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The Truth About Unicorns, by Bonnie Jones Reynolds

November 5, 2014

Cover Story: The Truth About Unicorns

The Truth About Unicorns is one of my favorite books on the F&M list, but I’m betting that Yien Yip, the young illustrator we hired for the cover, wouldn’t read it if you paid her. She wound up doing a terrific job, but boy, we – I – sure put her through hell to get there.

The book is set in the 1920s and ‘30s, in an small farming community in upstate New York. We’re very definitely in Shirley Jackson territory (shades of “The Lottery”), in that this charming little town, all green fields and red barns and girls in starched white dresses, is concealing a black, black secret: It’s positively obsessed with witchcraft, and particularly with the witchy evil of readheaded women.

As in “The Lottery,” that brilliant, classic tale of village chills, there is talk about the supernatural – witches, in this case – but the real evil is supplied by the real humans, courtesy of the miseries they can inflict on one another. In other words, the story may be horrifying in parts, but it’s a long, cool way from Horror.

In terms of cover-design, I wanted an image of that Eternal (Redheaded) Feminine, who so haunts the village psyche. To some of the townsfolk she’s the representation of sexual threat, but to others she’s a benign force. Mostly, she’s a force, so I wanted her up there in the sky. But, I said, after we got the first drawing, I want her to have a face. (Am I nuts? The woman in the first version – she doesn’t have any eyes!)

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The face got sorted very quickly, and then we came to the real problem: Trees. The forest is a key setting for many events in the book, and – like the redheaded gals – it is both menacing and welcoming, depending on who you talk to. But (again like the redheads), it is an undeniably powerful presence. For the longest time (many more iterations that you see here), the illustrator kept giving us spindly midget trees, almost bonsai trees. Among other things, this really skewed the perspective, making the forest seem a long way away. In fact, though, what I wanted was a certain sense of claustrophobia – the claustrophobia of small-town life, the claustrophobia of obsession, of fear. It seemed important to me that the trees be big enough to loom.

And finally, the font. I wanted an Art Nouveau feel (Anthony, our Art Director: “You ALWAYS want an Art Nouveau feel!”), and I almost always crave a certain handmade aesthetic. With the first two tries, Yien did indeed hand-draw the letters, but though I got my Art Nouveau, I felt the text looked messy. I like things to look handmade by someone irritatingly meticulous. At long last, Anthony found a wonderful premade font (trinigan fg) that offered the AN-look I was whining for, AND had an artisanal feel without sloppiness. I love this font. I want to have its children.

As for the illustrator? We wound up giving her a bonus. I’d love to say it was by way of thanking her for a job really well done, but in fact it was more along the lines of hazard pay. And friends, I was the hazard.

 

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