Cover practice: The Children of Swallow Fell

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 that a book already having a great cover is a big factor in what I pick to read. The impetus to redesign isn't there when a book already has a great cover!

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

This time I've chosen I book I recently read and really liked. This book is by a very well-established author with over 70 books to her name so far, though this is the first of hers I've read. It's Julia Green's The Children of Swallow Fell.

The age range is from the 9-12 range, and, unusually, good for readers right across that range and beyond. The story is simple and the novel fairly short, but the themes and feelings and complex and interesting enough to involve older readers too. Here's the blurb:

When war comes to the heart of the Italian city where Isabella lives with her family, everything changes. She makes the long journey with her Dad to a safer place-the old house where he grew up in the north of England. Isabella must adapt to a completely different life. She must adapt for a new future.

Once again, this books already has a great cover:

This is by Helen Crawford-White, an excellent and prolific independent book cover designer here working for Oxford University Press.

The colour/light strongly evoke the north of England setting (it's not specified but I think from the clues of the novel we're talking Cumbria) without the landscape even having to be much more that abstract shapes. The treatment feels classic-ish which is appropriate. The confidence and resonance of the novel make it feel immediately timeless.

The one thing I wonder about here is how 40s-ish it all feels. The classic-like title and look; the airbrushing technique evocative of 40s poster and book cover art. Even the blurb - reading that and looking at the cover, would you have guess that this book is not in fact a story of Word War Two but rather a contemporary/speculative one?

With all the signals lining up like that, it seems like this angle is one chosen deliberately. I can see a possible reason why. It can potentially enhance the point of the novel for the reader to go in unsuspecting that this is a contemporary/speculative tale, making the relatability more immediate because we didn't have pre-concieved notions.

So an interesting approach. But for the sake of doing something different myself, I'm going to put to put a pin in that and while I imagine also tying into that sense of timeless-classic-ness, I am going to bring in a little more sign of the contemporary setting and/or light post-apocalyptic-ness

I'm keen in this project to work with illustration outside of my own style.

I found an illustrator, Patrimonio Studio, with work on Shutterstock who takes inspiration from classic screenprinted 30s railway posters in depicting national parks and beauty spots from the US and UK.

Specifically I thought there was a lot of potential in this illustration of the North Yorkshire Dales:

The scenery is obviously apt, and way the image divides into three levels of landscape offers a good frame from placing text across. The diagonal lines also bring a drama to the image which ca be picked up with a diagonal slant to the text.

I've talked before about what putting a title on a diagonal slant can bring to it. It has the practical advantage of giving one a little more room to work with. And it also adds a dynamism and tension that is quite flexible according to what the other cues make it.

So a diagonal slant can bring in wryness, unsettling horror, scrappy aggression. Here I think a slant to the title treatment brings a kind of wistful, hopeful air and a tension too. Compare the versions below and you'll see how straight away there's an emotion present in the slanted version that isn't there in the one with horizontal text. It brings a tension and drama to the scenery that looks stair in the other.

That's a good start and demonstrates the basic elements work.

I've lightened/softened the illustration's colours so the title is able to stand out against them.

As I say, generally I am keen to have a design which like the existing cover leans more into the bucolic than the war/post-catastrophe vibes as that seems appropriate for the book. The focus in the novel is on the very specific and isolated experience of the character/s at play, not on a wider picture, so leaning too hard into the post-apocalyptic vibes is going to set up the book wrong.

But it needs something. Some details so that the glancing impression is the rural Famous Five/Arthur Ransome/Fell Farm Campers end of adventure but after a second you realise there are notes suggestive of something less innocent.

At first I wondered about smoke rising behind the hill, but that felt too close and threatening to get the mood across right. The book doesn't feature a sense of looming threat or the sense the war and disaster of the wider world will reach the fell.

So a second thought was to include telegraph towers with their cables frayed and fallen wires. Maybe cut intentionally, but certainly touched by time. One pole could be leaning to hint at long-term abandonment.

This is not adirect image from the novel, except laterally: the hamlet in which the book is set has had all its utilities cut as part of its evacuation/abandonment and the story follows characters having to operate without services like running water and electricity. The mobile networks are largely down too.

Broken old telegraph towers seemed like an image then that would sum up that sense of isolation and a lack of infrastructure and communication neatly, then, in a simple image that would neatly fit the basic composition.

The thing about adding in an element is that it's like pulling a thread - even small tweaks are never quite self contained. The telegraph poles (and children, which I also added) bring the right narrative note but they unbalance everything else visually.

As the only points of detail in the picture they pull attention to one section of the cover where it needs to be more spread. So time to start trying to make other tweaks that re-balance the composition.

I've tried giving the foreground/bottom more weight with a darker and more contrasting colour which helps, but it's not there.

One improvement is in the changed illustrations of the children. These figures covey more ambiguous tension in their poses/actions than the previous.

This is very nearly there.

I'd already had the thought of putting a sign on one of the telegraph poles, as seen in previous versions. It's a tiny detail but you don't need to be able read the words to get something the vibe from the red and white colour scheme; that this is a warning sign and this area has been denoted hazardous and/or to be abandoned.

Now I've placed a second version of the sign right in the foreground where you can read enough to get the specific note confirming this area has been abandoned. So narratively/atmospherically that works, and graphically it's a much needed touch of detail in this area. The creamy colours placed in the foreground also balance the sky out well.

The visible part of the words brings in that touch of tension and danger, but the battered shape of the sign make it clear this book is set after crisis has passed.

I've also included a fox as a detail leading from the foreground to the mid-ground of the illustration. The fox is a presence in the book and here, as there, it's an effective image for conveying a sense of nature reclaiming territory. The animal presence here both helps denote abandonment and wildness, but also softens the notes of crisis and catastrophe.

The only remaining issue to solve is that the vertical balance feels a bit off. Everything wanting to sit a bit lower than it currently does. But luckily that's one issue with a really simple solution: move the tagline back up to the top of the cover, allowing the main block of illustration/title to move downwards.

I've also had a final play with the colours, moving them more firmly towards a dramatic dusk atmosphere

There's a kind of satisfaction in arriving at something with similarities to the existing version of a design while working from first principles, a pleasing proof that there are shared and valid principles at work. In this case I've ended up with a very similar palette to Helen Crawford-White's original and now I understand all the better why that's a great palette and atmosphere. It's got all the right contradictory associations. Cold and warm at the same time. Light and dark. Beautiful and hard.

I'm pleased with this as a cover design. My one rueful frustration is that where I set out to work with imagery different my own illustrative style, I edited the illustration so much that it now pretty strongly resembles my own vector work! I do still think I've arrived at somewhere where at least in terms of palette I might not have without that strong steer from the work of Patrimonio Studio.