Legendary illustrator Brian Selznick takes us through how he designed new jackets for the iconic book series, dropping some fascinating tidbits.
Harry Potter tapped a heavyweight in the illustration world for its 20th anniversary: Brian Selznick.
Earlier this year, the artist’s stunning new covers for the series’ birthday made waves, drawing attention as a vivid reimagining that both felt wholly original and totally in the spirit of J.K. Rowling’s creation. In black and white, and forming a striking mural when each’s images are combined, the covers for the seven Potter books were first made available in paperback back in June, and now this month, can be purchased as part of a special edition collection for the anniversary.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone published Sept. 1, 1998, which means we’ve arrived at the official birthday. To commemorate the occasion as well as the new book jackets, EW caught up with Selznick, who revealed all about the process behind the design, his greatest fears, and much more. Read on for our conversation below, and check out all of EW’s Harry Potter anniversary coverage here.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What’s your relationship to Harry Potter? You’ve described yourself as a fan, so when did you discover it and why did it resonate?
BRIAN SELZNICK: I always loved the phenomenon of Harry Potter, especially as a former independent bookseller. I loved seeing the parties at midnight when the books were released, and, like all people who were interested in children’s books, I appreciated how much the success of the Harry Potter books brought attention and respect to the entire industry. But it wasn’t until 2015 that I finally read the books and when I did, I fell in love hard. I became a huge fan — I cried most when Dobby died — and am a proud Hufflepuff.
How did you getting tapped to design the anniversary covers come about? Was anything other than your fandom a motivating factor?
All I know is that on Halloween of 2017 I got a mysterious email from my friends at Scholastic asking me to give them a call about something important. I was a bit overwhelmed at first by the request but, as a fan, I couldn’t have been happier and more excited.
Talk a little bit about your initial conception of the covers, and how they evolved.
While I was talking on the phone with Scholastic, I had a vision of what I wanted the covers to be. I knew I wanted them to be black and white and I wanted all seven covers to line up so they create a single image that incorporates the entire story of Harry Potter. I was told I had two weeks to submit sketches, and if they were approved I’d have until March 1, 2018 to complete the artwork. I submitted sketches in one week, soon got the approval, revised for a few months and then actually handed in the final work on March 1, 2018.
The mural, in which all of the cover images are combined, is so gorgeous. What’s the story behind that?
When I did my first sketch, I drew some curving lines in an effort to see how the seven covers could be connected. I realized that the lines looked like a snake, which made me think of Nagini. One of the themes I’d wanted to explore in my covers was the battle between good and evil, and I knew that if I used the snake throughout all seven covers it would be a perfect way to illustrate that idea.
What was the greatest challenge or worry about taking this on?
Well, I’d be lying if I said I never worried about living up to the expectations of the fans, but then I remembered I was a fan too, and I was drawing something I loved and believed in, so it got easier from there. Challenges included figuring out how to draw the figures on the final cover so I could sum up the series without giving anything away for readers who will be new to the books. Also, it’s really hard drawing Harry’s round glasses in different perspectives (seeing them from different angles) so that they look round and not like weird ovals. It was also hard to draw the labyrinth for the Tri-Wizarding games, and figuring out how many buttons might be on the cloaks. J.K. Rowling never is specific about how the cloaks are put on and taken off, and a friend directed me to entire websites debating the issue and comparing the cloaks in the books to the ones in the movies. In the end, I managed to draw the cloaks in ways that avoid the issue completely!
How did you draw from past Harry Potter covers, if at all?
I tried very hard to put aside all previous Harry Potter representations and focus only on what J.K. Rowling wrote. I love Mary GrandPre’s work, Kazu Kibuishi’s 15th anniversary covers, the design of the movies and Jim Kay’s extraordinary paintings for the series he’s working on now, but my goal was to find what I wanted everything to look like myself. That said, I still had lots of outside references. Dumbledore is based on the sculpture of Moses by Michelangelo, Aragog is based on a sculpture by Louise Bourgouis, Fleur De La Cour is based on the old-time movie star Veronica Lake and the glasses that Harry wears were worn by me when I was an extra in Todd Haynes’s movie version of my book Wonderstruck.
Your career as an illustrator speaks for itself. Anything about this experience that was unique, or stands out?
Well, everything about Harry Potter is unique. There’s never been anything quite like this phenomenon, and it’s such an honor to play a small part in its ongoing evolution. One particularly exciting moment was when I was invited to speak at the Harry Potter Celebration in Harry Potter world at Universal Studios, Florida, where I addressed a crowd of five thousand people who all cheered like mad when I said I was a Hufflepuff. Oh, I guess it was actually just the Hufflepuffs who cheered, but still it was a lot of people! That’s a pretty unique experience and one I’ll never forget.
What do you hope people take away from the new covers?
I tried to get across my love for the books, and I tried to highlight the themes that were most important to me: the importance of friendship, and the battle between good and evil. Now more than ever we need to be reminded that evil can be vanquished. And we shouldn’t be surprised that the bravest people around, the ones who can save us, are children.