Here’s the start of an occasional series focusing on some of my favourite covers from picture books. What I want to do is to focus on the image and the artwork and the moment itself rather than critiquing the entire book. The first in this series is the ethereal and outstanding Cloudland by John Burningham.
One of the things about books that I love, and picture books in particular, is the usage of the ‘entire’ book space. By this I mean, the book itself spills over into the endpapers and the cover. Naturally we expect a front cover to every book, but there’s something rather gorgeous and unique about the picture book front cover. Picture books are intensely and deceptively complicated beasts. They need to appeal to the pre-literate, the emerging literate, and the adult who will at some point be reading this to and with their child. That’s a lot to ask from a book and it’s something we should recognise as a massive achievement – and it’s one that’s quite often achieved without words.
So here, the front cover symbolises something special. It’s a note of stylistic intent – the ‘overlay’ of the cut-out felt tip pens characters exuberant on the ‘real’ world of the cloud. I love this artwork- it instantly adds a level of otherworldliness to this cover and throughout the book. Rooting the children in a different medium to that of the clouds gives a sort of bigness to their presence. It is as if to say that these children are so potent, so big, that they can master the clouds that fade into the background. These children also very much float which is glorious to see throughout the book. By not having them ever ‘touch’ the clouds that they’re on, the children are given such a light ethereal quality that you almost expect them to float through the pages and out of the book. I remember once turning a page in Cloudland and marvelling at the way the previous page could be seen from the new spread when I held it up to the light. This phenomenon, whilst not necessarily unusual, was something gorgeous in this book because it added to the unreal nature of the children. They were shaped by sunlight and not even held by the page, they span through the book like mist.
The title of Cloudland itself appears without a hyphenate, suggesting an actual location, and it’s one that looks full of fun. These children are happy – the two in the white shirts are clearly playing, and what’s more they’re waving. We look to find ourselves in pictures and there’s an invitation here straight away for the reader to join in with the party.
But what’s more interesting is the central boy. He feels a little unsure, a little tentative. His movements are more precise and there’s a suggestion of him reaching for something – or even climbing. He adds an element of uncertainty to the cover and it’s through him being placed centrally that we realise that this uncertainty – and the boy himself – are to be central to this story.
Books like this develop – and enhance – literacies, and do so phenomenally well. To read more on visual literacy and the art of reading visual imagery, check out the work of Scott McCloud and in particular Understanding Comics and its sequels.