What’s the story? The importance of design to children’s books

More than just words and pictures, the best children’s books are complex objects made up of nuanced design decisions

“Daddy, what’s your job?”

For three and a half years now, I’ve been designing under the world’s smallest and pickiest art director. And it turns out he has no idea what I do. “I design book covers! Isn’t that nice?”

He narrows his eyes. Familiar with the subtle differences and meanings of his various eye-narrowings, I can see that he suspects my ridiculous answer is some kind of inept subterfuge to make him go to sleep, or perhaps eat something disagreeable and green.

Maybe I should teach him about the role of design, the importance of judging a book by its cover. I could try to explain the rational majesty of the Marber grid. I could introduce him to the wondrous array of characters that I play with every day (“Look at funny Mr Discretionary Ligature! What’s he doing?”)

But no. I understand now that my initial assumptions about the role of father-mentor were completely wrong. The boy isn’t an empty vessel that I have to fill with wisdom – he’s a sponge, constantly absorbing knowledge from everything and everyone around him. Learning is inevitable, unstoppable. It’s a fascinating process to observe. And through it, he’s the one teaching me about the nature of book design.

My relationship with the printed page changed within days of his arrival. Trying to get this little thing to sleep, I reached for the nearest book: Ted Hughes’ The Iron Man. And I read it very … softly … and … slowly….

It seemed to do the trick. And that was that – after years of enjoying reading as a solo, internal, muted endeavour, here I was, reading out loud. It took some getting used to. For a start, I could hear myself reading; more jarring than expected. I’d always assumed my narration-timbre was somewhere at the Richard Burton end of the scale. So what the hell was this nasal estuary twang falling out of my face? Apparently I sound like Chris Rabbit from Henry’s Cat.

To begin with, I was surprised quite how different the journey through the words was. You don’t appreciate how erratic the reading eye is until you’re presented with a rapt audience. On your own, you get to go at your own pace, spiralling about the text. When reading aloud, you don’t have that freedom – you’re essentially falling through the book. Details you’d like to revisit or clarify or appreciate, you must leave them behind. You have to stay alert, keep the tempo, prepared to adapt to any sudden shifts in tone, such as the introduction of a minor character requiring a hilarious yokelised dialect.

I’m used to it now – every night ends with a bedtime story. We’ve enjoyed the morals-and-brogues of the Mr Men; endured surprisingly sadistic Ladybird books; learnt every Julia Donaldson couplet by rote; lost ourselves in the world according to Miroslav Šašek (especially the retro-futurism of This is the Way to the Moon; née This is Cape Kennedy; née This is Cape Canaveral).

All the best picture books in this little library are deceptively complex. The typesetting, the rhythm of stanzas across a spread, the turnability of the pages, the clarity of the illustrations, the flatness of the binding … every piece of the design must be in perfect harmony. One misjudged element and the whole tempo of the story collapses.

I find myself scrutinising this architecture as I read. A book as seemingly basic as Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are is made up of an intricate assembly of exceedingly long sentences, repetition and grand hatching, all punctuated by page-turns and eye-darts. It’s pure design. Or science. Or maybe magic.

Of course, it’s when the books are no longer in my hands that their real value becomes apparent. The boy shows me that these aren’t just stacks of pages to be read; they’re for crumpling, biting, scribbling, flinging, loving, fearing, staring and tearing. As his imagination blossoms, I watch him making his own adventures in them; tiny fingers trace across the animal flurry of a Richard Scarry illustration as he conjures up his own little stories. And they’re perfect. How much longer will he need me to read him stories?

For now, I cherish our daily routine of poetry and wonder and calm. Parenting is the exact midpoint between insomnia and joy – the perfect place for stories to happen.

“So what are we going to read tonight? Vikings? Or knights? Or dragons? Or … how about a gigantic robot?”

He narrows his eyes.

Daniel Benneworth-Gray is a designer based in York. See danielgray.com and @gray

Lead illustration by Adam Highton, adamhigton.com

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