"As an author who’s also the illustrator of her books, I had thoughts but no firm ideas beyond using a piece of the developing interior art with the necessary type to express (I hoped!) the beating heart of the book. I believe it's important that the cover be a conversation between the author and the art director/designer; and I think this conversation’s vital when the author’s also the illustrator.
"Experienced author-illustrators know they'll never have complete control of their covers—nor, in most circumstances, would that be a good thing. Talented editors help writers to see and bring out the most in their stories and to deliver their best-written work; the cover collaboration between an author/illustrator and a talented art director/designer is as important for a great cover result. Not only is the cover the face of the book, the first thing any reader sees, but in these days of on-line sales and ebooks, the front cover may be the only thing a reader sees—you don’t see those blurb-and-accolade-bearing back covers on the web—which is why the front cover now has to do more than it’s ever done before.
"As an avid reader, I see so many covers today that are stock-photo samey or slapdash or pedestrian or clichéd or trendy or in other ways un-provocative or even false. I have two dozen review copies sitting on my desk that fit this description. In my author-librarian book group we sometimes have to urge each other to 'get past the cover, read the book.'
"Fortunately for me and for Wild Things I had the pleasure of working with Helen Robinson, superb designer at my then-publisher Front Street. From the beginning, Helen was always open to discussion and had lots of good ideas herself, an author-illustrator’s dream.
"While I was still revising, I asked to have an introductory design conversation with Helen before the final book took shape. I believe it’s important to speak up, say you want to be part of the process. Never assume anything (see below)! I wanted us to talk about the whole design in general, not just the cover, because we planned illustrations inside the book as well. I told Helen that I was working on black-and-white pen-and-ink and watercolor art of the cat—art for which a beloved, real-life cat of mine was the model—as well as other possible line art for the book. It was the cat art that most interested Helen, and though I was tiny bit disappointed that none of the other art was used, the cat art was closest to my heart and what Helen and I focused on in subsequent discussions.
"That said, the cat character is important in Wild Things, but he’s not the main character. Eleven-year-old Zoë is the book’s primary, powerful voice, her healing journey the main story.
"With this in mind, the inside of the book was designed with Zoë’s majority, first-person, numbered chapters interspersed with and mirrored by fewer unnumbered, third-person sections from the cat's watchful perspective. The black-and-white cat art (as well as a different cut of the main font) showed the reader when the story changed to the cat’s point of view. Every cat section featured a cat illustration, though Helen did not use all fifteen, seen here.
"To me, the first two ideas Helen proposed looked too young (though there was an aspect of one that I loved--the cat 'signing' my name at the bottom.) The book is written primarily for children ten and up, but Zoe, my main character, has had some complex past experiences—foremost, a mentally ill mother who has taken her own life—and I felt this edgier subject matter should be at least hinted at on the cover. Too, the initial covers gave the impression that the book was more about the cat, a sweet animal story. Round one:
"Helen was kind enough to go back and come up with a few more ideas that expressed the greater complexity of the whole story and Zoë’s past, and these made me happier. Her revisions also featured the cat, but this time as a single, bottom-of-the-page vignette among other graphic elements, giving him less prominence. Zoë is, after all, the main wild thing in the story.
"As you see, below, the designs got edgier and the colors and typefaces more boy-friendly, which was great because there’s a sculptor and a wild boy in the story too. Edgier, and yet, at the bottom is the initial first element I loved, the cat writing my name in a font I’m especially fond of. This adds, I think, a nice sense of: 'this story has serious parts, but it also has funny, warmer parts too.' Round two:
"I liked the red cover best. There was one final change I asked for. The 'i' in Wild Things read to me too much like an “o”. As an alternative, I found a perfect 'i' in a font called Cheap Fire, which Helen and I thought added a nice fire-y, story-appropriate touch.
"Here is the final jacket:
"My then-editor was less open to this kind of discussion than Helen was. My experience is that editors are often more word people than visual people, and as such, I think they defer to the art directors and marketing departments, sometimes more than they should. Too, even now, there’s a lingering paternalism in our business that insists a publisher always knows what’s best for an author’s book, sometimes true, but sometimes not. So I found my editor more 'Helen knows best' than Helen was herself.
"These are reasons, among others, I think authors have to be vigilant, pay attention, speak up. I had to do this when the new staff at Boyds Mills Press sent me a cover rough with errors for the upcoming paperback edition. They’d done a complete redesign using, instead of my cat art, a stock photo of a young black-and-white cat that is clearly not the older, bigger, mustachioed cat in my interior illustrations or in the written story. I also had concerns that the cover looked more like a cat book than Zoë’s story. Most worrisome, this new cover was presented to me as pretty much a done deal.
"Sadly, the second art director and I never spoke. The paper edition was postponed for a season, and then I was sent a second redesign that didn’t work at all and we all decided to stay with Helen’s original cover.
"I love Helen’s cover and am happy it’s the paper cover as well. It incorporates the interior, visually striking cat art with a touch of lightness and humor and without making him seem the main character in the story. The black graphic background suggests the dark wood, the edgier aspects of the book and the mysteries so pivotal in the plot, and the fire-red evokes both Uncle Henry’s fiery sculpting and Zoë’s passionate heart.
"I have a new young adult novel, Brother, Brother, coming out in August 2013 (Roaring Brook) and I loved its beautiful cover at first sight."
Thank you, Clay! What an incredible journey Wild Things has had! I agree that the first covers look like 'very young animal tale' and I'm glad the edgier colors and fonts were used. So interesting to hear about all the twists and turns!
What do you guys think of this cover?
Melissa Walker is the author of six Young Adult novels, the latest of which is Unbreak My Heart (pictured). Her author blog, where Cover Stories originated, is melissacwalker.com. Follow her on Twitter @melissacwalker.
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