Challenging Subjects Matter

I celebrated the last day of Black History Month (February) by going to see Hidden Figures at the pictures. A bewildering reminder of how very recently people of colour were treated so poorly (and a reminder that it’s still happening around the globe) it’s nevertheless a bright and lively film with sparkly dialogue and massively endearing characters — not to mention the 60s dresses — made all the more appealing because they’re real people.

(Oh, and the main characters’ mathematical genius makes all but the most cranially-blessed painfully aware of their comparatively amoeba-like grasp on sums).

I loved the film, and on the journey home started to think about something that’s been dawning on me. I’ve never traditionally gone in for much political illustration, the result of a combination of having no natural aptitude for likenesses and a lifelong nervousness about getting my facts wrong, despite a reputation for not being shy about sharing an opinion. I’ve been driven to make a visual comment from time to time, but only when something truly strikes a chord and an image emerges naturally — if I want to, but have to force it, I’m reluctant to do it. Brexit, Prince, the death of Charlotte Bevan, the attacks on Charlie Hebdo — these are some of the things which triggered a genuine response.

So when politically-driven, editorial images are a huge and growing chunk of the imagery online, and responses to world events seem almost obligatory especially if you draw things for a living, I’d started to worry I was somehow not doing my job properly.

But, it occurred to me in the last few years I’ve been more involved with politically-charged subjects than I might have given myself credit for. Though as a youngster I secretly wished to be, I’m not Steve Bell, whose scalpel-edged cartoons my Dad and I would eagerly turned the pages for for in the Guardian every week. I’m not fast enough, nor do I have that all-important grasp of a good (if vicious) likeness. (Nowadays I’d rather like to be Stephen Collins anyway!) Instead, it’s happened in other ways.

I worked for many years for the Southern Poverty Law Centre, set up to ‘fight hate and bigotry and to seek justice for the most vulnerable members of our society’ via litigation, education and other forms of advocacy, producing their annual non-religious Christmas card, each year being given a phrase to explore visually and to make a universally warm and positive greeting from:

I’ve since had the opportunity to handle some seriously challenging subject matter, in two chief areas; one is the medical sphere, which I’ll be talking about in another blog, and the other, black history and the civil rights movement, producing the covers of books based in harrowing real-life events drawn from both, parts of history which are difficult and awkward to think about, books based in harrowing real-life events drawn from both.

It started with my new cover for the 50th anniversary edition of To Kill A Mockingbird published by Grand Central in 2010. Arguably the most famous book about the civil rights movement and changes in the deep south in the 1930s, Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Centre, wrote that this book is what drove him to take up civil rights work and set up the SPLC in 1971. This was, then, something of a responsibility, and meant revisiting the book, re-reading it, and thinking again about what was at its core — and how much we had, or hadn’t, moved on.

Stella By Starlight published by Simon & Schuster NY came a couple of years later and used a similar semi-silhouette approach to tell the story of this book about the arrival, unexpectedly, of the Ku Klux Klan in a small southern town where eleventh-grader Stella and her little bother live. A subtlety of approach, without censoring the core element of the story was required — a burning cross is a potentially shocking thing, but it is that that kicks off the entire story — and a sensitive portrayal of these children was important, whose ethnicity needed to be obvious without being either cartoony or vague. I discovered I had an aptitude for little people, and pyjama detail! And Klan hats too…it was also the first font I created called, of course, ‘Stella’.

‘Midnight Without A Moon’ by Linda Williams Jackson is woven around a story I remembered with a distant horror from school history lessons; that of 14 year old Emmett Till, the boy beaten to death by white men for allegedly wolf-whistling a white woman in a store in the 1950s. His mother insisted on an open coffin so that people would see the damage done to her son, and his case drew attention to the long history of violent persecution of African Americans in the US; Emmett posthumously became an icon of the Civil Rights Movement.

He wasn’t to feature on the cover but it was important I refreshed myself on his story, irrespective of its outcome (his killers were acquitted) and the violent imagery that is associated with his case. The book blends a real historical family with a fictional one, and it is Rosa, the 13 year old girl who lives one town along, who was the focus of the cover. We do not see her face; as with the previous two books, it was important to me that this Rosa could look like any Rosa — yours, or mine, the next reader’s — so we only see her from the back.

Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman followed, the ‘prequel’ to To Kill A Mockingbird, and a job which came with the opposite problems from those of TKAM — no-one but a handful involved in its publishing was allowed to read it, no-one knew what it was about, and there were no legendary scenes or characters to draw upon — at least, not ones that hadn’t aged by at least 20 years. All we could gather was that ‘Scout’ was now’ Jean-Louise’, and her relationship with Atticus was believed to be…under strain. Should I show this? Was she still a tomboy? Is Atticus frail? Would the swing still be in the garden?

I had just under 2 weeks, and there were only 3 officially-published editions — the US one, one in the UK, both done in-house, and this one, published by rare-breed literary publisher Open Books in Korea (the only publisher I know of that’s also built its own Guggenheim-esque art gallery and stationery brand). So the pressure was on, and indeed Harper Lee’s estate were very involved in approving every step of the cover drawing as I was a series of differently-dress ‘Jean-Louises’ just hours before the print deadline.

Not long after this book I was asked to work on The Ghosts of Ebenezer Creek, later re-titled Crossing Ebenezer Creek, to be published by Bloomsbury USA on May 30th this year. If I thought immersing myself in Emmett Till’s story was hard enough work, the research for this one was gruelling.

In a little-known event, large numbers of freed slaves died in 1864 as they tried to cross the Georgian Creek, having attached themselves to the Union Army’s infantry in the hope of a safe, accompanied crossing. Brigadier Jefferson Davis wasn’t having any of this and ordered the bridge they were crossing to be brought down; realising what was about to happen, the recently-freed slaves “hesitated briefly, impacted by a surge of pressure from the rear, then stampeded with a rush into the icy water, old and young alike, men and women and children, swimmers and non-swimmers, determined not to be left behind. In the uncontrolled, terrified crush, many quickly drowned.”

Images of the panic and drowning washed through my head as I tried to sketch ideas. Many came, informed as much by the watery inks I wanted to use for this as by the story itself; it had been some time since I sent the art director as many ideas in for a book as this one.

I think I made it a little hard for her to choose an outcome, but she surprised me with her choice — this swirling, all-ink, one-take piece with virtually no digital interference was her favourite.

Moving ahead a little in time both for me and the protagonists in my various books, It All Comes Down To This moves the storytelling to 60s LA — Sophie is the new black kid in a nearly all-white neighbourhood and has a hard time finding her place in it. This another example of a book cleverly dovetailing real-life events — this time the Watts Riots — with the fictional timeline of a made-up family. Beautifully done, the book required the sort of in-depth research that went way beyond looking through 60s fonts, LA storefront colours and girls’ hairstyles.

The cover is a little less dramatic, but required a lightness of touch and a sensitive portrayal of a girl on the brink of adulthood; my initial roughs were more firmly anchored around the location and the riots, but these gave way to a gentler approach — incidentally, my first book cover completed entirely on an iPad Pro and Pencil.

My most recently published in this series is Linda Williams Jackson’s sequel to Midnight Without A Moon, called A Skyful of Stars published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in New York. Rosa, now 13, is torn between a boy who wants to meet violence with violence and her best friend Hallelujah, who believes in peaceful protest. Struggling to see how it’s all going to work together, she starts to see her place within the Civil Rights Movement and what she can do herself.

Our main character was fully formed as with Midnight, not a silhouette, allowing me to focus on her braids, expression and tired overcoat, portrayed among falling leaves and icy branches (it actually gets icy in Mississippi, who knew?) The hint of protest and threat had to be there, but with the exception of the Harper Lee titles, all of these books are Young Adult fiction, so striking the balance between off-putting menace and an inviting hint of a potentially unsettling historical context has become something of a specialism.

The book I’m currently working on for SourceBooks USA isn’t completed yet — we’re getting close — and continues my wave of black history-based novels. Our heroine, Ella*, tries to save a local beauty spot on the Georgian border from a corporation that wants to build right through it (sound familiar?). The losses she endures en route to saving the place preserve its existence for future generations, but once again, this isn’t a fluffy read.

*names have been changed to protect the as-yet-unreleased plot!

So, on reflection, I’m learning a lot from these books I’m tasked with illustrating; selling difficult, sometime challenging narratives to readers through covers which must walk a confident tightrope between visual appeal, intrigue and the hint of just enough darkness to do the content justice. When I worked on chick-lit — book after book of delightful, nonsense fluffy bestsellers by big-name writers — I enjoyed the prolific output, the regularity and the big rebrands of entire series of happy-ending novels, but I never really had to think all that much. I thank the authors of the books in this article for making me think, and trusting me to reach in and pencil out the contents of their heads, placing them into those of their readers.

inkymole.com/books

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Sarah J Coleman

Artist + illustrator of over 800 books and owner of the same amount of pens. Enough to write you a picture AND paint you a story. inkymole.com / inkstagram.ink