Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Book By Its Cover

What’s it like to see the characters who’ve been in your head the entire time you’re writing about them, turn up in an illustration you’ve seen for the first time? Do you even recognize them?

In the case of a book that isn’t an author-illustrator picture book, many readers are surprised to discover that it’s not the author who gets to determine what the cover of their book looks like: “I mean, you wrote the book, after all, shouldn’t it be your decision?” they say.

I suppose in the eyes of the publisher, it would be marketing suicide to have an author make that choice. After all, their team has researched the tastes of the audience the book is appealing to (that’s why they bought the book in the first place), and what the current market demands in terms of style. So as an author, you sit anxiously and nervously, waiting for the mock up of your book’s front cover to arrive, hoping that you like it--at least, enough.

In the case of Little Joe, I’d seen the work of the illustrator and viewed his portfolio on line, so I knew his realistic illustrations were a good fit for my novel. Still, you do have a pre-conceived image in your head. I’d imagined the cover to have a boy on it, leading his show calf somehow; like into a show ring or a barn, reminiscent of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her novel, Farmer Boy.

The first sketch of the Little Joe cover by illustrator Mark Elliott, was entirely different. That’s the sketch below, before it became an oil painting.

I had to use my imagination in terms of color at first, but I really liked the simplicity of Mark’s sketch. And I certainly recognized Little Joe. I was also told that there would be a blue ribbon painted near his hind quarters, and that it would contain the title of the novel. Below is the final cover artwork of the novel.
I never communicated with Mark directly but through my editor, which is how those things work. It never was an impediment, as the illustrator works closely with the art department of the publishing house, and I’d sent along about 400 pictures I’d taken of Angus cows, and kids competing at the county fair, as well as shots of cows in the pasture fields across from my writing office in Pennsylvania, where the book is set. Afterward, I’d been told that Mark had been on the fence with the project because he’d committed to other books, but decided to take this one on after seeing the photos.

There are 6 full-page line drawings in the book--black and white charcoal pencil sketches--that I really like. My favorite is the first one, on page 4. It’s of Little Joe having just been born and Spider, the barn cat, with Eli--all curious to see each other for the very first time.
I’d actually imagined Eli differently (I’d taken a photo of a bushy-haired boy showing a hog in a 4-H event, and he was my Eli), but Mark chose another young boy who’d shown a Belted Galloway, as his inspiration. I remember those photos and how much that boy, who was tinier than most, was devoted to his animal, and I’m glad he chose him.

I had input on changes within the sketches, which was the most important thing for me--more important than artistic expression. I wanted the illustrations to be as authentic as possible in terms of anatomy of the Angus calf, and in depicting what it really was like to compete in an event at the fair currently. Mark incorporated those changes well, like adjusting the shape of Little Joe’s ears (I always think Angus cows have ears akin to angel’s wings), the size of a hay bale, or a show stick.

Afterward I was so pleased, I suppose I broke protocol by contacting Mark directly, but he was thrilled. It meant a lot to me to let him know how much I appreciated the artwork, as it brought flesh to the story. And whenever I turn to page 49, I have to smile—the sketch is of Tater, Eli’s dog. Tater is the spitting image of Lucy, our 11-year-old mutt from the shelter. And like Eli with Little Joe, the one animal I’d find the most difficult to part with.


  1. Sandra,great article and very informative,almost like a lecture on book illustrations! Thank-you; and I love the book!

  2. Glad you enjoyed the post and the book. I plan on interviewing Mark Elliott (who lives on a sheep farm)in a future post, so stay tuned. I'm fascinated by how broad his repertoire is--from farm animals like Little Joe, to princesses!