Friday, September 01, 2006

Creating a Cover, and Altering Covers for Creationists

I initiated a discussion on child_lit earlier this week about what makes a good book cover for a middle-grade novel -- "good" meaning popular, pick-uppable, kids-can't-resist-it. Linnea Hendrickson responded with a message praising our cover art for The Book of Everything, and I took the opportunity to demystify the cover-making process (message cross-posted from child_lit):

I hope you all won't mind my writing about a book I edited, but this was actually a great example of how publishers come up with their cover designs. Arthur Levine, my boss; the book's designer, Elizabeth Parisi; and I sat down with a list of key images from the manuscript:

  • the cover of Thomas's notebook (the actual "Book of Everything")
  • the open window Thomas looks through to think
  • the tropical fish in the canals and Thomas's aquarium
  • the frogs
  • the knife and wooden spoon
  • Jesus Christ

As you can see from this list, we felt as Linnea did, that we shouldn't do too much to signal who the characters were or show Thomas's visions; and we quickly settled on having a stark black cover that wouldn't give too much away and might appeal to both adults and children, as we hoped very much that the book's audience would reach beyond the nine-year-old age of its protagonist. (I know Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was mentioned in our discussion, for both its evocative type design and that strangely chilling raven.) Having a strong title helped us a lot here too -- we didn't want to do anything to undercut its inherent interest or mystery("What does 'Book of Everything' mean? What's in that Book? Who would dare to write it?" etc.) with too much detail.

Once we'd agreed on the concept, Elizabeth went looking for frogs in stock-photo sites, trying to find an intriguing-looking frog who would stand out against the black background, like a jewel you could just reach out and pick up. She used the frog again on the spine, to hook readers looking at the book on a shelf, and drew the title type herself on the computer. Here again we were trying to enhance the mystery of the title: "What does that frog have to do with 'everything'? Why does the title type look like a child's scrawl?" Then the cover went through various rounds of discussion -- with Arthur and me; under the eye of our Creative Director David Saylor; and with Sales and Marketing. The cover changed hardly at all in these stages (though many covers do), and was finally published pretty much as Elizabeth created it.

You can see the American cover here (and read the stunning first two chapters of the manuscript as well); the British cover here, the Australian here, and the original Dutch here. (Incidentally, the original Dutch edition included interior illustrations -- delicate pencil drawings of all the characters and some of Thomas's visions, like the chairs floating off the floor when they listen to Beethoven. They're beautifully done, but again, we wanted to leave things to the imagination . . .)


At the user end of the spectrum, an energetic Swarthmore professor named Colin Purrington has responded to the Cobb County evolution debate, and particularly the infamous stickers used to label biology textbooks that discuss evolution, by creating a multitude of counter-stickers. My favorite: "This sticker covers a pre-existing sticker designed to subtly undermine the teaching of evolution in your class. To see the full text of the original sticker, examine the books of children of school board members, who mandated the stickering." (Via Maud Newton.)


  1. Do you know what was the idea behind using the Raven for Mr. Norell and Jonathan Strange's cover? (Was it because of the Raven King?) I haven't finished reading it(so don't tell me if it's a spoiler) but otherwise I am curious because one of the main reasons that I bought the book was because it had an intriguing cover....and people say don't judge a book by its cover =0)

  2. I particularly liked the text on the counterstickers, including the one that heliocentricity is only a theory, still open to question.

  3. Thanks for this post, Cheryl. I'm always fascinated by covers, and working in a bookstore, i see a lot of people judge books BY their covers. A good cover does a lot for sales. (I have to admit that if i am drawn to a cover, i will probably by the book myself.)

  4. Wow, those first two chaps were powerful...I don't know if I could read that book or not. I have to know there's a happy ending -- it's a reading weakness of mine.

  5. Mr. Levine turned around and introduced himself to me at the Florida SCBWI conference. After my stunned response, which included something like, "I love your website," we struck up a brief conversation about books of faith being an important part of the childhood experience. He recommended The Book Of Everything to me. Please let him know I enjoyed it immensely.

    Also, I struck gold at my library last week: I discovered a copy of All the Lights in the Night!

    D. Lane

  6. A few months back I ran across a job posting for the Kansas Board of Education; they had an opening available. Don't know what came of that. I should have applied. Shake things up a little! But alas I'm on the wrong side of the river.

  7. I'm going through this right now. I hope it doesn't turn out pink!

    Gotta love that froggy.

  8. Cheryl! Wow! This is kind of information is double plus good! There is a great bit in “Firework Maker’s Daughter” where the master firework makers get together and share secrets and tips because that’s what people who really love their craft do. So thank you and thank you again.

    Arthur talked about book covers in his SCBWI LA workshop. The question was "What are some of the elements that contribute to a successful book cover? What are some common mistakes to avoid?"

    Here are my cryptic notes…

    A great book cover is a poster for the book. It needs a strong central image that shows the totality of the book.

    Middle Grade and YA = Quick burst, boil down an idea in an intriguing way.

    The job of the jacket is to get you to pick up the book.

    The jacket has to get the hand on the book.

    The flap copy is to get you to open the book further = the same thing as query. It has to get you to READ the book.

    Also Leaky Cauldron updated their galleries of international Harry Potter covers…

    I’m personally partial to the stylized French covers if I had to pick European favorite. The Swedish ones are the creepiest, but not in a good way. The Canadian ones are so-so very dull. Makes you appreciate Mary GrandPr√© in a big way!