Evan Roskos‘s debut young adult novel features a boy who quotes Walt Whitman and talks to an imaginary pigeon therapist. Its working title was YAWP!, and it became Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets. He tells us the story of a title change, a cover vision, and the secret power of blue books.
“I didn’t have an idea [for the cover] as I wrote. I knew I wouldn’t have input. I just hoped my design team wouldn’t provide something bland or horrible. In fact, I was afraid the book would be hard to package since there’s a variety of things happening in the text: James takes photos, he writes poems, he talks to a pigeon, he recites Whitman. Aside from just slapping a generic teenager on the cover, I didn’t know what a designer would do (and I’ve worked with designers, so I knew they had great ways of becoming inspired). I had a feeling that something with Whitman would work but the idea for a pigeon didn’t strike me until the title changed to Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets. The original title—YAWP!—was too hard for people to hear when I said it (after repeating it once or twice, I found myself having to explain that, yes, it was a word. My editor and agent clearly had the right idea to change it). Once I realized the title-power of including Dr. Bird front and center, then the cover possibilities crystalized. A pigeon had to be on the cover.
“My editor at Houghton Mifflin is Margaret Raymo. She really understands this book and, thankfully, she understands my intentions with Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets. (My agent said Margaret should be our #1 choice and she was totally right.) So, Margaret sent me a list of covers that she was looking at as a place to start the design conversation with her team, if that makes sense. She asked me if I had any covers to suggest. I didn’t—because she’d already listed them! Seriously, I knew when I saw the list that the design process would be smoother than I ever hoped. The list included many icon-based covers: sentence-y titles, use of white space, little figures, icons, images, statues from the texts. (One example: Why We Broke Up‘s cover with the cup.) The titles were essentially half of the design. An icon + a color finished it out.
“I suggested including a pigeon and crossed my fingers. I saw two mockups. Immediately, I knew the one I liked more. I had to use my imagination in some ways because the font and the cloud weren’t there. But it was a great idea. The color was originally a reddish-orange (the ARC has the original color—I hope to make it a collector’s item!). The switch to blue happened later.
“The other mockup was a good idea, but I couldn’t see the finished product as quickly. The bench + pigeon + texture + typographical possibilities of the one I picked were more energizing. My editor told me which mockup she preferred and pointed out when suggestions I made wouldn’t be feasible (to be fair, I wasn’t demanding much; I just like to toss ideas around). Even when the color change happened, she didn’t try to oversell me or dissuade me from objecting. She showed me the change, explained the purpose, and asked me if I liked it. I did, though I was torn because the orange, to me, stood out better. But at that stage I knew it wasn’t really necessary for me to fret about the color of the book unless it looked like vomit!
“The cover turned out great, and I have to credit the designer. Because as much input as I was given, it wasn’t the same as putting me in front of a computer with a mouse. The photo, the font, the particular shades of orange (and later blue) and even the eventual use of clouds for the blurbs—that’s all the designer’s great work. I’d be a fool to suggest my input resulted in the great cover, though I will say that I never got a sense from Margaret that my designer dismissed my ideas. The font was a tough choice, but I got a few to choose from and found the scrawled nature to be a perfect energy for the layout of the text. It looks like someone’s diary (or one of Whitman’s manuscripts). If I could’ve asked for the sky, I would’ve wanted something that looked like one of Whitman’s hand-drawn Leaves of Grass title pages.
“The cover did transform, but not nearly as much as others I’ve seen. The color change is the most dramatic. I’m glad I didn’t spread the orange cover far and wide because the blue cover change happened later than I thought a change would occur. I believe it was in September that the blue version appeared in my inbox. Also, the thought balloon became a cloud. In some ways these are minor changes. In other ways, the color shift is huge. When I worked at Borders we had a joke that when a customer didn’t know the title to a book they’d describe it as ‘It was a blue book. By a woman. I saw it on Oprah.’ Customers always say it’s a blue book even when it’s not. There’s also a bit of a nod to John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars happening, though Dr. Bird’s design still stands on its own.
“I am 99.9% sure that the image of the pigeon on the stone bench used for the cover is a stock image or, at least, is from an image depository. I did have a friend tell me dozens of times to head into Philly to take photos of the pigeons in Rittenhouse Square since they were already trained to perform for the photographers that wander the city. Plus, it was right across from the Barnes & Noble, so they were clearly well-read pigeons.
“I love the final cover, especially the dust jacket. The fact that a little pigeon is stamped on the spine of the cloth cover just adds to my joy. I think the blue and white work well (obviously since they suggest the sky and thus flight). In fact, the texture of the cover made me happier than anything else. The texture doesn’t feel like a basic matte finish, but almost feels like the texture of the wall in the image. The thin horizontal lines on the spine and flaps give all the text a feeling of being overlaid on the image of the wall. It really does have a nice depth and texture.
“In terms of the story, I think the cover does as much as it can to walk the fine line between the upbeat nature of the book and its more serious undertones. In the book, James suffers from depression and suicidal impulses. He has anxiety attacks and confidence issues, and nearly loses his best friend and his sister. And yet, I made myself laugh when I wrote the manuscript. I had to, so as to avoid become saturated with dark feelings. So, while the original orange cover had a brighter, fiery feeling, the blue is necessary to balance out the fact that there’s a pigeon on the cover. People seem to hate pigeons, generally. Rats of the sky, disease, poop, etc. But having a pigeon stare off to the edge of the cover inspires a curious impulse.”