Coralie Bickford Smith, illustrator and author, won the coveted Waterstones Book of the Year award. Here she talks about her love of Victorian bindings and always wanting to write a kids’ book
We all know the rule about judging a book by its cover, but still everybody does it anyway. What else is a cover for? A good cover becomes an instant signifier for a book; a bad cover will damage sales.
When Coralie Bickford Smith’s stylish and quirky book The Fox and The Star became Waterstones’ Book of the Year 2015, it beat literary heavyweights including Harper Lee and Hanya Yanagihara. It’s a beautiful, simple children’s story in a large clothbound edition, full of mood and atmosphere created by its beautiful illustrations and careful colour palate. Heavily influenced by pattern and referencing William Blake and William Morris, the book’s weighty feel, thick paper, patterned fabric cover and bright inks contribute as much to its character as the actual words of the story.
Bickford-Smith is definitely not a show-off. On hearing that she’d won the Watersones title, she was ‘absolutely shocked and delighted. I never expected that. Who would expect that?’ The book is her first, though she has worked at Penguin for the past 14 years in the more anonymous capacity of an in-house designer. This makes her part of a great legacy; over the 81 years of its existence, the house has produced some of the industry’s most stylish and influential covers, many of them as deeply embedded in the collective consciousness as the books themselves. Who can think about A Clockwork Orange without picturing David Pelham’s memorable one-eyed and bowler-hatted Cog-eyed Droog illustration from 1985, when Pelham was Penguin’s art director? Or RD Laing without Germano Facetti’s 1971 interconnecting circles, which reappeared on reissues too? Or Lady Chatterly’s Lover, unexpurgated for the first time in 1960, as an orange Penguin adored with Stephen Russ’s phoenix? Bickford-Smith carries the weight of all of this. ‘I found a website with all the HG Wells covers when I first started and it made me scared. I was so daunted, I thought this has been done hundreds of times, how can I bring anything new to cover design?’ So how does she? ‘Well I just read the text and think of a new way.’ She’s very modest and quiet about it all. ‘I just do what I do. At first it’s really painful when you’re trying to come up with the idea but once you’ve got something and it’s fresh, you just feel so happy.’
Though she works across the board on Penguin’s various imprints, fiction and non-fiction, Bickford-Smith has become known for her clothbound classics, a collection that started with an anniversary issue of Hans Christian Andersen and the brief to create something beautiful. ‘I thought it would be lovely to create a book to be passed down through generations, and in the climate of ebooks, it was a great opportunity to make people fall back in love with the physical book and create books for posterity. I went back to look at beautiful Victorian bindings and thought to spread a bit of that magic.’ From there, an entire set of clothbound classics developed, with titles spanning Madame Bovary, Bleak House, Mansfield Park, Gulliver’s Travels and more. ‘I’ve done 55 now. I love that it makes me read so many books,’ she says. ‘We’re not artists creating our own work – we’re there to serve the book and respond to it.’ Her personal favourite? ‘Definitely the Scott Fitzgeralds. The patterns, there’s a great marrying of design and production materials.’
Though Bickford-Smith had always wanted to do a children’s book – ‘I was one of those kids always in my room drawing,’ she says – it wasn’t until one of her editors at Penguin asked if she had anything they could publish that the The Fox and The Star came about. ‘She took me for coffee and said she wanted to publish me, so I didn’t really have to pitch it.’ Coralie was given a six-month sabbatical, most of which she spent torturing herself about getting the colours right. ‘I knew I wanted pantone spot colours for the vivid brightness but they drove me insane. I wanted to keep it to a minimal colour palate and I tried so many different combinations.’ The story itself came before the illustrations, maybe surprisingly. ‘It had to have good bones,’ she explains.
‘I just love what I do,’ she says – and this includes side projects as diverse as a recent textile design for a shoe company and a stained glass window for a church in Bethnal Green. ‘I’m just happy doing what I do; when I’ve got my teeth into a project I’m in my own little world.’ With a name like hers, you might expect someone more flamboyant and extrovert. ‘I met somebody last week who said they’d expected me to be really posh,’ she says when I comment on it. ‘I said: well, sorry.’ Can we expect another book? ‘Yeah,’ is all she’ll say about that.