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Cover practice: How I Live Now

I've started a little project of practicing my cover design thinking, by challenging myself to come up with alternate designs for recent books.

I love reading contemporary children's and YA but a lot of the personal work I've done is for classics (e.g. A Little Princess) or modern classics (like Northern Lights).

One reason for that is a lot of the time, I'm only reading a book in the first place because its cover attracted me. The impetus to redesign isn't there when a book already has a great cover!

But it can be a really interesting challenge - seeing one successful design solution and yet being able to work out another is a great exercise. There's always more than one approach to a successful book cover; perhaps as many right answers as there are good cover designers...

'Contemporary' is a slight stretch this time. This book was published in 2004 but it passed me by until last year and it does feel like a book of a kind/era I haven't had a go at before.

It is How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff, and here is the blurb:

Fifteen-year-old Daisy is sent from Manhattan to England to visit her aunt and the cousins she’s never met: three boys near her age, and their little sister. Her aunt goes away on business soon after Daisy arrives. The next day bombs go off as London is attacked and occupied by an unnamed enemy.

As power fails, and systems fail, the farm becomes more isolated. Despite the war, it’s a kind of Eden, with no adults in charge and no rules, a place where Daisy’s uncanny bond with her cousins grows into something rare and extraordinary.

But the war is everywhere, and Daisy and her cousins must lead each other into a world that is unknown in the scariest, most elemental way.

Just to add a little further context, this novel follows Daisy's experience as the country undergoes occupation by a hostile enemy and consequent hardships like food shortages and epidemics. The cousins are taken from the farm and separated and we follow Daisy's quest to get back there. It's a kind of apocalyptic/modern catastrophe tale told from a very narrow perspective as Daisy never really knows or in a position to care much about the details of the wider situation. And in amongst the hard-edged survival action is a thread of strange fairytale, a touch of magic realism.

Apocalypse and British catastrophe fiction have been my thing for a long time, but I had no idea that this was that kind of book, because you'd never guess it from the existing covers.

That's not to say it had or has a bad cover, but there are some interesting decisions at play.

See, I always thought the book was purely a personal/angsty/coming-of-age-that-summer drama kind of deal, because this is how it looks:

The first on the left is the original hardcover from 2004; the middle is the original paperback from later the same year, and the one on the right is the paperback that replaced that a year later and has stayed in place ever since (except for the movie tie-in covers, more on which in a moment).

The original hardback's use of red and the tangled lines behind the title contrasts with the nature imagery to indicate that there's more going on than real or metaphorical butterflies and flowers. But the subsequent covers have only leaned more into that floral, feminine energy with little to hint that there's anything of the extremely hard-hitting survival-action or horror or speculative fiction of the book. You'd have to look really closely at current paperback to realise that there are the silhouettes of soldiers within some petals, and even then the silhouettes resemble WWI soldiers too much to give the specific cue of a modern war.

There are such specific and consistent choices across these covers, this 'mislead' is clearly more than accidental. This decision to signal the feminine, character-driven introspection, and play down to the point almost of omission the action, horror and SF-ness is a considered choice.

As for why: the publisher might feel that the book is more effective if its readers don't have expectations of war/catastrophe/apocalypse content and aren't prepared for the turn into that territory the book takes. I can respect that idea. How I Live Now works as a novel by grounding us very firmly in the pre-war life and experience of the character before the extreme situation/s of the novel's second half kick off.

Another point steering this cover is one that it's easy to forget from this distance of time, and that is that in 2004 the book's dytopian, apocalyptic, speculative, genre-y, action-y aspects weren't really selling points.

The Hunger Games wasn't published until 2008. Even Twilight wasn't published until 2005. The latter might not seem very relevant but it's one of the books that helped shift YA to a place where 'genre' fiction became the mainstream, and were generating the megahits. In 2004 we were living in the world that Harry Potter made in terms of younger children's fiction but partly in conscious contrast to the whimsy and geekery of that age-range, teen hits tended to be realistic, romances and/or issue-led.

So in contrast to what would have been the case just a couple of years later, How I Live Now being kind of science fiction, and very survival-adventure with edges of horror, was not a selling point.

By the time the movie adaptation came out it was 2013 and that had changed. By then, dystopia and hard-edged-adventure-heroines were huge, with the first The Hunger Games film having been released in 2012.

The movie's graphics leaned hard into apocalypse, drama and edginess:

That's also just because of the fundamental differences in the ways we interact with movies compared to books.

It's notable that even in the years since the dystopia/Strong Female Character boom kicked off Penguin still haven't moved away from their existing graphic direction of the book, except for the movie tie-in itself (which, picture above to the right, you might notice, is still a softer or more ambiguous approach than the film posters themselves. There's the bold title treatment and red colour-scheme, but the image of the protagonist as played by Saoirse Ronan is not her in adventurer-survivalist mode but the moody teenager from the start of the story, making the subject of the book far more opaque).

Penguin have stuck with the daisy-petals cover we've seen.

It surprises me that such an acclaimed book hasn't had a redesign since 2005 so I wanted to have a go.

I thought the tradition of picturing nature rather than centring anything literally warlike or overtly grim was a good one to continue for the most part. I like how uneasy plants can look, something explored many a time throughout the history of art; beautiful and full of life, yes, but also easily containing rot, creepy-crawlies, chocking vines, flesh-tearing thorns.

But I wanted to make more of an overt concession to drama and horror than previous covers have. I began to come up with the idea of plants growing from a skull. A whole skull on a cover would be way too much, too laughably gothic an melodramatic. But if it was hard-cropped at the bottom of the cover so at a glance you might not spot or recognise the shapes until after you'd taken in the flowers...

As I mentioned before I'm interested in these exercises to work with imagery my own style, or ones too close to it.

I found some illustrations via stock I liked the vibe of. They are styled to look embroidered which brings in a nice sense of texture and helps with that softness needed to contrast effectively with the more disturbing notes.

I wanted the plant illustrations to be encroaching into the title space rather than framing it neatly. That sense of plant-life choking and taking over.

The daisies were an obvious note since the main character calls herself Daisy, and the berries also seemed important. They hint at the idea of living off the land, and berries as a visual always have that note of unsettling over-ripeness, over-sweetness.

The fonts were tricky but I think I like these choices. Something cursive or handwritten might have tied into the first-person nature of the title and book but would be too similar to the floral elements in visual character and get lost.

All the editions of this book so far - apart from the movie ti-in, anyway - have gone for a kind of 'humbleness' or casualness in the title treatment which reflects the personal and narrow focus of the story.

So a classic-looking capitalised serif, but with a slightly hand-drawn touch to the lines, works for me. It seems to match the title's tone as a mix of the firm assertion and down-to-earth personal-ness.

Between the slightly hand-carved looking lettering, the skull and the plants, there's a kind of overall gravestone aesthetic which I like a look for how it directly contrasts with the title in a way that speaks to the themes of the book - life found amongst death and horror.

I also like the above colour palette but equally like it in this variant:

It's less gothic than the dark green and thus pulls away from the potential gothic/supernatural horror that might erroneously suggest.


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