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Cover practice: The Root Cellar

Updated: Oct 23, 2022

I haven't been looking at a recent book this time but rather a neglected classic - The Root Cellar by Janet Lunn, first published 1981.

I read the book as a Puffin paperback as a child but it's now OOP in the UK. The book, and Janet Lunn generally, are much better remembered in her native Canada where The Root Cellar remains in print.

The book could hardly be more My Cup of Tea, being a timeslip tale, a road trip quest where heroines must endure and overcome terrible hardship and danger, and a Polly Oliver story where the heroine passes for a boy.

The summary from the current Canadian edition is,

It looked like an ordinary root cellar—And if twelve-year-old Rose hadn't been so unhappy in her new home, where she'd been sent to live with unknown relatives, she probably would never have fled down the stairs to the root cellar in the first place. And if she hadn't, she never would have climbed up into another century, the world of the 1860s, and the chaos of Civil War…

Rose is one of those timeslip heroines, like Charlotte of Charlotte Sometimes, who is awkward and out of place, parcelled off to a new living situation she has no say in and doesn't know how to fit into. Like Charlotte, the fantastical disjoint from the present, from the reality everyone else shares, seems an extension of how at odds she feels with the world. A rootless heroine.

A little while after being sent to live with family who are strangers to her, in Ontario, Rose discovers that when she enters the old root cellar in the garden she sometimes exits to find herself in the mid nineteenth century. She befriends two young people, Will and Susan, but like Tom in Tom's Midnight Garden, finds that time does not flow at the same rate between her visits for her in the present and for them in the past. Where days pass for her, months and years do for them, and to them her occasional mysterious appearances seem like the visitation or a ghost or imaginary friend punctuating their ongoing lives. That is until the lives of Will and Susan reach a crisis point: Civil War breaks out in America and Will runs away to join the Union Army. Rose's present-day research reveals Will's fate as being missing in action, his last known whereabouts New York, and so, pushed by a terrible falling-out with her new family, Rose flees into the past and joins Susan on a quest from Ontario to New York City to try to find Will and bring him home.

It's a wonderful book. Exciting, thoughtful, moving and meaningful. I thought about it when I too made a trip from Ontario to New York. Rose and Susan start on on rail, the same train journey I took, but misadventure soon turns their trip into a weary walk.

One phrase in particular has really become part of my psyche: at one point on the road to New York, in sharp need of money, Rose agrees to work for a week as a blacksmith's assistant where the work is backbreaking and the employer mean - but he has promised an irresistible wage. "A dollar a day gets us to New York" becomes her mantra, and it has often been mine too for getting through particularly unpleasant or boring periods of work.

Timeslip novels are not an easy genre to design for. They're so heady and feelings-y, the fantasy mechanic at their heart so hard to portray in a single static visual. A quick survey of current covers of the big names in the field looks like this:

Only A Traveller in Time really attempts to show a moment of period transition. Moondial uses ghost imagery and does so effectively. Childrens' timeslip has extremely blurred boundaries with the ghost story. The covers for Tom's Midnight Garden and the cover on the far right for Charlotte Sometimes don't attempt to depict the specific subject of time travel (which after all in both books is a growing realisation rather than a 'hooky' turning point) but rather images that connote atmosphere and mystery. The Puffin cover for Charlotte Sometimes is less successful, I think, conveying little of either subject or feeling.

That sense of wanting to convey atmosphere, the held-breath feeling that something mysterious is happening, or about to happen, without needing to say exactly what, is also where my instinct went in trying to conceptualise a hypothetical cover for The Root Cellar. The character facing away from us, into the strange circumstances before them, the ambivalence of what exactly they are discovering and what exactly they are feeling intriguing the viewer.

I also had the instinct for a strong retro feel to the cover. I wanted to play with Cooper Black and 70s nouveau. The Root Cellar was published in 1981 but feels more 70s to me; it's a well-observed idea that decades cary on a few years past their strict divisions and probably nowhere moreso than in children's books where adult authors are writing about childhood and therefore always somewhat throwing back to their own childhood in previous decades.

The book being so concerned with time, a distinctly, consciously retro evocation felt like a good anchor for the book's identity. And there's something in how the kind of 70s typography I was thinking of evoked in turn Victorian and Edwardian aesthetics. Psychedelia throwing back to the Art Nouveu etc.

Of course a present young reader coming to this book is having to make two jumps back in time. The space between 1860 and 1981 is 120 years, and the space between 1981 and 2022 is 41 years - a full third of that gap again.

There's not a huge amount of process to show for this one. It's one of those designs that I arrived at the basic elements and layout pretty immediately. My rough sketch, using stock elements, was this:

And the final version (barring any final polishing) is this:

I was quite keen that the figure of Rose be pretty gender-neutral in appearance. As I briefly mentioned, Rose passes as a boy during the 1860s road trip to make herself and Susan seem a little less vulnerable and to account for her modern short haircut and preference for trousers.

It also felt part of the 70s/80s throwback I wanted to evoke to depict a heroine in a not-particularly-feminine mode. Girls do tend to be illustrated pretty and put-together in current cover design. I think that's an artefact of cover design/illustration itself getting so slick and modern and gorgeous. But there was perhaps more space in the awkwardness of earlier decades' cover design for characters to also be less styled and more like real, awkward, kiddishly unsophisticated people.


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