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CAUGHT MY EYE : Who Will Draw the Frog Hospital?

March 12, 1995|DAVID EHRENSTEIN

As book covers go, you can't get any more "plain wrap" than the one created for Lorrie Moore's "Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?" With such a title you might expect this novel to sport an illustration of a frog in bed with an IV unit attached to its foreleg, or a hospital building with little froggy faces peering out the window. But this slim, 148-page volume features nothing more on its cover than the words "Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? A Novel by Lorrie Moore" in simple black letters against a stark white background.

"Believe me, nothing else would have worked," claims jacket designer Barbara de Wilde, speaking from her offices at Alfred A. Knopf publishing. "This is a prime example of design by elimination. You see, what we discovered, after trying out many, many different ideas, was that the title--all by itself--had so much impact that any illustration we thought of adding on would undermine it. Even using the color green for the background or the lettering, wouldn't have worked."

But--we asked--what about the illustration on the book's frontispiece? It's a drawing of a forest glade with two frogs in the foreground--one wearing a bandage the other sporting a splint. In the background two little girls can be seen whispering to one another conspiratorially. It's part of the plot: The drawing--which is entitled "Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?"--commemorates an incident in which the book's teen-age heroines saved the lives of some frogs shot by neighborhood boys with BB guns. So why not use it on the cover?

"It's a great drawing," says De Wilde, "but it would have made it look like a children's book. And this is not a children's book."

Reading Moore's novel, it's easy to see what De Wilde means. For beneath its quirky-sounding title, "Frog Hospital" stands a serious, subtle work of fiction about friendship and betrayal. The lives of adolescents may be the focal point, but Moore's coolly composed style (part Jane Bowles, part Nathalie Saurraute) underscore its thoroughly adult understanding of the youthful world it examines.

"Lorrie Moore is a wonderful writer," says De Wilde, "but since she writes about women's lives, she's suffered from being considered a 'woman's writer.' The covers of her last two books were pink and green--very feminine. That's not what her work is like at all. This time we were determined to do something that wouldn't limit her in that way. And putting a frog next to that title would have lost her 5,000 readers like that.

"I must say I've had a lot of compliments about this cover," De Wilde continues, "but the greatest one was from Oliver Sacks. He has new book out called 'An Anthropologist on Mars.' It's a collection of tales about weird neurological maladies--very much along the line of his other collection, 'The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.' Anyway he's a very 'old world' sort of person--shy and reserved. He never likes to talk to people directly. He goes around with a secretary, and he'll talk to her, and then she'll tell you what he thinks. But one day he was here at the office, he saw the cover of 'Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?' and immediately blurted out 'I want that to be my book jacket design.' "

And so, the cover of Oliver Sacks' latest consists of the title and the author's name in simple bold letters. There is one difference, however. Utilizing phosphorescent ink, the book's cover glows in the dark!

"When you've got a book called 'An Anthropologist on Mars,"' said De Wilde, "what could be more appropriate?"

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