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Noel Streatfeild: antithesis and synthesis

The other day I talked through the basic ideas of thesis, antithesis and synthesis for creating a successful cover, using Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes as a case study. I want to develop those ideas a little further pointing out what there is about a book like Ballet Shoes that doesn't apply to other books, and how issues of author branding and consistency interact with the points made there.

First, though, this is what I have so far developed my Ballet Shoes thinking into (two variations):

I really like the font (JustinRoad) and just a little playing around with it gives it a very 30s vibe. Having a vintage/retro look going on in both imagery and lettering might be too much sometimes (certainly I normally opt for more antithesis between the two) but in this case it works for me. Because while the elements might be retro, their treatment is not (the hard cropping of the background image, the bright pink and potential texturing of the lettering). It was never my intention to produce something that shied away from looking like a classic, but a touch of modernity is important too.

But imagine a load of Noel Streatfeild's books were being reissued in striking new covers, not just her most famous. How would what I've talked about in the development of the Ballet Shoes cover carry through to titles like White Boots, The Growing Summer and Curtain Up? How do they differ from their more famous sister, how are they the same, and how would one reflect that relationship.

Author branding might be a relatively recent codified practice but publishers have always used tricks to make customers realise that one book is by the author of that other popular book they liked. Noel Streatfeild got an early version of this, starting with her American publishers but bleeding through to British reissues too: due to the popularity of her books Ballet Shoes and White Boots, her books have been wholesale renamed to echo those titles - however little sense it makes. Curtain Up got renamed Theatre Shoes, The Circus Is Coming is now called Circus Shoes, The Painted Garden is now Movie Shoes, Ballet Shoes For Anna is now Dancing Shoes and Apple Bough is now Travelling Shoes. In a case of thoughtless rebranding eating itself, White Boots is now even sometimes published as Skating Shoes. I hate this. 'movie shoes' are Not A Thing. And Streatfeild's titles were generally evocative but clear: do books like Curtain Up and The Circus is Coming really gain anything in clarity or intrigue from being called Theatre/Circus Shoes? Also: that's Not A Thing!

I like a good bit of author or series branding but I think this is an example of how it can be handled badly, giving exactly the wrong impression of the product. These titles makes Streatfeild look like part of a genre that is already well catered for - straightforward performing arts wish fulfillment, with interchangeable characters and a copy-replace function done for each book of the series according to whether the book is about ballet, skating or acting.

And while it must be said that Streatfeild occasionally lapsed into formula, her best books are not like that at all. And where's the sense in pretending that they are to children, who if they are looking for that kind of book can opt for one of the many, many series that actually do that?

So a reclaiming of the original names for my money, and I think a pretty soft approach to branding: Matching print finishes (I'm imagining spot varnished titles on matte covers), unifying visual language, a matching treatment of the byline on each cover; but no strict formula.

So to extrapolate a visual language from the semi-finished work on Ballet Shoes: found vintage imagery that reads as both illustration and object, given a confident modern treatment and combined with bold lettering for the title.

Like Ballet Shoes, The Circus Is Coming has a title which very clearly states the engine of the book. Circus. So like Ballet Shoes, isn't it redundant to use imagery that literally depicts a circus?

Well, this is another nuance I perceive to the say-or-show-apple-not-both rule: it is somewhat subservient to wider branding. In any set of branded items, there is generally a 'lead' product which forms the 'top' in a 'top-down' design process. In a series of books that is usually the first of the series because that is the book you need to sell entirely on the merits of packaging. Once people have read the first they'll already know whether they want to carry on.

Where you're selling on the basis of an author brand rather than a series brand, you start with the most famous of the books (or sometimes even where it is a series but it is not the first book that is the most famous - e.g. John Le Carre's Smiley books where Tinker Tailor Solider Spy is the one everyone has heard of. That's the lead product and a series redesign would probably start from that book).

With Streatfeild, Ballet Shoes is the lead product. With Ballet Shoes there are pre-existing expectations to play with. With The Circus Is Coming there are none - except its link via author to its more famous stablemate. So with Ballet Shoes playing with expectation is key, with Circus one can afford to be more literal for the sake of clarity. That said, I don't know that I've found my image yet. The thing that makes this book great is its realistic look at both circus life and the tropes of saccharine children's fiction. It's warm and hopeful, but its deals mercilessly with tropes like 'children charm older relative upon whom they have been imposed' and 'children discover innate talent appropriate to place they have landed in'.

The rough I think comes closest to hinting at this more realistic look at circus life is that on the far right.

The imagery is recognisably circus-y because the horses are in formation and decorated in traditional circus style. But it's an unusual detail to pick to represent that world - certainly more unusual than elephants and clowns - and it has the benefit of being plot-relevant. One of the protagonist children discovers a love of working with horses.

It's also a picture ambiguous in mood. The others roughs use images chosen with a hope that their manic upbeat-ness may look ironic, and therefore communicate a slight grittiness. But I'm not sure it comes across (and irony is always especially tricky ground in children's fiction. Children are sincere and unworldly). My favourite aspect here is that he horses have looks of slight distress that adds a useful tension to the cover. To a modern audience sensitive to issues of animal mistreatment, this slightly uneasy aspect leaps out, I think, giving the cover the edge it needs.

The lettering is only a rough stand-in, but as with the Ballet Shoes cover, I've chosen a font which has more cohesion with the imagery than I normally opt for: the lettering too is circus-y. Again, I think that  the modern treatment of the found imagery stops the whole thing from looking comfortably retro. I suspect might what be needed, both to enforce that, and to add more visual sympathy with the Ballet Shoes cover, is to give the title a textures, hard-edged treatment that stands out from the soft found illustration.

Apple Bough is undoubtedly the weak link in the collection so far. I haven't found the right image at all yet. For one thing, it's 'found' credentials are not signalled clearly enough (and for another TFL posters are not so much 'found' as 'copyright'). Moreover it doesn't exactly speak to the correct themes from the book to make it look suitably interesting. Unlike its neighbours, Apple Bough has a title opaque in explicit meaning. It in fact refers to the name of the house the protagonist children grow up in before one of their number's prodigious violining prompts the family to travel the world, the house that the children yearn to return to. But one wouldn't know that before reading the book.

So this is an example of an as-yet-unaddressed type of title/cover relationship: one where there is no clear meaning in the title and therefore nothing concrete to play off. Ironically despite having 'apple' in the title it doesn't 'say apple' if you see what I mean.

But there are connotations. The title sounds like a house name, it certainly sounds idyllic and English. It's worth bearing those connotations in mind when finding imagery. For example I once had to create a cover for a book called The Burning Of Cherry Hill, and given that this was a violent and bleak dystopian action adventure, needed to play to the irony intended by the author with the gentle and harmless sounding place name 'Cherry Hill'.

Noel Streatfeild's Apple Bough is not a violent and bleak dystopia unsurprisingly, it really is gentle and nostalgic.  Her title is earnest rather than ironic. So the nostalgic imagery is fair, but it isn't working anywhere near hard enough. It confirms a vague vibe given by the title but it gives us no further information and it crucially has no element of surprise or discomfort or intrigue. The book is about children living an ostensibly glamorous life but longing for this idyll.

It has crossed my mind that the way to represent that lies in vintage travel posters but I've not yet found the right one.

Incidentally, I should note something re. period accuracy: I'm playing fast and loose. The catalogue image for Ballet Shoes is both American and from the twenties (as far as I remember Ballet Shoes isn't definitively set in the year of its publication, 1936, but it's probably meant to be 30s-ish). The Circus poster is also American, I'm not sure of its vintage. Apple Bough was published in the 60s and I've toyed with this early 40s (but even then retro-nostalgic) image. My feeling is that vibe is more important than exact accuracy. Streatfeild herself was anachronistic, having children living essentially 30s lives in her 60s novels. And also that children don't care. Onwards!


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