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How to design a great children's book cover (episode 1: "Undercover Coco")

In the publishing world you often hear that a cover can make or break a book's success. So, how do you design a great children's book cover?

In this series I'll try to analyze great picture book covers and/or show my thinking process when designing or re-designing a children's book cover, sometimes using case studies (with permission, of course, from the authors!).

If you would like to submit a cover and ask my opinion about it, just send me an email!

Book: "Undercover Coco". You can find the book's official website here.

Starting point: Jo Siggins, the author, is a professional investigator (how cool is that!? Through books I've met all sorts of wonderful people doing all sorts of wonderful jobs) and Coco is her dog but also the main character of a funny "crime book" for kids. When I met her, the book had already been fully illustrated and laid out. This often makes redesigning a cover a more delicate procedure because you need to work with what you already have, instead of creating something new.

She wasn't convinced the cover looked good and professional enough, so she posted in Clay's and Katie's Children's Book Cover Critique Group on Facebook. This is an awesome place were you can get useful feedback and advice about your cover design.

Undercover Coco original cover design
This was the original cover
Not all the images work as a cover, not even pretty ones. Illustrating a book is a completely different process from painting a canvas or drawing a portrait and requires a very specific set of skills. That's why even amazing artists who are experienced in other fields might find it difficult to work on a picture book.

In this case, the cover illustration showed some technical issues.

First of all, the composition works against the movement of opening a book. A movement that flows from left to right invites your reader to open the book.

Check out these covers from Reedsy's article about the 50 best children's book covers in 2019. They all point to the right in some ways (in the last one by Oliver Jeffers, the character is actually turned to the left to look back at the title, but the movement of the boat clearly points to the right. There's is an interesting use of space too, the words and the boat create a sort of circle around the wave, contributing to a sense of motion).

Back to Coco's cover! Another issue might be that both the title and the main character are quite small. The footprint, which is recalled in the subtitle, completely gets lost and a lot of space is taken by the background but for no reason at all.

When you design a cover, you have to consider that a reader might only get a glimpse of it in thumbnail size. Is your image clear enough for that small size?

What to do then? All the illustrations were already completed (and they were traditional paintings, so much harder to modify!).

Browsing the book's pdf I was immediately struck by another illustration that in my eyes could work better. Jo told me that it was chosen in the first place as a possible cover image, but it was later discarded because of Coco's expression. Both Jo and Kaz, the artist, thought that on the cover Coco should make eye contact with the reader (which totally makes sense: a good emotional connection with the subject can drive the reader's desire to pick up the book).

children's book cover

Pros of this picture: Coco is quite big, the footprint - which has an important role in the story - is visible enough, the direction of the road is correctly placed, there is still space enough to fit the title.

In another illustration I found a funny detail to make the footprint even more visible: a magnifier, which is also typically associated with investigators. Coco's face came from a different page, and some Photoshop magic tricks later we had a nice forward looking Coco with all the right details in place (the red bandana she sports in the book, her partners in crime - Betty the mouse and Billy the bird, and a magnifier for an extra touch of Sherlock-ness).

children's book cover

Time to work on the title itself!

The traditional flavour of the illustrations required something appropriate, but also fancy. Coco's name -with its repetition and simplicity- could offer some opportunity to play with a more complicated font without making the title too difficult to read. The red accents in the bandana, the bird and Coco's name all converge in the middle of the cover keeping the reader's eye hooked there.

And voilà, a new look for Coco's cover that does it justice!

Undercover Coco final cover
Final cover

See you at the next episode of the series :)


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