Thursday, June 20, 2024

Book Cover: A Tree of My Own

Today, and in celebration of World Refugee Day, we're doing the cover reveal for a book that's very close to my heart. As far as writing in my blog is concerned, A Tree of My Own deserves more than just a cover reveal post, because my role went beyond cover design and beyond even interior design, although I did both. I was brought in on the project—which is a children's picture bookprimarily to work with the illustrator, Kayor, and refine the visual storytelling. To do that, I took some of his early sketches, changed things around, added some sketches of my own, and storyboarded the book, giving Kayor the map that he used to turn into his beautiful illustrations. I suggested changes in story structure and even some text edits. The project was highly collaborative and it was truly wonderful to work with publisher Frances Lu Pai of Qilin Press and writer Nui Wilson as well as Kayor. 

But I'll detail some of that process in a later post. This post is for the cover.

A little about the book. The story tells about the refugee experience of the Karen people (some information on the culture is here) through the point of view of a young girl, Posada (which means youngest child in her language), who, with her small family, flees her war-torn Burma village to a refugee camp in Thailand, and then later to a new home in Portland, Oregon. 

When Posada is born in Burma, the tradition in her village is that every new child is given her own tree. In her early years, Posada goes often to the woods to visit her tree and play with its seeds. After she and her family are forced to leave, and throughout her journey across countries and cultures, Posada doesn't feel truly settled, truly at home, until she finds herself a new tree in America.

When I met author Nui Wilson at last year's Portland Writers Picnic and heard her talk about the tradition of Karen trees and how Nui was weaving that tradition into a story, I was captivated. 

And Kayor's art captivates me further. He lives and works in Thailand where he makes art primarily focused on the lives of the Karen people. His work is friendly and joyful, richly colorful, adorable without being cutesy. You can check out his Instagram page here.

For the cover, Kayor gave us a few sketches to choose from with concepts for cover art.

The detail of representing the Y in My as a seed was Nui's great idea. In discussing the cover art with Nui and publisher Frances, I suggested we go with number 5. It features Posada nicely, is joyful and exuberant, and I loved the slant suggested by her body. The open space in the art felt perfect for adding the text we needed. Frances and Nui liked it too.

When I got the finished artwork I was so happy. Look, how pretty!

For the type treatment, I started with lae-li as inspiration. Lae-li is a Karen word for goodbye. There are two places in the book where Posada has to say goodbye to her home and on each of these pages, we wanted to include that word. I worked the word up in Illustrator and dropped it onto the page in InDesign. Here's a detail of one of the two pages.

So, when it came time for me to start work on the cover text, I thought I'd see what it would look like if I built the words in the same style as my lae-li.

At the same time, I looked at some fonts including a simple one called Chalkboard and a more whimsical one I love called Little Pearl. Using all three typefaces, I experimented with space in the artwork to see what would fit the best. Also, we wanted to include one other element: the Karen translation of the title, not a transliteration like with lae-li, but an actual translation in letters too, which Nui got for me:

The challenge of the cover was color. The cover art has muted colors, a lot of browns, which at first I thought was a good thing, an opportunity to use the lettering to add color and pop. And, I mean, it was—but it was also a challenge because a lot of colors ended up tending to recede against the mid-range shades of the art. Reds, bright greens, blues, purples were too dark; oranges, light greens, pinks were too quiet. Greens in particular would fit nicely with the illustration, but I couldn't find a shade that stood out enough—and I really wanted to get some color in there that was on the red-pink-orange side, to add some of that particular brightness. But really the only colors that stood out well enough against the muted browns were white and yellow.

I did some wild, random, mostly unsuccessful experimentation:

Do you notice one thing? In all my early doodling, I forgot Nui's seed letter Y.

But I did like the effect I got when I played around with adding this blurred fuchsia on top and green on the bottom of the title. It gave me that bit of warm, on-the-red-side color and that bit of green that I wanted, while letting the yellow do its job in helping the title stand out.

Frances and Nui liked this too, so I played around with different layouts, experimenting with whites and yellows, changing the fuchsia out with a red that more matched the colorway of the cover art, and particularly the colors in Posada's dress pattern. 

You might notice, too, that all of our names went on the cover. Frances had said mine should be there, and I, in turn, said hers should. With a project as collaborative as this one, it felt right.

In the end, we all agreed on the color and layout we liked best, and then Nui asked if I'd switch the font for one she liked better from a different sample—and we had our cover. With just one last update to make: I wanted Posada's seed to stand out better in its brown against brown, so I took the cover into Photoshop and did a tiny tweak to that seed so that it would pop a little more.

It's been so lovely seeing Posada come to life, and I can't wait for you to meet her too. A Tree of My Own will be out this fall through Qilin Press. Qilin Press is a nonprofit so all the proceeds from the book will go to providing educational and training opportunities for people in the Karen community, particularly those who are still living in refugee camps. More info on the book and on Qilin Press is here. More info on Kayor's art is here. I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention that Frances Lu Pai is also the publisher of Demagogue Press, whose focus is primarily on cool games, and you can check that out here. More information on World Refugee Day is here.

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