Category Archives: grown-up books

Bemidji Book Festival 2011

You’d think that being in rural Minnesota wouldn’t bring much in the way of industry happenings, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth.  My Midwest visit just so happened to coincide with the Bemidji Book Festival, a 6-day marathon of events with local authors, poets and illustrators.  Kudos to the Bemidji Library and the MN Legacy Fund for making this all happen!

I stepped off the plane and immediately headed to a presentation by Catherine Friend, author of both children’s stories and the adult books, Hit By A Farm, Sheepish, and The Compassionate Carnivore.  With a humble, witty voice on her 1 1/2 memoirs and a great perspective on local farming (and sheep), she’s like a lady Michael Pollan with a personal touch.  I’m thinking it’s time to take a closer look her kids’ books, and also take up knitting!

The next morning, I accessed my inner child by attending Thursday morning’s library event with author/illustrator Lynne Jonell.  While Jonell got her start in picture books, she’s now known for her middle-grade novels, like Emmy And The Incredible Shrinking Rat.  I think the design (by Amelia May Anderson) and art (by Jonathan Bean) for Emmy is impeccable – the hand-drawn type is seamlessly integrated to the limited-color line drawings, which carry over into a flip-book style interior. Plus, it was a pleasure to listen to Lynne’s story and watch her graciously field questions from aspiring picture book authors with just the right answers (five letters: SCBWI) and some kind inspiration.

On Friday night, we headed to the high school for an author’s fair.  While most of the authors were of the niche, poetry or self-published variety, I did discover Erik Evenson, a graphic novelist/illustrator who is – get this – originally from New Hampshire!  His Gods of Asgard and autobiographical web comic, Erik’s Sketchbook Diary, were easily the best-designed finds at the fair.  Definitely check out his work if you’re interested in comics.

But nothing at the festival could top Friday’s keynote speaker, Roxana Saberi.  Saberi, an Iranian-American journalist who was imprisoned in Iran and falsely charged of spying in 2009, now speaks about her life, Iran, and the book she wrote about her experiences (Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity In Iran).  She talked eloquently and powerfully about the human rights movements in Iran and the Middle East, and it certainly encouraged me to get more involved.  Can’t wait to finish reading her book!

It’s been an action-packed visit here in Bemidji, and while I’m always happy to return to Brooklyn, I could still use another week or two relaxing in the country and soaking up all that Minnesota has to offer.


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…

Celebrate The Haul-idays With Chronicle Books!

The ever-amazing Chronicle Books is having a Celebrate The Haul-idays contest: post a wish-list for up to $500 dollars of their books, and if I’m randomly selected, I could win the whole list.  I’m SO there!

It gets better – if you post a comment here, YOU could also win the list.  So go ahead and give a shout-out . . . you never know, you could take home $500 worth of Chronicle Books, too!

Here’s my Chronicle Books Wish List:

for myself

The Exquisite Book by Julia Rothman, Jenny Volvovski, and Matt Lamothe / $30 / I’ve heard so much about this book through their blog tour and Brooklyn event announcements, so I can’t wait to see the collaborations created by 100 artists for this epic version of the Exquisite Corpse!

This Is NPR by Cokie Roberts, Susan Stamberg, Noah Adams, John Ydstie, Renee Montagne, Ari Shapiro, and David Folkenflik / $30 / On quiet days of scanning and typesetting in the office, I’m addicted to getting my news and “didja know?” info from NPR.  Plus, who can live without This American Life and Radiolab?  And Diane Rehm?  My personal experts.

All My Friends Are Dead – by Avery Monsen and Jory John / $10 / Preview here.  Bahahahahaha.

The Little Book Of Letterpress by Charlotte Rivers / $25 / My mild obsession with letterpress has already been discussed.

Creative, Inc. by Meg Mateo Ilasco and Joy Deangdeelert Cho / $17 / This self-proclaimed “Ultimate Guide to Running a Successful Freelance Business” sounds like a perfect refresher course to all the tidbits I learned in art school.

Let’s Bring Back by Lesley M. M. Blume, illustrated by Grady McFerrin / $20 / I first became enamored with Ms. Blume’s blog when she published her Mad-Men edition, and as a sucker for everything vintage, I’m sure I’ll be a sucker for this, too.

Shadow by Suzy Lee / $16 / I think Suzy Lee’s first book, Wave, is one of the most thoughtfully-designed contemporary picture books out there.  Shadow, her follow-up wordless book, is just as playful, and I’d be super excited to own it.

Doodles: A Really Giant Coloring Book by Taro Gomi / $20 / This is one of those books that I already purchased as a gift, and, um . . . I kind of wish I kept it for myself!

How To Cook Like A Top Chef / $30 / Before I even attempted to cook, Top Chef had me inspired.  Well, at least to eat, anyway.

Fanzines by Teal Triggs / $40 / Maybe the most hipster thing about me is the fact that I really love zines.  Love ’em.  Even took a class on making them.

Tiny Art Director by Bill Zeman / $15 / This little girl would be the scariest boss imaginable, but I can’t stop laughing at her critiques!

for gifts

Antipasti: Fabulous Appetizers and Small Plates by Joyce Goldstein, photographs by Paolo Nobile / $20 / Known in our family as “grazing”, small plates is my favorite way to eat, and I’m sure my mom and Aunt Beth could work wonders with this cookbook.

The Book Of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks by Bethany Keeley / $15 / A little bit of humor for Grammar Nazis writers like my mama.

Lobel’s Meat Bible / $40 / Because now that he’s out in Minnesota farm country, my dad can grill with the best of ’em.

Photobooth Dogs by Cameron Woo / $15 / I’m not sure that JaXOn, our Great Pyrenees, would actually be able to fit in a photobooth, but this looks appropriate for my dog-loving family nonetheless.

Craft, Inc. by Meg Mateo Ilasco / $17 / This one’s for Deb, my super-talented stepmom who has mastered every craft from beading to scrap-booking, and I’m sure would love to make a little extra change doing it!

Little Pea by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustrated by Jen Corace / $15 / As the self-designated aunt who gives only books for holidays, this’d be first on my list for my own “little peas”, niece Alexis and nephew Thadd.

Simms Taback’s Safari Animals by Simms Taback / $13 / Simms Taback is one of my very favorite illustrators whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with at Putnam, and I’d be first to pass along any of his Chronicle titles to Alexis and Thadd as well.

Look!  It’s Jesus! by Harry and Sandra Choron  / $13 / What to get for a 19-year-old guy like my god-brother, Ryan?  Oh, maybe a humorous book, about “Amazing Holy Visions In Everyday Life”.  Why not?

Funnily enough, I would also get this for my Aunt Mary.

Ernie: A Photographer’s Memoir by Tony Mendoza / $13 / Before there was Maru, there was Ernie – this 1985 bestselling story of a photographer and his cat.  I bet it would crack up my Aunt Beth and Uncle Chris, perpetual owners of cats with large personalities. 

Like I Give A Frock by Michi, illustrated by Kat McLeod / $19 / Irreverent style tidbits of wisdom – this goes straight to my favorite critic-thinker-fashionista, Rebecca, and my hetero-life partner, Abby.

I ❤ Macaroons by Hisako Ogita / $15 / There are two people in this world who would appreciate this elegant book on the “real” macaroons – Rebecca and my world-traveling soulmate, Janelle.

Roomies by Kathryn Williams, illustrated by Jason Snyder / $13 / My roommates are my BFFs, but let’s be real – we need all the help we can get!

The Small Object Labels and Stickers by Sarah Neuberger / $11 / I can just picture Paula going to town on various first passes, expense reports, contracts . . . the sky’s the limit!


Penguin 75: An AIGANY Panel

As I’ve mentioned before, this year is a great time to join the Penguin team – it’s the 75th anniversary of the classic paperback publisher.  Since (of course!) I feel that Penguin’s greatest strength is its design and branding philosophy, I wasn’t going to miss the chance to hear about it from some of the best creative brains in the company at last Thursday’s AIGA panel.

First of all, can I just say that AIGA kicked off the event with some hilarious and heavily-accented (do those two things go together?) moderators!  Board member Matteo Bologna, founder and president of Mucca Design Corporation, introduced Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich, an amazing book designer and creative director in his own right. You may know him as the creator of the children’s book Bembo’s Zoo (don’t miss the amazing online version!), which always reminds me of the best Type II project anyone could produce. I mean, it’s the same concept as your standard “play with letterforms” exercise, but blows every student out of the water.

Anyway, Bologna and de Cumptich got the crowd warmed up for what would continue to be a very witty discussion on the process of book cover design.

The featured guest of the evening was Paul Buckley, Executive VP and Creative Director of Penguin, not to mention editor of the featured Penguin 75 book.  Aside from jokes about his former ’90s mullet and current “Penguin-esque” bald look, Buckley had some seriously enlightening things to say about the evolution of covers.  Since Buckley was/is an illustrator as well (that’s his first love and original life plan), he’s passionate about integrating art and design, and pushing the limits of how the two can transform the surface of a book.  Although he oversees hundreds of titles per year, you can still see his mark on the direction of new and old classics, such as the mind-blowingly AWESOME Penguin Ink series featuring tattoo artists.

Bridget Jones’ Diary, illustrated by Tara McPherson

Moon Palace, illustrated by Grez at Kings Avenue Tattoo

Two of Paul’s designers also took the stage: Gregg Kulick, whose punk-rock meets kitsch sensibility is just as cool on book covers as it is on show posters, and Jim Tierney, whom you may recognize from my last post (um, what a coincidence! We’ve met! We started Penguin the same day! I really did not put any of it together until I got to this event!).  One of the most surprising things about their talks is that they showed a lot of their past work – what they did as a student, where they went after graduating, that sort of thing.  It’s both encouraging to see one’s style evolves after graduation, and intimidating that they were just as talented then.  I’m at home redo-ing my senior projects, but these dudes? Publication-ready from the start.

I spent most of the evening astounded by how many completely different versions of adult covers get made before the final is approved.  Penguin 75 showcases these shelved variations, with added commentary from the designers and authors involved. Interestingly, some of the essays are brutally honest, such as (the guru of Minnesota Lutherans) Garrison Keillor’s scathing review of his cover, Love Me.

So it was only appropriate that they brought up an author, A.M. Homes, to comment, improv-style, on the unseen covers of her novel, This Book Will Save Your Life.  I give her major props for going up in front of an auditorium of judgy discerning designers to talk about the subject they know most.  And she really held her own, keeping it light, funny and honest, and still sounding intelligent.  The panel added their “insider’s view” of the evolution of her cover, and while any number of the versions could have worked well, I think they ended up with a great result.

This Book Will Save Your Life, hardcover and paperback covers

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of Penguin 75 soon… can’t wait to hear what more authors have to say about their classics!

Summer Reading Round-Up

As with exercise regimens and New Year’s resolutions, summer reading lists are those kind of goals that, despite the best of intentions, never seem to get finished. Still, I’m pretty jazzed about the amount of reading I’ve managed on the subway and at lunch, and I forgive myself for not getting to the rest of the list – I had two trilogies to attend to!

I realize that I never expressed my post-reading feelings about some of these titles, so here’s a round up of the books I promised I’d read, and actually did!

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo AND The Girl Who Played With FireStieg Larsson /

Murder mysteries aren’t exactly my thing, but I can see why this trilogy has so much buzz. If you can get through the first 250+ pages of exposition and keep up with the host of Swedish names, Larsson’s first book is a truly engrossing thriller, and the sequel takes it right on par from there.

I’m not sure why Dragon Tattoo, and especially detective/journalist/man-about-town Mikael Blomkvist, would be considered feminist in the least, as pointed out by The Rejectionist in this deliciously seething review. Blomkvist is exactly the man who male fiction writers like to fantasize they are (see Robert Langdon), and he spends way too much time being a lady-magnet in tweed to actually be a believable character. Salander, on the other hand, may be seriously screwy, but at least she is interesting.

I also agree that reading or watching highly disturbing scenes of rape and torture is not my idea of a good time (really, I only watch Law and Order SVU for Chris Meloni and Ice-T). I could stomach parts of the no-holds-barred Swedish film with the sound off, and reading those gruesome scenes left me needing some Glee songs and a cupcake.

That being said, take Stieg Larsson’s trilogy for what it is – crime fiction – not some icon of feminist literature. Maybe, like me, you don’t only read characters who hold to real-life moral standards (if that’s the case, knock yourself out with Left Behind, please). Get lost in Larsson’s cold, cold Scandinavian underworld… then come up for air and find something happy to do.

This Is Where I Leave You – Jonathan Tropper /

Several months after hearing Tropper speak and praising the cover design, I finally, finally read This Is Where I Leave You… and found a voice that I wasn’t exactly prepared for. Sure, the dark comedic elements were impeccably timed, as expected. But Tropper’s protagonist, Judd Foxman, also left me with a perspective on the middle-aged male psyche that I never experienced in any other story – not even Nick Hornby’s.

First of all, the entire premise of the book lends itself well to hilarious chaos: 4 siblings and in-laws in an otherwise non-religious family are forced together when their dying father’s last wish is for them to sit Jewish shiva.  Each quirky character brings a fresh, funny element to the dysfunctional family drama… but the pain and issues are real, too.

What surprised me, though, was how much insight I got from the inner dialogue of Judd, who is falling apart after his wife’s infidelity. The way that he narrates his relationships to women, brotherhood and ego are truly revealing, especially for a 22-year-old female reader. I may not have been able to relate to the book at all, but I could certainly appreciate it’s honesty.

Prep – Curtis Sittenfeld /

Prep was, by far, the biggest surprise of my summer.  I was looking forward to a juicy, fluffy YA read, but this was high school drama taken to a whole new level.  Prep chronicles the four years of Lee Fiora, a scholarship student at an elite boarding school. But the book contains none of the over-the-top, Gossip Girl-style cat fighting you’d think.  Instead, it is a poignant coming-of-age tale that is brimming with truth.

After a few weeks of devouring both the American Prep and British TV show, Skins, I have to wonder… is high school really that crazy for everyone?  Somehow, I’m not feeling that I missed out on much.

Running With Scissors – Augusten Burroughs /

I read the first chapter on my way to work this morning, and I’m not sold… yet.  I think it’s time I Wikipedia some background on Augusten and grab a ’70s print cocktail dress before I jump into this freaky family.

The Hunger Games AND Catching Fire AND Mockingjay – Suzanne Collins /

Do I really need to review this?  WHY HAVEN’T YOU JUST READ IT YOURSELF ALREADY?!

Or just read my blog posts about it.

image source

Video Half-Day Friday: Happy 75th Penguin! + Austen-Mania

Happy Birthday, Penguin! Today, the revolutionary publisher of paperbacks new and old (also known to me as “work”), turns 75.  I couldn’t be prouder to be at a company with such a historically strong emphasis on design.  And what better way to celebrate than with this adorably informative documentary?

Video – Penguin Books 75th Anniversary – Penguin Group (USA)

(Can’t embed this for the life of me… so you’ll just have to clicky click!)

Now, on to some video fun, posted by Laura from Combreviations over at 100 Scope Notes:

… SO funny!!  I’m not a huge Austen fan, but I have a soft spot in my heart for Emma, my soul-sister in misguided matchmaking.  I’m always amazed at the many ways that Austen can be adapted, on- and off-screen, so I have probably seen more spin-off movies than read original books.

Penguin, as a publisher of classics, has done an amazing job of reworking old material for a modern audience, so it makes sense that Austen is perfect for them.  They’ve even expanded into “Austen-Mania” with this page on their website, so that fans can delve into the world of romance, long after they’ve read the books.

To show just how innovative Penguin has been with this one author, here are a few examples any Austen fan should check out:

1. I’ve been drooling over this Hardback Classics cover of Emma for months!  It epitomizes that delicious feeling of holding a really beautiful book in your hands. Make sure to take a look at the books by other authors as well.

2.  Penguin UK created a fun and simple project called My Penguin.  For just a few dollars, aspiring designers can pick up their blank copy of Emma (or another classic), and create their own book cover.  While submissions are closed, it’s really interesting to see the gallery of work that came out of it from bands, artists, and anyone else who wanted to contribute.

3.  Still not satisfied creating your own Georgian-Regency world?  The book, Lost In Austen (wasn’t this also a movie?), is a choose-your-own-adventure style tale through all six books.

3.  Ah, Penguin UK, why are you so pretty?  The evolution of Pride and Prejudice, here, here and here.  I even found an article from 2006 where the Brits turned Austen into chick lit, with Colin Firth and all.  Now that’s a little ridiculous…

4.  Want to read all the novels at once, just like that hot dude in The Jane Austen Book Club? Of course, Penguin Classics has a complete set.

Now, it’s a beautiful day, time to get to the park and celebrate Penguin by reading my book!

Jonathan Tropper And The Magic Cover Design

I went to see Jonathan Tropper (interviewed by Allison Winn Scotch) speak at the Borders in Columbus Circle last Thursday night, simply because his book, This Is Where I Leave You, was on my summer reading list.  And his book was on my reading list because, well, I just liked the book cover.  Turns out, had it not been for some serious rebranding, I might not have ended up at that fantastic event at all!

From a design standpoint, I found it interesting to learn that Jonathan had several thoughts on the evolution of his book covers.  Until he moved to Dutton (the adult imprint, natch), his covers looked like this:

Not heinous, but not exactly future classics, either.  Luckily, Tropper’s latest book cover (under a new designer’s point-of-view) transformed his image, and the book skyrocketed into bestseller heaven.  But what amused me from Jonathan’s story is that, now, all his past books from other publishers have come out of the woodwork looking like this:

Magically branded – just like that!  I’m not sure how common this phenomenon is for best-selling authors, but it’s a super-smart idea, and I love the end result across the board.  Jonathan was clearly pleased too, and felt that the cover design played a huge role in the wild success of This Is Where I Leave You.

His comments brought up the long-debated issue of authors having control over the look of their covers.  As a writer, one would have a pretty good visual of the book they’re slaved so hard over, you can imagine that they would want a say in it.  Add to that the “make it or break it” effect that covers have on sales, and there’s enough pressure to make an author’s head spin over the very thought of a blah book design.  Still, as we all know, writers are not designers (at least, usually), and may not know what’s best for their own books (even if they think they do).  As with everything else in publishing, creating an amazing book is a team effort!

In children’s books, I often am asked why authors don’t get to pick the illustrator or make any directions as to the look of their picture books.  Here’s why: an illustrator, working beyond the constraints of the author’s “vision”, almost always creates something more fresh and inspired than what the writer could have imagined.  It is the same with designers – they add another layer to the project, not compromising their own skill and creativity for the author, hopefully resulting in a higher quality product that the author will love anyway.

Even more than that, editorial, sales and marketing teams all have years of expertise (and figures to back it up), that play a major factor in the outcome of a book cover.  So, while an author may not get exactly what they envisioned, they will get a thought-out solution – hopefully one that will sell.

So should book cover design be left to the collective knowledge of the publishing industry – or to the author who has poured their passion and words into the book itself?  Tough questions have no right answers, but feel free to share your feelings.

And go read all of Jonathan Tropper’s books – in their pretty new covers, of course!