What’s better than an amazing book? An amazing book with a beautiful cover – and Jenna Stempel knows how to deliver beautiful covers.
Jenna Stempel is a designer and illustrator, the brains behind many of HarperCollins’ most gorgeous YA covers. Her work includes the cover of Maggie Lehrman’s The Cost of All Things, Jasmine Warga’s My Heart and Other Black Holes, and – more recently – Revenge and the Wild by Michelle Modesto and This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab.
Stempel stopped by long enough to let me pick her brain about her work and her process, along with what covers she would love to design if she had a chance. To learn more about Stempel, visit her website or follow her on Twitter.
When did you first get into design?
I went to undergrad at WashU in St. Louis to study illustration, and with that came typography and design classes. Here was this whole other facet of commercial art that didn’t involve an emotionally draining slog through image-making! It came much more naturally, and I was lucky to be able to find a design job that also commissions a lot of illustration. I still try to do some illustrating (what can I say, the emotionally draining slog can be incredibly rewarding), but I love designing books.
What’s your process like for each cover? Do you have to read each book before you design a cover, or do you get excerpts and general guides as to how your clients want to see the cover?
I guess we don’t have to read each book, but I do anyway! I tend to get that question a lot actually, whenever I tell people what I do for a living. Granted, reading a book that you’re going to design is different than just reading for pleasure, but it’s important to know the narrative you’re going to package.
To that end, we do get cover briefs from the editors, which outline the characters and concept of the book, as well as similar books out the marketplace. The summaries will also note if the author had any stylistic vision or preferences as simple as they just don’t want to see anyone’s face.
You’ve done some of the most gorgeous designs for some upcoming books: My Lady Jane, This Savage Song, Bright Smoke Cold Fire, to name a few. What covers have you done recently that are your favorites? What ones were most difficult to draft? Did you like alternate versions of anything you designed that didn’t ultimately get selected?
Thank you so much!! All three of those had my hand-lettering, which is such a fun trend right now. They were great to work on and I’m really happy with the final jackets. As far as alternate comps, there were some goofier versions of My Lady Jane that I liked (that book is so funny), as well as some more somber palettes from Girls in the Moon, by Janet McNally (out this November).
I’m also really excited for the Queen of Hearts trilogy by Colleen Oakes. The fantastic Ruben Ireland went to town on the costume design in his illustrations, and it’ll be hard to wait over a year to have all three books printed and lined up together.
What are some of your favorite covers that you haven’t designed? Favorite designers?
I thought I Am Princess X (designed by Phil Falco, illustration by Kali Ciesemier) and We All Looked Up (designed by Lucy Ruth Cummins and photographed by Meredith Jenks) were clever, standout covers in YA from last year. I geek out over Coralie Bickford-Smith’s cloth bound classics and all the clever work that Peter Mendelsund and Oliver Munday are doing, too. Recently I’ve been looking at a lot of 19th century books that seem very earnest and sincere… I try not to be too cynical in general, since it’s so hard to be enthusiastic about making work while feeling skeptical of the project.
What YA books have you read that you’d love to design alternate covers for?
My desk at HarperCollins is right next to Joel Tippie’s, who designed all the covers for the Divergent series. Just to be annoying, it would be funny to repackage it with him looking over my shoulder and getting all aggravated.
All shenanigans aside, I’d find it interesting to redesign the required reading from English class. Growing up, I noticed the covers on our school paperbacks of Beowulf, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein etc. tended to have pretty antiquated covers… often without enough room for me to doodle on. It would be an engaging design project to repackage a class reading list based on both the teacher’s themes and practical concerns, like providing margins wide enough for the students’ mandatory annotations.
Is there anything else you want people to know about you and your cover designs?
I’m always accepting illustration portfolios! I don’t think as a department we get nearly enough promos from freelance illustrators, and it would save me some internet time that I could spend looking up hedgehog gifs. Alternately, send me hedgehog gifs!