The market for literary classics is a crowded one. With many texts out of copyright, and therefore freely available for appropriation and publication, it is a field in which it pays to be niche—be it in the shape of a bargain-basement Wordsworth Classics, or a luxury, highly produced edition from the likes of The Folio Society. And, given that many of the canonical texts are (literally) freely available to download digitally, a physical edition has to graft hard to earn its cover price.
Such a playing field may daunt many, but not Irish outfit Roads Publishing, which not content with its line of adult classics has branched out into illustrated children’s classics recently, issuing Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (£8.99) in May. Three further titles—Five Children and It by E Nesbit, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island—will follow in August.
Roads Publishing is no ordinary publisher: it is one of three arms of “creative lifestyle brand” Roads Group, the others being Roads Fragrances and Roads Entertainment, a film production company. The publisher has pursued a striking look for its classics series, one with unique roots, too. Publishing director Maeve Convery explains: “The brand is built around the idea of storytelling—whether that be in book, film or fragrance form—and the aesthetic is modern and considered. Our sister company, Roads Fragrance, has a very clean and Minimalist aesthetic, and we aimed to complement that.”
Hence the Classics’ spare, white treatment, framed with a border device that uses pastel colours; the roominess is enhanced by the typography (Knockout is used on the covers; Garamond for the interior copy), which is refreshingly set at a modest size and generously spaced, giving prominence to the illustration, which is always based around a roundel. Not all of the illustrations fill the circle, with many only occasionally probing its perimeter, but the consistency of approach makes for striking series livery. The titles are printed on 100gsm paper stock with the covers on 300gsm, a heft added to by the use of French flaps.
The design for the series is executed by Irish studio WorkGroup, and co-founder David Wall says of the motif: “Whether we have branding or an identity to design for clients, or web clients where we are building a structure, we are building a framework for things to happen on. Roads was interested in producing something that could run and run, a system that would be unifying and have a consistency without feeling monotonous and repetitive. Each [book] had to stand alone, with an illustration that would be true to the text, but there also had to be that kind of collectability. When you line them up on a bookshelf or see a few of them together, they have to work well as a system and have a relationship.”
He explains that the border device, in addition to alluding to Roads’ other commercial activities, had a more practical grounding too. “Roads’ perfume line is very white and pristine, so we wanted to connect with that look in some way. But white books get dirty, so part of the reason for the border was because it’s around the area that people handle, so the border isn’t white, it’s coloured: they can take a knock and be handled in bookshops and not get grubby or appear like they aren’t looking their best.”
For the kids’ line of classic titles, however, a slight departure was needed. They were “a great opportunity to introduce more colour”, Convery says, but “it was a challenge to revise the series identity in a way that would appeal to new audiences without alienating our loyal customers”. Wall adds: “The [classics] palette is so refined, that even a change like [using colour across the whole cover], which is fairly simple, has a big effect on the appearance. We definitely wanted them to have their own series but also exist in the context of the other classics. They still have to have that kind of visual sophistication, but Roads wanted to mark out that they were different.”
Another way in which the titles differ from the adult classics is that they are illustrated, by south London-based Gwen Burns. Of the commission, Burns explains: “Because the covers are quite graphic and stylised, Roads was looking for something a bit more traditional inside the books. They saw my website and liked my work so they approached me, and of course I said yes—it’s a dream job, all the stories that I loved from the past. They wanted it to be whimsical, not stylised, not trendy, I suppose.” The point is underscored by Convery, who says “the idea was to have child-friendly, as opposed to childish” editions, describing Burns’ art as the perfect fit, as it’s “innocent without being twee”.
Her style of illustration is indeed a departure from the honed, crisp cover roundels: they are black-and-white watercolours, with a pen outline. It may well be a more “orthodox” illustrative approach, but Burns was keen to challenge readers’ own visual iterations of the classics, many of which already have a ubiquitous “look”—be it John Tenniel’s illustrations for the original Alice . . ., or Disney’s reinterpretation of The Jungle Book. “I didn’t necessarily want to bring something madly new to them,” Burns says, “because they are what they are and we all love them, but I wanted to show everything through the eyes of the children protagonists in the titles and try to bring a bit more fluidity. Some of them are quite old titles, so I was trying to bring something quite fresh.”
The books’ cover illustrations also catch the eye—notably The Happy Prince’s circular stained-glass window (above right). Wall says the approach for artwork to adhere to the cover template is collaborative—and surprising. “Most people have an image of what [classics] ‘look like’, so we wanted to produce images that were true to the text but that were not necessarily obvious...you know, it’s not Frankenstein with a bolt through his neck.
“We said we would try and do different illustration styles for almost every title, if we could, and it’s meant to look like this could be the work of 50 people over a 20-year period. The illustrations should connect with the text in a way that’s really thematic and based on an understanding and a reading of the text.” He says the rigid series design enables “loads of leeway and scope to do something really interesting, but it’s also quite well defined, which is what makes it a Roads classic”. The majority of the designs, with one or two exceptions, are created in-house by WorkGroup—somewhat surprising given the variety and acuity of styles—and the package is rounded off with the use of small, bespoke icons on the spine and rear cover of the book, which allude to the subject matter (a snake for The Jungle Book; a spade for The Secret Garden).
As a design studio working for a range of clients on various media, formats and outputs, I put it to Wall that Roads’ proposition is fairly unique among publishers, reaching across seemingly disparate media and attempting to maintain a clear brand identity.
“For me, what’s interesting about Roads is that publishing is a huge part of what it does, but it is also a fragrance and film production company. I hate to use the word ‘curators’ . . . but there is a lot of consideration and care in everything that it puts its hand to. There is a unity of vision and a unity in approach, with a level of care and attention to detail. Everything is quite considered, even if the outcome is varied—it’s how they approach their work in film and fragrance. There is something quite contemporary about a brand that exists across all kinds of media and all kind of products and still has that kind of clarity of vision.”