Typography for first reader books

oysteinvidnes's picture

I'm designing and typesetting a new series of first reader (and/or easy reader) books in Norwegian. One of the first thing on the list is choosing a typeface. I thought I should ask for your opinion. I divide my questions into two:

1. Any typeface suggestions?
After a few rounds we are close to settling on a candidate: Comenia. Both Comenia Serif and Sans are lovely typefaces. I'm especially in love with Comenia Serif: natural and unassuming but if you really look at it, it has fantastically elegant strokes, fx the foxtail on the lowercase r, and and the much used norwegian glyph æ is simply a stroke of genius (excuse the intended pun, see attachment). I'm a great fan of many of František Štorm's typefaces, which makes me all the more confident. The only negative I have heard from others is that because of its relatively thick strokes it can look a tad dark on the page, despite the fact that it has quite open counters. But this is not necessarily a problem, and of course also has to do with size and spacing.
I'm still absolutely open for suggestions. Some keywords that I had in mind, the typeface should
- be easy to read
- have a friendly look, easy on the eyes, not quirky
- be a good workhorse for both longer and shorter texts
- work well in all sizes between about 11 and 21 points
- work well occasionally in white on colored surfaces (illustrations)
- have a tall x height, but not too tall
Regarding content the emphasis is on stories, i.e. they are literary books for youngsters. They are divided into different levels, with different amounts of text, but we wanted one font that works for all. Preferably it should be a seriffed face, but it doesn't hurt if there is a humanistic sans to go with it. The reasons for choosing a serif could turn into a lengthy discussion on readability, but beside the fact that I happen to believe that a good roman serif font works best for longer reading, it's also a good thing if the reader is given the feeling that he/she is reading a "real" book.

2. The question about g and a: When looking at the field of easy reader books in general they have really awful typography, to but it bluntly. One of the reasons for this, is the requirement that the letters a and g should look like the letters that the pupils learn to write. This means that the editors and designers have gone searching for fonts that have one-story a's and g's, and have found fonts like Futura, Neutraface, Sassoon Primary, and Garamond Infant. I wanted to avoid that route. Instead I wanted to something that works well in all regards, and if in the end my editor and her advisors insist that the a and g must have one-story forms, I will find a solution, maybe working with the font designer.

What are your opinions on this? Is it important for inexperienced readers that the letters should resemble the letters that they learn to write? And if the answer isn't absolutely no to this: Why don't more roman fonts include an alternative a and g glyph?

My opinion would be that it doesn't take that long for young readers to understand that handwriting is different from printed letters, and that the differences between these letterforms are easily learned. But the dilemma stands, because when choosing a typeface for this kind of books we are faced with the following double requirement:
- The texts must be easy to read for young inexperienced readers
- The texts must be perceived as easy to read by the parents and teachers that are going to take part in choosing and recommending the books

In an ideal world there wouldn't be any opposition between these two. But as it is we have to think about it, and in such a way that the readers and parents on their part won't give it a thought.

Andreas Stötzner's picture

Comenia Serif looks very good. Although, the f leaves me a little bit wondering, why is the crossbar thinner than the serif?? For me this is no logic.
What should be peculiar about the æ?

Another typeface with a relaxed feel (similar to Comenia) is Novel, Sans and Serif.

As for the much debated single-storey a and g, those are certainly not the guilty parts if typography for youngsters turns bad. Futura has a single-storey a and a single-storey g and no one complains about that.
I have made “infant” variant fonts of Andron with this alternate glyphs because there is some request for it. As for legibility, I’d say its the same as with the usual glyphs, even for children.

Nick Shinn's picture

IMO Comenia is too sophisticated.
This is a result of its broad-nibbed chirographic forms, which the readers will not understand.
For instance, why is there no serif at the top left of “a” or on the right leg of “k”?
And what about all the f ligatures?
The virtue of Century Schoolbook was that it was a simplified, or naive, almost pop-art version of the typical modern text face of its era, and had an easy to understand thematic serif structure.

McGovern's picture

Oh hey, I almost thought you missed the opportunity to promote your fonts again, Andreas. Glad you added in last paragraph for good measure.

Frode Bo Helland's picture

Unfortunately overused, but I'd consider both Dolly and Sauna from Underware. The former leaning more towards book typography, the latter I could easily see as a text face for short paragraphs at around 20 points and it also has plenty of punch for titling work. Dolly's Bold likewise -- it's begging to be used for a childrens book.

charles ellertson's picture

SIL has developed such a font (Andika), though for a number of reasons, you may not want to use it -- it is a sans, and currently has only a roman.


Plantin is worthy of consideration.

And if, for any reason, you want an open source serif font, I find Charis quite easy to read. Essentially, it is a Matthew Carter design.


I'd think Nick Shinn's *Sense* would also work, if you want a sans.


hrant's picture

What Nick said.
"Fantastically elegant"? Kids think farting is cool.

Concerning the monocular "a"/"g", the two questions are:
What's the intent, learning to read, or reading to learn?
And at what age does your school system want the children
to learn the binocular forms? For example if you're setting
text for a book about geography for very young kids, you
should use the mono forms. In any case, don't use Futura as
a reference - it's a caricature of a font. (Although I'm not a
little kid, I enjoy calling it Fartura. :-)

BTW, in Comenia the "e" in the aesc is too much wider than the "a".
This is better:


Té Rowan's picture

@oysteinvidnes - jeg har hørt ei sån hund, naboas Lexy.

@charles_e - Charis is, IIRC, descended from the Charter that Bitstream let loose into the wild.

charles ellertson's picture

@charles_e - Charis is, IIRC, descended from the Charter that Bitstream let loose into the wild.

Indeed it is. And the "descended" doesn't include modifying basic character shapes, just a slight increase in size (by scaling only), and adding a lot of new characters.

BTW, Charter was designed by Matthew Carter.

oysteinvidnes's picture

Thanks for all the great comments! I see I went a bit over board about Comenia. It happens sometimes.

@Nick: I see your points. But using the f-ligatures in the sample was a fault on my part. The typeface works very nicely without them.

@Andreas Stötzner: Novel Serif and Sans are awesome. So far I have only played with the demo version, but it's certainly something I will consider for other projects. The roman is indeed very similar to Comenia. The italic versions might have a bit too much character. I also quite like Andron, but haven't had time to try it extensively yet. Demo versions are great, the only way to really try out a font before buying.

@Frode Frank: I considered Dolly, it's a favorite of mine, but the italic isn't straightforward enough, and the font lacks lining figures, as far as I can tell. About Sauna: Its charm doesn't quite work on me, I think. To me it just looks kind of square and geometric (without actually being either). Would maybe work for shorter texts set large.

@Hrant: It's only on the first level (out of four) that we consider using the monocular a and g. To be clear, the only reason I mentioned Futura was the fact that some easy reader books use fonts like that. I could say: we're not aiming for cool (that's the illustrator's job), but for warm.

@charles_e @Té Rowan: Charter/Charis is another favorite, and we we almost picked it. But so far we're still with the rather more rounded shapes in Comenia.

Which isn't to say that I'm ignoring all the good advice from these forums. For the beginner's books we're still trying to figure it out. One alternative is to pick something like Mantika informal

About that æ: I made a little comparison with some of the other fonts that either were or could have been in consideration, and to my eyes Comenia is the more elegant, though it's pretty meaningless to look at this one glyph in isolation.

hrant's picture

Of those, I only like the Garamond (which for me is actually rare).
It needs to be one thing, and balanced.


Frode Bo Helland's picture

Øystein: Did I just say hi to you at the office?

Thomas Phinney's picture

The question of the simpler versus more complicated forms for a and g is a complicated one that I have spent some serious time on. In short:

- teachers and book designers/producers seem to mostly prefer the simpler forms for theoretical reasons with no support from actual science.
- young readers in first and second grade prefer the more complex forms (according to research by Sue Walker)
- cognitive psychology theory suggests that the more complex forms are also more clearly distinctive and hence should be easier to learn and easier to distinguish (my own analysis, supported by Kevin Larson)

The idea that we *must* use the simpler forms for written works aimed at beginning readers assumes in part that they can and will be shielded from the more complicated forms. I believe this argument is obviously nonsense. It would require control not only of all lettering in the schools, but also of the home environment and everywhere the children go. They are exposed to the more complicated forms, and trying to avoid teaching them is just kind of silly, IMO.



oysteinvidnes's picture

@frode frank: Wow, yes, indeed! Eg kopla ikkje før no.

@Thomas Phinney: Thanks a lot! This matches my intuitive thoughts on the matter. But if I were to insist on using the complicated forms, I would need even stronger supportive arguments, so any pointers or references to articles/reports would be appreciated.

@hrant: Your eyes are obviously more trained than mine, and looking again I agree more. In the first one the e is carrying the a, strapped on as a backpack. Though I still like that vertical stroke.

Thomas Phinney's picture

Well, you have the support that the readers prefer it, and that cognitive psych theory seems to support it. They have... tradition.



Nick Shinn's picture

This is all rather theoretical.
In practice, you need to know what your client’s philosophy is.

I once designed an early reading typeface, and the directives I received seemed to be a compromise between what they thought was logical for their readers, and what they thought looked good. In other words, theory is all very well, but theory be damned if it doesn’t create the right impression to the fluently-reading adults who are the book-buyers.

This is similar to the postmodern take on modernism: functionalism was as much about looking functional and conforming to functionalist theroy, as being functional in performance.

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