Monday, 19 August 2013

The Thing That You Call It In Not Many Words That Kind of Says What it is and All That... by Jonathan Allen


In the online and other public discussions about what makes a successful picture book, that authors and other denizens of the publishing world have from time to time, the subject of titles doesn’t come up perhaps as often as it should.
 
The title is the first piece if information you get about a book and as such, what it conveys in the few words it has at its disposal is as important as it is disproportionate. In the case of a picture book especially, it can sum up the entire concept, the tone of voice, the feel and the probable purpose or intention of the publication in less than ten words. That’s powerful stuff! 

It needs to grab the attention and be memorable, like a newspaper headline, or a pop song title. It has to make you want to find out more, and most importantly and difficult-to-define-ably of all, it has to be 'right'. Sometimes the process of getting a title 'right' can involve much too-ing and fro-ing between an author and a publisher (incorporating much input from the marketing dept) before everyone is happy, and at other times the title can be the thing that triggers the idea for the book in the first place.

To be boringly self referential for a minute, my picture book ’I’m Not Cute!’ is a good example of what a title can 'tell' you. The whole concept of the book is encapsulated in the title. A character claiming not to be cute. That should grab the attention because picture book characters are pretty much universally cute, so what bizarre heresy is being conducted here? Picture book characters are not usually given room or opportunity to give their opinion of their perceived cuteness, so for one to speak out and refute this perception is unusual and worthy of investigation. So with 'I'm Not Cute!', in three words we get a concept, a tone of voice and a slightly anarchic feel, not to mention an insight into a character's, and by association, an author's personality. And that's before you get to see the pictures.

Think of your favourite picture book titles (or children’s fiction titles) and see whether they conform to my thesis. Here are some off the top of my head.

Farmer Duck
The Wind in The Willows
Where The Wild Things Are
Tom All Alone
The Magic Pudding
Five Children and It
The Man Whose Mother Was A Pirate
Etc. 

Well, that kind of bears me out. You would want to seek them out based on the titles.

The interesting thing is that some successful books have pretty prosaic,
bland names which largely disregard ’the rules’. . 

The Jungle Book
Nonsense Songs
Fireman Sam
Thomas The Tank Engine 

But I guess they indicate what you are going to get.

Some are just deliberately and brilliantly wordy, like 'How Tom Beat Captain Najork and his Hired Sportsmen.' 

A fun thing to do in a spare moment, if you have such a thing, is to take an interesting, snappy title and make it as prosaic as possible, to see if you would have given it the time of day under this boring guise. 

How about - 
Max has a Dream About Monsters.
The Ring That Everybody Wants.
Would You Like to Try Sam’s Unusual Meal?
Potty Training an Unwilling Princess is Difficult.
Craig Thompson and The Philosopher’s Stone
The Little Girl Who Went Through The Mirror
Etc etc

Instant classics?

Now you have a go.

12 comments:

  1. Interesting and important. Another point to bear in mind is that the shorter the title is the bigger the lettering can be, and the bigger the impact in that way.

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    1. And then you get a German Co production and the title gets long again! ;-)

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  2. Yup, titles are tricky! Wonder if Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar would have made it as The Caterpillar That Eats Lots.

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    1. Probably not ;-) It's quite a prosaic title to start with, you could say. . .

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  3. In a bookshop it can be quite fun to pick books that appeal and then ask yourself why the titles attracted you in the first place.

    Sometimes I have a problem with finding the right title. I had a book that I called 'Snow Friends', but there were too many other books of the same name, so I changed it to 'Snowballs'. Later, the publisher wanted a title that reflected what the book was about (friendship) instead of something with a snowy/wintery theme that would restrict sales outside of the winter months. So they came up with 'Best Friends or Not?'. Now people would know what the book was about. I still like 'Snowballs' but I can see why their choice is better.

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    1. A tricky one. Snow and friendship in one pithy phrase is a tough call, I can see why they chose the friendship angle to focus on.

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  4. How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen is one of my favourite ever books (with the best name ever for a character: Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong). I love titles and more often than I ought to, I start with a title (which can become quite forced). A recent one I like a lot: The Baby That Roared...
    A story of mine that I've finished recently that is being sent around is one I really like BUT I still don't feel the title's quite right. Good topic: thanks, Jonathan!

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    1. With you on Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong and her iron hat ;-) and illustrations by Quentin Blake too! There was a follow up book too, 'A Near Thing For Captain Najork', which is great too.
      In Scotland and Ireland babies roar all the time, not like lions but I'm sure I've heard the word used to describe a baby crying vigourously. Possibly archaic. . . ;-)

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    2. Three 'too's in one short reply. . . tsk. . .tsk. . . I'm slipping. . .

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  5. it's interesting how authors, editors and marketing department often seem to massively disagree about titles. What seems to fit the bill for one person doesn't for another. I would have thought that the best ones are arresting titles - one or two interesting words worthy of further investigation (The Gruffalo), or unusual titles that make you glance twice (Captain Najork, The Baby That Roared etc). But maybe that's just my taste. Other people - probably a much larger market - like 'aaaah, how cute' titles - 'Guess how Much I Love You' being the most blatent.

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    1. Reach for the sick-bag time! I agree, I'm not a fan of that book (or unduly cute titles either). Though the illustrations are good. They have to be fit for purpose after all. I was told by a publisher years ago that 'Guess How Much I love You' was quite popular amongst the gay community. She then made the gesture with two hands that fishermen make to indicate length. . . . Cough!
      Sorry to lower the tone here but I thought it was funny. . . Apologies if it offends anybody.

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  6. Crikey! Dodgy innuendo titles, eh? One way to find new markets....

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