Saturday, January 30, 2021

Book Cover: A Girl Called Rumi

In sharing the process of the designwork for Ari Honarvar's novel A Girl Called Rumi, I could talk about a number of different things. Like how I had an idea to fill the cover with different birds because the story is full of different birds, some real, some mythical, and I worked and worked to puzzle the birds together with the right balance of color and shape and in the end we scrapped the birds completely because to Ari's eyes they made the book look tropical rather than Persian.

It's an interesting aspect of cover design, how a concept can evoke one thing in your head and something completely different in execution. But another interesting aspect, and one that I haven't had a lot of chance yet to negotiate—and therefore write about—is working with elements from different cultures.

Ari grew up in Iran and now lives in San Diego, and A Girl Called Rumi is an #ownvoices story that speaks to her heritage. Here's the publisher description:

A Girl Called Rumi, Ari Honarvar’s debut novel, weaves a captivating tale of survival, redemption, and the power of storytelling. Kimia, a successful spiritual advisor whose Iranian childhood continues to haunt her, collides with a mysterious giant bird in her mother’s California garage. She begins reliving her experience as a nine-year-old girl in war-torn Iran, including her friendship with a mystical storyteller who led her through the mythic Seven Valleys of Love. Grappling with her unresolved past, Kimia agrees to accompany her ailing mother back to Iran, only to arrive in the midst of the Green Uprising in the streets. Against the backdrop of the election protests, Kimia begins to unravel the secrets of the night that broke her mother and produced a dangerous enemy. As past and present collide, she must choose between running away again or completing her unfinished journey through the Valley of Death to save her brother.

When Forest Avenue Press publisher Laura Stanfill first introduced me to the book, she gave me two calligrams Ari had drawn, for use in the design.

A Persian calligram is a form of art in which Persian letters, rendered in calligraphy, are used to create and adorn the imagery.

This one is of the Simorgh, a bird creature from Persian mythology and literature.

And this one is a hoopoe bird, which I thought at first was also mythical, but it's a real type of bird, one I'd never seen before and which totally looks like it should be mythical.


Both the hoopoe and the Simorgh are found in the pages of Ari's book. I loved the idea of using one of Ari's calligrams on the cover. What an elegant style of art, and what a wonderful way to evoke the cultural setting of much of the story.

Not too many years ago, I would have jumped at the chance to create such an image myself. But in more recent years the conversation surrounding cultural appropriation and movements such as #ownvoices have made me rethink which waters I should and should not dip my own toe into. The Persian heritage is Ari's, not mine. So it felt right that the art should be hers.

I chose the Simorgh because of how ornate the detail is and because the landscape format would give me more room to arrange the other elements around it. First I had to convert the drawing to vector art so that I could get rid of the paper background and change the color of the design at will.

Then I started experimenting with space, fitting in title and author name. Strategizing placement for a blurb. Playing around with design directions. I went a little crazy adding birds, as I mentioned before...

When Laura reported back that the birds were evoking the wrong setting, she suggested removing the single bird from one of the covers, and I pulled up a sample I'd made, but not sent, of just that, sent it to her, and they liked it.

Working with Ari's calligram, I felt a little like a curator in an art gallery, A caretaker of the piece. Deciding on which wall to hang it, where to place the placard that states title and artist. I was hyperaware of my whiteness throughout the process, wondering which of my impulses were honoring Ari's heritage and story and which might be crossing the line into appropriation territory—or just plain messing with her art too much. Was it OK to add a hint of gold into the eye? I got online and looked up Persian green, Persian red. I looked at the colors of the Iranian flag. Was it OK/good to use these colors in the design or was that stepping close to stereotypes? I let Ari's thoughts guide me, and her interest in having the visuals elicit thoughts of Iran made me feel more comfortable working in that direction.

After some back and forth about color...

...we settled on what was essentially the original color scheme I'd been playing with, which was Persian red with accents of white and gold. (Well a gold that was more a yellow, but what is gold, anyway? A slippery color, somewhere between a yellow and a brown, something that faded a little too much into the red if it wasn't punched up.)

I'd thickened the font a bit, adjusted the Rumi in space a bit. And one important change to notice in the above sample, for a couple reasons: the blurb.

"A magical journey to a world of mystical delights enchantment, and revelation. It's a page turner that goes deep into the nature of reality beyond perception.” —Deepak Chopra, MD

One reason to take note of the blurb is OMG Deepak Chopra.

But it's also important because at this point we sent the cover to our distributor, Publishers Group West, for their look. The feedback we got was that the font, along with the presence of Mr. Chopra, was making them think of a nonfiction, rather than fiction, title. So then I was experimenting with type treatments.

I like to think I learn something with each cover I work on. Sometimes it's a new way to create something, a new skill, sometimes I learn something about myself. The font I chose originally I liked because it was modern and clean. Something that had some curves, which felt right against the curves of the calligram, but something that wouldn't compete with it. PGW was suggesting something more lyrical, maybe a calligraphy font. Ari suggested something like a font she uses on her website, also a calligraphy font. I thought, no, that won't work. It will compete with the calligram. And calligraphy fonts are too fancy to use in all-caps, and lowercase letters wouldn't fit as well in the space.

I tried a calligraphy font.

It worked.

It didn't compete with the calligram after all. It was a fairly plain calligraphy font and I did a lot of altering to make it simpler and to get it to fit better, but even the introduction of lowercase letters worked better than I thought. And an adjustment here and there in the calligram to move one or two of the ornate scrolls filled the space the uppercase letters left behind.

Laura liked it. Ari liked it. PGW didn't like it. They suggested something softer. Maybe a script. I thought, no, that won't work. It will compete with the calligram, it will look too florid.

I tried a script.

It worked.

As I said at the start of this post, it's an interesting aspect of cover design, how a concept can evoke one thing in your head and something completely different in execution. 

All this talk of mine is simplifying things, of course. I didn't just try one calligraphy font, one script font, I did a bunch of experimenting with all sorts of different fonts, some I altered a lot to make them fit in the space. But each experiment taught me about me—how I can sometimes resist things and how sometimes I should just go for it and give it a try.

The type treatment that won out in the end was one that combined two fonts, a calligraphy font for the uppercase and a plain serif for the lowercase. I had to alter the calligraphy font to make it thinner to match the lines of the lowercase font. And the final touch was Ari's suggestion that the dots over each letter i be replaced with what she called a "Persian dot," which is a diamond shape. I'd considered doing this with various fonts I'd been playing around with because of the prevalence of that shape in the calligram, but I'd rejected it, thinking, was it edging toward stereotyping again?

That's the other thing working on this cover taught me. Be sensitive to these issues, yes, but don't allow that sensitivity to keep you from trying something that would honor the culture and setting of the story. Let that #ownvoices author guide you as to what's OK. She's the one who knows.

A Girl Called Rumi is due out in September of this year. More information is on the Forest Avenue Press site here. More on author Ari Honarvar is on her website here. And here's a bit of an excerpt to whet your appetite for this lovely book.


“And why are you interested in the Simorgh? She is ancient and mostly forgotten. You modern children have busy lives. You have TV and the Walkman,” Baba Morshed said, adding a log to the fire.

“Pretty much all good music is illegal, and the TV only has three channels—all boring news about the war,” said Reza. He circled his fingers on the dragon’s jade-green eye.

“Ah, so it is escape you seek,” said Baba Morshed, his eyes drifting up to Myna, who was perched on the tallest branch.

“Yes, when you tell your stories, Baba Morshed, I forget all about the war,” I said, following the morshed’s gaze to the top of the branch. “Plus, school is just full of rules, and so many horrible things happen every day...” My voice trailed off as my arms folded in a self-hug, my fingers touching the fresh purple bruises.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

a moment in the day: new

It's inauguration morning and we're glued to our screens. I've been live-streaming it upstairs in my workspace, Stephen downstairs in his, me watching a lot of it through blurry eyes. Stephen maybe too. I think I started crying from the moment the doors opened on the Capitol, Harris started to emerge, a commentator began to say, "And here is Vice President—" and my brain automatically pinned that phrase to the man escorting her and then quickly remembered. No. She is to be the Vice President. She.

Now I've cried through her entrance, through the fabulous fire captain's recitation, in spoken words and American sign language, of the Pledge of Allegiance, through Harris' swearing in. Suddenly they're announcing that it's time for Biden to take the oath of office. 

I jump up from my seat. 

Like New Year's Eve: me upstairs, Stephen down, the two of us Zooming into a party from separate rooms, but at the end of the night, we met in front of his computer to do the countdown to the new year together.

I hurry down the stairs. Hunker in beside him. Me standing, him seated, I reach my arm around his shoulders, he reaches an arm around my waist.

On the screen, Biden has his hand up to swear his oath. Trying not to cry again makes my body tremble under Stephen's hand.

The swearing in goes so quickly. Now Biden begins to speak. Now he's done. Now he's President.

It feels like New Year's did: something terrible has ended, something better is coming. I kind of wish we each had a glass of champagne. For a moment I wonder if we should kiss like you do when the ball drops.

Crouching together in front of the computer like this is starting to get awkward. Stephen drops his arm. I straighten up. Chirp out a quick, "OK, bye!" He laughs as I turn to leave. Halfway through the dining room, I call back over my shoulder: "Happy New Years."

Friday, January 15, 2021

a moment in the day: post

Just off the phone with my mom, lounging on the bed with Nicholas, giving him a pet, I pick up my cell lying there. Scroll a little.

Now there's a dog nose poking into my scrolling.

"Hey," I say.

I turn the phone toward him and touch where it says, create post. A virtual keyboard rises up.

"Here," I tell him. "Want to post something?"

Nicholas looks at the screen. His nose swipes across the surface.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Book Cover: The Paper Garden

I did a little something different for the book cover design of the short story collection The Paper Garden, coming out soon from 7.13 Books. Here's the introductory description I got from the publisher when I was first contacted about the project:

The short stories in The Paper Garden explore a variety of feminist issues from the darkly humorous perspectives of both children and adult women. Although this is literary fiction, many of the stories employ gothic and speculative elements, and some are re-workings of fairy tales or myths such as Snow White and the Virgin Mary. Others are more contemporary tales of queer romance, mother-daughter relationships, and mental illness.

I loved this description and then when I found out that the paper garden in the title referred to a collage of paper tulips on a wall, I had the idea of a cover full of collaged paper tulips hiding a couple faces rendered in the style of old storybooks. Something where bright colors and cheery objects hid deeper, perhaps magical, perhaps darker, things. And I thought, I'm going to get out my old paints and brushes.

I sketched out and then painted a series of tulips and a few different faces to play with. 

It was a pretty less-than-glamorous process as far as creating art goes. With the tulips I googled pictures of the flowers and then sat in front of my computer with a piece of cardstock (if you must know, it was one of those blank greeting cards you can run through your printer) and sketched them roughly, then painted in layers using acrylic paints. For the faces, I used photographs that I manipulated in Paint Shop Pro, for instance purposefully enlarging the eyes to give them a more fanciful look, and then printed out on paper. I used a light box (OK, I stuck the printouts against the window when the sun was good and bright) to quickly trace the shapes so that I had the proportions I wanted and then continued sketching the faces from there. 

Once I had my paintings ready, I scanned and then took them into Paint Shop Pro to manipulate, refine, and recolor them.

Each tulip had to be cut out of its white background so that it could overlap other tulips and be arranged within the design. Then it was a process of puzzling all the elements together to give the right amount of space to everything, the right balance of color, the right mix of different angles and perspectives of flowers. It's harder than you think. I moved things around and around until I had a couple basic layouts I liked.

While I liked how arresting the large and similarly haunted faces in the first sample were, I preferred the second, where they were smaller, more hidden. I realized, as I puzzled, that I liked having more white space showing between flowers, more breath in the piece. It helped make it look like a scatter of flowers under which text and faces peeked rather than an outline of flowers flanking the faces.

I sent my contact at the publisher, and she in turn sent the author, different variations on layout and color scheme and we narrowed things down. They wanted the woman to look a little older. They wanted her to have brown, rather than blue, eyes. They were interested in trying a background color that was less stark, a cream or a pale peach.

Then I needed to add detail to make this look more like an actual collage of paper flowers. I love a lot of different things about design, but one of the things I love most is challenging myself to make something look like something it isn't. Yes, I had started with actual painted images. But then they became digital images. And I needed them to go back to being painted images. On paper. Something cut out and pasted together. Overlapping. Having dimension. 

Each paper flower had to have a shadow. I could have added a drop-shadow effect in Illustrator, but I wanted something that would look more real. So I created a solid shape version of each flower... 

...then turned them all black—a particular black that I thought would work best for my color scheme. I softened their edges by using a simple feathering effect and then I adjusted their opacity so that they became, well, shadows of themselves.

Then I positioned them underneath and just peeking out from under their prospective flowers. There's more to it than that, but that's the general gist. And I added details like a curled paper edge here, a small tear there. White paper-cut edges.

In the end we had to reposition/remove a few flowers to make room for a longer blurb, and then we had a finished design.

The Paper Garden by Caitlin Vance is due out in June of this year. More info on The Paper Garden and other 2021 titles from 7.13 books is here. Here's an excerpt from one of the short stories. Note that though there's art on a wall in this piece, it's different from the paper collage that led to my design concept.


I crept around the whole floor, but could not find a bathroom. I knew Scarlett said not to go upstairs, but I couldn’t help it. I tiptoed up and moved to the right.

Soft, violet light shone out of one door. I pushed it open and snuck inside.

This was not a bathroom at all, but some kind of room I had never seen before. Someone had stuck thousands of silver push pins into the walls. It seemed the person had been very careful about how they stuck each one in, as if the wall had skin and could feel pain. The pins made a picture of a tulip and a little girl’s face. There was nothing else in the room, except for a tin box of pins in the middle of the floor.

I plucked a single pin out of the wall, a piece of the girl’s mouth, and dragged it lightly over my hand.

I thought of the tulip Scarlett bought for me after planting the bucket there and waiting for me to come find it. I noticed the girl on the wall had big eyes, but that she looked only at the tulip, as if hiding from anyone who might see the picture. She was scared. Again, a cavity in my chest filled with hot liquid. This was my face, and Scarlett had stuck all these pins in the wall. It must have taken hours and hours, and she barely even knew me, and my mother would never do something like this. Why would Scarlett make this? Was Noah’s Ark a real story or a fake story? Why didn’t my mom want to get a job so she could buy more cans of soup for us? Where did my dad go, and why didn’t he want to buy me soup? And if God was so nice, why would He let any of this happen? I was too tired to stand. I sat on the floor.

I heard the door creak open and quickly stuffed the pin into my pocket. Scarlett was standing there, hands on her hips. “Saige,” she said, her voice a little less sweet than usual, “I told you not to come upstairs.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but my voice got caught in my fear. I had to try a few times to get the sound to come out. “I’m sorry,” I said, quietly. “I couldn’t find the bathroom downstairs. I really couldn’t find it.” I was about to ask if I could ask a question, but was interrupted by a heavy sigh puffing out of Scarlett’s mouth.

“You want to know why all these pins are in the wall,” she said.

“Yes,” I said. Scarlett had a way of knowing what I was thinking. 

“I stuck them in,” she said. “I’ve been working on it for the past few days. I bought thousands and thousands of pins. I studied a single tulip and a photograph I took of a little girl. I stuck the pins in one by one, slowly and deeply, thinking all the time about the girl and how happy she’d be when she saw it. I think I did a pretty good job, don’t you?” 

As she looked at me for approval, I noticed how long her eyelashes were, like legs of a wolf spider. 

“You did a good job,” I said. I didn’t want to upset her, to find out what she turned into when provoked. 

“And do you know whose face this is?” she asked, coming closer to me.

Yes, I knew whose face it was. I knew whose picture she had studied. I knew because I was always sneaking around, hiding behind doors and listening to conversations, spying. Scarlett was just like me, only she was older, so she had thicker curtains and sneakier tricks. She’d been watching all along.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

a moment in the day: shame

I'm scrolling social media a couple days after the riot by hundreds of Trump toadies at the Capitol. People are sharing news articles and their opinions. I'm starting to see people share pictures of specific insurrectionists, along with their names.

Faces. Names. Public shaming makes me queasy. There's an associate of mine I refuse to engage with because their go-to reaction to anything they don't like is to publicly shame another person. It always feels schoolyard bully to me. A way to get to be ugly while feeling self-righteous.

Scroll, scroll. Faces, names. Pointed captions.

"This is the West Virginia Delegate who thought it would be smart to film himself during the break in."

"Gee, doesn't this guy look smart in his Davy Crockett cosplay revolutionist duds?"

Tweets and shares of videos of weepy Elizabeth from Knoxville pouting after being tear gassed trying to breach the Capitol building for her revolution.

Tweets, shares, jokes, ridicule.


I don't know, things like this make me rethink my belief system. Because sometimes. In particular circumstances.

When you're dealing with people who are incapable of feeling remorse, maybe they should at least have to feel shame.