I don't always have a chance to read the books for which I illustrate covers. Usually it's a matter of time; the client wants me to get started right away and just gives me a brief synopsis of the book and whatever information I need to know. Sometimes they send me the manuscript to read on my own time, and sometimes they don't. Sometimes the book is still being written, and the client sends me just the first chapter to give me a feel for the story. This was a case where the client sent me the manuscript and I had the time to read it.
Nowhere Boy by Katherine Marsh is the story of an American boy living in Belgium who finds another boy, a Syrian refugee, living in his basement. The two boys, Max and Ahmed, bond over their shared feelings of being unwelcome outsiders, and together they develop a clever plan to get Ahmed into school.
I loved, loved, loved this book. It's equal parts fun and exciting heist, and a deeply touching story of friendship, family and loss. One particular chapter had me weeping out loud, which is not something I expected from a middle-grade book. I should know better than to underestimate middle-grade by now!
Anyway enough gushing. Let's talk about the process.
Nowhere Boy was originally published in 2018, but MacMillan wanted a fresh cover for this year's paperback re-release. The art director, Aurora Parlagreco, told me that she wanted something that expressed "hopeful friendship," and the idea of coming from two different worlds. She suggested a scene from the book where the two boys are riding a bike, with the skylines of Belgium and Aleppo in the background, but she also asked to see a few of my own ideas. Here are the sketches I sent.
I like them all, but I liked the bike one the best, and the AD agreed.
Next, it was time for color. In the book, this scene takes place at sunset, so I really leaned into those colors. Since the scene is already a little on the quiet side (no dragons, explosions or sparkly magic), I thought the colors needed to be really vibrant in order to keep things interesting.
The team asked for a few tweaks, mostly for me to darken Ahmed's skin tone, to darken the clouds behind him, and to make sure that the skylines in the background were clearly different cities. Then I was free to go to final.
BIKES ARE A LOT OF WORK TO DRAW.
PLEASE TAKE A MOMENT TO APPRECIATE THIS DRAWING OF A BIKE, AND LEAVE COMMENTS TELLING ME WHAT A GOOD JOB I DID THANK YOU
I especially like Ahmed looking back over his shoulder at Syria, the dark clouds seeming to reach out towards him, and the symbolism of the boys riding together over a bridge.
As the young kids say, I stan visual symbolism. Did I use that right? Whatever, leave me alone
So here it is, I'm super proud of this cover and I love the type design Aurora did. Thank you for the gig, it was an honor to work on such a wonderful book!
Nowhere Boy by Katherine Marsh is available now, but only the new paperback version uses this cover. If you order the hardback version, the cover is different.