Saturday, June 14, 2014

book cover design show-off: can you see me now

Recently, I had the good fortune of being asked to design a book cover for Piñata Books, an imprint of Arte Público Press, which is the oldest publisher of contemporary and recovered literature by Hispanic American authors, and part of the University of Houston. Can You See Me Now tells the story of Mandy, a thirteen-year-old girl who's just lost her father to a drunk driver and is losing her mother to grief and neglect. It's a beautiful middle reader novel. And what struck me about it, personally, is how much the narrator feels like me at that age. The way Mandy talks about the bullies who torment her at school, for example - you could be reading my thirteen-year-old diary. Except, of course, that the book is written much better.

This was my first time designing for a middle reader, and I loved being able to strategize my layout in a
visual language that appeals to kids that age. I also enjoyed working with the text in a new way, using the letters Mandy writes to her father as a visual backdrop and having her build the title in her own handwriting by circling individual words within those letters. Oddly, that means that, at least as far as the cover the book is concerned, Mandy's handwriting is mine. What a personal thing, giving someone your handwriting.

My work on this cover felt even more personal than that. Not only did I get to give Mandy her handwriting, but her face. Her physicality. Well, the actual physicality already existed - the girl in the picture is the niece of author Estela Bernal. In all the hunting around we did for the perfect model for Mandy, I kept pushing for Estela's niece. What a great face - and what could be better, when you get your first novel published, than to have it graced with the face of a loved one?

Once I had my photographs in hand, though, I started manipulating. I flipped the picture to get the side I wanted in the frame. I played with color and tonality. I morphed two outfits together to get what she's wearing here, recreated and sculpted certain passages in her hair. I gave her a yin yang necklace, piecemealing it together from other pictures. The girl on the cover is Bernal's niece, but she's not. She's someone new. Someone Bernal conjured and brought to vivid life through description and voice, and someone (I will say with selfish pride) I gave an image to.

The concept for this cover pretty much popped into my head fully formed after some mulling over the story and its themes. I made this silly, little mock-up in Illustrator - and you'll see I did it so quickly that I didn't even get the title right.

My second step was to make up a photographic sketch of my idea to present to the author and the publisher. I worked with stock photos, and the sketch had a different girl - one who was a little too old, a little too made up, definitely not Hispanic. Not Mandy. But it was a good stand-in picture. Once in an email, after I'd gotten the design finalized, the author said something that really touched me, while talking about that original stand-in picture.

"I love it," Estela said, "but I love the one you created even more, because, to me, you created Mandy."

Can You See Me Now? is available through all the usual suspects, but my favorite is here. Estela Bernal will be reading at Powell's Books at Cedar Hills Crossing on June 30th.


  1. It's a fantastic cover, and I appreciate getting to hear about the process from the designer. Really, really nice work!