Behind the Book Covers with Penguin Young Readers’ Jason Henry
Jason Henry, Senior Designer, Dial Books for Young Readers, has more than fifteen years of experience designing books for young readers and is featured in our Behind the Book Covers series. Jason has won awards for his work from the Book Industry Guild of New York, as well as receiving a 2013 Sibert Honor picture book for ELECTRIC BEN: The Amazing Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin and a 2016 Newbery Honor book for ROLLER GIRL. Many of the books he has designed have become New York Times bestsellers. Last month, Jason was chosen by Publishers Weekly, American Booksellers Association, The Association of American Publishers and the Frankfurt Book Fair as a 2016 PW Star Watch Honoree, recognized as one of “publishing’s brightest lights.” Jason is also the author/illustrator of an upcoming picture book, and founder of the community project Books Beyond Borders, which you will learn more about as you read on.
What initially drew you to the world of young readers book design?
As a kid, I loved reading comic books and the sci-fi novels of HG Wells that my grandfather gave me. As I read them, I’d draw my own adventures, inspired by those awesome stories. For the quiet kid that I was growing up, those books were a way for me to take off to worlds far away and be like the brave and bold heroes I read about. In middle school, my parents, seeing that I took better to comics than the baseball team, enrolled me in cartooning and drawing classes at an art school in our small Pennsylvania town. I’m so thankful for that because it’s where I met other people who loved art and creating stories too, and that I did have a talent for drawing—it’s where I found my voice. Those early experiences set me on the course to study art in college, at Pratt Institute in New York City. There I met two amazing mentors, Megan Halsey and Bert Waggott. I took Megan’s children’s book illustration class and rediscovered the picture books that had such an impact on me growing up, as well as the great new ones that were being made today.
I very quickly fell in love with the art of creating picture books and knew that’s what I wanted to do. Bert Waggott was the Design professor who introduced me to the art of typography and graphic design. I loved working with type and learning from him what went into making beautiful books. One day, he asked if I’d be interested in applying for an internship at Dial Books for Young Readers, where his friend Nancy Leo-Kelly worked as a designer. I jumped at the chance, got the internship, and began working with art director Atha Tehon, and the Dial art department. It was an amazing experience, and after graduation I started with Penguin Young Readers full time—where I am today, doing what I love.
What has made this job so exciting for me over the years is the passion of the talented people I work with, the beautiful books that we have the opportunity to create, and the readers that we get to reach and inspire through these books—the same way the books I read as a kid inspired me.
How would you describe the conceptual processes you follow when envisioning then creating a book cover?
One of the things that I love about my work is that we get to create projects across such a wide range of formats—from Board-Books to Graphic Novels, from Picture Books to illustrated Middle-Grade and Young Adult. Even though each of these are very different, a similarity is that the process of designing the cover is a collaborative one. I work with the illustrator, editor, publisher, executive art director, and others early on in the process and begin sketching out thoughts for the cover image, designing the title-type, or playing with the composition and layout of a sketch the illustrator has sent me. Those ideas for the cover come from the story and what we can pull from it in terms of setting, character, or mood, and also how the entire design of the book can tie together as a cohesive package. After designing a variety of layouts, we get together and “kick-the-tires” to see what’s working and what’s not—and then go back and rework until we’ve hit on the final cover. I think the back-and-forth conversation that happens around the cover design is what ends up making the final version great. And when the cover’s great, it can be what brings readers to their next favorite book.
Which of your book cover designs are you most proud of and why?
It’s tough to pick just a few books to share because I do put much thought and care into the design of each one, and am fortunate to be a part of making such incredible titles. One series that I particularly love designing is Brad Meltzer and Chris Eliopoulos’ bestselling ORDINARY PEOPLE CHANGE THE WORLD. With twelve titles and counting, I’m proud of how each cover stands well on its own and looks great as a collection too—each has so much heart.
Another title that I’m proud of designing is the picture book, ROBO-SAUCE. This was a tour de force to produce. The challenge that the author gave me was to find a way to create a book that would transform into a completely new book—with its own alternate cover—as the result of something awesome that happens in the story. And, the way it needed to work had to be simple and easy enough for a child or a parent to do as they read the story. I worked on many variations to engineer the final fold-out-and-wrap-around silver foil and neon-orange jacket that creates the transformation of ROBO-SAUCE to ROBO-BOOK. The end result was something totally original and exciting to discover inside the book.
I’m also very proud of the design of the Newbery Honor-winning Roller Girl. When designing the cover, I took inspiration from the look of colorful roller-derby posters. The cover is impactful, fun, and I’m happy at how this title has reached so many readers.
What role do you think its cover plays in attracting a young reader or parent to a book?
The cover is really our first impression of a book, and it’s my goal to make it welcoming and intriguing for a young reader or parent to pick up and discover the story within. When designing a book, I put much time and care not only into the layout, but also to the physical aspects of the book. The great thing about a book is that picking it up and reading it is a tactile experience (and in the case of picture books, something that’s often going to be shared between a parent and a child). So, the trim size of the book, number of pages, the type of paper used on the interior and jacket, and any effects that we may employ on the cover (like foil, neon inks, embossing, different types of lamination, and more) are all deliberate choices that I can make to enhance the experience of reading the book, and make it memorable.
What was the inspiration behind the creation of Books Beyond Borders?
Books Beyond Borders was created through a conversation I had with a friend who has done outreach work in Africa. She told me about the children that she worked with in Nigeria who were in need of something that I took for granted—books and paper. I was moved, and chose to help. Through conversations with friends, coworkers, and family, I was able to gather an abundance of books to donate. I found the more people I talked to, the more books came my way, and also more individuals willing to help. I also saw that there was just as much need here at home as there was at my friend’s school in Africa. Since February 2016, this community project has gathered and donated over 1,000 books locally and in multiple countries—Kenya, Nepal, and South Africa. What’s next for the project is a program to teach children how to create their own books from simple materials, and share those stories with each other around the world.
The books that I read as a kid transported me to places I could only dream of being, and opened the doors to a love of art and learning, which in turn lead to my career in publishing. That’s something that I am honored to be a part of creating for others through the books we make together.