Authorship · Blog · What Ronnie Sue Knew - a memoir

Designing a book cover

Part of the book creation process is to design the “perfect” cover to properly represent your book’s theme and genre. It’s a tough decision, not to be taken lightly, because it’s hard enough to create the “perfect” manuscript to express the swirl of thoughts and narration in your head. To tap into what will best visually represent that manuscript is a whole other set of skills. As I was writing, I wasn’t sure exactly what I would use: Stock photography? A favorite picture of her? The path wasn’t clear.

In early June 2021, as I was thumbing through my social media, I came across a post from my former student, Serena Hubert. Serena was one of those kids with an extraordinary talent for creation. Even as an adolescent, she created graphic designs for our show programs that were impeccable. To boot, she was one of the sweetest, kindest, most humble people I knew. We spent a lot of creative time together in class, rehearsals, and taking about life in my office during her daily community service periods. I knew that she should pursue her passion and gift for visual art and encouraged her as much as possible. My hopes for her came true. In the spring of 2021, she had graduated with her degree in Scenic Design and Technical Production from Marymount College. I couldn’t have been more proud of her for following what I know was an arduous path.

The post that I saw was what paved the way for me to decide to collaborate with Serena to create my book cover art. Serena had been displaying watercolor portraits she created of friends and loved ones for some extra cash. In a fortunate stroke of serendipity, I happened to come across a few that she had posted, and I knew that I had to reach out to her.

I even knew the picture I wanted her to paint. It’s one of my favorite pictures of my mom, and I’m told it was Mom’s too. I think she was trying to tell me something from her perch in the clouds…

I reached out to Serena just as my school year was ending and I was gearing up to go full-steam into preparing What Ronnie Sue Knew for publication. I was energized by the fact that she was so excited to do this work. What’s funny is that I was not at all concerned that her product wouldn’t be up to snuff. I trusted her implicitly to capture Ronnie Sue’s spirit, her whole persona; Serena has a devotion to capturing the essence of her subject. We texted back and forth over the next five weeks. She’d show me a draft, I’d make a suggestion for alterations. Finally, it was done.

When I arrived to pick up the artwork, Serena was waiting for me outside, the images wrapped in green tissue paper. You know that feeling of calm before you get the feels? That’s where I was. Sometimes, when I think I’m supposed to be very emotional, I instead go inward, appreciating the importance of the moment, but not losing my composure.

Not this time.

As soon as I hugged her, I felt the tears leaking. It was such a special moment. We held each other, both overwhelmed by what was happening. I was about to see her brush strokes of my mom’s essence, she was about to reveal something she spent over a month creating. There was more sobbing, more hugging, and we stood there, gobsmacked by the moment.

After some pictures and video to capture the moment, we brought the paintings to the car, secured them in the backseat (like precious babies going for a ride), so I could take them to get them digitized.

Just as I was leaving, Serena handed me a note. On the front was a lovely thank you note in her gorgeous, artsy handwriting. On the back was this:

Of course, when you are publishing a book, you have to make important decisions. Hard decisions, sometimes. I loved every brush stroke in her work. Looking into the eyes of the portrait, I saw my mom’s spirit. I saw what I loved in the picture and was captivated by Serena’s interpretation. As I started getting feedback from others about it, though, I came to the hard realization that the portrait image was too much for the book cover. This gnawed at my gut. Not using it didn’t feel right. But using it also didn’t.

After much deliberation, I came to a compromise. I decided to use the background painting (originally created as a separate piece for the back cover) for the front cover. It was a really hard decision, because I was so emotionally tied to the portrait, to Serena as an artist, and the fact that she so lovingly worked to make it “just right.” Not wanting to abandon the portrait altogether, I created a black and white image and put that on the back page of the book. Though it wasn’t my initial concept, it felt like the right choice. It was the right choice. I have received so many compliments on the color, the vibrancy, the design that seems to pull you in and want to know more about Ronnie Sue.

My table when I make book appearances.

Now, whenever I do a book signing or personal appearance, her original paintings come with me, so I can recount just how special Serena’s work is.

Every time I look at this cover, I think of Serena. I think of how hard she worked and how much love she put into this project. That’s who she is and always has been. She has the heart and soul of a creator.

I am proud and grateful to Serena for being such an important part in the completion of What Ronnie Sue Knew. This is our first book cover design, and I hope it’s just the beginning of a significant part of her career as an artist. Someday, people will know her name. She can be found on Instagram and Facebook @justpeelthepaperback.

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