Design & Art Direction

Book Design Heroines

Simply Sad

Surprisingly I’m a serious and cynical person. I don’t look like one. I have a dimpled round face, often bordered by pigtails and occasionally . . . I . . um . . . skip. Looking like a cherub who bounces will make people come to the semi-logical conclusion that you are  well  light-hearted.

But It’s not true, sorry. I’m jaded. All my jokes are sarcastic. And I often want to laugh aloud when terrible things happen, because I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop. More importantly this jaded seriousness comes from experience. My life was never a Rockwell painting. I was a tough cookie early on. Nope, I was never the girl who read the uplifting books, because they just didn’t show the world I knew, which has led me to some GREAT books. And you guessed it, they’re cynical and often sad, some of the best ones are really tortured.

Today I was listening to one of the saddest songs I know. I was introduced to it by a depressed friend. It was her favorite song. I was really young and I had not discovered love yet, so it made no sense to me because it's about love, obsessive and sad love. It could have been terrible

Even without understanding the feeling that inspired it, I knew immediately, that this song was undeniably beautiful and deep. Yet the most impressive part was it was also extremely simple. Here is an excerpt of the lyrics.

Oh my baby baby I love you more than I can tell
I don't think I can live without you
And I know that I never will
Oh my baby baby I want you so it scares me to death
I can't say anymore than "I love you"
Everything else is a waste of breath


The song is by Elvis Costello and it’s called simply “I Want You”. Costello is a master of sad simplicity. His voice is so spare and raw on this song. I think it should be mandatory that anyone who has been heartbroken should have to listen to this song one time in their life. 

Fortunately, there are books like that too. They are sad and unmissable books. And yeah, sad is not for everybody, so to warn off those who want to buy the happier reads, it needs to convey the seriousness of the subject matter. The design must read simply sad and deep.  

I design book covers and I’m happy if I get at least one sad book a list. Getting that assignment always puts a smile on my cherub face. I’ve got one of the saddest assignments in my career last season and it inspired this post. But I’m not gonna jinx an unprinted book by talking about it, so instead I’m going to share with you some other attractive, brilliant and simply sad covers.

The Bell Jar   Cover design by Mary Schuck

The Bell Jar
Cover design by Mary Schuck

I waited about a decade to buy this feminist classic. I was waiting for it to be repackaged and this cover didn’t disappoint me. A book about being a woman, having ambitions thwarted, mental illness, and even suicide, The Bell Jar is only for the toughest cookies. How to do justice to the heaviness of this book while referencing the classic feminine themes. Mary Schuck wisely shows us a young woman attempting to protect herself against a whole great big colorless city with just an adorable patterned umbrella. It’s a good metaphor, simple and clear. The broken color fields are an attractive touch, and also allude to the possibility of breaking with a black and white reality.

Salvage the Bones    Jacket design   by Patti Ratchford

Salvage the Bones
Jacket design by Patti Ratchford

Salvage the Bones was given to me by a publishing friend and it’s a National Book Award Winner. I haven’t read it, even years later. I’m a little afraid of how upset it will make me. Even I have limits. I knew it was an intense read, starting with the green cover. Green is weird color, publishing people are generally so freaked out by this particular shade of green. So already, it’s a risky cover. The book is about a poor black motherless and recently pregnant teen and her family in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. The cover focuses on a major metaphor of the book, dogs. At the start of the book the family dog (which one brother raised for dog-fighting) has had puppies and eventually a sick puppy must be killed. I know that’s harsh, and the storm hasn’t even yet torn their world apart. Wisely on this cover Patti Ratchford let’s a faceless dog represents many things. It represents the family, brutality, death, and birth, which all await inside this book.

The Boy In The Striped Pajamas   jacket design by someone, who sadly I was unable to track down

The Boy In The Striped Pajamas
jacket design by someone,
who sadly I was unable to track down

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a book about the friendship of two boys through a fence, the fence of a concentration camp. The boy on the outside is the lonely son of a Nazi officer who is stationed at the camp. The boys become friends and one day the boy on the outside sneaks into the camp. I’m not gonna spoil the end for you, but it’s very sad. The book has been published all over the world, mostly with this cover design. Which is smart because the design is great in its simplicity.The camp uniform stripes are a clear and simple label of difference, and the hatred of difference. It doesn’t need further explanation and it’s an elegant and respectful way to reference a tragic period, when people lost their humanity in their pursuit of sameness.


PS. Listen to "I Want You" here 
PPS. You can see more of my favorite covers on my Book Design Heroines Pinterest collection. visit it here.



Maria EliasComment