Tag Archive for Preller sequel to Bystander

A Conversation About Book Covers with Illustrator Deborah Lee, A Rising New Voice in Children’s Books

 

Back in the halcyon days of school visits, I’d often get questions about my book covers. People tend to assume that the author sits back in a stuffed leather chair, calling the shots. That’s far from the truth — I only sit on cinder blocks! My shorthand answer is that as an author, I’m responsible for the interior of the book. Every single page. But the cover? That’s the publisher’s. They’ve invested money in the book, talked to sales representatives, editors, designers, artists, bean counters, and endured actual meetings. Seriously. They go into windowless rooms and hammer it out. They want to sell the book, too.


What I mean to say is that the process is mostly out of my purview. Take for example my upcoming book, Upstander (Macmillan, 2021). One day my editor, Liz Szabla, sent me a file and said, more or less, “Here’s the cover, hope you like it.”

And you know what? I did, a lot. I found out the name of the illustrator, Deborah Lee, and wrote to thank her. Deborah was willing to answer some of my questions. Here she is now (I know, I’m excited, too).

 

First off, who are you? Could you give us some quick background? How did you get into illustrating book covers?

Hey! I’m a Korean-American freelance illustrator who works primarily in the publishing and editorial industries. And to be honest, I’ve only started working independently this year—before, I was working at LinkedIn and Lyft as a designer and illustrator for a year and a half while juggling freelance illustration. I was a designer for a while because I didn’t pick up my current profession as a career choice until my senior year of college. (Unfortunately, the university, which is strongest in engineering, has no resources in illustration, so I was pretty much on my own for that.) It was my final semester when I had some presentable work ready to show, and the stars aligned when my current literary agent found me through social media, which began my career in publishing. The rest is history!

So this is all new. How exciting. Where do you live?

I live in Oakland, CA, which is across the bay from San Francisco. But next spring we’re moving back to Pittsburgh, where my partner and I graduated from college. We miss having seasons and cheaper rent.

So let me see if I’ve got this right. One day you get offered a book cover job for something called, Upstander? They tell you how much money you’ll make and you say, “Okay, fine, I’ll do it anyway.”

Couldn’t have said it any better.

Ha, it’s pretty much the story of my career.

HOWEVER, I do love drawing book covers! They’re some of my favorite kinds of projects—the sketch ideas come by much more easily since there’s already a clear narrative in place. A lot of my quick freelance assignments tend to look for illustrations about very abstract concepts and current events.

I understand that, as fate would have it, you were already familiar with my Jigsaw Jones books.

Yes!! It’s been a long time, but my brother and I borrowed most, if not all of the books from the library when we were growing up. I’m sure we had some of the boxed sets too!

That’s pretty cool. Obviously you were an amazing kid. Back to the cover. Do you work from a designer’s concept?

The designer, Mike Burroughs, gave me some pointers in regard to symbolism (eye and speech bubble emoji) and mood (loneliness, tension) but luckily, I still had creative freedom! Mike was also looking for something more conceptual and less narrative-based, but reading the book helped anyway so I could take notes on any key scenes that could inform the cover as well. Also it helped me understand Mary’s (the protagonist) conflict enough to depict her facial expression as appropriately as I could. There’s a lot going on in her life.

Do you try to deliver a variety of approaches?

Definitely! I remember intentionally keeping one sketch without the emoji that Mike was looking for, just in case. I also varied the amount of literal vs conceptual elements in each one. But over all, telling different stories with each concept shows the design team that I’m flexible, and not super stuck on just one idea.

 

 

Finally, the publisher selects one and says, “Perfect! This is exactly it! We just want you to change a few things . . .”

That did happen! At first I made Mary look a little too young, which wasn’t that difficult to fix. I also had the speech bubble display some indistinct text, which was replaced by the blurb that’s seen in the final deliverable. Thankfully this was a very straightforward project—Mike was really easy to work with!

“The final deliverable.” It’s that kind of insider lingo that keeps a Nation of Readers coming back to James Preller Dot Com! I have to tell you, Deborah, I’ve shared our cover on Facebook and your work has received so many compliments. People seem to really to be intrigued by the cover. There’s a sense of mystery to it that, I hope, will draw readers into the story. That is: Thank you!

And thank *you*!!! I’m so glad it resonated with everyone—especially with how little the cover reveals about the story.

So what else are you up to? Have you done other covers? Do you hope to illustrate your own books? Hang in fine museums? What’s next? 

Whew, so since 2018 I’ve been working on my debut authored/illustrated graphic memoir called In Limbo with First Second/Macmillan. It’s the most daunting and laborious project I’ve ever been took on—I treat that project alone like a day job and a half.

Oh, my goodness. That looks incredible. Just a staggering amount of work. I want it now. 

All-in-all, it’s a rewarding process and I can’t wait to see it in full by Spring 2022.

Could you tell us more about it?

In Limbo covers my time during high school as a severely depressed and abused teenager with an identity crisis as one of the only Asian-American kids in my year. It’s dark—so much so that my editor at First Second/Macmillan had to remind me constantly to put in lighter scenes in the beginning stages of the draft! While I’m not complete with the final pages yet, I can already say that this book has taught me not only the graphic novel process, but also it brought a ton of insight about myself. Basically the longest therapy session ever. I’m very grateful to have been given this chance.

Sounds like a story you had to tell. I’ll be looking for it.

And while I work through that one, I’m illustrating another graphic novel (authored by Tina Cho) for Harper Collins called The Other Side of Tomorrow, which is publishing around 2023. I’m very lucky to be working on these projects—and for now I’m most looking forward to having physical copies of both books in my hands!

Yes, that’s a beautiful moment in the life of a creator. The first time holding it in your hands, the satisfaction of, “I made this.”

As for covers, I have done one other before this for a middle-grade book called Invisible Boy. That one was tricky—it talks a whole lot about child trafficking, so I had to be careful with how I depicted that. And again, one of my favorite kinds of projects. Crossing my fingers for more of these!

 

 

Well, Deborah, it’s been a pleasure to get to meet you. Such an exciting time in your career, just as you are lifting off into the stratosphere. I’m absolutely positive that we’ll be hearing a lot more from you in the future. I’m glad all those Jigsaw Jones books did you some good. I wish you the best of luck — and thanks, again, for our book cover. It will always connect us, and for that I’m very glad.

Haha, thank you so so much!! (I’ll be needing it!)

UPSTANDER Cover Reveal, PDF Now Available on NetGalley

I’m happy to announce that my new middle-grade novel, Upstander (Macmillan, May 2021), is now available on NetGalley. The book is a stand-alone companion to Bystander, exploring themes of internet bullying and substance use disorder. 

Readers can request it through this link: Stomp here!

Thanks for your interest and support.

 

Sisters Love Their Big Brothers: Where Ideas Come From

Authors who visit schools get asked it a lot: 

Where do ideas come from

We get asked it so often, in fact, that most of us come up with pat little answers, neat and tidy, that allow us to move on to another question. Any other question, please. 

It’s not that we’re jerks.

The problem with the question is that, well, yeah, there are a lot of problems. To truly answer would take all day and would likely entail far more excruciating detail than any listener would care to endure. You’d lose everybody in the room. When I think of young readers and delve into what they really want to know when they ask that question, I conclude in a few different ways: 1) They don’t super care, it’s just an easy question to ask; 2) They somehow believe there’s one magical idea — a eureka moment! — rather than a slow accumulation of thoughts, impressions, insights, moments; or 3) The inquirers suspect that maybe there’s a secret they don’t know about: they look at their own lives, they look at the amazing books they love, and they just don’t see how one thing could possibly add up to the other. How does the fabric of my ordinary life become something quite as marvelous as a published book? And if that’s the puzzle, I’m not sure I can conjure a decent answer.

Where do ideas come from, anyway

Well, I’m currently proofreading the “first pass” of the typeset version of my next book, a prequel/sequel to Bystander, titled Upstander. To be clear, I’m looking at the words as they will appear in the final, printed book. It’s pretty much my last, best chance to make corrections and changes that won’t represent a giant hassle or extra expense to the publisher. In other words, if I change “swigged” to “gulped” nobody will get mad at me. 

So I’m reading the book again. Very carefully. It is about Mary, a middle school girl who played a small but crucial role in Bystander. Everyone has a story and I kept wondering about Mary’s. So I made something up. Her older brother suffers from a substance use problem. It’s about the challenges Mary faces in her crumbling home and at school with her friends and fellow students (the beginning of her friendship with Griffin, what really went on with bullying Chantel, and of course Eric, etc). But where’d that core idea come from? For starters, there’s the opioid crisis that’s been going on all around us, destroying lives and ruining families, sometimes devastating entire communities. For the moment, we’ve been preoccupied with more immediate horrors, but that doesn’t mean other problems have gone away. Ideas are all around us, as my pat answer goes. Not only that, but I think I have something to contribute to this particular conversation. The thing that every writer needs, something to say.

But I also have a specific experience in mind. I am driving my teenage daughter and two of her female friends somewhere. I listen to them talk (for some reason, they aren’t glued to their phones in this memory; lo, there’s an actual conversation!). It turns out that each of these three young woman, all fierce athletes, have something in common. They each have an older brother close in age. And without realizing it, they take turns swapping stories about these brothers — how one is on the spectrum, how another plays guitar and sings, how another is just super fun and a great friend. They laugh about the stupid things these brothers do. During that drive, one simple observation beamed into my skull: These girls absolutely and profoundly loved their older brothers. 

They looked up to them, too — with admiration, affection, pride, even a kind of awe. Maybe that’s youth, maybe that’s just the way some girls are, maybe life will get in the way over time. No matter. Because at that moment, I came away with something certain in my heart. Brothers are important and beloved.

Years passed. In a completely unrelated manner, I began to think about, for the first time, writing a sequel to Bystander, a notion I’d rejected for almost a decade. Suddenly, the time felt right. The idea was there.

I’d focus on Mary and her brother.

At least a shard of it can be traced back to that day in the car, zipping along, listening to three girls chatter about how freaking much they loved their brothers. Then I added some elements that would make that love more difficult, more painful, almost impossible.

So that’s where that idea came from. You don’t always have to travel to exotic places to find ’em.

 

 

NOTE: I have recently very much enjoyed doing book-specific Zoom visits with a Q & A format. Could be Jigsaw Jones, All Welcome Here, Blood Mountain, The Courage Test, Scary Tales, The Fall, Bystander, whatever feels right for your classroom. Contact me at jamespreller@aol.com and we can discuss it.