Creating a YA Book Cover Image with 806: A Novel cover and paint brushes

Creating a YA Book Cover – 806: A Novel

Guest post by Karina Granda

The road to creating a book is long and full of decisions. Two fun decisions that go into publishing a book is (1) who should design the cover and (2) what that cover will look like.

We all know the saying. “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” But we all do! That means from a publisher’s standpoint we know our cover has to be good…but what does good mean?

To Tanglewood, a good cover is one that makes a child or teen want to pick up the book from the shelf. Did you know that research says we’re more likely to pay more for something if we touch it? To us, that means if we can get someone interested enough in the design of the cover to reach out and pick up the book, we’re that much closer to them taking the book home with them.

Enough about the why, let’s get into the how!

We’re so very lucky that the fantastic Karina Granda designed the cover of 806 and today she’s going to give you an inside look at how and why she designs covers, and the process she took to create the 806 cover we’ve come to know and love.

How did you first get into book design?

The road to book children’s book design was winding! When I headed off to college I was much more fine arts focused. I wanted to paint day and night. But I always had this side obsession with books—not simply reading them, but also the book as an object. I always found a way to squeeze in courses on illustrated manuscripts, ‘zines, art books, graphic novels, etc. I like the way words and images can interact.

I also had many internships, and I used them to explore several ways in which these skills and interests could be put to good use. Desperate for an excuse to stay in New York City for between junior and senior year, I attended an NYU Career Fair and applied to any and every internship that even remotely applied to me. I actually took on two internships that summer, one of which was with the children’s art department at Simon & Schuster. I loved it. The rest is history.

What do you like about designing YA covers?

I like how youthful, or fun, or fantastical YA can be. Because it is not “adult,” we can be so whimsical or wild. Young readers have such expansive imaginations and feelings, and they are not tied down by sophistication or reality in a way that adults are sometimes. Likewise, they are not babies or restricted to a lot of the school or parental codes of speaking and conduct. We can be a little risky, a little irreverent, a little real. It’s an age that feels limitless, and it is such a joy to have little part in that feeling.

Tell us about your process. How do you start in general and then how did you come up with first concepts of 806?

If we have a manuscript, I always start by reading! I stick a post-it whenever a cool icon is mentioned, or if there is a scene that I find particularly moving, or if I encounter a very specific description or a character or object. The visuals are often in the book! I extract them and then, depending on what I find, I look for photography or illustration that feels like the mood of the story. Every book is its own journey.

For 806, the first round was almost entirely illustrated. We started with sperm! But real sperm is kind of icky.

In illustrated form, it gave the sperm character, which was important since this book is so much about following the growth of main characters. And it also made it clear that this is a novel, and we are going to go on an engaging journey that just happens to include sperm (which is funny!). This is not a science book. Haha!

We went through a lot of variations with the cover concepts. Was it ever frustrating? Or do you ever worry about running out of ideas?

We did go through a lot of designs! But that’s normal!

Typical for my first round of covers, I go with my gut. In this case, I liked illustration – something a little more whimsical and fun. But it didn’t work. Some of the feedback I got made me feel like we needed to be more character or scene-focused, so I switched to looking for stock photos, and that didn’t work.

Luckily, 806 is not a project where I felt like I was at the end of the road idea-wise.

We were making progress with each step. There were aspects that moved people in each round. So I was keeping tabs on the aspects that resonated. At some point, I decided to start mashing some of these aspects together. I knew at least one person was quite attached to the illustrations of the first round, but it wasn’t allowing the desert road trip to shine through. So why not draw on top of the photo? Best of both worlds!

But getting stuck does happen!

I know this sounds like a cheesy, middle school, language arts project, the first thing I do is a total brainstorm. I write down every word I can think of that reminds me of the book. And I ask everyone else that has read the book for their words. Sometimes that is enough to prompt new illustrations or stock research. But

if not, I search the words on Google images. (Really!) I am not looking for actual cover artwork, but rather expansive and random interpretations of the words. And typically, something there will jog a thought that leads me to a new cover direction.

And when that fails…I find it works to take a break. Forget about it! Fiddle around the internet. Watch a movie. Walk through a store. Visual inspiration is everywhere and, sometimes, when you stop trying to look for something super specific, you allow yourself the freedom to stumble on something you may not have thought of before. The cover will still be in your subconscious leading the way, I promise.

What was the most surprising and/or rewarding part of designing the 806 cover?

To be honest, I am often trying to incorporate illustration and photography. It is a combo that feels so fresh to me. But somehow as feedback comes in, on many projects we end up going fully illustrated or just included some small doodles on a photograph. It was such a joy to have the doodles and photograph come together in a narrative cover concept. I’m thankful that Tanglewood saw the vision too!

What advice would you give to people who would like to work as a children’s book graphic designer?

Unlike some other art/design work, working in books, especially teen books, means you will nearly always be limited to a consistent size/dimension, and you will always need to include a title and an author name. You usually just decide that you want a bigger or smaller canvas, something more square-shaped, or round, or that you just don’t like the number of words you need to include. Book design is a practice of being creative and original within some pretty stringent constraints. (And that’s without even getting into the tiny book budgets 😉 ). It takes practice!

If you have not started on a book-specific portfolio, I recommend picking a handful of assorted books and reimagining the covers. Do it a few different ways. Choose the work of an illustrator that might make sense, or put some striking type on a single photo, or try your hand at a photomontage. And do this for a few books. Give 3 different covers to 10 different books!

One of the most important things to remember is that a book cover is a team effort; it is not a vanity project. You don’t always get to work on your favorite books, and you don’t always get to use your favorite artist or photograph…though it’s fun when you can! Really challenge yourself to think about how a variety of books can be conceptualized visually in a way that would be most appealing to the book’s intended reader. This will add huge depth and breadth to your portfolio.