Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Book Cover: Swanya

Swanya is Jamie Yourdon's homage to Snow White, and a book he is producing himself in a limited run of only 100 copies. Jamie has an abundant sense of the whimsical and the imaginative, which I came to know when I designed the cover to his 2017 Forest Avenue Press novel Froelich's Ladder (a cover that earned me a PubWest Book Design Award). I love that he's producing an exclusive run of books, and they will even be hand-numbered for the lucky folks who snap them up.

Before he reached out to me to design the cover, he commissioned artist Lettie Jane Rennekamp to create him some original artwork for it. Look at this beauty!

It's somehow both elegant and chaotic, which I love.

Swanya is set in tsarist Russia. "It's worth mentioning," Jamie told me, "that, in adapting Snow White, Disney's dwarfs have been replaced by seven swans — hence the cover art and, to a lesser extent, the title." 

I had a pretty immediate sense of how I saw the artwork being transformed into a book cover. Here's a bit of the email I sent him on Thanksgiving Eve:

My impulse with your artwork is to use a very elegant serif font for this and to either have the text sit in empty space with the artwork in the center (so the text would be against white) or perhaps include an elegant border at the edges of the coverbut something that is quiet: thin lines, quiet color... a light-light version of one of the grays or blues from the artwork against white. 

With Jamie's blessing on these ideas, I started with a serif font I really love called Nicholas Cochin Italic. 

It’s long and lean and different from your average serif italic. Like, just look at the tail on that lowercase y. (The uppercase S up there is my own addition for something a little extra.) I tried some samples with centered text but, to me, the artwork seemed to want a diagonal. I went small on the lettering because I love the white space. For the first samples I put together, I stayed mostly with title case (capitalizing the first letters), but did include one sample in all lower caps. To be honest, I don’t know why I didn’t think to try all-caps with my first run of samples. Maybe it was because I was more obsessed with putting together my border, a task that took a bunch of experimenting.

There are loads of decorative borders out there, ready-made, but I don’t like using things that are ready-made. In my experimenting, I tried some more simple borders and one that was more elaborate. I thought simpler would be better: let the artwork sing mostly on its own. For color, I started with a pale blue, but when something felt lacking, I on impulse tried a gold color, and I was pretty happy with that direction.

And then in putting together the border, I thought about the book's first chapter, in which... well, I won't give away the story, but I'll just say that it's an important one and its title is " which apples become beets."

I thought, what if, in each of the corners of my border, there could be either an apple or a beet? So I made one of each. 

(The beet lost its leaves as soon as I realized they wouldn't fit into the design.)

I tried this for one of the borders I put together for my first set of samples. I added just a wash of red for my apples and my beets—and then I added that same wash of red to the first letters in my words. I liked the touch of color this added to the whole, and the lettering reminded me, in a tiny way, of illuminated manuscripts. Which felt fitting for Jamie's fanciful, old-world fairytale tale.

Gosh, you can hardly see the border details on this blog, can you? I definitely wanted the borders to be subtle and let Lettie Jane's lovely artwork do most of the heavy lifting. Here's a quick close-up:

Jamie liked the direction I was going in and chose the border that was his favorite (one of the non-apple-and-beet borders), saying he liked the gold over the blue. He said he preferred title on the left and author name on the right. He didn’t love the font and asked me to try some more, mentioning that he would like either all-caps or no-caps. "I wanted to jump on the apples/beets idea," he put in. "Maybe if they were bigger and announced themselves more?"

I went back to my drawing board with different fonts and different cases, throwing in a serif font or two.

I wanted to try to make the apples/beets work for Jamie, so I transposed them from one border to another, trying a couple different placements, enlarging them as much as I could without losing the balance in the border. I tried them in blue. I tried them in gold. I tried the wash of red again. After more samples back and forth and more discussion, we finally landed on Jamie's cover.

Now that we've chosen the cover, I'm into the second phase of the project: the interior. I think Jamie's interior will be fun, with opportunities for some flourishes here and there as would be fitting for this story. Swanya will be out later this year. More info on the artist is here. And here's a taste:


Once upon a time, though not so very long ago, all of Russia was ruled by one man, Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich of the House Romanov. Though he possessed great power and wealth, Tsar Aleksei had a weakness for superstition. The tsar would never shake hands through an open doorway. He would never accept an empty purse. It may seem distasteful for someone so powerful and wealthy to attribute all his failures to bad luck, but understand that Tsar Aleksei’s father, Mikhail Fyodorovich, had died after falling from a horse. While the late tsar had frequently been drunk, it was more generous to blame his death on misfortune than on the predictable outcome of riding high in the saddle.

When Tsar Aleksei reached the same age as his father, who would remain forever ageless, he became obsessed with matters of life and death. He conceived of new and more absurd superstitions, like eating only with his right hand and grooming with a water basin instead of a mirror. Tsar Aleksei was concerned with more than his own well-being; he felt responsible for all of Russia. Should he die without a male heir, custom dictated that one of his brothers, Ivan or Vasyli, would inherit the throne, and neither man was fit to lead the great nation.

Happily, Tsar Aleksei had married the previous year, and his new wife, Maria Miloslavskaya, was pregnant. Tsarina Maria didn’t believe in luck, but she did believe in field spirits, who could be either mischievous or kind. The tsarina had already entreated the field spirits to grant her a son. First, to curry their favor, she’d left a bucket of shiny, red apples at the edge of the royal estate. She’d left a second bucket when she’d confirmed she was pregnant and intended to leave a third bucket when her labor pains began. Meanwhile, Tsar Aleksei slept every night with a brass key beneath his pillow—his contribution, he assured his wife, to their shared endeavor.

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