A baby elephant is basically the opposite thing of a great white shark. Unsteady and shuffling, small and pink, she begs for milk and whiffles her tiny trunk from beneath the safety of her mother’s towering legs. The cover for HOW TO BE AN ELEPHANT was challenging to create, because it needed to “go with” NEIGHBORHOOD SHARKS but capture a different kind of feeling altogether. Plus, like all book covers, this one had a lot of jobs to do—pitch the story, capture the setting, be visually arresting, and accurately represent the look and feel of the interior pages. The book is about a baby elephant learning from her family, so I knew that a baby elephant and her family needed to go on the cover. But how do you draw the concept of learning in a way that works as a cover image? For me, as always, it began with a few sketches.
Design direction 1: Profile view of mom and baby eating
My first design direction showed a profile view of the mother elephant eating, with a little baby elephant peeking in from the bottom edge of the page to steal food. African elephants spend 50%–75% of their waking life eating, and babies learn what to eat by stealing samples from the mouths of the older family members around them. I liked this direction but it felt much too flat when compared to the cover of NEIGHBORHOOD SHARKS. I also wanted to show that a baby’s “classroom” isn’t just her mother, but that every member of her family is involved in her education and training. What other moments or points of view could I choose?
Design direction 2: Newborn surrounded by family just after birth
This cover direction held on for a long time—well over a year—during the making of HOW TO BE AN ELEPHANT. Here, we’re looking at a family herd surrounding a brand new baby elephant just moments after her birth, when she’s still wet and blinking and disoriented at the sudden change of address. I loved it a lot (I still love it a lot) because it’s such an exciting moment—BIRTH!—so the concept stuck around through at least two or three different book dummies. But after a lot of convincing by my husband, agent, and editor, I finally saw that it just didn’t work as a real option; the baby is too passive, all the legs and trunks are kind of confusing, and the image is too specific to this one-time moment in the baby’s life. So even though this direction had a lot of emotional power, it didn’t communicate enough of the book’s content or overall mood to a potential reader.
Design direction 3: Steal something from the interior
That’s it. I’m out of ideas. No new ideas in here to be had. Maybe I can just swipe a cover concept from somewhere in the interior. I rifled through my sketches and roughs and tried out anything that featured a baby actively learning from her family—drawings where she’s splashing through mud, chasing birds, and even (yes, they do this) eating a clump of poop. The images were all fine but none of them really worked as covers, because they were either too busy and competed with the type, or the activity (like the eating-poop) was too specific to represent the book. But I did like the gesture and emotion of the young calf chasing birds, and eating still felt like the right activity to feature. What if I dropped that playful calf into a scene that involved eating lunch?
Design direction 4: All together now
A baby elephant. Check. A savanna setting. Check. Eye contact with the character, so it’s more visually arresting. Check. Representative of the interior. Suggests eating as a learning activity. Goes well with the cover of SHARKS. Check, check, and check. At last, a cover image that hit all the major points, and could even be expanded into a “wraparound” cover to show more of the family herd and the African wilderness on the back. The Macmillan marketing team loved it, my editor loved it, and book designers Andrew Arnold and Roberta Pressel came up with an awesome type treatment for the word “ELEPHANT” that mimicked the leathery folds of an elephant’s skin. Even the color palate—purples, oranges, and greens—felt like a lovely complement to the primary blues and reds of NEIGHBORHOOD SHARKS.
There are always things I’ll miss about the earlier versions of the cover, little “darlings” that had to be killed and buried along the way to get to the best solution. But this cover feels just right for the spirit of the book—the vulnerability and playfulness of a young elephant, the adventure, and the passing on of knowledge from one generation to the next—and I’m delighted with how the final painting turned out and how the dust jacket came together in the end. What a handsome couple SHARKS and ELEPHANTS make! I hope to see many more animal covers on my desk in the future!