Mary H. K. Choi takes us behind her gorgeous book covers — and offers a peek at her next one
If there's one author's book covers who've consistently caught our attention the last few years, it's Mary H. K. Choi. The writer and reporter has emerged as a force in YA with her witty, realistic teen tales, first with her 2018 debut Emergency Contact and then last year's Permanent Record — both New York Times best-sellers. But that's after she first catches your attention with what gets put on display, gorgeous portraits of adolescent life that feel intimate, modern, and original. (Okay, EW is a little biased: We revealed the covers for Choi's first two novels.)
They also always perfectly fit the books' contents. Credit for the the gorgeous illustrations goes to the artist gg, with whom Choi has reunited for her upcoming third fiction title, Yolk. It's another striking and inviting image, particularly distinctive within the world of YA publishing. Yolk follows two estranged sisters, June and Jayne, who are forced to come together (and swap identities) when one becomes seriously ill. The hand-holding along the cover's edges are but one of the compelling conceptual touches here.
EW gathered Choi and gg to discuss their collaborations, matching the art to the words, and pushing the themselves with their latest book, Yolk, for a wide-ranging conversation. Choi's novel hits March 2, 2021 and is available for pre-order. Check out the book's exclusive cover above, as well as the full design spread below, and read on below for the chat.
MARY H. K. CHOI: We met through Lizzy Bromley the art director at Simon & Schuster who honestly is second only to you in terms of how difficult y’all are to lurk online. I just remember that I sent so many Pinterest boards of hair — thick, winding, mysterious hair — and a lot of different, very particular tattoos for Sam [from Emergency Contact] and then hoped for the best. Lizzy, through my editor at the time Zareen, just said I know exactly who should do this and that’s how I was introduced to you.
gg: Yes, I remember the mood boards! I hadn’t worked with Lizzy before and Emergency Contact was the first real original commissioned cover I ever did. Before that, publishers had only licensed my existing drawings for covers so Lizzy probably knew of my work through that or maybe found it on Pinterest or Instagram. She emailed me saying that she had this great book cover that she thought I would be good for. Then she sent me the mood boards and the manuscript and I immediately connected with it when I read it.
I always look up what an author’s writing is like before taking a project. When I first googled you, I found the essay you wrote about your mom — I think that contributed a lot to me feeling like, "This is someone I want to draw a cover for."
CHOI: The first time I saw the Emergency Contact cover my heart stopped. I was out with friends and I’d greedily opened up the email and just burst into tears. It was so wild to see Penny and Sam and be struck with such recognition. The way you’d configured them to be so close but facing away from each other was such a stroke of genius. I remember wondering if I was a nightmare for being so specific with the mood boards but it’s the way you conceptualized their proximity and distance blew me away. Even thinking about it now my heart is hammering so hard. It’s so special and I’m still so grateful.
gg: I’m just glad I could do your books justice! For EC, Lizzy gave me a description for the possible layout of the cover — I’m not sure if you wrote it or if she wrote it — something along the lines of Penny and Sam sprawled out in bed, late at night, dreamily texting each other. As I got deeper into the manuscript, the image became super clear to me. I really wanted to capture the feeling of two people being intimately close but still apart in separate worlds.
I didn’t think the mood boards were a nightmare! But I think I do rely more on the text to develop the visuals. Having some visual pointers definitely helps to keep me from getting too stuck in my own head and straying from what you envisioned. For Permanent Record, I focused a lot on the part of the story where Pablo is wandering around sick and depressed so the first drawing of him had him quite worn down and not looking like the inspiration you sent at all! Then you said I should tone down his schlubbiness [Laughs].
CHOI: I remember you totally gave Pablo a gut! I’m all about body positivity but since I heap so much abuse on him throughout the book, I really wanted his cover to be as flattering as possible. Just for his own personal morale [Laughs]. It’s so wild but it wasn’t until working with you that I realized that cover illustrators read the entire manuscript. I don’t know that this is the case for everyone, and I’ve since learned that some authors are just delivered a cover and that’s it, that’s their cover. But I remember being so touched that you’d take the time to read the entire book instead of going off shorter physical descriptions or anything from a publicity one-sheet. I think that’s why when I see any cover for the first time it’s such a visceral experience. It’s like you distilled some aspect of my soul into an illustration.
gg: I always want to read the manuscript of what I’m working on. It’s important to me to experience the content so I know how to communicate it through the cover. I’ve had some people approach me for original covers but won’t give me any information about the book, let alone the manuscript, unless I commit to doing it first. I just have to turn those down and avoid those offers because I have no idea if I’m even a good match for the content or if it’s the type of work that I want my work to be associated with forever. It’s more enjoyable when I can actually work with the book rather than just for it.
CHOI: The other thing is that you always deliver a conceptual aspect to the cover that I don’t know would arise if you didn’t so completely understand my heart and didn’t have total familiarity with the characters’ stories. Like, you and Lizzy had to talk me into the double-cover for Permanent Record where you pull away the jacket to reveal that the Leanna profile is a poster on a wall. I remember that was the one where I sent so many references for In The Mood for Love — just that tension and strain of being so physically close but not being able to achieve intimacy. In a way the proxemic opposite of Emergency Contact. I felt so scared about that cover and any errors in printing but in hindsight I can’t believe I ever worried.
gg: I guess, over the three books, we’ve become less reliant on mood boards – I don’t think I even got any visual reference for Yolk, I only got the manuscript. I don’t know if that’s because you and Lizzy trust me enough now to figure it out or what.
CHOI: Totally. By Yolk I think I sent one line to Lizzy to send to you with the book. Like, two black haired girls in white dresses are holding hands and falling. That one came back and I was like, yep, this is perfect, thanks for being a legend. Then, you and Lizzy were like, we think it looks better with the background in black and I was like, I know better than to even pretend to do this dance at this point, let’s go for it even though I’d originally envisioned it in white sort of like this one edition of The Little Prince that was in my head.
But gg, can you talk about the flip book aspect of the Yolk cover? The way Jayne and June are holding hands all along the fore edge of the pages? And the point at which you came up with the double cover on [Permanent Record]? I would love to learn more about your process. Each time, I’m like, I’ve never seen this done in this way. Are we allowed? How is it that I get to have this?
gg: Oh, I had plenty of worries about the technical aspects of the Permanent Record cover as well! Unlike the mood board for Emergency Contact, which suggested one idea for the cover layout, the PR mood board had a bunch of very disparate suggestions. A close-up on faces, referencing specific moments, different spaces, etc. So when I was reading I had all those options in my mind floating around. Initially, the ideas were so different from each other that it felt like there was nothing to really latch on to. Like, how can I do a close-up of faces and still communicate all the other aspects of the book like the city and separation—which felt to me to be very important to the story? As I got closer to finishing the book, all of those different directions suddenly seemed to merge together into one idea. When I showed Lizzy the concept, I didn’t even know if it would be possible to do and that maybe it would get rejected for complexity or budget. But Lizzy is amazing and didn’t even blink and said they would find a way to make it work!
When I’m reading a manuscript, I highlight everything image, moment, and feeling that sticks out to me. For Yolk, I had highlighted two sentences that described Jayne and June’s relationship at different times of their lives through the imagery of holding hands or not holding hands. The scene when they are younger and walking home was especially important to me. I hadn’t settled on any direction yet until you sent in that one-line note about holding hands and falling and that’s when it kind of clicked and I felt like we were on the same track with this. The thing I noticed about the sisters’ relationship was the coming in and out of each others’ lives — which the holding and not-holding hands was a perfect metaphor for. But then the problem was, how do I draw a cover of opposite states of two people holding hands and not holding hands and then holding hands again?
I thought about how a book physically has two states as well — closed and open and usually returns to closed again. I thought, what if I could transpose the sisters’ on-off relationship onto the book’s form itself. Which is how I got to the idea of hands on the page edges. Again, I had no idea if this would be possible to do and felt like it was a crazy idea when I told Lizzy. I actually haven’t seen how the final form has turned out yet so I’m super excited to see how it worked out!
CHOI: I haven’t seen it either yet, but I get chills. I can’t wait to see it all come together. Thank you for the level of care and dedication. I’m so lucky to work with you and Lizzy, it’s honestly ridiculous.