Reluctant readers sometimes think of historical nonfiction as “vitamins”—more obligation than entertainment. But YA nonfiction can be so much more than that! Good books make history come alive.
Yet frequently those books come packaged within covers that feel a little too historic. How can a book’s cover design be both appropriate to its topic, while also fresh and exciting? How can a designer give a book the best chance of grabbing potential readers’ attention without misleading them as to its genre? Read on to find out the answers to these questions!
These questions were at the forefront of the design process for Nearer My Freedom: The Interesting Life of Olaudah Equiano by Himself. This book finds a new way of looking at words written more than two hundred years ago. In 1789, writer and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano published his memoir, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. In 2023, authors Monica Edinger and Lesley Younge used this narrative as a primary source text, sharing his life story in “found verse,” complimented with annotations that provide additional context.
How could the cover hint at the book’s form? How could the one(!) known portrait of Equiano be used in the design in a surprising way? Often, the best way to begin is to throw a bunch of ideas at the wall and see what sticks.
The first round of cover concepts experimented with many possibilities. Perhaps enlarge and crop the photo, so that we are only seeing part of our subject. Perhaps use several fonts for the title, so that it feels pieced together. Perhaps place the image of Equiano against a brick wall, with the title in a word balloon above his head. Editorial Director Shaina Olmanson suggested a cover image that visualized the found poetry concept deployed within the manuscript.
This idea was well-received, as was the mural idea. So, how to narrow in from there? Shaina asked: What happens if you take one of the blocked text covers and put the brick wall behind it? Combining two distinct concepts doesn’t always pan out, but in this case it produced something really special—just like this book! From there, it was a matter of determining the color palette.
Playing with color is one of the most fun parts of cover design, but it can also be one of the most complicated. Every color has its own set of associated meanings, and the reactions to particular colors can be quite strong. Eventually, we settled on an appealing combination of blue, green, and orange.
We also tinkered with different fonts for the title—ultimately, a delicate serif felt like an appropriate nod to the historic text, and bright yellow gave it a playful modern update.
Designing the cover for such a unique book was a rewarding challenge, and it has been wonderful to see it receive so much deserving praise.