When looking for books, we like covers that have attractive/intriguing images and type, suggest genres we like, resemble books we’ve already enjoyed (but don’t resemble them too much as to feel derivative), and look new/current. Also extremely important is, for young readers, “Is this book about someone like me?” One little cover must carry a lot of weight.
With so many wonderful books published about kids of all types, it’s very possible for diverse kids to discover characters that resemble them. For this connection to happen, the cover design becomes incredibly important. But a cover doesn’t only need to appeal to kids (whose tastes and visual language are as diverse and evolving as they are), it has to meet the approval of art directors, editors, authors, agents, publishers, sales and marketing departments, book buyers and sellers, librarians, reviewers, parents, etc.—all of whom are adults, with their own ideas about what works. An interesting challenge, yes?
Children’s publishing is an ongoing experiment. There are no formulas, no set rules, and no guidebooks to successful covers. (If there were, all our books would be bestsellers I suppose.) But this challenge makes it fun. As an art director portraying diversity through design, I mainly rely on my own expertise, but also consider the informed opinions of sales and marketing colleagues. In addition to being an art form, publishing is a business, after all. Designing a book dealing with diversity can be a complex art/commerce balancing act.
In Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy, by Bil Wright, Carlos faces discrimination for being gay, overweight, and Hispanic. However, he’s also out and proud. I knew an important consideration was to make sure the book, while about a specific character, appeal to a wide range of readers. So, how to create a cover that says “hey, this book is about someone like you” while also saying “hey, this book is about a guy who’s not like you but has similar problems”? The title is intriguing and says a lot already, so, for the image, I wanted to show a proud, sassy kid without literally showing him. By using a silhouette, readers can impose their own image of who they think that character is. In essence, encouraging a reader to know Carlos first before potentially judging him by his appearance. Just what most kids yearn for every day.
For the powerful novel A Certain October, by Angela Johnson, I wanted to show the main character but, more than that, I wanted to portray a feeling that all kids relate to: hope. Scotty is an African-American girl, but the book is much more about surviving tragedy—something shared by everyone in varying degrees. By focusing on a universal emotion first, then a specific character second, my hope is that this cover satisfies the dual need of appealing to African-American girls specifically while appealing to all other readers as well.
Gay. Lesbian. Bi. Questioning. Hispanic. Asian. White. Boyfriends with Girlfriends, by Alex Sanchez, has it all. Creating the cover for this wonderful novel was quite the challenge. How to show a diverse group of friends discovering their sexualities in a way that would (hopefully) satisfy all the gate-keepers and potential readers? Look sexy but not too sexy? Be commercial and literary? Appear polished but also make an emotional connection to kids who need a book like this?
To achieve these goals (or as many as possible in one image), I aimed to create a cover that looks “hot”, like a movie poster, but shows the characters interacting in ways that suggest the story’s complexities. Casting models who resemble the characters was key, of course, as was posing them to be true to their relationships (it was quite a photo shoot)!
Judging by appearance also includes clothes. I dressed the models in character appropriate costumes, but decided in the end to make them gray. This way, you first notice the overall similarities of the characters—the diverse yet alike warm skin tones and cool clothing tones—then, as you look closer, you see the differences.
You can’t please everyone. But if you can create a cover that first appeals to the adult gate-keepers, then connects with enough kids (whether looking in a mirror or seeing through a window), so that a book not only sells many copies but also makes a difference in many lives, then I consider that a success.