We’re told (often metaphorically) not to judge a book by its cover. But what about judging a book by its title? One of the most important and anxiety inducing things a writer must do is what some authors call “naming the baby.”
With my most recent novel, I went through seven titles. Six of them contained the word, summer. Because my publisher had a plethora of books with summer in the title that season, several needed to be changed. Lucky for me, my editor and her group got together and brainstormed. They came up with the title The First Last Day, which alluded to the Groundhog Day premise of the story—much better than the titles I had come up with.
Subsequently I’ve been agonizing over the title of a work in progress. This has made me think about titles I love and why I love them. It turns out some of my favorites are inspired by Bible stories, poetry, song lyrics, and other art forms. Not only are these titles catchy and meaningful, but they can also be a way to teach students how to identify allusions in what they read and how to use allusion in their own writing. Below are just a few titles I love that call to mind other works:
This novel, which won the 1977 Newbery Medal, is about racism during the Great Depression. The title is directly from the first line of a spiritual sung by slaves. Such songs were often used to inspire rebelliousness. The song is alluded to at the beginning of Chapter 11. It has been written that the thunder referred to in the title is a metaphor for all the hate the Logan family must put up with from whites like the Wallaces, a racist family in town. The second part of the title has been seen as a call to action against the injustices toward African Americans. I can’t think of a more perfect title for this novel.
The title of this novel, which won the 1981 Newbery Medal, came straight from the Bible and refers to the sibling rivalry of twin brothers Jacob and Esau. The quote reads: “As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” The allusion to the quote has significance because the novel is about twins Sara Louise and Caroline. Louise, like Esau, is the child who lives in the shadow of the other twin. The novel follows her search for self and how she can find a place in the world apart from her sister.
The second half of this title is taken from a poem by Emily Dickinson. The novel is about a girl, who in the wake of a tornado that has destroyed her home, is developing feelings for another girl. The following quote from Dickinson appears in an epigraph and is repeated during a scene in the novel: “This is my letter to the world, that never wrote to me …” The quote has symbolic meaning for the main character who, like Dickinson’s narrator, entrusts an invisible audience with her inner thoughts. At the end of Dickinson’s poem, the speaker asks not to be judged for what she has written. This would seem to have significant meaning for Ivy who is on a journey of self-discovery and wonder.
Lowry’s novel about the Holocaust won the 1990 Newbery Medal. The title is from Psalm 147:4 in the Old Testament, which talks about God numbering the stars and naming each one of them. The quote alludes to the fact that if God can count the stars, He can see the persecution of the Jews. Although at one point, Annemarie, who is watching so much suffering, wonders how anyone could number the stars one by one. “There were too many. The sky was too big.”
Beatles fans will recognize the line from the beginning of the hit song, “She Loves You.” The title is perfect for Hood’s novel about a girl growing up in the sixties during the Vietnam War and the Beatles era. In the novel, the main character, whose social status has diminished, is determined to see the band perform in Boston during its final world tour and to meet her beloved Paul McCartney.
If you have any favorite middle-grade titles that allude to a previous work of art, I’d love to hear about them in the comments section. Also, if you have any great titles kicking around in your brain that you don’t want, send them my way. Just kidding. Sort of.