My mentor in grad school, Marion Dane Bauer, said that every good title should work on two levels. “What levels?” I asked. “That depends on the story,” she replied.
Years later, I’m still investigating the layers of title significance, and I can say with certainty that Marion was correct. Well, she’s written over eighty books, so she does know a thing or two about crafting a memorable title.
Let’s take a look at ten winningly-titled—and very different—books, and analyze not only what makes them stand out but ultimately mean something deeper to the reader. After all, there’s a huge difference between a book you’ve enjoyed, and a title that leaps out of your mouth every time you’re asked for a book recommendation.
10. PRIDE & PREJUDICE by Jane Austen (Timeless, Classic Love Story)
Clearly Lizzie Bennett is Pride and Mr. Darcy is Prejudice. Or wait…is it the other way around? I’ve often enjoyed hearing Austen fans debate this title. The truth is that it works either way, and the debate we have about which character is which keeps the title and important themes alive and at the forefront of the reader’s mind. Also as a shorthand, Something & Something is always going to cue a reader into a potential love story.
9. THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY by Douglas Adams (Adult Science-Fiction)
Genre expectations shine through in this title. You’re going to be reading sci-fi, sure, but you’re also going to be reading farce and comic-sassiness. Note that this title, like so many great titles, draws attention to one element of a story that also stands as a metaphor for the rest of said story.
8. EAST OF EDEN by John Steinbeck (Adult Literary Fiction)
Arguably, Grapes of Wrath jumps to mind when you think about Steinbeck, but I’ve never been able to satisfactorily connect that title to its story. East of Eden on the other hand draws attention to the biblical parallels in the story, while also setting a strong statement upfront that this story is not a religious story. I see a lot of writers wanting to title their stories after place names, and if you’re going to do that, I highly suggest being indirect.
7. PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ by A.S. King (Young Adult Contemporary)
Like the title, this book is about Vera Dietz. Like the title, this book is about so much more than Vera Dietz. It’s about attitude and angst. And so much of this book is about what the characters don’t tell each other—what they’re ignoring—and the consequences of that choice.
6. WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE by Raymond Carver (Short Stories)
Long titles don’t work. Unless they do. Unless they tell you exactly what a story is about in no uncertain or apologetic terms. Carver’s book of short stories is all about the uglies associated with love, and instead of tiptoeing around the theme, he draws frank attention to it. And it’s this frank attention that prepares the reader for the stories and offers honest support afterwards.
5. LEAVES OF GRASS by Walt Whitman (Free Verse Poetry)
Walt Whitman’s gorgeous collection of observations reads like a deep study of the United States, its people, and the strange rankings of cultural mistakes and personal joys. Not only does Whitman spend pages upon pages dissecting the subtle glory of nature—like individual blades of grass—but he also draws our attention to the ideas and struggles that characterize the American people. And boom that’s all in the title, isn’t it?
4. WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Book from Lecture)
Don’t bury the lead. Especially if you’re writing something with an important message. Adichie’s title for her speech—which became such a stunning, succinct book—is not only a wonderful read, but a reminder of the importance and inclusion that feminism should inspire. Say it aloud? We should all be feminists. Hits home and hard, doesn’t it?
3. THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF PART-TIME INDIAN by Sherman Alexie (Young Adult Semi-Autobiographical)
While Alexie’s main character named Junior is a fictional being, this book is based on his own experiences—the truth of which comes straight out of the title. I could say more, but I think that covers it.
2. THE UNDERNEATH by Kathi Appelt (Middle Grade with Animal POVs)
The two main kittens in the story are born beneath a porch dubbed, The Underneath. There, they are safe. There, they must be quiet and calm. But kittens are anything but quiet and calm, and when they get out into the sun, they’re faced with the true underneath. Underneath the sky they find adventures and perils—and then underneath all that is a deep history where good forces are at work…but then so are the bad ones as well.
1. THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING by Milan Kundera (Adult Literary Philosophy)
This highfaluting title captures the philosophy and literary fiction angles of Milan Kundera’s masterpiece exquisitely. It prepares the reader for two very important meanings: everything matters excruciatingly AND nothing matters eventually. Ouch…I think I just hurt my own feelings.
Cori McCarthy holds three degrees in writing: a BA in poetry/memoir, a postgraduate in screenwriting, and an MFA in writing for children and young adults. She is also the author of four books and a freelance editor at Yellow Bird Editors. Find out more about writing with Cori at CoriMcCarthy.com.