Jenna Stempel-Lobell, Collaborating with T.S. Abe & Billelis for Ibi Zoboi’s Pride

Jenna Stempel-Lobell, Collaborating with T.S. Abe & Billelis for  Ibi Zoboi’s Pride

HarperCollins cover designer Jenna Stempel-Lobell looked to both old covers and modern art to create the cover for one of her latest projects, American Street author Ibi Zoboi’s second novel Pride, a novel “especially suited” to her “typical design process.” 


Design: Jenna Stempel-Lobell, Artwork: T.S. Abe & Billelis


According to Entertainment Weekly, Zoboi’s latest book features Zuri Benitez, “a young woman with four wild sisters who’s contending with a rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood” and wants nothing to do with the teenage sons of the wealthy Darcy family who moves in across the street.

“Pride is an #ownvoices modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice and is set in present-day Bushwick, so there was a substantial amount of Jane Austen covers from which to take inspiration,” said Stempel-Lobell. “I drooled over the recent leather- and cloth- bound reissues of traditional Western literary classics before creating a half-dozen initial comps that all tried to connect those refined drop-caps and pattern-driven covers with the spirited character of our protagonist Zuri Benitez.”

Stempel-Lobell looked first to painter Kehinde Wiley, a New York-based visual artist who made headlines as the mastermind behind President Obama’s official portrait earlier this year.

“[Wiley’s] paintings echo this novel by quoting the same Western historical canon to address the current status of African-Americans,” explained Stempel-Lobell. 

Unfortunately, Wiley was busy painting President Obama’s portrait at the time, and Stempell-Lobell wasn’t working with “a Jay-Z budget.” 

“However, Jay-Z did provide a really cool album cover for his 2011 collaboration with Kanye West,” she said. “The case art for Watch the Throne, designed by Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci, has been floating around in my brain for years, and was the thread that lead me to reference the historical tin ceilings we see in Brooklyn brownstones. From there, I pulled a bunch of plaster ceiling moldings from stock photography to comp up the idea and imagined our two lovebirds memorialized in bronze.”

She commissioned artist T.S. Abe to draw two portraits based on the descriptions from the manuscript, and then had Billelis, a UK-based freelance 3D illustrator and art director who has collaborated with Nike, HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, Scholastic, Coca Cola, and Red Bull in the past, render everything in 3D. 

“I could not be more pleased with their execution,” said Stempel-Lobell, adding that the graffiti-like lettering “worked well to preserve” the book as an object. 

“I didn’t want to set type over the art in a way that flattened the three-dimensionality,” she said.

Billelis was similarly pleased with the spray-painted title. 

“I really enjoyed the urban influence on the typography,” he said, citing Pride as one of his favorite projects. “It was a unique challenge taking T.S. Abe’s illustrations and sculpting them in 3D. In all honesty, I think I say yes to every book project so far because they are simply so exciting and allow me creative freedom and a colloborative relationship with the client.”

In addition to T.S. Abe and Billelis, Stempel-Lobell was joined by her art director Alison Donalty, who provided “crucial feedback;” editor Alessandra Balzer; and Zoboi herself, who proved “such an invaluable guide in the character details.” 

The experience left Stempell-Lobell “energized by innovative packaging.” 

“As someone with somewhat of an art history background, I found it gratifying to design a jacket inspired by modern art,” she said. “I hope the cover, like the novel, is a fresh take on a classic.”

Pride will be released on Sept. 18, 2018 from Balzer + Bray. 

Hiba Tahir is a YA author, a freelance journalist, and an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Arkansas.