New year means new amazing covers to talk about! Today I’ll be talking with the very talented Jenna Stempel about This Savage Song, by V. E. Schwab published by Greenwillow Books (HarperCollins).

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How did you become a designer? Was it an area you always wanted to explore, or did it simply happen?

As a teenager, I had a brief fantasy of becoming a badass printmaker, making enigmatic posters to paste up around town in the dead of night. (The documentary Beautiful Losers came out around when I was graduating high school and I had romanticized the idea of vandalism in the name of self-expression.) Otherwise, I was pretty set as a teenager on studying illustration.

I went to Washington University in St. Louis where illustration and design were both under the umbrella Communication Design major, and it turned out I liked design and typography just as much as image-making. After school, I discovered publishing was the perfect combination of the two. I worked at a small children’s book publisher outside Chicago for a little over a year before moving out to New York to work at HarperCollins.

How was the process of developing the cover? Was there a clear goal in mind?

Overall, Greenwillow art director Paul Zakris wanted a mysterious atmosphere. It was a great opportunity to read the manuscript and run wild! The design process on this title was actually quite linear; it definitely helps when the narrative is engaging and there is such strong sense of tone. I submitted an array of concepts and once one was picked, there were only a few rounds of minor iterations.

How was the author involved? Was there some back and forth conversation with V. E. Schwab, any ideas or suggestions?

It’s a designer’s dream to work with an author who lets us do our thing with no creative limitations.

Do you have pictures of earlier designs?

I do! You can tell I really wanted to make something drip, but I also liked the idea of a knife with a violin scroll handle.

SavageSong_Comp1  SavageSong_Comp2  SavageSong_Comp3

From your experience, does the publisher have the final say regarding the design of the book, or does the designer (and in some small ways the writer) have free rein?

I definitely don’t have free rein—at the very least the publisher, author, editor, marketing and sales departments, and our big accounts all want to agree that the final cover suits the market, genre, and narrative. I don’t mean to make the cover design process as complicated as putting together furniture from IKEA, but I’m definitely not at the top of the food chain.

Was there anything particularly different or interesting about this book cover, interesting facts you’d like to share?

Working with a couple concepts involving violins brought back some repressed memories of playing in the orchestra in middle school, where I frequently competed for the second-to-last chair. I’d say my rivalry to be second-worst really prepared me for the high stakes, cut-throat industry of teen book covers, haha. In any case, I really enjoyed working with a limited color palette, as well as lettering a script that was both gritty and decorative.

Finally, what are some of the favorite book covers that you’ve seen (recently or not), from other designers and illustrators?

My coworkers aren’t just willing to chuckle politely at my anecdotes and commiserate over the rattling noise from the coffee maker nearby— they also make really inspiring work. I love Joel Tippie’s The Crown’s Game and Aurora Parlagreco’s Dumplin’. Outside our department and genre, I also really admire covers by Coralie Bickford-Smith, Jon Gray (below), Isaac Tobin, and vintage covers by Roy Kuhlman.


Victoria Schwab, amazing author and a very lucky person when it comes to covers( as seen on our previous interview) said:

I am beyond thrilled with the cover of This Savage Song. The designer had the seemingly impossible task of conveying not only the book’s thriller underpinnings and supernatural content, but also its more universal notes of identity, of hope. She did an extraordinary job.

Thank you Jenna for taking the time to do this interview, and Victoria for your comment!

As always, I accept any and every suggestion on what covers we should talk about. For now, I leave you with more of Jenna’s work – even though the next interview will also be about another amazing cover she’s worked on!


3 Responses

  1. Thanks for the insights, I just bought the “this savage song” and marveled at the lettering. Great job, Jenna!

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