This has been quite a month, focusing on this spectacular book. And now that this is our last post about When You Reach Me, I’m thinking back to the beginning, my first intro to the book.
Our local independent bookstore, Island Books, used to have a gift certificate card which said, “A book is a present you can open again and again.” I like that. And when I think of presents, I think of packaging. The packaging of a book is its title and its cover. They’re the first things you see. They lead me to (or sometimes, if it’s too gruesome, away from) the story inside. The title and the cover are like the wrapping and the ribbon.
Elizabeth Bird says, in her review of When You Reach Me for School Library Journal, “It [the title] does not zip, nor does it stick in the brain.” She remarks that she happens to know that this is not the original title, which of course makes me curious about what was the original title, and wonder why it was changed. One of Monica Edinger’s 4th grade students says, “The title is O.K., not the best but not the worst. Maybe it should be named, “The Letters,” or, “Time Traveling,” or, “The Time Machine.” Another student says, “I don’t think that the title fits with the book. I think it should be called “The Notes, The Letter, and the Laughing Man.” A third student says, “The title is confusing until you start reading about the notes.”
Assuming that “You” in the title refers to Marcus, since he is the person addressed as “you” by the narrator in the story, I wonder whether “Me” in the title refers to Sal, who is reached by Marcus just in time to save his life. Or perhaps “Me” in the title refers to Miranda, and the title alerts readers to the fact that Marcus reaches Miranda through the notes. Who do you, and/or other readers of Storysleuths, think that “Me” in the title refers to?
Another of Ms Edinger's students says, “I think the cover is very good and I really like the objects that show up in the in different points in the book.” I agree. I like the cover. It’s fresh, and the perspective intrigues me. I’m also intrigued by the “shadow” of the mailbox, which is in the shape of a man, but which extends in the opposite direction from the shadows of the other objects, giving observant readers a clue about the story events. I enjoyed examining the cover after reading the book and finding the visual references to other clues that are important to the story.
As a writer, unless you are also the illustrator, you may not have much influence with regard your cover image, which most often will be up to the art director and the editor and, if it is an illustration, the artist (and, of course, the marketing department). But as the writer you may suggest a title, or various titles, for the editor and the marketing director to consider.
Some of the books I co-authored with Liberian storyteller Won-Ldy Paye, like The Talking Vegetables, almost titled themselves. Others, like Head, Body, Legs, were more challenging to title. We had a list of over 20 possibilities for that one, and we decided to add A Story from Liberia to the title in order to honor the story’s origin. Mrs. Chicken and the Hungry Crocodile at first seemed too long a title, but when we considered cutting “Hungry” to shorten the title, the editor recommended leaving it in, to add tension. It turns out to have been a great title, even though it's on the long side. Why Leopard Has Spots: Dan Stories from Liberia also turns out to have been a great title. We considered calling it “Spider Flies to the Feast,” the title of another story in the collection, but the editor recommended that we stick with Why Leopard Has Spots because it would sound familiar to readers. (The stunning leopard on the cover by Ashley Bryan was subsequently reprinted in a New York Times Book Review.) Titles can be tough, but it’s also fun to finally get to name the “baby” you have been gestating.
For some great titles, look no farther than the Storysleuths books coming up: The Snow Day, A Penguin’s Story, and A Season of Gifts, for December; Marcelo in the Real World, for February; and our January focus book, the brilliantly titled Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd, which has everything--bezazz, clarity, a catchy rhyme, and originality (the editors, they say, created the word, defined by them on the back cover as: “marked by fantastic geek qualities; a compliment of the highest regard”). Those are qualities to reach for in choosing a title. It’s fun to recommend the book just because it’s fun to say “Geektastic”!
Storysleuths’ Tip #29: Play with titles until one pops up that’s catchy, memorable, different from anything else out there, and, most important of all, fits the story. Then be open to suggestions and input from the editor and others who’ll be responsible for marketing and selling the book. Fighting for a title you love is OK, but ultimately the decision may be up to the folks who will promote and sell your book.