A book dedication is a proclamation, right up front, with which an author can honor a person, a small group of people, even a thing. I’ve seen books dedicated to caffeine, dogs, alcohol, Xanax, even pizza. While it’s important not to overthink the dedication, know that essentially everyone who reads your book will see it. Under the best circumstances, the dedication page will set the tone for the book, create a small intimacy between the author and the reader. Under the worst circumstances, it will offend someone, perhaps the people to whom the book is not dedicated and think it should be. Most likely, few will really care.
Before getting into the details on the dedication, though, we have to discuss the acknowledgments, which are typically located at the back of the book. The acknowledgments are where you may (or may not) thank every last person who helped get you to the finish line. I’m inclined to say less is more here, because the truth is, you can’t win. If you thank too many people, the gratitude is watered down, meaningless. If you only thank a few people, you risk missing someone important: that friend or family member, say, who literally (well, almost literally) talked you off the ledge after your first edit came back.
I suggest you start with a heartfelt nod to your agent, editor, and publisher because without them you have no book in which to write acknowledgments. Unlike the dedication page, the acknowledgments page is about letting the very few people who will read it (and I do mean few) what sort of person you are. Maybe acknowledge your fourth-grade teacher and don’t forget your family and friends, even the friend who told you to “relax, it’s just a book.” You can let go of your anger about that now. Above all, the acknowledgments can demonstrate that you’re well connected. I’ve begun to suspect this is the true purpose of the acknowledgement page. If you must list all of the people you met at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, here’s the place to do it. But be advised not to include anyone who blurbed your book here as readers will then know the writer who called your novel “a work of comic genius” did it as a favor, and not because he or she really thought so. If you don’t know anyone famous, you can try slipping the name of one of your favorite writers between two struggling writers you actually do know. Most likely said writer won’t see it and it might appear as if you regularly get coffee with Jonathan Tropper when you’re not busy shopping at Target with self-published author Jennifer Ackerman, and still-working-on-that-thesis Vivica Bliss.
Now, back to the dedication. Ideally, your dedication will match the tone of your book. Carl Sagan nailed this in his dedication for Cosmos: “In the vastness of space and immensity of time, it is my joy to spend a planet and an epoch with Annie.” Sweet, right? Jack Kerouac also got this right in Visions of Cody: “Dedicated to America, whatever that is.” We can glean a lot from both of these dedications. Carl loves Annie (his wife—second, I believe—and co-writer of the television version of the book) as much as he loves space. And we know he loves space a lot. Kerouac, on the other hand, hates America as much as he loves America. Also made clear. Likewise, Shannon Hales’s dedication for Austenland is both very funny, like the novel, and serves as a sort of amuse bouche for readers: “For Colin Firth: You’re really a great guy, but I’m married, so I think we should just be friends.”
If you can write a dedication that does more than declare that you’re fond of some particular family member, one that also makes a reader want to, well, read on, that’s gold. Robert Brockway writes funny sci-fi. His dedication for Rx: A Tale of Electronegativity is one of my favorites both because it reflects the tone of his novel and it gives the reader a glimpse into his private world (which readers like):
This book is for my beautiful and loving wife, Meagan, who designed all of the covers and only occasionally threw bottles at me in a drunken fury. This book is for my dad, also named Robert Brockway, also loving and supporting—his only flaw being an incredible arrogant flair for child naming. This book is for my dogs, Detectives Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh, who are as wonderfully stupid as they are action packed. And this book is for the meager handful of loyal fans who continually support me even though I abuse them so. It's a sickness, and I sincerely hope that somebody helps them break the cycle one day. Finally, this book is for science: You keep right on making the impossible reality, you crazy ass system of knowledge, and you let the philosophy majors worry about whether or not it’s ‘right.’ They need something to do in between shifts at Starbucks.
It’s a little longer than generally preferred—most writers would have picked one of those sentences and left it at that—but it certainly tells you what to expect as you read on.
Dedications to other writers are always refreshing. Henry Miller’s Black Spring was dedicated to Anais Nin, C. S. Lewis dedicated The Screwtape Letters to J. R. R. Tolkien, and Sinclair Lewis dedicated Elmer Gantry to H. L. Mencken. I especially like such dedications if they create a sense of anticipation. Stephen King dedicated Firestarter to Shirley Jackson. “In memory of Shirley Jackson, who never needed to raise her voice.” I imagine what he admired about Ms. Jackson was her subtle satire, quite unlike his propensity for explicitness. This dedication works to express his gratitude to someone who had great influence on him while simultaneously letting the reader know that he will be delivering his horror at a loud octave.
I have to admit the hostile dedication is my favorite. Perhaps the most well known of this variety is e. e. cummings in his collection No Thanks. He lists the fourteen publishers who rejected his work in the shape of a funeral urn. It’s a beautiful thing. Additionally, there’s Charles Bukowsi’s dedication to “nobody” in Post Office, and a classic, from Tobias Wolff for This Boy’s Life: “My first stepfather used to say that what I didn’t know would fill a book. Well, here it is.” My husband has said that he would like to snidely dedicate one of his books to the critic who panned his first book in the New York Times Book Review, but I don’t think he’s got the guts and, if he did, his editor wouldn’t let him do it.
The dedication to one’s readers is okay, though I don’t recommend it unless you’re Mark Twain. It assumes that you have readers, which I’m sure you do, but just in case, maybe don’t.
Of course, the most common sort of dedication is to one’s family or a loved one. Unless you change partners regularly, in which case, “the love of my life,” might be best, you can’t really go wrong. Daughters and sons are natural subjects. I love the dedication from the great British humorist P. G. Wodehouse for Heart of a Goof: “To my daughter Leonora without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the time.” Very nice! William Styron and Saul Bellow dedicated books to their fathers, Thornton Wilder and Norman Mailer to their sisters, and J. D. Salinger dedicated The Catcher in the Rye to his mother.
I really didn’t give much thought to the dedication page for my new book, There’s A Word For That, before I wrote this piece. In fact, I wrote a pretty boring, straightforward dedication. “For Gary, Nick and Harry.” My husband thought he deserved the sole dedication, seeing as he read the novel in draft sixteen times. My oldest son was annoyed that he was listed last given that he’s the oldest. My youngest asked why I didn’t name him Barry, so that all their names would rhyme. It’s clear to me now that I may have missed an opportunity to set a tone or crack a joke. And yet, the book I wrote is simply dedicated to my family. My dedication isn’t clever but it’s heartfelt. And in the end, as in the beginning, that’s all that really matters.
Sloane Tanen is the author of ten illustrated and YA books, including the bestseller Bitter with Baggage Seeks Same, Hatched: The Big Push from Pregnancy to Motherhood and the new novel There’s A Word For That. Tanen graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and holds master’s degrees from both New York University and Columbia University. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband, the writer Gary Taubes, and their two sons.