Beautiful Books That Are Beautifully Made by Donalyn Miller
We own a lot of books. I know you’re not surprised. For unexplained reasons, my mother acts surprised by our books every time she visits. Waving toward our new (and already full) bookcases, she sighs, “What are you going to do with all of this?”
Embarrassed by her teasing, I sigh just like her, “Mom, I read and write for a living. Don reads. Sarah reads. Celeste and the girls read. We need books.”
My mother took me to the used bookstore and bought me books for every holiday and celebration when I was growing up. She started my book-owning habits. Why is she so surprised now?
Don and I won’t apologize for how many books we own. We are their happy caretakers. Our lives overflowed along with our bookshelves. Over two decades of couple and parenthood cram those shelves—territory markers for two readers and their good marriage.The books have improved our lives, and we take care of them in gratitude. Curating a massive book collection takes work, and Don and I invest hours each week—dusting, sorting, shelving, rotating, and mailing books. We continuously give them away, but it’s like trying to sweep the ocean with a broom. The tide keeps coming in. We surrendered to it long ago.
Buried in books—it’s not a bad way to live.
I am not an indulgent person. I believe in eating vegetables, flossing teeth, and making beds. My students and family know that underneath my rule-following exterior—I am indulgent about books. I encourage reading sloth and gluttony. If you want to spend your Saturday reading bodice-ripping romance novels, or space cowboy epics, or National Book Award finalists, or books about polar bears—who am I to judge? I celebrate your reading freedom as much as my own.
I am a reader who owns a lot of books. It’s my life and I can read like I want to…
Readers appreciate the art inside each book, but owning print books brings other appreciations. Beyond the stories told through images and letters bound inside our books, book owners appreciate the beauty of our books as objects, too. The tactile and sensory connections we make to our physical books become part of our reading experiences—propping Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on a pillow because we can’t hold it; the musty, sweet smell of our ancient Lord of the Rings paperbacks, calling up in memory Garth William’s illustrations in both Charlotte’s Web and Little House in the Big Woods, recognizing Wonder’s iconic blue from across the room.
When I run my hands along a shelf of spines, I see beauty tethered to our world in rectangular boxes of cardboard and paper. The beauty of lives shared through stories—some with gilt-edges and fold out maps, some with straight edges and straight truths inside. We expect graphic novels, picture books, and image-rich nonfiction to look visually appealing. After all, the images themselves communicate much of the story. In novels and narrative nonfiction works, though, we may not notice a book’s visual appearance unless we react strongly to it, but a book’s design can make or break its shelf appeal.
As someone who spends a lot of time hand-selling books to children and their adults, I value good book design. Whoever said, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” never tried to get a 6th grader to read Tuck Everlasting (a wonderful book with its share of bland covers). At its best, thoughtful book design entices readers and increases reading enjoyment. Beautiful books provide magical containers for our memories—capturing both the stories inside the pages and our lives spent reading them.
Here are ten 2015 titles I think represent beautiful book making and design–elevating the outstanding storytelling inside. These books beg to be read and touched and owned by young readers and the people who love their books.
Ten 2015 Beautiful Books That Are Beautifully Made
Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate; jacket art by Erwin Madrid; jacket design by Rich Deas and Liz Dressner.
The purple-hued cover and gold-embossed title catch reader’s interest, but I love Crenshaw’s size. With a small trim size, wide margins, and large font, Crenshaw is the perfect book for a child’s hands to hold and read.
Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard; jacket art by Michael Frost; jacket design by Sarah Nichole Kaufman.
This one’s all about the cover. The blood-dripping crown, glittering diamonds, and metallic silver background tell readers that the title character is more than another damsel in distress. My teenager is thrilled when she sees YA books without girls in ballgowns on the cover.
Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley; jacket art and inside cover art by Diana Sudyka; jacket design by Lori Thorn and Theresa Evangelista.
I will admit that when I first saw an ARC of Circus Mirandus, I was unimpressed with its red tent stripes. I had low-expectations. I was happily wrong. The book is an amazing debut, and the final edition includes stunning illustrations under the striped jacket and throughout the book. Bonus points for deckled-edges, a personal favorite design feature. Just like the book’s tagline, “You have to see it to believe it.”
The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough; jacket art by Christopher Silas Neal; jacket design by Nina Goffi.
The blue font and endpapers soften the book jacket’s harsh red and black tones. The cover image subtly captures the book’s primary conflict without giving too much away about its setting or characters. I found myself looking back at the cover halfway through and appreciating it more when I understood its imagery.
Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy; jacket art Daniel Stolle; jacket design by Aurora Parlagreco.
The black satiny cover, the sexy red-dressed heroine, the beauty queen crown—for lush girls everywhere—we deserve to feel as good as this book looks.
The Nest by Kenneth Oppel; illustrated by Jon Klassen; jacket design by Lucy Ruth Cummins.
Through peeled-clear strips on its wood grain cover, readers see words and images underneath. Taking off the jacket reveals rows of wasp-cells—the secret world of the nest and its frightening inhabitants. It is rare for a novel’s illustrator to garner front cover billing, but it’s Jon Klassen. I haven’t seen interior illustrations that add so much atmosphere to a book, since Jim Kay’s illustrations for Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls.
Bone Gap by Laura Ruby; jacket art by Sean Freeman; jacket design and hand lettering by Michelle Taormina.
Part of Bone Gap’s beauty as narrative lies in its structure—organized by months, bookended by the People of Bone Gap and their altered perceptions of reality. The cover reflects the same order and chaos—bee hive hexagons behind hand lettering and a single ominous bee—all honey-drips and stinger. Of all the books on my list, Bone Gap smells the best—with a minty, spicy tang to the paper that gives it a little bite.
The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell; jacket art by Dan Burgess, jacket design by Lizzy Bromley.
I was a dreamy ten-year-old who preferred animals and books to people. The Wolf Wilder is my kind of book, and its white and blue-gray cover captures the stark Russian setting and the special relationship between a girl and her wolves.
Rad American Women A-Z by Kate Schatz; illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl; cover and interior design by Jason Pontius.
If biographies looked like this book when I was in middle school, I might have read more of them. The layout—twenty-six notable American women featured in their own two-page spreads, the block prints and the bold colors invite readers to browse through this book—reading entries out of sequence and poring over illustrations.
Lizard Radio by Pat Schmatz; cover design by Pam Consolazio.
Pat Schmatz has been blessed with cool covers. First, Bluefish and now, Lizard Radio. You can’t help tracing the raised metallic green and silver bubbles, or wondering about the komodo dragon silhouette on the cover.
It takes a little hunting to find out who designed a book. I had to comb book jackets, copyright pages, and acknowledgements to find the artists and designers listed here. Jacket artists and interior designers don’t garner much recognition, but their work creates a physical experience for readers that enhance our reading pleasure and our appreciation for books as art. The best book designs make us eager to read the book inside and linger in it.
What books do you love for their marriage of story and design? Share your favorites in the comments below. We all need more beautiful books to read and share!
Donalyn Miller has taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grade English and Social Studies in Northeast Texas. She is the author of two books about encouraging students to read, The Book Whisperer (Jossey-Bass, 2009) and Reading in the Wild (Jossey-Bass, 2013). Donalyn co-hosts the monthly Twitter chat, #titletalk (with Nerdy Book Club co-founder, Colby Sharp) and the Best Practices Roots (#bproots) chat with Teri Lesesne. Donalyn launched the annual Twitter summer and holiday reading initiative, #bookaday. You can find her on Twitter at @donalynbooks or under a pile of books somewhere, happily reading.