Holly Ovenden is a designer working in-house at Bloomsbury Publishing in London. Among her amazing works is the paperback cover for Jenny Zhang's Sour Heart. Here she details her process for creating the cover in her own words.
I was so overwhelmed and excited to receive the paperback brief for Sour Heart, as I knew it was such a bold and vibrant collection of short stories. The stories are mainly set in New York City in the 90’s, and Jenny vividly describes the gritty lives of young Asian–American girls, daughters of immigrants teetering on the edge of poverty, as they attempt to define themselves. At the same time she tackles issues of race, class and gender with a fierce, yet compassionate tone – and a dark sense of humour.
Reinventing a cover after a successful hardback design is always a challenge. Both the UK and US hardbacks exude a sense of cool cult status, and were so striking, that I knew it would be difficult to design something completely fresh of the same calibre.
The brief was for a photographic cover, something bold and feminine – preferably with a cityscape, and/or awkward young girls. The editor Angelique Tran Van Sang was quite specific about wanting a fresh look, modern, fun, cool – with an undercurrent of grunge. Nothing cutesy. This was really up my street.
Our picture researcher came up with some fantastic images from independent photographers, and I had some initial ideas playing around with the composition of the photos and juxtaposition of type. On rare briefs like this, I end enjoying it so much that I simply don’t know when to stop, and in this case must have had about 10 different designs that I was mostly happy with.
Although I felt that these photographs captured the life of the girls from the stories, there was something more that I wanted to say with this cover. I wanted to portray the rawness of the voices, and make the cover more subversive. As with most of my work, I tend to go a little off-piste, and design one or two wild cards to add to the line up that the editors aren’t expecting. It took me some time to think outside this brief. My initial thoughts were to have a dirty stainless steel kitchen sink with cheap ceramic plates and broken things surrounding the type. This option didn’t seem to work as well as I had hoped and I scrapped the idea in the early stages.
The final idea didn’t strike me until I was walking to work one day a week later and nearly stepped on some freshly-chewed gum on the pavement. My initial thoughts were about how gum was so weirdly relevant to the stories; the act of spitting it out was a bit gross, and there’s also something so 90s about gum, and of course you can get sour flavours. When I got to the studio I started looking for images of gum being stretched – I thought I could lay it across the type. Then I came across a couple of images that had different stages of opening and eating gum, in 90s style packaging. I knew exactly what I wanted to do.
‘Sour Heart’ and ‘Jenny Zhang’ are the perfect length to stack up on top of each other; I decided to add the chewing gum in its wrapper over and in-between the chunky type to break everything up. Thinking about the 90s feel, I went for a faded pink and black and white, so the packaging of the gum would stand out. After rearranging the type I liked Jenny’s name on top as it just felt more impactful.
I was pretty happy with the overall chewing gum design and also quite nervous to show it to Angelique along with my other concepts. Somehow the gum cover was liked all round, which hardly ever happens – and was sent off to Jenny for her final approval. I had everything crossed and was away on holiday, when I received an email from Angelique saying Jenny loved it! What a dream! I was so shocked.
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Mary Ryan Karnes is a freelance writer and a Master's candidate in fiction at the University of Southern Mississippi.