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A Walk on the Wild Side

Posted by Susan on June 10, 2009 at 12:00 AM in Picture Books
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Let's take a new look at a book you've probably read a hundred times.

Go to your bookshelf and pull out your copy of Where the Wild Things Are.

Can't find it? Don't worry. I'll wait here while you go to the library.

What took you so long?

Got the book in your hands? Great. Now follow me.

Look at the picture of Max making mischief. Not the picture itself, but the size of the picture. It's pretty small, isn't it? Most of the page is taken up by white space. And on the left hand side, there's only that one line of black text to break up all the white.

Beep. (That sound means it's time to turn the page.)

As Max chases the dog (notice the Wild Thing picture on the wall), the size of the illustration gets bigger.

Peeb. (Beep spelled backward. Turn the page back.)

Do you see how much larger the box is than the page before?

Beep. Now go forward again.

Now turn the pages without reading the words. Watch as the box gets bigger and bigger. Beep. Beep. Beep.

Are you on the page where Max's ceiling is hung with vines? Good. Do you see how the picture takes over the entire right side of the page? The box is gone. Beep.

As Max sails in his private boat, the illustration can't be contained to one page. It starts spreading out and breaks into the white space on the left side of the page. Beep. The illustration gets a bit bigger as Max sails in and out of weeks. Beep.

When he comes to the place where the wild things are, the illustrations take over until they're covering the entire top of both pages. Look at how much white space is left on the bottom for the words. Beep.

The white space shrinks lower. Beep. And lower still. By the time Max is made king of wild things, there's only a thin space for the words. The white space has been reduced by half from the picture where Max arrived. Beep.

The wild rumpus has begun and lasts for three pages. Words are no longer adequate to tell the story. Beep. Beep. Beep.

When Max cries "stop," the illustrations start to recede. Beep.

As his boat sails off, there's the same amount of white space as there was when his boat landed. Beep. As he sails back over a year, the picture retreats even more. Beep.

When he arrives in his room, the picture only covers the right side of the page, but it covers it completely. What a contrast to the first page in the book, where the picture only took up a small amount of the page. Beep.

For the line "and it was still hot," the illustrations have faded away completely. We're left with five small black words in a sea of white. Beep.

Take a look at the endpapers, and then close the book and look at the cover. Beep.

The illustration takes up most of the space. But, the words are there, above and below, surrounding the image. When you're holding the book in your hand, the image is even more powerful. The edges of the book act as a physical frame to keep the pictures in.

Where the Wild Things Are.jpg

Does the front cover image mean something different to you now than it did a few minutes ago? Sometimes, it's worth taking a look at something familiar from another perspective.

Why does the design matter so much? Take a look at this quote from Brian Selznick's fantastic Caldecott acceptance speech for The Invention of Hugo Cabret:

"Think about the wild rumpus in Where the Wild Things Are. The pictures grow until they take over the entire book and there is no more room for words. Only the reader turning the page can move the story forward. We are put in charge at the exact moment Max himself takes charge. We become Max, all because of the page turns."

Isn't it amazing how much power the turn of the page gives the reader? To see this play out in a much longer format, pick up The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Don't worry, I won't go page by page with you (too many beeps!) but take a close look. It's incredible.

Never underestimate how important book design is to a picture book.


Anamaria writes...

Thank you for this excellent, eye-opening post, Susan. Book design matters; this is perhaps the best example of how and why. Beep!

SusanAuthor Profile Page writes...

Glad you liked it! The best picture books are the ones that take absolutely everything into account.

Jules writes...

Excellent tribute for Sendak's birthday! He's 81 today.

Heidi writes...

Susan, I love the way you wrote this out with the beeps, it was like you were sitting beside me. I have always loved the way the white space in Wild Things helps to create the pacing of the book. That final pictureless page, with "and it was still hot" is so incredibly satisfying after the wild ride of the story. Thank you for raising public awareness of the genius of this book.

Rasco from RIF writes...

What a great post, thank you!

Bianca Schulze writes...

Fantastic post!!

Tif writes...

LOVED this post!! I never even noticed this before and now I will be paying much more attention to it in the future!! Thank you!!

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