As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I will be writing a series of book reviews, focussing primarily on non fiction books. The aim of these reviews is to take an in depth, ‘deep-dive’ look at some of the books in my collection and take a look at what makes them work.
The first in my series of non-fiction book reviews is Lara Hawthorn’s ‘The Night Flower’ published by Big Picture Press in 2018. It’s one of my personal favourites. It has an unusual subject matter, a bold cover, striking artwork and a wonderfully simple narrative format.
The book tells the story of the sargasso cactus, the single night in which it flowers, and the ecosystem that thrives around it.
As an object, the book is a fairly conventional size and portrait shape; and sits comfortably on the shelf next to its peers. It’s slim enough to fit in small hands, yet big enough to open into large, immersive spreads. The textured paper and foil highlights used on the cover alongside the matt paper used for the interior, gives it a quality feel that perfectly compliments the flat, gouache artwork.
The cover artwork is bold and composed centrally, with highly contrasting artwork, making it visually jump off the shelf. The surrounding elements are arranged symmetrically, with a visiting moth hinting at the narrative. The title is hand painted using a sans serif in clear block capitals, mirroring Hawthorne’s flat artwork.
The layout of the book as a whole, while predominantly devoted to the story, features elements borrowed from more standard information books – an introductory paragraph with background information; diagrams show physiology and life cycles, and the ‘did you spot’ feature towards the end of the book invites the reader to go back and explore the book again.
Hawthorn uses strong compositions to draw the readers eyes around the page, while carefully controlling the rhythm and pace of the narrative.
The artwork is traditionally produced using gouache and a limited, muted colour palette. Each spread is composed objectively using separate elements on a flat picture plane. There are no shadows, highlights or overlapping elements, giving it a staged, museum-like atmosphere. Each element is carefully placed, creating a well balanced, pattern-like feel across the spread, a technique often employed in spotting books, it draws the reader in to examine the artwork closer. Care has been taken to depict each species in a simplified, but easily identifiable manner, and they work well as diagrams at the rear of the book.
While the story predominantly focusses on the cactus, the text also focuses our attention on key aspects of the illustrations. The images go further than the text, by showing the wider environment, the variety of species present, and often add elements of humour. The two work well together to communicate effectively.
The narrative uses concise, rhyming text to tell the cactuses story with pace and rhythm. Time passes over the course of the book, and the story ends as it began, in the morning, having come full circle. The first and last spreads mirror each other, framing the story nicely. The narrative is pleasingly simple, reading like a poem taking us on a journey through the night.
The function of the book is to introduce the cactus and its surroundings, which it does easily, whilst encouraging active learning with the addition of the spotting guide and diagrams at the end.