May 6, 2009 / Whitt and Wisdom

How much theme is enough?

Written by Anne G. Whitt, MJE

The high school would be 75 years old. Need to renovate the original building had prompted a long line of construction projects. With building crews on campus, the school decided to make other improvements. Job after job, the undertaking stretched for seven years. Current students had only been on campus when equipment and crews were in the way. Then, the school promised in the summer that construction would be done for the fall opening of the school year. The community responded with, “It’s about time.”

The yearbook staff grabbed the common expression for the new theme. Spinoff phrases identified sections: It’s about time for sports… for student life… and so on.

Another staff tired of disparagement from newer schools in the district. The 150-year-old school had the highest district scores on standardized tests and the greatest number of students accepted by universities. The school was proud of its tradition of achievement. So on the anniversary year, the staff chose the theme “Time Tested.”

Total renovation had changed the side of entry for one school. Even returning students had to ask how to find specific areas. The staff chose “New Directions.”

In the summer of 1999, my editors presented “Blur” as a theme for the book that would cover the impending Y2K. I frowned at the idea, saying, “We’re focused or sharp, not blurred.”

As if in chorus, the editors said, “No. We’re the Class of 2000. Since we were in kindergarten we have been reminded of our unique position in all of history.” They explained how they had been repeatedly told that everyone would watch this class, test it and record details. The girls said, “Now we’re here. We look back, and all of that seems only a blur. We look ahead at January. Y2K makes that a blur. This is the year of blur.”

They won.

Once the theme is picked, the next decision involves presentation of the theme. How much theme is enough? The theme does not need to be spread across every page like peanut butter on a slice of bread. Like peanut butter, too much theme in too little space can gag a person.

Decisions about theme presentation include the look and placement of graphics. Looks of graphics are unique to each choice of text, but placement is common. The theme usually appears only in specific places in the book. These places can be remembered with the acronym: C-O-T-E-D.

C. Cover. Many of us chant, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” but in practice that is often how we make our first judgment of a book. I hear books cited more by cover traits than by years. Even the font used to identify the book, the school, the year and the city on the cover should help convey the theme.  Often some subtle graphic will appear on the cover and then in folios or dividers.

Closing is another C. The theme should be presented in some way in the closing.

O. Opening. The opening and closing should bring together the ends of the literary cycle of the year as presented by the staff. The opening and closing are the introduction and conclusion of the grand story contained in the book. The opening should explain why the theme fits this year at this school. This does not need to be picked up in the closing. Readers who have read the book should know why the theme was chosen. The closing just wraps up the book. When the opening and closing begin with parallel lines, readers feel as if the staff gave special attention to details. For the “Blur” book, editors wrote the following.

Opening lines

The past is a blur.
The future is undefined.
The moment is now.

Closing lines began

The moment is fleeting.
The past is a blur.
The future is calling.

T. Title page. As well as giving school information, the title page should also reveal the theme. Usually no explanation of the theme appears on the title page, but graphics and words present the theme, sans explanation.

E. Endsheets. Yearbook police will not come to nab anyone who fails to fill endsheets with information, but the practice has become almost universal. The space is there, and most staffs want to use every pica of space available. One common use for endsheets is the table of contents. This gives opportunity to quickly help readers locate items of interest as well as show the theme.

D. Dividers. The spreads that introduce new sections should show the theme – not explain, but show. Using theme elements on dividers gives the book continuity and unity.

Portraying the theme in folios is optional. Like font choice and other page design techniques, the entire book fits the theme, but the entire book does not have to announce it.

Use the theme, but do not overdo it.

A mother pleasantly surprised me one day when she said, “I love how yearbooks of today pick a theme for each year. We used to just put pictures in the book, but now every book is like a real history of the school.”

Anne G. Whitt, MJE

Anne Whitt, MJE, is a retired yearbook adviser who taught at Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, Fla., and at the community college level. She was named a JEA Distinguished Adviser in 2000, and the yearbook earned state and national honors throughout the decades that she taught.