Helen Cooper is an author and illustrator whose work includes favourites such as The Bear Under the Stairs, Pumpkin Soup, The Baby Who Wouldn’t Go to Bed, The Hippo at the End of the Hall and Tatty Ratty. Her books have been translated into 30 languages and won many awards including the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal – twice. Written during COVID lockdown, her new book, The Taming of the Cat, is a modern fairytale and not a picture book but work of illustrated fiction. Here she describes how she created the book’s cover.
I wrote The Taming of the Cat because I wanted to fashion a modern fairy tale with unusual alliances, and themes of bullying and prejudice. There was lots to illustrate: a fierce princess with no intention of marrying anyone; enchanted foxes, a magical feast; and the overarching story of a mouse trapped by a cheese shop cat who spins the tale while questioning the nature of friendship.
This is a book with chapters. The illustrations are black and white, drawn with pencil or pencil and wash. I began them in peak COVID lockdown. For a while I worked unbriefed and couldn’t seem to stop – there are over a hundred illustrations. But the cover art came later. Cover art is usually directed by ideas from the marketing department as well as editorial. Sometimes that can be tricky for the illustrator, but in this case it went really well. Emma Eldridge, the designer at Faber, cleverly isolated a tiny section of a margin shaped forest illustration from Chapter 14, blew it up to book-cover size, added some rough type – and everyone loved it.
The brief was ‘like this but with more magic and movement’. I thought that the serpentine path, the strong vertical of the trees and the dramatic lighting were the elements that made the composition pleasing. But in the original, we look down on tiny static figures to accentuate their unease and fear. It’s a moment of pause. The cover needed action.
First, I lowered the horizon and the tunnel at the end of the wood. I wanted our eyes to travel at the level of the path. To create movement, I returned to another illustration; this time of the Princess and the cat escaping from the castle at night. I wanted to evoke the same exhilaration and speed but with more focus, so I re-drew the characters to gallop towards us.
I painted my final illustration on paper, with watercolour and some colour pencil. I’m keen on blue-green forest scenes and fans of Pumpkin Soup might recognise a similar colour pallet in the first picture of The Old White Cabin. However, for The Taming of the Cat I wanted a flash of scarlet to balance Prussian blue shadows. So, I went back through the text to change the colour of the Princess’s dressing gown from green to red. For atmosphere, I used strong rays of light and a tangle of stylised brambles following the path completed the scene. As I worked, I grew fond of the section to the right – the mystery path around the bend. Originally intended for the front flap it would have been covered up by type. Once again Emma Eldridge came to the rescue – she moved that section with photoshop to the back cover instead. The title type and the silver foil flecks give the cover an appealing flourish.
The Taming of the Cat is published by Faber & Faber, 978-0571376018, £14.99 hbk.