18 August 2007

Mysteries of the Summerland Cover

One of the biggest surprises of Michael Chabon's Summerland for me was the cover art.

The book is about a boy whose father is a dirigible designer, and as he sets off on his adventure the hero has the family car attached to the family's backup dirigible. There's also a heavy baseball theme, including enthusiastic miniature players with some connection to Native Americans.

All of which certainly explains why artist William Joyce and the Reel FX design shop centered the cover image on a small car hanging below a blimp, carrying a man and a boy and some little men in old-fashioned baseball uniforms with feathers in their caps. This image appears to be part photo collage, part painting.

But the book says many times that the family car is a rusty orange Swedish station wagon, not a yellow miniature convertible. The book says many times that the father is plump and bearded. The little ballplayers are supposed to have faces like playing cards. The father, son, and those little people are never all in the car together, at least not without several other characters.

Young readers supposedly care about such details--about making sure the color of the main characters' hair matches what the book says, and so on. "Your students may be fascinated when you show them books with inaccurate or misleading covers," Leigh Ann Jones wrote in School Library Journal in June. This article is about getting students to look past covers they don't like, with the lesson that covers may--amazing!--not accurately reflect the books they decorate. Clearly the students' fascination would arise from seeing something unaccountably wrong.

Perhaps the only people who care more about making the details match are authors.

Yet Summerland's cover art obviously doesn't match the book it covers. What's the story behind that art? Obviously, William Joyce is a very big name in children's books--big enough for Miramax's page for Summerland to include a bio for him, though he was involved only with the cover art. (Brandon Oldenburg of Reel FX provided the interior illustrations.)

Did Joyce receive no more than a brief memo on the image Miramax wanted for the cover? ("It's a book about a kid and a dad, and there's this blimp, with a car hanging from it...") How much work did Joyce do, compared to Reel FX? (The artist and firm have also worked together on Aimesworth Amusements and a short movie called "Man in the Moon.") Did Miramax decide to run with whatever came in because the artist was, after all, William Joyce? How did Chabon feel?

And do kids notice? Do they really care?


fairrosa said...

The sad truth is, not enough children read this book, or enough of the readers passionately love this book to complain about inaccuracies in the cover art. If a book is well loved, young readers do "care" about cover arts and illustrations.

Gail Gauthier said...

I didn't realize William Joyce did the cover of Summerland, though I am a big fan of his work. Now that you point out that he's the artist, I'm wondering how I could have missed it. But, then, I missed all the questions you raised about the cover, too, though they are definitely significant.

Maybe it was because I was fixating on the book, itself, which I wasn't crazy about.

J. L. Bell said...

My questions about the cover somewhat parallel my questions about this book and Adam Gopnik's The King in the Window, also published by Miramax. Both big, thick fantasies for kids written by highly regarded writers for adults. Both awkward in several ways, especially at the beginning and end, and overinflated. Summerland was clearly better, I thought, but still could have benefited from more aggressive editorial feedback.

Miramax seemed to be seeking big names for its covers, so adding a big-name artist as well—even if the art isn't totally by him and even if it doesn't exactly match the book—seems to be a tactic out of the same playbook.

Anonymous said...

I didn't read this book, but I can tell you that as a kid this would have driven me crazy!

I loved (and still do) flipping back to a really good cover over and over as the details begin to make sense. But if those details are wrong, I would be pulled out of "the moment" and begin making a list.

And I really do care about covers. enough to rip off one that was too distractingly wrong for the book.