In early February, the supposed cover of Go Set A Watchman, a newly-rediscovered Harper Lee novel that will be published in July, began circulating online. It was, frankly, rather underwhelming – the all-type cover featured Lee’s name in gold and the book’s title in black, scrawled on a light beige background. This cover, it was quickly noted, was simply a placeholder – something to replace the “No Image Available” icon on the book’s Amazon.com page and elsewhere.
Go Set A Watchman’s North American cover – yes, the real cover – was revealed on Wednesday morning, and for fans of Harper Lee’s 1960 classic it was like sitting down to a favourite meal, or unexpectedly running into a childhood friend on the street. If nothing else the cover is a lesson in nostalgia-as-branding, and a smart way to deflate, or at least deflect, the controversy swirling around the novel’s release. I mean, how can you be mad looking at that cover? The train in the distance, coming down the tracks towards the reader; the silhouette of a tree, its golden leaves falling to the ground; the striking aquamarine sky. The cover, designed in-house by Jarrod Taylor, even uses the exact same font that adorned the 1960 first edition.
“There are so many wonderful parts of Go Set A Watchman that it was hard to pick just one iconic image to represent the book,” said Michael Morrison, president and publisher of HarperCollins, in a statement. “This design is perfect – it draws on the style of the decade the book was written, but with a modern twist. Go Set A Watchman begins with Scout’s train ride home, but more profoundly, it is about the journey Harper Lee’s beloved characters have taken in the subsequent 20 years of their lives.”
The Globe asked a group of Canadian book designers what they thought of the cover of what is sure to be 2015’s most-anticipated novel.
Ingrid Paulson, Ingrid Paulson Design:
The publisher is definitely trying to tie this back to To Kill A Mockingbird by using a late 50s/early 60s illustration style, a version of the iconic hanging tree, as well as “hand-lettered” type – all visual markers associated with Mockingbird’s original cover. My minor quibble is that they used a predesigned digital typeface rather than pushing for a more authentic lettering done by hand, as was the case with Mockingbird’s first cover. Really, this will sell very well, so they could have spent a few extra dollars to get it right.
It certainly won’t entice new readers who haven’t read Mockingbird, but I don’t think that will be much of a problem. Most readers know of Lee’s first book, mostly through school curriculum.The design won’t win awards (it does look very dated, there are some minor visual balance issues, and there is a whiff of old-school young adult about it), but it does what is intended: signal that this is the sequel to Mockingbird.
Peter Cocking, Creative Director of PeterCo Design, art director of Greystone Books, and adjunct professor at Emily Carr University of Art + Design:
Overall, I think it works. It’s certainly better than the garish orange cover of the U.K. edition, with its inexplicable art deco type. This cover is a good companion to the original dust jacket for To Kill A Mockingbird. Both are marked by calligraphic type – probably hand-lettered on the original; typeset here – a simple, graphic colour palette, and the tree-and-leaf motif. The cover of Go Set a Watchman is clearly, deliberately mimicking a specific period look; it telegraphs that this book is coming to us from the past, and that it’s an approachable read. The design is vintage but not modernist, which befits the text; you’d want to go in a different direction if this were a long-lost early work by Thomas Pynchon or John Barth, say.
It’s also more than a little YA in look and feel, frankly. And I think that’s appropriate, too. I’ve always thought of To Kill a Mockingbird as a YA book, and I mean that with no disrespect. It’s one of the first “serious, adult” novels everybody reads, and I can only assume that this book will be similar in tone. At least that’s what the cover tells me.
Brian Morgan, book designer and art director of The Walrus:
What I find interesting is how directly it borrows from the original (first edition) cover of To Kill A Mockingbird, right down to the tree. Lee’s book was published in something of a high-point of American cover design, between W.A. Dwiggins and Paul Rand, when there was an exceptionally tight relationship between the lettering and the illustration. I’ve always thought of this period as fostering a home-grown reaction to German/Swiss modernism: an acknowledgement of the power of clarity, and the synergy of a mixing of word and image, but a rejection of cold industrial means (photo lettering, grids) for the warmth of the hand. It’s akin to how Charles Sheeler needed to hand paint the industrial landscapes he had already photographed. And I think you see this “warmth of the hand” tendency in France during the same period (A. M. Cassandre, for example).
This modernism-of-the-hand has of course been in style for the last eight years or so, and could be said to be revived by Tibor and Maria Kalman, although under the star of outsider art. Jarrod Taylor has done a number of beautiful covers within this envelope.
In spite of these references, it’s so clearly a novel published today: the gradient, the drafted Guy Billout-meets-Adobe Illustrator line. And, again, whereas the original had a nice tight feel to the lettering and the space, this one feels a little baggy; in an odd way it’s almost as if there was so much at stake with this book that committee who approved this couldn’t let Taylor off the leash.
Michel Vrana, Black Eye Design:
There’s something to be said about a cover that plays with the idea of time in such an effective and layered way. The type, colour palette and illustration style create a direct link to the 1960 edition of To Kill a Mockingbird, and it’s almost as though the time period between the release of the two books has been compressed to a few years instead of several decades. Regardless of how many years have gone by in the real world, the story within the new book takes place 20 years later than the first, and that tree on the second cover is clearly more bare than its predecessor — time passed. So smart.