Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Design Discussions with Melissa Manlove, Senior Editor at Chronicle Books

Hi Guessers,

Melissa Manlove, Senior Editor at Chronicle Books.
Photo courtesy of Melissa Manlove
Amy here. I’m super excited to bring you the first in our new Design Discussions monthly (ish) series that looks into the editorial process of creating beginning readers. The more I’ve delved into beginning readers, the more I’ve realized that design choices can make a big difference for emerging readers. We were curious to know, how do editors approach design? What elements do they prioritize? How does design impact content and vice versa? 

For the first post in this series, I had the pleasure of interview Melissa Manlove, Senior Editor at Chronicle Books. We talked about beginning readers in general, but also two new beginning reader series, Charlie and Mouse and Barkus. Melissa editd Charlie and Mouse, while her colleague Victoria Rock edited Barkus

I asked Melissa about any design standards created specifically for beginning readers. Charlie and Mouse and Barkus mark Chronicle’s first foray into beginning readers, so they haven’t developed any hard and fast rules. However, best practices were discussed quite a bit, especially the need for “a larger than average type size, choosing typefaces that would feel familiar to readers at this level, not letting the art encroach on the text or letting a background color change behind any individual paragraph / bundle of type.”

I’ve also been wondering recently what kind of guidelines editors give their authors and illustrators. Melissa said they definitely discuss the above elements with their creators, but that neither of their 2017 beginning reader titles are meant to be “leveled” readers, so there was less concern for strict counts of sight words, words per line or sentence. However, there was much thought put into the introduction of more challenging vocabulary and syntax, the amount and placement of text, where art was needed to support the reader, and how all of these things would affect the pace of the reader. Editors and authors wanted to “make books that would challenge readers gently and delight them—books that wouldn’t slow a reader down in confusion but that might still encourage them to linger over a joke or an illustration.”

At Chronicle, design conversations start in-house very early in the process. Melissa told me that “by the time we have the final text and art, we’ve also settled on a draft of the final design. At this point we create what we call “galleys”—layouts of the text, typeface, and art as they might occur in the final book—and we send those layouts to the artist and the author for comments, questions, and disagreement (if there is any). Every book is a team effort.” 

Melissa edits picture books and beginning readers, and she discussed the difference in the relationship between text and art in both forms. In picture books, the magic “lies in the interplay of the crafts of writing and illustrating.” In beginning readers, kids are reading independently and they need support as they encounter new words and grammatical structures. This is when visual context clues are super important. Melissa gave an example using the word “pizza.” The first time it’s encountered readers “may not be 100% sure that the word on the page is the same one they’ve been hearing, since the pronunciation has a ‘t’ sound in it. Having a pizza in the illustration allows the reader to check their understanding and proceed in confidence.” It’s a tricky line to walk between “making space for the delight of information that only appears in art” and making sure there are enough visual context clues for readers to be confident.

Image from Charlie & Mouse by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Emily Hughes

In addition to the interior design of a book, Melissa brought up the importance of title choice and cover design for beginning readers. “Novels and picture books can sometimes have cover art that leave their titles intriguingly oblique, but that shouldn’t happen in beginning readers. The kids of this reading level should be pretty confident of what any title means, and what the book is promising, when they are looking at the cover.” For instance, there was a bit of risk in choosing Barkus, a made up word for a title. However, Melissa pointed out “it’s a single word (and so less challenging in that way) and there is a big, funny, appealing dog pictured right underneath the title, so we’re pretty sure kids who are reading at this level will have no trouble guessing ‘Barkus’ must be the funny name of this funny dog.” 

Every book lover and creator has pet peeves, I asked Melissa what hers are when it comes to beginning readers. She pointed to the limitations in format being “used as an excuse not to offer children unique characters and a satisfying narrative. This age group—of ALL age groups—should be able to find ALL the pleasures of reading in their books, or how can we expect them to keep going?”

Does Melissa have an all-time favorite beginning reader? She simply couldn’t choose one! “Maybe Mouse Soup, for its gently connected stories, the humor’s great timing, and the surprising ideas in each story. I adored the Goblin Story in Little Bear as a child—just the right amount of scary for me. I am (as most people are) a huge fan of Bink and Gollie and Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie books—I see his background in Sesame Street and the Children’s Television Workshop so strongly in them. Each is a perfect little stage skit, and the timing is flawless. But I’m also so, so thrilled with the way the Geisel committee looks for books that could function as beginning readers among the larger-sized picture books as well—Kevin Henkes’ Waiting, Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back, Ethan Long’s Up! Tall! And High! are some favorite examples.”

Melissa offered the following closing thought about the process of creating beginning readers, “Every book we make is a new world to explore, with new conversations to have, new problems to solve, new ways of reaching our readers. The only thing I’m hoping for every time is to make a reading experience that children will find so compelling that they’ll want to read some more.”

Stay tuned for more Design Discussions, as well as an upcoming post on Charlie and Mouse.
Image from Charlie & Mouse by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Emily Hughes


  1. Great post! I didn't realize these titles were Chronicle's first early readers (how cool!). So interesting to learn how different publishers handle this unique format.

    1. Thanks, Alec! I'm learning so much doing these Design Discussions. Let us know if you have questions you've always wanted to ask an editor or designer :)