A Pen & Oink interview with Liz Tardiff, in which she covers book covers


lullaby-for-a-black-motherToday’s interview is something a little different: our first with a children’s book designer! Read on for an interesting look at the work of Liz Tardiff, who’s with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. People, if you’re writing a book about the circus for HMH, don’t expect the cover to be typeset in Rosewood.

THE DIRT ON: Liz Tardiff

Hometown: Blackstone, MA (Usually that is qualified with: “Well, I grew up in MA but my family is from Maine…”)

Now lives in: Brooklyn, NY (A simpler answer!)

Tools of the trade: I mostly work in InDesign, Photoshop, and and Illustrator, but I’m on MyFonts all the time looking for typefaces.

Illustration idol: I love Sophie Blackall, John Hendrix, Sean Qualls, and too many others to list them all!

Caffeine of choice: Caffeine usually makes me twitchy, but I sometimes go for Earl Grey tea.

Favorite children’s bookpull-quote

…as a child: Ramona Quimby, Age 8, Wise Child, and Corduroy.

…as an adult: I still love Ramona and Wise Child! My Friend Rabbit is another favorite picture book.

Favorite thing to read: I like to read nonfiction books about science, food and nature interspersed with children’s books and adult novels…keeps things interesting.

YouTube video you can’t stop watching: I’m sure everyone in the world has know about this for years but I love this video. Look at this horse!

Must-read blog: I’m semi-obsessed with food blogs.  My favorite blogs at the moment: Smitten Kitchen, Orangette, Paper and Salt (authors and food!). I also check Design Sponge, the Jealous Curator and Pinterest often for design/art ideas.

What’s your role, as a children’s book designer, in the life of a book?

Mthe-lightning-dreamery role is different for picture books and novels. When I’m working on a picture book I lay out a dummy so the editor can see how the story is flowing through the page breaks and I place some type so I can get a feel for the typeface and point size that works with the book. There are usually several dummies as the editor continues to hash out the details with the illustrator and author and me and then we have the illustrator go to final art. I help art direct the cover and then do the layout and type design for the jacket.

The novel process is different. I come into that towards the end when the manuscript is transmitted and is in the last rounds of edits. I read the manuscript and start working on cover concepts. It might end up being something that I create out of stock images or I’ll hire an illustrator and will art direct and design the type. I show the art director and the editor and then we bring the cover comps to a larger cover meeting that includes sales and marketing. It can take a couple of rounds (sometimes many!) to get approval. Once the cover is final I start laying out the rest of the jacket and work on the interior design.

Could you clarify the difference between a book designer and an art director?

I’m a senior book designer so I do all of my own art direction for novel jackets (meaning that I communicate directly with the illustrators as they move forward with sketches and final drafts) and I work with the editor on the art direction for picture books (in our publishing house the editor usually contacts the picture book illustrator with both of our comments). The art director is a step or two above a senior designer (there are also associate art directors) and they have more experience in general. I still go to my art director for advice and approval. Often art directors or creative directors will influence an imprint of books with their style, but that’s not always the case.

How did you get started designing books?

I studied art history and visual art in college and then ended up at the Children’s Literature graduate program at Simmons College a few years after I finished undergrad. I was interested in design and I loved children’s books so I was thrilled to get an internship at Bedford St. Martin’s where I started learning about publishing and the basics of book design. I had another internship at FSG in New York and then got my first job as an assistant at Henry Holt. I’m grateful to have found a job that combines so many of the things I love.

Do people have any misconceptions about what you do?

Yes! Often when I tell people that I’m a book designer their faces light up and they ask me if that means that I illustrate books.

It’s always a little sad to see their faces fall when I tell them that book design is mostly graphic design and typography. I guess illustrators are just cooler to meet at a party! [We are pretty cool. -Ed.]

How do you go about matching typography with illustration?

That’s an interesting question. I think it’s a little different for each book. If it’s a historical novel or picture book then I start doing research on the design of that era so I can get a feel for the type of that time period. If it’s a modern novel then I look through the fonts that we own or start searching through MyFonts for ideas that suit the tone of the story.

type-samples-stackedAny favorite fonts these days? Any you never want to see again? 

I like Bryant for a nice clean sans serif and I’ve been going through the fonts on Letterhead Fonts recently for a new novel cover I’m working on. There are some really beautiful fonts on that site. As for fonts I’m sick of? I could do without seeing Rosewood for a while—seems like it was everywhere a couple of years ago. I see Billy used a lot too, but I’m not sick of it yet.

Does the illustrator have any input on the design of the book?

Yes, at our publishing house they have input if it’s a picture book. We run the font choice by them before we finalize it to make sure the illustrator is happy with it (although they don’t always get a final word on font choice) and the cover design goes back and forth a lot as we figure out the illustration and the type.

For novels, the cover illustrators don’t usually see the font choice since it happens after their work is done.

twice-upon-a-marigold-coverI really loved the Once Upon a Marigold covers you designed! Could you talk about those?

The Marigold series was an interesting journey. We had an established series design from several years ago that I needed to freshen up while retaining the basic elements of the look. I started doing A LOT of comps for that title as I tried to figure out how to tie it to the series while making it look more modern/fresh. Thankfully the book bumped a season and I had more time! The comps were just not working so the editor and I talked again and it turned out that the paperbacks for the first two books were going to be reprinted at the same time as the new hardcover so I could do a full redesign. This was good news and I had an illustrator in mind. Jared Schorr was available to do the assignment and we rushed into getting all three covers done at once. It was fast! He was a trooper. He hand-cuts everything and layers it on the paper so that the shadows are all real (amazing!). It took several rounds to get it right and to make everyone happy with the readability of the letters but once they were done we were all very happy with them. I think they suit the books and I hope fans of the Marigold series will enjoy the new look.

Tell us about some other recent books you worked on. 

This past season I worked on a lot of picture books that I’m really excited about! There’s a new book coming out from Sean Qualls, which is always a good thing. He illustrated a Langston Hughes poem called Lullaby (for a black mother) and the cover and interior are lush and layered and really beautiful. That was a pleasure to work on. And there’s a Beatles picture book that will come out this spring too called The Beatles Were Fab (and They Were Funny) that was great to work on. The illustrations are by Stacy Innerst and I’m really happy with how the cover came out.


 Describe your dream project.

Hmmm. I think it would be a small, quiet, literary novel (could be either middle grade or YA) where I have free rein with the cover… Maybe there are a few black and white illustrations for the interior too.

 Why children’s books?

Books were almost magical when I was a child so it’s a privilege to bring new books to children, even if I only help in a small way. I like knowing that they will go out into the hands of kids who will devour them and love them and grow up to tell their own stories.

Anything exciting in the pipeline?frogged

There are a lot of good books coming out this spring! Besides the ones I mentioned above there’s a new Margarita Engle book in verse, Lightning Dreamer and a new Vivian Vande Velde book, Frogged. I got to work with great illustrators on each of them and it was a pleasure! (Edel Rodriguez/Lightning and Erin McGuire/Frogged.)


Celebrity death match: Dr. Seuss versus Mo Willems. Who wins, and why? I’m going to have to go with Seuss—his books are classics. Maybe I’m biased due to my undying love for One Fish, Two Fish…but it’s definitely Seuss for me.

1 Comment

  1. Great interview! I really learned a lot – and a lot that I never thought to ask myself, which is even more fun. As a nice coincidence, I just recommended Once Upon a Marigold to a teen reader at the library today!


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