Category Archives: Op-Ed

Can You Judge a Book by Its Color?

color wheelWhen I was in high school, one of the electives offered was Fashion Design. I  never could fit that particular class into my schedule (I was a choir geek through and through), but I had many friends who took the course. And I noticed they spent a lot of time talking about the color wheel and its affect on fashion (and people, too).

I have always been fascinated by this idea that color affects our mood. As a gardener, I’m often surprised how much time I spend thinking about the colors I want in my flowerbeds and how each of the different plant colors make me feel. A few years ago, my chiropractor husband and I spent countless hours picking out just the right shade of green paint for the walls of his new clinic, since we needed something that made the place feel…well, healthy.

So, I began to wonder, if we talk about color in our clothing, and the color on our walls, and the color of the world outside our doorsteps, should we talk about color when it comes to our books, too?  I decided to take a look at some of the MG books sitting on my bookshelves at home. What do the colors on the covers say about the stories themselves?

YELLOW

Yellow is a happy color, but it’s also draining on the eyes, so frequently people surrounded by yellow can become agitated and angry.

On my shelf, the books in which yellow dominated the cover were in both of these camps. Many of the humorous titles were predominately yellow, such as Donna Gephart’s How to Survive Middle School.

I also had many titles which were stories where mystery or intrigue played a large part in the book. For example, in Jessica Day George’s Tuesdays at the Castle, the castle itself senses trouble. (As a side note, this book cover spirals from blue, a soothing color, to yellow, which mirrors the rise in tension as the story progresses.)

RED

Red is a color of power. It evokes strong emotions such as love, intensity, and excitement.  The books on my shelves do the same.

In Scumble, by Ingrid Law, the main character is given a extraordinary power which makes the things around him fall apart…literally. You can’t get much more intense than that! (As a side note, this book also has quite a bit of yellow, which I think adds to the agitation this cover evokes, but is grounded in green, a color of good luck and prosperity, which in my opinion hints at the awesome natural powers this boy has been given.)

In Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, the title itself tells you that this is going to be an adventure–that excitement awaits. (Not to mention that the red dragon on the cover looks terrifying–is the girl really going to let it loose? And that hint of yellow makes me slightly uneasy about this whole idea of releasing the dragon into the wild.  How exhilarating and alarming at the same time!)

School spiritsBLUE

Blue is a soothing, calming color, but it can also be associated with feelings of sadness, loneliness, or alienation.

In Michael O. Tunnell’s School Spirits, the main character is new at his school, so he feels isolated from the rest of the students. Oh, and there’s a ghost in the book, too, who just happens to be blue-green.  And lonely. And very much the sad being you would expect of a restless spirit.

Though there are many different covers for  the classic Mr. Popper’s Penguins, by Richard and Florence Atwater, most of them are predominately blue.  Mr. Popper (a dreamer and a painter by trade) spends his time caring for, and enjoying, the penguins he receives from Admiral Drake who is currently on an expedition in the Antarctic. Though the book is full of the antics of the penguins, and Mr. Popper and his family as well, the entire book exudes a soothing sort of safeness that all will be well if Mr. Popper is around.

GREEN

Green is the color of nature. It’s also associated with good luck, tranquility, and health.

In Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Treasures of Weatherby, a girl names Allegra literally flies. There is much in the book that is mysterious as well, but the front cover captures so vividly this character’s flying attributes, which mirrors what mother nature has given the birds.  (Side note: this image is not the one on the cover of my book, but I do like how the bit of yellow in this version  captures some of the anxiety and restlessness of these characters, plus the black invokes some lurking evil that is hidden just out of sight….)

In Kim Baker’s Pickle, the main characters want to use school funds to pull off their pranks, and they decide to start  a pickle club as a cover. They are going to need all the luck they can get!  (I’d also like to point out that this book cover uses a lot of blue, too, which helps make this group feel aloof and alienated, because, well, they are are SECRET group, after all. They do stand apart.)

gregorBLACK

Black is associated with evil and menace, as well as death and mourning.

In Suzanne Collins’ Gregor the Overlander, not only is the Underland devoid of sunlight, but it is full of menacing creatures who have captured Gregor’s father.  This cover, though full of lighter buildings, has much hidden in the shadows.

In The Search for WondLa, by Tony DiTerlizzi, the main character, Eva Nine, leaves in search of the long-lost (and possibly no longer existing) land of WondLa.  She uncovers a world full of dangers, both of the natural world and of men. (As a side note, note that Eva herself is light against the darkness of the rest of the cover, and as she begins her journey she is the only one innocent of the world around her. Interesting.)

WHITE

White denotes purity and innocence, but also can be cold, unfeeling, or bland.

In Breadcrumbs, by Anne Ursu, Hazel’s best friend, Jack, is captured by a woman made of ice, and Hazel sets off into the forest to rescue him. (Side note, notice the hint of red in the middle of the cover, which I think helps the readers feels the intensity of Hazel’s love for her friend as well as the power of the Snow Queen.)

In Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society, the four children who make up the society are chosen through a random set of challenges…it’s a very cerebral way of choosing some very resourceful children to take on a supervillain the likes of which the world as never seen.

There are more colors than my above-mentioned categories, obviously.  I’m sure there are many more books out there that might not fit into any one particular color category, either.  Or how about those that use lots of different colors?  Where would they fit?

Besides, colors can also be influenced by culture, so one culture may have a different perception of a particular color than another would.  For example, in Western culture white symbolizes purity and innocence, but in some Eastern cultures it symbolizes death and mourning.

Historical cultures attached slightly different meanings to colors than our modern sensibilities do, too: for example, black meant death in ancient Egypt, but it was also a symbol for rebirth and resurrection.

And, if I’m being honest,  color psychology is often met with skepticism in the psychological and scientific world.  I doubt any scientist would take my thoughts seriously, anyway.  So even though this is all in good fun, I hope the next time you pick up a book, pay attention to how the cover makes you feel.  I bet you’ll see that the colors on it might be helping to create the mood the book is trying to portray.

Soon enough you’ll be judging books by their colors, too.

 

Elissa Cruz likes colors.  If asked, she’d be hard-pressed to choose a favorite.  However, she’s not a big fan of avocado.  Or mustard.  Or beige.  She’s not a big fan of 1970s fashion, either, come to think of it.  And in her opinion turquoise is a little too garish in anything larger than a piece of jewelry.  She writes books for kids of all ages and is the ARA of the Utah/Southern Idaho region of SCBWI.

Boy Book? Or Girl Book?

“Is this a book for girls?” asks a young man, one day when I’m volunteering at the school library.  It’s Raina Telgemeier’s excellent graphic novel, Drama.  The party line, of course, is that there’s no such thing as boy books and girl books.  I have a feeling, though, if I say that, he’ll think I’m a fool.

Drama

The publishing industry has certain conventional wisdoms about what boys and girls will and will not read.  Boys will not read books by women, although girls will read books by men, and that’s why Harry Potter author Joanne Rowling became J.K. Rowling.  Similarly, conventional wisdom says boys will only read about boys, while girls will read about boys or girls.  Some series neatly split the audiences – think The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, or for non-fiction, The Dangerous Book for Boys and The Daring Book for Girls.  Kids can suss out these intentions in varying degrees, but instead of helping them find books they like, what if certain covers cause kids to feel as though some books are off-limits?  Or worse, cause adults like me to steer kids away from books we fear will cause alienation from peers.

dangerousdaring

My first instinct, I’m embarrassed to say, is to protect the boy from being teased.  The book has a purple cover and a girl with a heart drawn over her head.  But then I gin up enough presence of mind to put it back on him.  I tell him, “It’s about a girl who likes a boy.  What do you think?”  The boy shrugs and checks out the book.  I wonder if I’ve done right by him or not with my answer.

When I related this story to the class teacher, she fumed.  “I hate it when the kids say there are boy books and girl books,” she said.  “Last year, I saw the boys peeking at Dork Diaries, but refuse to check them out, so one day, I just started reading it to the class.  Then they started checking the books out.”

She then revealed that my own daughter had a similar reaction to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy, a book we were reading together as part of the series.  That this book might be considered a boy book never occurred to me, in spite of, duh, the title and the picture on the cover.   “I thought it was just going to be about boys and the stuff they do,” my daughter told me.  “But now I know that it’s a book for everybody.”  Indeed, it’s a favorite part of our day, to snuggle under the covers and discover Almanzo’s next adventure.

Farmer Boy

In the United Kingdom, a campaign called Let Books Be Books has sprung up, urging publishers to stop saying books are “for boys” or “for girls” on the cover.  That campaign argues that such labels restrict children and even make them targets for bullying.  It’s certainly a valid point, but children are certainly wise to even more subtle cues.

While some argue that the industry is/should bemoving toward more gender-neutral books – as seen in this Today show clip – it seems to me that part of our efforts to allow children to freely select any book they desire should include models for enjoying all books.  We can read books together as a group, showing that all are expected to enjoy.  We can introduce books of all stripes during book talks, trying to maintain an awareness of any unintentional bias we might have (Did I just bypass Ella Enchanted because it seems like a girl book?)  We can talk openly about what makes us think a book might be for a boy or a girl, and to think more deeply beyond first impressions.

By the end of library time, the young man had something to tell me.  “Everyone’s making such a big deal out of me checking out this book,.  I don’t see what the big deal is,” he said, with just a tiny bit of pride.

Indeed.

What is your answer to the question, “Is this a girl (or boy) book?”

Wendy Shang is the author of The Great Wall of Lucy Wu and the upcoming book, The Way Home Looks Now.  She reads books for all kinds of people.

Deadline Stress

The freelance world is feast or famine. No matter how hard I try to space things out, I occasionally run into what I call a harmonic convergence of deadlines.

You know how it is. You book some author events months in advance. You have several ongoing projects and an unpredictable production and marketing schedule for an upcoming book release. You think everything is spaced out so that you can meet all your deadlines. You organize and prioritize using fancy software or color-coded lists on your whiteboard.

640px-February_calendar

Then there are unexpected delays in one project or another. Or there is a glitch that requires additional attention. Then the page proofs arrive when you are deep into another project with a looming deadline. Throw in some family crisis or health issue and you have a disaster in the making.

_hourglass_with_sand (2)For me, deadline stress starts with a dream. I arrive at a test and realize that I have not studied, or even attended any of the classes. As the deadline creeps closer, the stakes in the dream get higher. It’s not just any test; it’s the final. For a class I need to pass to graduate. And I am in my pajamas. Or naked.

Alarm_Clocks_20101107aWhen my deadlines are weeks away, I manage to find time to get to the gym most days. As the weeks pass, the gym becomes a distant memory. I start to count walking to the bathroom as cardio and lifting my coffee cup as a bicep curl.

Posture takes a hit.

Vulture_ (2)

And haircuts, and fashion, and personal hygiene.

As I devote more and more brain cells to writing, with an equal portion to stress, the number of cells devoted to memory falls below a critical level.

First I don’t remember to buy anything at the grocery store if it’s not written down.

Then I forget my grocery list.

Then I forget to go grocery shopping at all.

Some days I forget to eat. Or if it’s not going well, I eat constantly—to keep my strength up. As to feeding the rest of the family, I begin to rely on pizza delivery. Or I delegate.

“What’s for dinner, Mom?”

“There’s a packet of ramen* in the cabinet. Make me a bowl, will you?”

*If the child is less than ten years old, substitute cold cereal.

clock-334117_1280 (2)As much as we hate them, deadlines are our friends. There’s nothing like last-minute panic to boost productivity. And besides, it’s a great excuse.

“You need four dozen cupcakes for the bake sale? Sorry, I’m on a deadline.”

What about you? How do deadlines affect you?

 

Jacqueline Houtman forgot to include this blog post on her to-do list. Bayard Rustin: The Invisible Activist by Jacqueline Houtman, Walter Naegle, and Michael G. Long  (2014 Quaker Press) comes out next month.