Is there a secret to a good book or series title? Well, I’m not sure there are any hard and fast rules, but here are a few insights…
Recently, something struck me. I realized that when I chat with students, teachers and parents alike, they usually refer to Cozy Classics by name, but rarely if ever refer to Star Wars Epic Yarns by name. Instead, they simply talk about “the Star Wars books.”
Why is this?
It’s possible that Star Wars is just such an overwhelmingly famous brand that any series sub‐title is inevitably overshadowed in relation. However, when an offering under the Star Wars umbrella is popular enough, like the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars, people easily jettison the “Star Wars” part and refer to the sub‐title alone. I hear my seven year‐old son talk about “The Clone Wars” with his friends all the time. So, the overwhelming importance of the Star Wars brand doesn’t seem to offer an entirely convincing explanation why I hardly ever hear anyone — especially children — refer to the Star Wars Epic Yarns books by name.
An answer to my question began to emerge when I recently picked up a copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. The book examines the virality of ideas, products and messages. One of the factors that can make something go viral is what Gladwell calls the Stickiness Factor, which he defined as the quality that compels people to pay close, sustained attention to a product, concept, or idea. Stickiness is hard to define, and its presence or absence often depends heavily on context.
One example of “stickiness” is Sesame Street. The show has been widely praised for finding a way to make television “sticky” — it uses television to lodge important ideas (like the alphabet) in the minds of children. In fact, research shows that in grade school, children who watched Sesame Street in their preschool years perform better academically than children who didn’t.
When Sesame Street was launched, its creators wanted to encourage lower‐income parents to participate in the education of their children. The hope was that parents would watch Sesame Street with their kids if the show was sprinkled with adult cleverness. Thus, the show was loaded with constant punning and pop culture references.
But research eventually showed that content meant to get adults to tune in would make kids tune out. Researchers learned this by setting up a distractor — a slide show that changed pictures every 7 seconds. The slide show was placed right next to a television that was playing an episode of Sesame Street to a test audience of children. Researchers then recorded instances when children would watch the slide show instead of the episode and could tell exactly which parts of Sesame Street had the children’s attention.
One of the insights gained through this research was that young children hate puns and wordplay because their level of intellectual development does not allow for comprehension. For example, preschoolers make a number of assumptions about words and their meaning as they acquire language. One of these assumptions is known as the principle of mutual exclusiveness, a mental word‐learning constraint that involves the tendency to assign one label/name — and in turn avoid assigning a second label/name — to a single object.
In The Tipping Point, Gladwell noted that in one test episode of Sesame Street, Big Bird wanted to change his name to Roy because he wanted a name of his own and not a descriptive name. The children were befuddled by two labels describing the same thing, and their attention dropped for that portion of the episode.
Which brings us back to Star Wars Epic Yarns and, in particular, the series sub‐title “Epic Yarns.” This is an extremely “punny” (even downright confusing) sub‐title. First, most young children don’t know the meaning of “epic.” Second, “yarns” is meant to refer to both the idea of a story and wool craft — exactly the kind of wordplay that empirical research tells us reduces children’s attention.
Having spoken to hundreds of school‐aged children, I’m also pretty sure that most of them don’t even know that “yarn” is a synonym for “story.”
To make matters worse, the reference to wool yarn isn’t even accurate. Needle felting typically doesn’t involve yarn at all. The figures are not knit, but are created by repeatedly stabbing loose wool that comes in fairly wide bundles called “roving,” or even larger swaths called “batts.” Only occasionally do I ever felt wool purchased as yarn (if I need an exact colour not available in roving), and even then, only after I completely unfurl the yarn and matt the fibers into a loose, tangled mass of wool.
The working sub‐title for our Star Wars series was “Short and Sweet,” which Jack and I really liked. The books were short. The books were sweet. Perfect. It’s the kind of phrase that just rolls off the tongue. “Epic” is, of course, the complete opposite of an extreme 12‐word abridgement (adding more confusion for children), and I’ve already addressed the problems with “yarns.” Add it all up, and I don’t have a clue what children might actually understand “Epic Yarns” to mean.
Apparently, the marketing folks ran “Epic Yarns” past a few buyers at major accounts, who thought the sub‐title was amusing. However, as the Sesame Street research has shown us, what appeals to adults can be meaningless to kids.
Star Wars author Jeffrey Brown, creator of the New York Times best‐selling Darth Vader & Son series, recently told me that he still reads Star Wars Epic Yarns with his younger son, and they call them “the robot books.” While this could just be an affectionate family in‐joke for our books, I can’t help but wonder whether “Epic Yarns” is simply too confusing a series title for young readers to have any “stickiness” at all.
This is not to say that a stickier series title would have necessarily sold more books. Who knows? But surely having a series title that much of your core audience cannot remember or is reluctant to use in conversation is not part of the winning formula for robust sales.
These days, there appear to be a many children’s books premised entirely on a pun in the title. I don’t want to disparage any existing books, so I’ll make up an example: Tyrannosaurus Hex, a picture book all about dinosaurs that are also witches and wizards (apologies if this book actually exists!). First, a child needs to know that there’s such a creature as a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and that “Rex” is being replaced by “Hex.” Second, the child needs to know that “Hex” means an evil spell or curse, and that these things relate to witches and wizards. All of this seems pretty tough for a young child to grasp. While the title may elicit a momentary chuckle from parents browsing in a bookstore (who, after all, do the buying), will it grab the attention of kids? And does the pun drive or diminish title recall and use that will foster buzz about the book and ultimately lift sales?
While I have no doubt that books with punned titles do occasionally sell well, a quick perusal of this week’s New York Times best‐selling picture books reveals that the list contains ten non‐punned titles, including Princesses Save The World, Princesses Wear Pants, Dragons Love Tacos, The Day the Crayons Quit, The Wonderful Things You Will Be, The Book With No Pictures, and Be Kind.
So, if you’re here for the advice, here goes: there’s nothing wrong with a simple, straightforward book title or series title. Laboured puns are probably best avoided, especially if you want children to utter the names of your books — or to remind their parents to buy them! And sometimes “punny” titles are (in my humble opinion) really just too cut by half.
Some of you might say, “Hey, but your new picture book titles contain puns!” True, Great Job, Mom! and Great Job, Dad! are not only meant to praise hard‐working parents, they also refer to the fact that the books are ironic jobs primers. But in the grand scheme of things, the punning is very gentle, and the titles are eminently comprehensible as simple compliments to mom and dad, even if young kids don’t (immediately) understand the reference to the concept of employment.
Again, there are no hard and fast kidlit rules. But my takeaway for choosing a book or series title is this: don’t pun your way into potential incomprehensibility — and forgettableness.