Don’t judge a book by its cover.
That’s what people say, right? But we all do it. You’re in the bookstore, or the library, and you’ve got dozens—hundreds—of choices. Which book do you pick up first?
The one with the most intriguing cover, of course.
Then you read the back. If you like what you read there, you maybe read the flap copy. If that pulls you in, you read the first page. Maybe the first chapter. And somewhere along the way it’s the story, the writing, that makes you buy the book or check it out.
But it’s that cover that makes you pick it up in the first place.
How important is a good cover to an author? With rare exceptions, I would say it’s almost essential to the success of a novel.
So when my Starscape editor, Susan Chang, called me one day to ask for input on the cover for The League of Seven, the first book in my new middle grade trilogy about superpowered kids in an alternate 1870s America fighting giant monsters with rayguns and airships and clockwork robots, I was both excited and scared.
I was excited because none of my previous publishers had ever asked me what I wanted my covers to look like. Always before, my covers would appear fully illustrated and polished in my inbox with a note from my editor to the effect of, “Here it is!” Never “What do you think?” or “Let me know if you have any feedback.” The covers were presented as finished products for me to love or hate without recourse, which, frankly, is pretty standard in publishing.
So I was excited to be asked, but scared because I’m not an artist. Like great art, I like to think I know a great cover when I see one. But how is a great cover made? How is a great cover composed, designed, illustrated, lettered? These were all mysteries to me, and it felt presumptuous to tell the trained, skilled art director and artist how I, a fiction writer, thought they should do their jobs. What to do?
Rather than dictate something specific, which was a job far better left to the professionals, I decided to fall back on “I know great art when I see it,” and scoured the Internet for illustrations that had the same look, flair, and emotion I hoped my cover would have. I started with steampunk images I loved—faux-Victorian men and women tinkering with steambots, kids in leather vests and brass goggles, and a host of raygun and airship designs. These, I hoped, would demonstrate the look and tone I wanted.
Next I looked for images by some of my favorite illustrators. I pinned Hellboy and B.P.R.D. images from Mike Mignola and Guy Davis. The Mignola-designed DC Animated Mr. Freeze. Catwoman images by Darwyn Cooke. (That black leather and goggles look is very steampunk, after all.) Spot illustrations and portraits by Abigail Halpin.
But by far the most pinned artist on my Pinterest board was Brett Helquist. For the uninitiated, Brett Helquist is the illustrator of tons of terrific middle grade books, including Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, Blue Balliett’s Chasing Vermeer, James Howe’s Tales from Bunnicula series, and Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series. I love the way he draws characters, with heavy lines, angular, exaggerated features, and the sense that there is actually something going on inside those illustrated heads. “I know there’s no way we could get Brett Helquist,” I wrote in the note to one of his illustrations I’d pinned to my board, “but if we could get someone who draws like him, that would be awesome.”
Three months later, I get an e-mail from Susan that says, “So, we got Brett Helquist to do the cover.”
Cut to me falling out of my chair.
I’m so thrilled to have Brett Helquist illustrating the League of Seven series. At this point, I knew it was time for me to just get out of the way. “Um, yeah, I’d love to see the three main characters on the cover,” I said. “And maybe Mr. Rivets, their clockwork manservant. And an airship? And a raygun? Just whatever Brett wants to do will be awesome!”
And it is. It’s the most amazingly awesome thing ever. There’s Archie Dent, with his white hair and brass goggles. And Hachi Emartha, the Seminole girl, with her flying clockwork circus, and Fergus MacFerguson, whose blood was replaced with the blood of an electric squid. And yes, Brett even got a raygun and an airship in there too, and a few gears for good measure.
When I wrote The League of Seven, I started with a list of all the things ten-year-old me would have thought were awesome and threw in as many of them as I could: rayguns, airships, submarines, giant monsters, secret societies, superpowers, brains in jars. And I can tell you right now, ten-year-old me would have thought this cover was the awesomest thing of all.
So please, I beg you: do judge my book by its cover. If you do, it’ll be a blockbuster.
Here’s a Q&A with Editor Susan Chang, Art Director Seth Lerner, and artist Brett Helquist, along with early mock-ups Brett did of the cover. The book was originally subtitled “Mangleborn,” but the subtitle was eventually dropped on the final cover.
Starscape: Brett, you were our number one choice to illustrate The League of Seven. How do you choose which illustration projects to take on?
Brett: It’s not very complicated. I simply choose things that I enjoy. Sometimes I’m drawn to a character, sometimes it’s the story. I work almost entirely from my imagination, so I need the characters and their world to be very vivid and real in my mind. That’s about it.
Starscape: How did you approach the cover concept for this book?
Brett: I loved the characters in this book, so I wanted to find a composition that showcased them and show a little of the world they live in.
Starscape: Did you use cover models for the three protagonists? If not, who or what were your inspirations for how these characters would be depicted?
Brett: I rarely use models. I read the manuscript carefully and completely and then I start drawing. I draw faces until something feels right. It feels a little like a recognition.
The League of Seven by Alan Gratz, illustrated by Brett Helquist, will be available from Tor’s Starscape imprint in August 2014!