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Not Going by the Book

Stamps, art papers and other handmade details transform the staid yearbook at a Santa Monica school


You can mess with some school traditions--pick a new mascot, alter the prom, crown a homecoming king--but the yearbook usually stays pretty much the same year after year, decade after decade.

That's what Marcia Moore, book arts teacher at Santa Monica's private, highly progressive New Roads School thought, until that day she got a call from school head David Bryan. "He said, 'How would you like to do the yearbook?' And I said, 'You're out of your mind. Why would I want to do a yearbook?' And he said, 'Because I want you to come up with something new.' "

That something new is a bold, creative mix of collage, rubber stamp work and hand-decorated paper. When they pick up their yearbooks today, New Roads students will also get a pair of dice and a deck of faux playing cards, each card featuring a senior portrait along with a quote of their choosing. (One wrote: "Life is a bar of chocolate because it's so damn good.") These two bonus elements establish the book's themes of luck and fortune.

This spiral-bound yearbook is light years away from the traditional hard-bound volumes most schools produce. Where other schools work with yearbook companies that offer ready-made covers and plug photos into existing templates, under the guidance of Moore, New Roads student yearbook staff of ninth- through 12th-graders has made a memento that is also a work of art.

Some 380 students will be perusing their unique yearbooks today as the year comes to a close at this 7-year-old school. New Roads utilizes three campuses for grades six through 12, and provides an academic program that encourages creativity and activism. This is Moore's second round at this creative new approach, and where last year's book was a jampacked jumble of photos, magazine clippings and text, this year's edition resembles an artist's book or journal. Already the new style has sparked a mini-trend among a handful of local schools.

Last week, Moore and a few of her yearbook staff gathered in a sun-streaked classroom to pore over advance copies of the book, which includes students from all three campuses. The yearbook includes individual seniors' pages--each of the 50 soon-to-be-graduates was allowed to be creative with his or her own page--as well as small individual shots of students, sports teams and faculty, and a "Manifesto" section, where students express their views on various political and social issues. A page devoted to the topic of feminism features huge open red lips rimmed with a zipper, and this quote from English journalist, novelist and critic Rebecca West: "People call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute." Another page contains the 1st Amendment, with a finger pointing to it.

Photographs, text and magazine pictures are collaged onto pages, with hand-decorated paper as background, creating a consistent look. Quotes and titles are rubber-stamped by hand and pieced on the page.

A sports section is devoid of predictable team photos, instead using cropped close-ups of athletes, with quotes such as this from Olympic gold medal swimmer Matt Biondi: "Persistence can change failure into extraordinary achievement." Team members' names are stamped on the page.

But the book's most intriguing features are in the extras: the deck of cards, the dice, and for those who preordered their books, a magic potion packet tucked inside.

The themes of luck and fortune, says Moore, came to the staff quickly after the events of Sept. 11. "When the yearbook companies came to me to sell themselves, all the images they had were patriotic--firemen and flags--and I felt that trivialized the event."

Here, the 1st Amendment is the only reference--and an oblique one at that--to the tragedy that occurred at the beginning of the school year. "We figured everyone else was going to be doing tons of stuff like the flag and 'God Bless America,' " says Cooper Nagengast, a 16-year-old junior from Culver City who was on the yearbook staff.

With the mandate to buck the system and produce a compelling, lively yearbook for 2001, Moore bypassed the major yearbook companies and instead responded to a flier from Chatsworth-based Promax Digital printers. "She showed us the paste-ups and we thought it was very creative and something we could easily accomplish," says Dino Archon, manager of Promax Digital. "I think it's great to do a book this way. The way the artwork is presented, it's youth-oriented, it's like MTV videos. When it comes to most yearbooks they're still stuck in the 1930s."

New Roads' 2001 yearbook cost the school $18,000 to produce; 2002 came in at $28,000. The increase was due to more pages, the deck of cards and other extras. Funds come from the sale of the books ($50 each), advertisement sales and the school's yearbook budget. Moore says the school barely breaks even on the project.

Although it seems like a success story now, when Moore started on the first new book last year, not everyone was excited about the new approach. "When the seniors found out we were doing this book they were basically hysterical," she recalls, "because they thought I would eliminate everything. But I am aware of what yearbooks mean to people." Moore knew she had a hit on her hands when all 350 of the 2001 books sold out. She upped this year's run to 450 and expects it to be a success as well. Promax has since signed up five new schools after using New Roads' 2001 book as a marketing tool.

"When you look at old yearbooks," says Domanique Byington, an 18-year-old senior and yearbook staffer from Venice, "you just say, 'Oh, that was my friend I had math with.' But 10, 15 years from now I'm going to pull this out and think, 'God, we were so cool!' "

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