I have no idea how to write this post….
This is the story of Me and Will and the Revised Cover.
Every book whether you are the reader or, in my case, the art director, becomes part of your life. Jesse Andrews’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl left a big impression on me. The experience of working on the original cover was a deeply personal one, though just how personal I didn’t realize until I was asked to redo the cover for a new edition.
When we heard the news that Earl had become a film that was taking Sundance by storm, I was so proud. I loved the book and felt we had given it a really great cover. But success means change and the change that was coming was coming fast . . . From on high came the idea to update the cover to broaden the audience for the book. I was resistant. We had just three weeks to get a new cover to press and I had no clue what it should look like. I knew “broaden the audience” was code for making it look more adult, but that’s all I knew. But the impossible schedule and the lack of specific direction weren’t the real reasons I was resistant. I was personally attached to the old cover (below) in ways I was just realizing.
There are days that stick out in your memory. A particular day in the summer of 2011 sticks out in mine. My father was visiting me in Brooklyn, something he rarely had the chance to do.
He and my brothers were driving around, checking out colleges, and had stopped over in Brooklyn for a quick visit. I made the most of the time and walked my family around my neighborhood. This was hard for my father since his diabetes made it difficult for him to walk for long periods of time. Most of the conversation that day centered around colleges, baseball, and pizza, until I got an email from Ben Wiseman.
Ben was the designer I had hired to work on the Me and Earl cover above. He had several comps he had worked up that I needed to respond to right away. This gave me the opportunity to take my dad through the book-cover-making process in real time. I went over the problems Ben and I were trying to solve. To show three characters. To keep it graphic. To show a setting. To keep it light though the book is about a girl dying…. I talked to my dad about what was working in Ben’s comps and what wasn't. Coming from a sales background, my father had lots of questions about who the book was for and how to get someone to pick it up if they didn't usually buy books. (I am still working on the answer to that latter question—we all are!) My dad wasn't much of a reader himself but said that if a book looked "entertaining" he would pick up. I try to keep that in mind on every project I work on to this day!
Here is an old post on the lengthy evolution of the original ME and EARL cover, which I worked on with editor Maggie Lehrman:
But it was on this particular day with my dad that all the pieces Maggie, Ben, and I had been juggling came together to form the original cover. It was also the last day I would see my father alive. Six months later he died from a heart attack.
So I wanted to save that old cover. There was thought that the characters on the cover made the book look younger.
OH, that's all? Okay, I can do that . . .
EH!? Not so much.
The memories of that day and my dad’s advice about making it “entertaining” had stayed with me. The cover stripped of characters wasn’t entertaining! But now how was I going to separate my very personal attachment to the old cover from the need to direct a new one. GUH!
So I am battling my own reluctance, a project with no clear direction, and a crazy deadline. How was I going to make this happen? There was only one thing to do . . . don't do it alone . . . it was time to call . . .
Will and I had worked together on three previous books. He’d given them a ton of great, creative approaches. I sent Will a summary of the story, reviews, Sundance reviews, and the movie trailer.
Art Director: Chad Beckerman : So let's recap, what is ME and EARL and the DYING GIRL about?
Here’s the summary, written by editor Maggie Lehrman:
"Up until senior year, Greg has maintained total social invisibility. He only has one friend, Earl, and together they spend their time—when not playing video games and avoiding Earl’s terrifying brothers— making movies, their own versions of Coppola and Herzog cult classics. Greg would be the first one to tell you his movies are f*@$ing terrible, but he and Earl don’t make them for other people. Until Rachel.
Rachel has leukemia, and Greg’s mom gets the genius idea that Greg should befriend her. Against his better judgment and despite his extreme awkwardness, he does. When Rachel decides to stop treatment, Greg and Earl must abandon invisibility and make a stand. It’s a hilarious, outrageous, and truthful look at death and high school.
Publisher Susan Van Metre: Here is what the cover needs to convey: that this is the funniest book you'll ever read about someone dying, but that it's really not about someone dying. It's about someone being forced to come alive. It's a kind of exquisitely funny and painful high school rebirth story
I’ll let Will describe his response:
Designer: Will Staehle: When Chad reached out to me about designing Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, I had just recently read about the new film (and it's impressive debut at Sundance). So I was more than happy to take the project on. That said, the cover schedule was a bit accelerated due to that very same Sundance buzz! I read through the book in one sitting, and really enjoyed the characters, the mood, and tone of it all. It's such an accessible book. It makes you think, cringe, and laugh all the way through. The book is also full of great visuals and scenes, so there was plenty of fun imagery to pull from.
This cover was certainly a balancing act. Chad had asked me to try and walk the fine-line between funny and sad. Now that's difficult enough…. Add to that a request to also balance the jacket between YA and adult and you have one very challenging assignment
Art Director Chad Beckerman: We ran through a bevy of options. I quite liked the sock puppet comps, some of the various pillow comps, and the not-quite-right-for-the-book but visually fun double face/vase optical illusion.
1: I liked the idea of the two faces ( Me, Earl ) and the flowers for the dying girl Perhaps too serious / severe, but I liked the look of it.
2: I thought the idea of the movie award-like laurel frames was a nice ode to the movie, and the movie making in the book, and the dying ones added a nice second glance sort of design wink to the cover, and reference to the story.
3-4: Pencil / eraser alludes to the school element / main characters ages and the loss.
5-6: Straight type treatment through a camcorder framework.
7: This started as a a diagram, and morphed into the three main roles.
8-9: The obligatory "movie" concept and a take on the Movie rating screen before films. Turned vertically.
10-11: The three main characters as sock puppets
12: Pillow comps. I think this is a pretty interesting cover, the large "blank space" in the middle of the jacket makes it memorable.
13: A "sad clown" cover. Referencing our main character's role as the "anonymous" student early in the book, and the personal "clown" to the dying girl.
20: A semi-random comp referencing Me, and Earl's friendship originally based around video games. ( I liked the two heart and a bomb concept. )
Publisher Susan Van Metre: Hey, I think we are closer than you think. I think what we like about the pencil option is that the type in addition to that one small "prop," the pencil, tells a story. The type looks like pencil writing--great. That tells us that someone is being creative. The pencil has an eraser. The "Dying Girl" part of the type is being erased. That tells us that the creator is uncertain of his work, as well as telling us that someone is dying and that the book is cheeky about it. In fact, I might be talking myself into that version!
Publisher Susan Van Metre: I think a type-forward cover is absolutely right I just wouldn't rule out the "type" being made from an object or being accompanied by a small prop--like the pencil or a reel of film or a pillow--to help the type tell a story. This book isn't about Greg and Earl and Rachel being different sorts of people, which just using different fonts for each would convey. It is about Greg being too wimpy about himself and life to truly connect with others via friendship or his work. He's creative and funny but disconnected. The type definitely shouldn't be all connected!
I like the Nick Hornby's, below, because part of Fever Pitch is made from a soccer scarf and is kicking a soccer ball. High Fidelity is made from headphones. The A Long Way Down type looks like buildings. They are mostly type but communicate some aspect of the story via the form of the type or a prop.
So, let's ask Will to work more on the pencil option he gave us. Could he also do something with a reel of film where it is spliced or shredded as it winds it way through the words of the titles. Or could Me/Earl/Dying girl each appear on a cell of the film but with one in color, one in black/white, one in sepia? Could he try the title as dialogue in a script but their names are in color so they stand out? Let’s see more options!
Designer Will Staehle: This is what I came up with to address Susan's comments above
Art Director Chad Beckerman: Somewhere in between all of the above comps I was working on other approaches in case Will's comps didn't work out. I normally never take this approach but after talking with Will we decide in the interest of time it was best to cover all the bases. So I started working on type driven covers.
ABOVE: Ben Wiseman designed in 2011 for the hardcover edition. I thought it was worth resurrecting.
Art Director : Chad Beckerman: But in the end there was one clear Will winner that kept making every cut. A cover that was serious yet funny. A cover that would appeal to both the core young adult audience and adults. I give you this final revised Me and Earl and the Dying Girl cover
Oh wait! Its not as funny as I was hoping. What can we do to fix that?
Ah! That's much better.
Working on this project with Will and Susan has changed the way I work and what I thought I was capable of. I learned a lot from letting go, even of work that was very special to me. I am proud of the collaborative work that we did on this new cover, and in a very short period of time. I think my Dad would have been proud of what we came up with: I believe it’s a book he would’ve picked up.