Saturday, July 2, 2022

Book cover: Plums for Months

I'm very excited for Forest Avenue Press' next memoir, Zaji Cox's Plums for Months. Publisher Laura Stanfill describes it this way:

As a neurodivergent child in a hundred-year-old house, Zaji Cox collects grammar books, second-hand toys, and sightings of feral cats. She dances and cartwheels through self-discovery and doubt, guided by her big sister and their devoted single mother. Through short essays that evoke the abundant imagination of childhood, Plums for Months explores the challenges of growing up mixed race and low-income on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon.

The book was submitted for consideration under the working title The Gresham House, but when Laura and I first started discussing cover design, she and Zaji were separately in talks about different possible titles. Still, whether that house was in the title or not, it's a very important element in the book, and in brainstorming thoughts for the cover, Laura threw out the idea of a house, small within the frame, surrounded by the trees of its forested backyard. Specifically cedars. I wanted to make it look like the actual Gresham house of Zaji's childhood. I asked if she could get me pictures. But Zaji couldn't find photos that showed enough of it, and sadly, the house is no longer there.

I drew some cedars in Illustrator as I waited to find out if we could get a good picture of the house, and in the meantime, Laura and Zaji finally settled on the title, Plums for Months: A Memoir of Nature and Neurodivergence.

When Laura forwarded an email from Zaji that had info on the house (we thought maybe I could Google Earth the address back to the time the house was still there, although I couldn't figure out how that's done), the email thread came with some lovely back and forth as Laura and Zaji worked through title ideas, and this commentary on what Laura liked about the title Plums for Months really caught my eye:

"The abundance in it, the single mom raising two girls in a house with fruit right outside the door, the sweetness of your relationships, how this book is not full of trauma, but of wonder. How you receive and receive from the outdoors at the Gresham House, how it never gets old or boring to you—you keep finding joy in nature. Even the hard things in your book come with wonder and surprise, not fury or anger. I also love that evocation of senses—purples and sweetness..."

And a little further down:

"PLUMS FOR MONTHS has a sense of delight, that delight you felt as a kid and put on the page, and I think that's why it's at the top of my list. The gift of a tree. Of land with trees that fruit."

I was struck by two things in Laura's remarks. First that this memoir is not full of trauma but of wonder—something we could all use right now. And second, the importance, in the book, of abundance. Of sweetness and the gifts of nature. The word abundance kept following me around as I mulled the design. And I started to see plum branches (and, oh my gosh, plum branches are the definition of abundant) cradling the title, subtitle, and author name. So, I put the house aside for a while and started building plum branches.

No thought to color at the start, just creating shapes and tossing out reds and blues and yellows to distinguish between the elements.

Often I work on more than one concept at a time for a book cover, but the plum branches sort of consumed me. 

Maybe part of my obsession with it was what was going on in my life outside of this work. I spent a weekend full of worry because a very close loved-one was in the hospital, and all I could do, when not talking back and forth with family, was build plum branches. 

I made plums and leaves while worrying about learning bad news, I made plums and leaves while finally learning better news. By the beginning of the week, as she was heading home from the hospital, I was surprised to find a fully formed cover design that I really loved.  I played around with where the blurb should go and sent samples to Laura. 

Laura was happy with what she saw. She chose which one she liked best, and we decided to go ahead and see what Zaji thought. I did a little more refining and added some stars and then Laura sent it to Zaji.

Zaji was happy, too, but had one request. "I wonder if there's a way to incorporate cat imagery...without it seeming too obvious." Ah, yes, the feral cats! 

I liked the idea and started thinking on how best to incorporate them without taking away from the design. I liked her thought of not making them too obvious. They could maybe be a surprise you come upon. Laura was brainstorming right away: "I wonder if a cat could be sitting facing the reader with its head at the bottom of the plum wreath, almost like it’s wearing the plums. Or like a jigsaw puzzle with ears jutting into the wreath. It could be this same color scheme—a black and teal cat or whatever, not a realistic one. Or a turned-head silhouette on the top left, overlapping the trees? Or there could be a hidden cat (or cats) within the plums, so only people who are really paying attention see them. I’m thinking more silhouettes like the trees, more than photographs or anything. If you think you could add a touch of cat."

Heh. A touch of cat.

I was particularly interested in her idea to hide the shape of a cat or cats within the coloration of the plums. But I started a little more literal, creating a simple silhouette cat and moving it around, seeing what happened. I kind of loved the fact that it's easy for cat ears to camouflage as leaf tips, and there was something distinctly catlike about having them hide in the greenery. I sent back a couple versions of the cover with my touch of cat, and Laura and Zaji liked them and both chose their favorite—the same favorite—and we had our cover (stand-in blurb included to show balance).

Plums for Months will be out in May of 2023. More info is on the Forest Avenue Press site here.

Here's an excerpt!


As the rain of autumn becomes the rain of winter, the mother and older daughter keep the house warm with chopped firewood and the downstairs heater that sometimes works. Summer finally arrives to bring enough blackberries, blueberries, grapes, apples, and plums for months. Hands scrape past thorns and reach above tall branches to pick the very best fruits to cook with. The younger daughter helps cut back the invasion of blackberry bushes around the sides of the house whose vines tap the windows; her small hands curl around hedge clippers and reach as close to the roots as possible. With nimble fingers she helps mend the broken downstairs window with plastic and tape. 

Some nights, the three listen to the wind howl, the house creak, or the rain and wet tree branches thrum against the house, and continue to adjust to the new nature. They huddle closer in the living room, closer to their popcorn and movie and each other, and let the outside music play in the background.

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