It’s always a challenge to create a cover concept that adequately conveys what’s inside a book’s pages. It’s harder, even, than trying to answer the question, “What’s your book about?” in a single sentence.
A couple of months ago the team at Simon & Schuster’s Atria Books were kind enough to ask whether I had any thoughts on book covers before the art department got to work designing the book jacket for my new memoir, the forthcoming Bomb Shelter: Love, Time, and Other Explosives (April 2022). Bless their hearts, they knew I’d have thoughts. After all, up until about a year and a half ago, I had spent several years working for a bookstore. I used to look at book covers all day long!
I sent back a whole slide deck of likes, dislikes, and book cover inspiration. I even admitted that on my dream-cover, I envisioned a bold, central object… a bold, central individual, to be precise: Frank, the Eastern box turtle who lives in my backyard. Frank has been the subject of a couple of my New York Times essays, and he has made quite a few human friends on social media, but he has never been on a book cover before. This was his chance.
There was just one problem. None of the cellphone photos I had taken of Frank over the years were crisp enough to use on a cover. And because Frank was still hibernating — not to mention that we don’t know where he is most of the time, because he’s wild and we have no control over him — I couldn’t just take new ones.
Maybe it seems silly that I was so hell-bent on putting Frank on the cover. Bomb Shelter isn’t even about Frank, not really. He only shows up a couple of times throughout the whole thing, but I just knew that if you could look at Frank, you could feel the soul of this book.
Most of Bomb Shelter takes place during a two-year period of my life, during the ongoing aftermath of a crisis that threatened one of my dearest loved ones. Suddenly I saw threats everywhere, danger stalking everyone I knew. At my lowest moments, I questioned the point of caretaking — because if everything could blow up in a second, why do we even try to keep one another alive? But as much as I struggled with the unpredictability of life and death and all the surprises in between, I also kept returning to the gut feeling that the only thing that makes any sense in this world is to take care of one another. What else can we do? Bomb Shelter examines, even celebrates, that stubborn co-existence of anxiety and optimism. If I were to try to describe it in one sentence, I guess I’d say Bomb Shelter asks the question: How do any of us keep going when we can’t ever be sure what’s coming next?
Can you see why I wanted Frank on the cover? He carries a protective shelter on his back! If you squint at him, he almost looks like a grenade. And look at those eyes. Doesn’t he give you that awwww feeling you get when you gaze upon an old dog you love, while at the same time inspiring the sense of awe you feel when you turn a corner on a hike and suddenly come face-to-face with a wild animal? And doesn’t his squinched-up face make you laugh?
Bomb Shelter is about how we human beings are all those things: We’re domestic animals and wild things and ridiculous creatures. We have mortal bodies that function and malfunction and defy our bossy little minds. We get fired up about all sorts of hilariously superficial concerns — our looks, our behavior at parties, our ability to cook a proper Thanksgiving turkey — but we also share the elemental instinct to love and protect each other, especially our families and our young.
Anyway. A few weeks ago, the time had almost come to finalize the cover design. It was perfect, except that the photo at the center wasn’t Frank. (It was some turtle I didn’t know, a beautiful red-toed tortoise, no offense to her whatsoever.) One Sunday afternoon, as I was beginning to make peace with the nice-but-not-Frank cover, I went out to do some terrible amateur gardening and get my mind off work. While I dug in the dirt, I talked to Frank, just in case he was out there somewhere and could hear me. I hadn’t seen him in months, but I called out toward the grass, “If you’re here, I could use your help.”
I swear I’m not making this up — remember, I write nonfiction:
Elbow-deep in potting soil, I heard a little shuffle under the evergreen hedge. As I turned around to investigate the sound, who came plodding out onto the flat gray stones of the patio but… FRANK HIMSELF!
There he was, freshly rested and reporting for duty, blinking his tiny red eyes and looking up like, “Oh for Pete’s sake, let’s do this.” I whipped off one gardening glove (keeping the other on for some reason??), and ran into the house to grab my camera. Then I lay down at Frank’s level and took about 200 photos.
And that’s the story of how a little turtle saved a book cover. I’m so grateful to Trish Todd and James Iacobelli and the team at Atria for their patience and creativity in crafting the face Bomb Shelter will show the world. I love it. Thank you.
There’s so much more to this book than the cover, of course. But we’ll talk about all that later. Meanwhile, feel free to sign up for my newsletter if you want to be the first to hear about book news. Oh, and please know that every time you pre-order a book, a turtle gets half a strawberry. (Orders are open now wherever you get books, including all the usual retailers, but if you order from Parnassus Books, the indie bookstore near me, your copy will be SIGNED!)
UPDATE — Spring 2022
The book is out! And so is Frank — healthy and handsome after another winter under the leaves.