Thursday, April 26, 2018

Dreadful Young Ladies

Dreadful Young Ladies by Kelly Barnhill was published in February to a ripple of curiosity on Twitter - 'who's done this cover?' 'Does anyone know this cover artist?' 'Who DID this?'

I've never experienced this before, and certainly the cover is one of my favourite covers ever, so I'm finally happy to put my name to this gorgeous, murky, witchy collection of stories about women and girls using powers they shouldn't have to do things they shouldn't be doing...or should they? Grief and hope, jealousy, loss, power and love all surge through this ornery family of tales in this, the author's first book for grown-ups.

The characters live in unusual worlds different from, but eerily familiar to, our own. I can only urge you to read it for yourself; I rarely get the time to read an entire manuscript, usually having to work on sections selected for my by the editor, or getting half to two-thirds of the way through it in order to glean clues for the cover. But this one I read cover to cover.

Commissioned by the wonderful, patient Laura Williams of Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, this hardcover needed a legendary treatment. I had a slightly slow start, aware of the impact this book was going to have for both the well-known writer as her first adult fiction, and the publisher. But once the stories had been consumed, sketches started to flow - from this peep into the mind of the writer - or is it one of her characters? -

to this typographic treatment based on fairy-tale lettering undermined by the bugs, webs, eyeballs and bones of the supernatural element to the stories:


I looked at further type treatments, suggesting we build the macabre feel into the letters themselves, with a rather Gothic and energetic feel:

- before settling on this insect-woman with wings crocheted together from story elements. The human-moth woman's enormous braid was inspired by an earlier illustration from a poetry book for Andrea Gibson which was not included for being potentially controversial - it had a serious political tone, for a seriously political poem. I was working on the two books quite close together, and the rejected braid just fell into place as the centrepiece of this giant (tiny?) insect:

Once this was approved, came the job of inking it in. Check the time-lapse of this happening!

The artwork took a couple of days before being laid over a hand-inked background texture:

and falling stars. Then the inside of the book needed little icons for its chapters, so I created a whole set of numbers and chapter headings, with dark little wing-dings to break up text:

Satisfied with the job, Laura and I sent the whole massive, multi-layered file off to press and  put the book to the back of our minds until publication day.

And then one day in arrived.

I struggle to describe how beautiful the book is - because I didn't expect the other 50% of the cover to be so beautifully complemented by Laura's breathtaking choice of paper and print. A skin-feel stock hugs the black, gold-embossed hardback, and the cover itself shimmers with a layer of pearlescent ink underneath the CMYK:

The pages are artfully studded with my inked decorations, brave chunks of white space adding to the tension:


and check out the shimmering as you turn the cover in the light:

This is one of my favourite covers ever, and I think that's down to a few things combined. The subject matter appealed to me straight away, and was pitched to me enthusiastically by Laura who described me as having precisely the right blend of skills and vibe. Thanks Laura! Second, the artwork is only half the story of this cover - the paper and finishing bring the whole thing to life, creating a curious, slightly unsettling-feeling object which, without even looking at the words, you want to pick and turn around in your hands.

Thank to Laura for commissioning me, and to Kelly for writing the book. She's writing two more, and I can only hope that one of those might make it my way. We know Oprah liked this book, having added it to her to list this year:

And in the meantime, you can fead some reviews of the book here, and if you're in the US buy a copy here, or in the UK, from here.

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