Thursday, January 19, 2006

Best Designed Book I've "Red"

I shouldn't have been surprised that Joshua Mowll, author of Operation: Red Jericho, works as a graphic artist for the Mail on Sunday. This is the best designed and packaged book for tweens and teens that I've ever seen. Inspired by Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events, as well as Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentleman, and Mike Mignola's BPRC, not to mention Dan Brown and the less contemporary H. Rider Haggard and Jules Verne, the book is high adventure in high style.

Mowll supposedly inherited the archives of his great-aunt, who was involved in an organization called the Honourable Guild of Specialists. From those archives, he compiled the story of an adventure undertaken by two young adults in 1920. After several family members and friends declined to take the pair under their wings, the siblings fall under the spell Captain MacKenzie, who's apparently on an adventure all his own.

The book takes the two to China, where they help thwart an attempt to take over the world. The story is solid but is given second shift by the book's design and packaging. The most notable aspect of the book is its design: its cover and packaging, the illustrations and sidebars, and the fold-out maps and diagrams. While these instances help tell the tale -- they make for a nice addition -- they're also used as a sort of short hand.

Why fully describe in narration and exposition what a ship or stronghold looks like if you can draw it in a map? Why fully detail or develop a character if you can offer a sketch or biographical sketch? This device can help a book, but it can also hurt it if it's used instead of other storytelling devices, not in addition to. Another notable aspect of the tome is its intertextual references. Within the story, the author name drops Hans Holbein's painting The Ambassadors -- now my desktop wallpaper (and the root of the Dan Brown comparison) -- the French poet Jacques Delille, Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, David Copperfield, and Wuthering Heights.

I'm not sure whether Mowlls falls prey to the shorthand mentioned above, but I need another book under my belt to fully decide. Until then, the book is interesting in a Raiders of the Lost Ark sense, indicative of where youth fiction might be going, and -- while not a clarion call that more books should be written by designers -- a sure sign that more books need to be better designed in the interactive sense.

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