Turning the book jacket into a work of art

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July 11th, 2012

Omaha, NE – The Joslyn Art Museum is exhibiting the works of an innovative illustrator who transformed the way authors and publishers considered the “look” of their books.

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The cover for The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, is one of Fred Marcellino’s most famous book jacket illustrations.

Fred Marcellino turned the book jacket into a work of art. Before the 1970s when he began a prolific career, book covers were generally viewed as utilitarian, a place to display the book title printed large and bold. But Marcellino reinvented the cover’s purpose, using it to capture the emotion of the words inside. Nan Talese, an editor at Houghton Mifflin told the New York Times in 2001 that Marcellino could “in one image, translate the whole feeling and style of a book.”

Marcellino was one of the leading book jacket designers for over a decade. But in the 1980s, he switched to children’s book illustrations, eventually authoring his own book, I, Crocodile.

In an audio program hosted Tom Bodett that aired on NPR in 2001, Marcellino described the process of writing his first book. “I’d been desperate to write a book for a number of years,” he said. “I’ve illustrated about five or six picture books, but they’ve always been by other people. And I’ve been very frightened about the idea of writing my own book.”

Fred Marcellino’s first authored and illustrated book was “I, Crocodile,” the story of a crocodile brought to Paris, published in 1999.

Marcellino said he found fragments of satire from the 19th century about a crocodile who was taken to Paris, and it was the starting point he needed.

Fred Marcellino’s work will be on display at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, beginning July 14. (Courtesy photo)

“The character sort of leapt off the page as soon as I found him,” he said. “I sometimes felt I was taking dictation; that his character was so strong that he would just suggest what would happen next. I felt like I was a hired hand in some way.”

Marcellino died in 2001 at age 61, before he could complete the sequel to I, Crocodile. But a selection of his vast works will be on display at the Joslyn Art Museum’s Mind’s Eye Gallery beginning Saturday. The collection includes several of Marcellino’s children’s books as well as some of his most famous novel jackets.

Marcellino’s widow, Jean, will travel to Omaha this weekend, where she will visit informally with gallery guests.

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