This post is just one in a series about the 2008 Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature One-on-One Mentoring Conference. Click the RUCCL tag above to read them all.
Chad Beckerman is a graduate of the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design. He worked at Scholastic and Greenwillow before taking on the role of Art Director at Abrams BFYR and Amulet Books. Besides designing book jackets, he illustrates YA covers and creates the artwork for novel interiors. In addition to all that, he’s got a wry sense of humor and knows how to work a microphone.
Chad told us he’s unlike an editor. “They like to put their hands in everything,” he quipped. “I just have to make things look nice. And that’s…really nice.”
One of the things he likes to do is check out the competition. “I’m in the bookstores every weekend,” he said. He eyes what’s on the shelves, but he’s keenly aware that “you shouldn’t try to be what other books are being.” His job is to remain as unique as possible. “Look at what is out there, but do something totally original.”
Chad talked about translating novels into cool visuals and how difficult a task it can be to get it right for the audience. He recently worked on a book where a school prankster shoots classmates you-know-where with a watergun so it looks like they peed their pants. “That’s great,” he said, “here’s what we’re gonna do. We’ll put a watergun on the cover squirting yellow liquid!” But there’s some lines you can’t cross. It’s only a watergun, but it’s also a gun. And urine. “They told me we can’t do it, we just can’t. It made me sad, but I got over it.”
Chad is the savvy designer behind Jeff Kinney’s blockbuster novel-in-cartoons, Diary of a Wimpy Kid. “That one was really hard to do, even though it’s really simple.” There’s no color in the book; the interior illustrations are simple black drawings. But the book still needed a color identity if it was to be noticed on the shelves. People often associate a diary with a brown leather cover, but Chad felt that was “too literal” a translation for this book.
The Diary is a journal that the character’s mom gives him, so Chad looked at a lot of different diaries to get a feel for what this book should be. They settled on a typeset font for “DIARY” to suggest it was a bookstore purchase by Mom, but they scribbled “of a Wimpy Kid” in handwriting to demonstrate it was personalized by the main character Greg. Then they placed a ripped piece of paper with a drawing of Greg on the cover, seemingly torn right from the diary. (I personally love the wimpy, slouching pose.) The background is red to make it stand out, but it’s not a solid red—it has a slightly worn, leathery appearance. And each book in this series is color-coded. There’s a green one, a blue one and a do-it-yourself version in orange. “Some people think it’s brown, but it’s not brown, it’s orange,” Chad reminded us. The different colors help kids easily pick out the ones they don’t yet have!
People often ask Chad where he finds illustrators. In this digital age, he loves to browse websites and blogs looking for new talent. But the best way to get to him is by sending a postcard with a web address. It sits on his desk and reminds him to go online.
One point Chad emphasized to the RUCCL mentees is that “if you like what you’re writing about, then you need to go with it.” No matter what it is, he promises to make it jump off the shelves.
To wrap us this series, next I’ll post about the audience questions!