Beneath the Surface – Surrealism and Summer Reading

There’s a special kind of summer madness that comes for public librarians across North America. We call it the “summer reading programme.” For most people the summer reading programme is two to four months long, depending on your library. At the longest, some libraries will run the programme from the middle of May to the end of August. That timeframe is an illusion, because the planning and logistical side of the summer reading programme is a year-long process running from August 1st to July 31st. As soon as one summer reading programme ends, planning for the next one begins. In many of the larger libraries, children’s librarians are already in the midst of planning the next event while the current event is underway.

The summer reading programme, or SRP as it’s called amongst the bibliorati, is like Black Friday in America. While Black Friday is often the busiest day of the year for retail, the SRP is the busiest time of the year for public libraries. The difference is that Black Friday lasts for one to three days depending on how sadistic the retailer is.

SRP goes on for months.

A library’s book and item circulation can double, even triple, during that time. I used to work in a large library where the children’s shelves would be full on May 1st and literally decimated by June 30th. Worse yet, almost all of those items would come back in August. So you wind up checking in, sorting, and reshelving a large percentage of the entire library’s collection in less than thirty days.

Many of these summer reading programmes have a theme. Since children’s and teen’s librarians are some of the most overworked and underpaid people in the library field, there’s an organization to help them with this theme, the Collaborative Summer Literacy Program or CSLP. It’s a non-profit organization that not only comes up with yearly themes, but creates materials, marketing, and programme and event ideas centered around the theme. For a small fee, and it is a small fee, $20 for an individual library; librarians gain access to their, inexpensive materials, manuals, and more. As I write this, the most expensive thing on their website is a large, vinyl banner for US$57.99, which is about the same price as a single book from the ALA Store.

But like all large, national programmes, there are occasions when things go off the rails, into the wilds, and down the side streets of surrealism. Sometimes, a good idea transforms into dreamwoven abstractions, where things aren’t fully explained and prolonged examination leads only to more questions. With that in mind….

Let’s talk about about a poster from the 2013 Summer Reading Programme.

For years now, every summer reading event bends its theme to different audiences. The overarching theme is there, but it’s tailored to age groups. There are variations on the themes for older kids, teens, and adults. In 2013, the young adult theme was “Beneath the Surface.” Obviously, this theme can go many different ways. We can speak of Hobbit holes, spelunking, Atlantis, grave robbing, and submarines. We can talk about deeper ideas in stories and nonfiction. It’s an excellent theme because you can do so much with it. Naturally the CSLP offered posters, bookmarks, and more to help teen librarians spread the word.

They created the poster you see below and, beloved reader, it is a magnificent display of surrealism in marketing. As I said, the longer you look, the more questions you ask.

The 2013 summer reading programme poster for teens - Beneath the Surface.

The presentation is interesting and entertaining. There’s so much to look at! A massive spaceship hovers over a futuristic landscape. Beneath that you see the ocean, mythical creatures, and a glowing book radiating magic. But pause for a moment, and think. Stand back and look at what’s going on, and you’ll ask the same question I did.

“Uh… what the hell?” Strap in, it’s going to get weird.

Let’s start at the top left, just below the headline of “Beneath the Surface.” Certainly, the starship dominates the top of the poster, but here on the top left side, maybe things aren’t as idyllic as the seem. Coming in high above the trees is a B-17 Flying Fortress? It looks to be turning in for a run on that spaceship. Jumping across to the other side of the poster, you’ll find that lone tower out on the edge may also be in danger as the silhouette of a B-52 Stratofortress approaches from the horizon.

Going lower, we discover our futuristic landscape is built atop Roman aqueducts. Sure… okay. Fine. It’s just a design idea and the arches make for interesting windows into different scenes and ideas. Like the top middle window featuring a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter flying in just above the waterline. I have to ask: is this world at war? Because there’s a large military presence here. Witness the five-man special forces team dropping in on ropes. Zoom in on that. I’m serious, zoom in on those soldiers. They’re wearing night-vision goggles and those goggles have a pink glow.

Tiger tiger burning bright.

I don’t know why they’re not coming down from the helicopter, but they better watch their ass because that white tiger idly standing by like a creature on a 1980s Mead fantasy folder? He looks like he’s ready to defend his realm.

The angler fish is usually a deeper-dwelling creature than it appears to be in the top left archway, but it’s a fish that carries a light on its head. That’s fantastic, so yeah, I’ll go with that being a design decision. But what about the birds, in the water, below the helicopter? Or the people in the top right archway, who are walking on the water? I mean, your eye is drawn to Pegasus, but look deeper, look beneath the surface.

Specifically look beneath the surface of the water within the bottom right arch and witness the underwater city so far into out into the background, I’m not even 100% sure that it is and underwater city. That’s only my best guess.

The poster takes a darker turn on the bottom-centre, because I have so many questions about this woman. Is she a ghost? She kind of looks like a ghost. Her skin is grey, and she’s faintly glowing. That’s certainly a ghostly appearance. If she’s a ghost, then she’s dead and dead things are sometimes kept below ground, right?

A ghostly woman walking away from a glowing book.

She’s walking away, but what is she walking away from? Is she a character in the glowing book laid before us? A book that’s obviously upside down because, if you look, the page numbers usually placed at the top the page are on the bottom for us. So is she walking away from her story? Has she had enough or is she moving off into the green fields beyond as Maximus does at the end of Gladiator?

Does the sword belong to her? Is the sword Excalibur? I doubt that because it appears to be a Scottish claymore, right down to the circular designs on the end of the crossguard.

Yet our journey is not complete. Sure, there are little baubles, touches of delight beyond the list I’ve produced. We have a hummingbird chasing a butterfly, and small bubbles rise above them. Delightful aircraft fill the skies beneath the incoming bombers.

A hummingbird chases a butterfly.

But can we talk about the goddamn face in the trees? Did you see that? Off to the right of the large, tent like structure, below the spaceship, to the left of the skyscraper in the background; there is a face… in the trees.

We’re not speaking of pareidolia. This isn’t pattern recognition. Once you know it’s there, you don’t have to squint to see it. That is a goddamn face in the goddamn trees.

There is a face hidden in the trees.

What. Even?

And he’s looking at you. Yes, you. That face is looking into your psyche. He is looking beneath your surface. Depending on your feelings about that you may want a cigarette or a lawyer.

But wait… Like Steve Jobs, I’ve got one more thing.

This isn’t the only Beneath the Surface poster from the 2013 summer reading program. There was another and while it’s quite similar, I’m confident you’ll spot the change.

The second version of the Beneath the Surface poster, with additional mermaid.

I posit that the reason for the change had something to do with turning the sexy up to ten. Our additional mermaid here, she raises almost as many questions as the ghostly woman. However she provides an answer to at least one question. You’ll notice that our hummingbird and butterfly are gone, but the bubbles remain? That’s because the bubbles are kicked up in the wake of the mermaid swimming through the water! At long last, something makes sense!

The mermaid bears a look of determination, she is swimming with purpose. And she’s looking at that special ops team with their pink night-vision goggles. I think the tiger may be the least of their worries. That mermaid is coming to kick some ass. But, one more question, if you’ll allow. Why is the mermaid wearing her scales? You’ll notice she’s not a mermaid, she’s a woman wearing a monofin swim suit designed to look like a mermaid. So she’s a mermaid who isn’t a mermaid?

A mermaid... kind of.

Continue peering into the poster and we find something as tangible as it is meaningful. If you look above and to the right of the bubbles near the top-right archway, you’ll see something that looks like another bubble. Or at least, it appears to be a bubble at first glance. But it isn’t. It’s the signature of the creator.


The CSLP website turns up a name, as they credited the artists for previous campaigns.

Let me introduce you to the art of Duncan Long.

The first thing I see when I landed upon his website was the image to the left. It jumped off the monitor.

It’s our special ops team! And they are dropping in from that Blackhawk!

Then I had the thought, wait… if that’s previous art he used within this summer reading poster, maybe there’s more? The website uses outdated tech, but thankfully there are HTML galleries that do not require Adobe Flash. Within minutes, I had some answers.

The 2013 teen summer reading poster is a work of surrealistic collage.

Within the artist’s Children and YA gallery you’ll find:

In the Portfolio / Galleries you’ll find:

But, like all works of surrealism, you’re left with questions and wonderment. Because after all the research and all the minutiae.

Who is the face in the trees? And what is their purpose?