Illustrated books: an interview with Jordan Brown

I've often wondered why books lose their illustrations after you hit a certain reading level. It's not as though art is for kids exclusively--or even mostly. As it turns out, illustrated books were the norm until the 1930s.

And now it looks like they're coming back in a big way. In THE SECRET JOURNEYS OF JACK LONDON: THE WILD, illustrations throughout the book by Greg Ruth  enrich the story.

Other great examples include Scott Westerfeld's LEVIATHAN series, as well as LIPS TOUCH by Laini Taylor and Jim DiBartolo, a National Book Award nominee. (Stay tuned for tomorrow's post on how Greg and Jordan worked together to create the perfect monster.)

It's a particularly interesting development as we stand on the leading edge of the digital publishing revolution. Read on for HarperCollins editor Jordan Brown's explanation of how this book came to be illustrated as it was, and how the future of e-books and printed books might look:

Jordan Brown

JB: This project came in as a proposal a long while back, in 2007, and though I don’t think the authors, Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon, were 100 percent insisting that the book have illustrations, they both have a lot of experience in comics and graphic novels, and are no strangers to using illustrations to enhance text in various ways. 

For this project in particular, though, I think we were all in agreement from moment one: we wanted the series not only to recall the style and narrative elements of the great Jack London, but also to go a step further, and have the books themselves pay homage to great turn-of-the-century adventure novels in all possible ways. 

This, then, became more than simply an editorial endeavor – it was one we took to the design and production of the book as well.  And that, for us, meant that we needed an illustrator to provide images we could set every twenty pages or so, perhaps with a caption, just like you see in the old original pressings of books by the masters of the adventure novel – Jack London, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, etc.  Luckily, we were able to find the perfect illustrator in Greg Ruth, someone who could do a classic sort of adventure novel illustration style while also making it feel fresh and current.
Anyway, illustrations were a part of the plan for this series way back at its inception.  I say this because that was back when “kindle” was still a verb to most people, before we could see as clearly as we can now that e-books were going to transform the business. 

And I bring this up because I think that e-books play a huge part in how this editor thinks about putting together all formats of a book, especially the print book.  I adore e-books, not only for their convenience and for the life they’re helping to breathe into our business but also because they’re helping to level the hierarchy of format, and good things always seem to come from that.  In the past, for instance, the advent of television led to great leaps forward in the development of theatrical film technology – things that define film as an art form today, like advanced color processes, different widescreen formats, etc, came about in part because theatrical motion pictures no longer had a monopoly on how people experienced moving images with sound, and the industry needed to find new ways to keep people engaged. 

The same, I think—I hope—will happen with the print book.  If I had to wager, I’d say that p-books will never go away, just as any entertainment media format that still has something unique to offer won’t disappear.  But the proliferation of e-books will mean we won’t be able to take p-book design and creation for granted anymore.  If we want people to buy a print book, we need to give them something that the e-book doesn’t offer, and that’s more than just ink and paper – it’s excellent book design; it’s the choices we make about type faces and margins and front and back matter; it’s the production values of the jacket and the interior paper that speak to the fact that reading a p-book is, amongst other things, a tactile experience; and it’s illustration work that plays with the text in ways that makes specific spread choices and page turns matter. 

This is not to say that reading a p-book is a more rich or legitimate process than reading an e-book.  Quite to the contrary, it emphasizes that they are similar but different experiences, and that we would do well to give those faithful to each format a reason to be excited about that format, by having our production and design choices speak to each of their specific strengths, not just the strengths of the media in general.
This is not the only factor in the proliferation of illustrated novels, of course.  I think that the movement of comics and graphic novels and other forms of hybrid literature into the mainstream has played an important part as well. 

Young readers are less likely to see illustrated literature as something that they need to grow out of, and teachers and librarians are less likely than ever before to marginalize illustrated literature as an art form for readers as they move through elementary and middle school.  I think there is also a new appreciation of the concept of “retro” in young people’s literature now, which a lot of these illustrated novels speak to.  Perhaps most important is the fact that, for today’s young reader, the concept of format is a fluid one – they’re used to seeing their text and their sounds and their images playing together in interesting ways on computers and phones and handheld game systems, and even though reading is a foundationally different experience than the main purposes for which those devices are created, the base of experience carries over, I think. 

But that’s what I love about new technologies and formats as they apply to our audience: these readers are learning at a very young age to experience entertainment media with much fewer boundaries and restrictions, and this opens us up to mixing up our publication plans a bit, while still maintaining and strengthening the sense of “bookness” that keeps our preferred media vital. 

Reading, at its heart, differs from other main entertainment experiences in that it is the only one where the person experiencing it dictates the pace and actively participates in its consumption (I have thoughts on how this applies to audio books, though that would add length to something that is already too long). 

There is so much we can do, in print and in electronic formats, while staying true to what makes a book a book, and adding illustrations into what would otherwise have been a purely textural experience is one of those ways, something that our current zeitgeist where books are concerned makes possible—and, perhaps, mandates.