The Art of the Book Title: Picture Book Edition
When you think of the truly great picture books of all time, you realize pretty quickly that like all things famous, in order to achieve greatness the right parts had to be the right place at the right time. You have to have great art, marvelous writing (if, indeed, you have any writing at all), memorable characters, the works. One element of the book that may have been entirely out of the creators’ control, however, is the book’s title. Though many writers have kept the original titles they thought up from the beginning of a manuscript to the end, just as many have seen those titles change at the hands of their publishers. A book’s title is its greatest marketing tool. It instantly tells the parent, teacher, librarian, or child reader what the book is about. That, or it obscures the plot in an intriguing way.
This year the state of the picture book is strong. We’re seeing titles of great beauty, class, and style. We are also, however, seeing marvelous books with forgettable titles. Let’s examine both.
First, here’s a sampling of some of my favorites from the year that I’d love to rename. This is all, for the record, entirely subjective.
The Field by Baptiste Paul, ill. Jacqueline Alcantara
“Vini! Come!” Have you seen this one yet? Rip-roaring from start to finish, I’d call it. Set in the author’s own birthplace of St. Lucia in the Caribbean and illustrated by a winner of the We Need Diverse Books Illustration Mentorship Award, this book has everything! But the title “The Field” doesn’t quite encapsulate all that, does it? A co-worker of mine (I can take no credit for this, but I thought it was brilliant) suggested that a more appropriate name could have been Futbol Mud Match. Doesn’t that sound like so much fun? Who wouldn’t want to get in on a mud match? Ah well. Better read this one, no matter what it’s called. It’s a pip.
Forever or a Day by Sarah Jacoby
I may as well give up the game right now. A lot of these titles are on this list because I liked the books and then had a devil of a time remembering what they were called. “Forever Or a Day” is a nice dreamy title for a nice dreamy book. It is not, however, a particularly memorable title. I won’t deny that it fits the book’s tone to a tee. But surely there’s a way to improve upon this. How about Forever (or a Day)? Not perfect but getting there.
You know if I reviewed it then it’s because I loved it. This is such a stellar book with a magnificent slow reveal. It also touches on the too little discussed topic of kids with incarcerated parents. That said, I understand the reasoning behind the title, but it’s a difficult one to keep in your head. Turns out, this is a direct translation of the original French title Les Jours Noisette. Mystery solved.
A House That Once Was by Julie Fogliano, ill. Lane Smith
I love this book sooooo much. So very much. And that title is exactly right. Precisely what the book is about. I can’t remember it for more than three seconds, but every time I see it it feels right. So I think I’m to call this a “When You Reach Me” book. Which is to say, it’s a book that may transcend its own title and become memorable through the sheer greatness of what it has inside. No title is holding this book back!
Ocean Meets Sky by The Fan Brothers
I cannot tell a lie. It’s a gorgeous book. I think I can get behind this title too, if I just try hard enough. I mean, “Horizon” would have been more memorable, but maybe I can make this work for myself.
On the Other Side of the Garden by Jairo Buitrago, ill. Rafael Yockteng, translated by Elisa Amado
Further proof that a title can describe the book to a tee, and yet still not quite capture the essence of the narrative. Books in translation always have a bit of this trouble. However, I was unable to determine if this was the original title in Spanish or was changed in translation. If anyone happens to know, please send me a note.
They Say Blue by Jillian Tamaki
This may be the book that inspired this post in the first place. A fairly good example of a remarkable book with an appropriate title that I cannot, for the life of me, remember for more than five minutes. I’m working on a mnemonic for it. If I can tie it into a popular song of some sort I’m set. Any suggestions come to mind?
And now, some book titles that just knock it out of the park title-wise this year:
Are You Scared, Darth Vader? by Adam Rex
In case you’re curious, yes. It’s just as awesome as you think it will be.
Bus! Stop! by James Yang
Maybe it’s a silly little joke but I’ve never seen a picture book title do this before. It’s great!
The Funeral by Matt James
Look how Matt James highlighted the “FUN” part of the title. First time you see the cover you’re shocked. Then intrigued. You want to see if he messes up or actually makes the scene on the cover here work. Oh, I have GOT to review this one soon. One of my favorites of the year.
I Can Be Anything! Don’t Tell Me I Can’t by Diane Dillon
Maybe it’s just me, but I’m a sucker for any book that contains an imperative.
I Just Ate My Friend by Heidi McKinnon
A British import (could you tell?).
People Don’t Bite People by Lisa Wheeler, Molly Idle
And we end with some good, strong, solid advice.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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