5-year-old son, Dyson is male (so far, he’s a boy, inside and out), but he goes for anything sparkly, his favorite color is pink, and he prefers wearing dresses. In a world where girls can wear jeans and play with trucks, no problem, why is the opposite such a difficult concept? For Kilodavis’ family, they’ve let Dyson stay as he is, and are hoping to bring others more acceptance through this children’s book. Kids should be allowed to play and dress according to what makes them happy.

What’s the problem?  It’s doesn’t lie with the kids, it’s with the adults.  When presented with non-traditional children, parents can’t help but make it about grown-up concepts – homosexuality, gender – when the child may simply like the “wrong” color or toys. As interviewer Michel Martin awkwardly admits, most people have a hard time talking about boys dressing as girls without jumping to the question, “But is he GAY?”  The answer is: he’s FIVE!  If he was wearing blue, no one would even think about asking a five-year-old’s sexual orientation. As Jennifer Finney Boylan writes:

“It certainly had nothing to do with whether I was attracted to girls or boys. This… was the one that, years later, would frequently elude people, including the overeducated smarty-pants who consituted much of my inner circle. But being gay or lesbian is about sexual orientation.  Being transgender is about identity.”

At this point, “Princess Boy” and the Kilodavis family are big news, featured in almost every news media outlet, including the Today Show.  But is this children’s book really going to bring acceptance to unique kids like Dyson? Amir Shaw’s editorial on claims that the mother is just seeking media attention, and drastically changing Dyson’s life in the process.

While I believe the parents have the best of intentions, Shaw brings up valid points: this small child, now in the spotlight, is going to have to confront major adult issues in a very public way.  While he could have grown out of dresses and pink in the privacy of his small community, now he’ll have photographs and interviews following him for the rest of his life.  That’s a lot for a kid to bear – especially one who is now going to have to deal with transgender and gay questions, whether he wants to or not.

Is “Princess Boy” a beautiful story designed to help different kids feel that they’re not alone?  Or is it bringing up social issues that shouldn’t be affecting young children’s lives?  I haven’t picked up the book yet, but I sincerely hope its the former.  Stay tuned…

New Year, New Resolutions

In case you live in a cave and no one has said this to you yet: Happy New Year!!! My first day of 2011 was filled with brilliant friends, hilariously bad tarot predictions, Enzo’s Pizza, and Easy A, so I feel like I’m off to a good start already.

Since I’m not the type of person who makes “lose weight and go to the gym”-type resolutions, I figured my goals would be professional, rather than personal, as usual.

In the Year Two Thousand Eleven, I, Annie Beth Ericsson, resolve to:

1. Finish revising and send out 1 picture book dummy every 3 months (at least April 1, July 1).

2. Keep a single sketchbook for the whole year.

3. Consider getting an agent. Like, actually research/do something about it.

4. Read at least 2-3 YA/middle grade novels per month, and go read new picture books in a store/library at least once a month.

5. Produce something creative/artistic every week that brings me closer to developing my personal style.

And… last but not least, continue to blog here 2-3 times a week (holidays notwithstanding)!

Since graduating, my 2010 year was all about finding balance – not pressuring myself to accomplish everything at once, unraveling the art-school mentality of constantly doing art for a deadline.  I had to learn not to feel guilty for wanting to relax, to be spontaneous and have a bit of fun.

But now I’ve chilled out significantly, and I’m worried that if I don’t pick up the pace now, I’ll tip the scales and become an unmotivated lump.  So, 2011 is all about working with passion!  Vigor!  Verve!  Time to get moving!