A Short Hymn to the Endpaper
O Lowly Endpaper,
tenaciously clasping book to cover,
heralder of mood,
generator of expectation,
how we do worship thee.
There are people who love endpapers, and I might be one of them. I have been known to take all my picture books off their shelves, open them to the front endpaper and spread them across the floor. What a feast for the eye!
The bolder and brighter is often the better when it comes to floor covering, but when it comes to endpapers in individual books, you can't go past clever, subtle, elegant, moody and evocative.
Technically, the humble and unsung endpaper has a single structural role - to hold the book onto its cover. But being functional doesn't prevent the endpaper from also being a thing of narrative beauty. Or even of beauty for its own sake, regardless of narrative. Think of those marvellous marbled endpapers of yore, works of art that gave the reader a moment of aesthetic awe before he or she entered the greater marvels of the book itself.
The occasional marbled endpaper notwithstanding, in the past (and also in the present) a great majority of books tend to stick with plain endpapers of a sturdy nature and simply ask them to do their job and not draw attention to themselves.
Picture books, however, and books for children in general, disrupt that tendency. A non-rigorous and non-exhaustive browse through my book stacks reveals the following ...
Endpapers that Introduce Characters (and a bit of mood)
It is in books for children that endpapers come into their own and start properly multitasking. 'Be a little bit interesting,' publishers will instruct an endpaper, 'and give the reader a hint of what is to come.' As evidenced by a first edition of Now We Are Six by AA Milne that belonged to my grandparents (it was a quirky, intellectually amusing gift to them as newly weds) ...
... where we see the endpapers giving a rundown of the characters the reader might expect to encounter, as well as the general tone and mood of the book (in this case, a little bit whimsical but also perfectly serious from a young person's point of view).
A couple of decades later, another publisher took much the same approach with that irrefutable classic A Hole Is to Dig.
What else could we possibly expect from this book but the joyousness of unfettered reason.
Endpapers that Set Theme (and a bit of place)
And that was just the beginning. Leaping boldly into the 70s and early 80s, we find Charles Keeping using endpapers to set a physical scene as well as a mood. A brick wall in Willies' Fire Engine suggests the physically oppressive slums where Willy lives and counterpoints the freedom of Willy's dreams. The crocheted lace curtains of Through the Window are the prism through which Jacob observes the danger of the working-class street below, a kind of lace armour - both delicate and strong - that shields him emotionally from the full drama of escaped draught horses and a dead dog.
In recent times, and closer to home, Gaye Chapman turns endpapers into beautiful moments of contemplation. They set mood and suggest place with a quiet beauty that does more than simply lead the way into a story: they are artworks in their own right (and are bought by collectors as such). Gaye's endpapers for the whimsical Incredibilia are not even in the style of the rest of the illustrations, but set out to evoke the simplicity and bliss of being an imaginative child in a garden wilderness ...
Endpapers that Set Place (and a bit of story)
Gaye Chapman's front endpaper for Little Blue carries the reader through successive seasons, suggesting the even longer passage of time that is so important to the meaning of this story, where a boy discovers a shard of crockery that links past with present. And how boldly Gaye places that central tree across the gutter, co-opting that dreaded ditch into a narrative force.
Then there are those even more overt signifiers of place that are such fun to pore over, those endpapers that are detailed maps of where the story happens. How often have we flipped back and forth between story and map, tracing with sticky fingertips where characters crossed this field, visited that friend, or ran away from the other dog? Recent editions of Milly Molly Mandy by Joyce Lankester Brisley turn maps, originally placed within the folio proper, into functional endpapers as well as sources of curiosity and exploration.
Freya Blackwood, another tireless experimenter with endpaper innovation, labours to give her endpapers meaning, mood and drama, so that in the shamelessly charming village-map endpapers of The Cleo Stories, every house, garden, park, school yard and shop contains its own tiny narrative.
And so I close with the refrain ... O Lowly Endpaper, how we do worship thee!