Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
It was the first time most American readers ever saw an image of Harry Potter, and yet 20 years later, the cover of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone still holds some surprises. Illustrator Mary GrandPré, Scholastic creative director David Saylor, and prolific editor Arthur A. Levine revisit the cover of the first book — and the decisions that would change everything.
I Solemnly Swear That Hallway Doesn't Exist
Every new Harry Potter fan has probably spent at least a few moments scrutinizing where the action of the Sorcerer’s Stone cover might take place… before realizing that it doesn’t actually exist anywhere specific at Hogwarts (or does it?). “I see it as a walkway,” says GrandPré. “I drew the flooring, and because you see the castle to the right and the forest in the background, I guess I see it as an open corridor where things can happen in and out of the columns and Harry can fly through.” Of course, Hogwarts architectural purists have taken issue with where this abstract corridor would supposedly be located. Then again, it’s a magic castle, so… that’s something to consider.
Harry Potter and the What!?
At the request of the Scholastic salesforce, who thought Philosopher’s Stone might be an obstacle in capturing American readers, editor Arthur Levine suggested J.K. Rowling consider changing the title to “something that brings the magic more obviously forward, maybe something that indicates the whole school experience that Harry has,” he recalls. The proposal: Harry Potter and the School of Magic, which Rowling mulled over for a time, at least long enough for GrandPré to sketch it more than once. Then-art director David Saylor recalls, “It seemed like a good idea in a meeting, but then when you see it on a sketch, you’re like, ‘Oh no, this is not right.’ To me it felt too prosaic, like School of Drama, like School of Chemistry. It didn’t feel magical to me, ironically.” And for Rowling, too, who ultimately nixed it and proposed the alternative Sorcerer’s Stone. Levine explains, “Sometimes it’s just a small change like that that makes your marketing and sales people feel a tiny bit more confident, and they took that tiny bit of extra confidence and sparked it into a real fire.” Rowling has since stated that she regretted changing the title, but Levine appears more torn between the hypothetical and the reality: “I think they would have done fine with Philosopher’s Stone. But they were on a mission to get every child in America to read this book. In the end, I feel like history proves that was not a bad decision.”
If You Seek Harry
“It was a tough decision to know how much to put in and what to keep out,” says GrandPré, who threw in everything but the cauldron into the wide cover art for Sorcerer’s Stone. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation, but the illustrator laid out her plan for the book’s individual chapter sketches before tackling what to put on the cover. “Some of that depended on what was already showing on the inside chapters,” she says. “If we weren’t seeing enough of Dumbledore, perhaps, we’ll put him on the back cover and let him peek behind a column. I wanted the viewer to be able to go back while they were reading the story and have a closer look and find the thing you had just read about, like a little treasure hunt.” And it works: See how many people you can still flabbergast by pointing out the flying Quidditch players (not clouds) behind Harry.
GrandPré wasn’t explicitly hired to draw the book’s “logo,” as we think of it now, but as a fan of typography, she asked Saylor if she could try lettering Harry’s name in the gap she had allocated for the title. One sketch later, an iconic image was born. “I’m claiming this — who knows if it’s true — but I think it’s one of the most famous logos in the world at this point,” says Saylor. “We weren’t even thinking of it as a logo at the time, but now it’s one of the few I can think of that was so successful on a book, the movies used it, too. It’s extremely rare for a movie company to pick up book typography and use it on their movie. It’s been imitated in other languages. I mean, they’ll take letterforms in Cyrillic and add lightning bolts to it!” And the placement of the lightning bolt, it turns out, was just as lucky a stroke by GrandPré. “The lightning bolt just worked on that P,” shrugs the illustrator. “Right there in the middle. I don’t even remember thinking about trying it anywhere else.”
The Sorcerer’s Smudge
A crisis was narrowly averted when Saylor and Levine first presented Rowling with the finished artwork for the book. The author “was so in awe that she wanted to touch it,” Saylor says. But here’s why that was a problem: GrandPré notoriously uses unfixed pastels, a waxy technique that makes colors richer and brighter but also more fragile and prone to damage if the artwork is not sprayed with a fixative. Saylor laughs as he recalls the near-miss: “The artwork is so tactile that when you do see it in person, it’s stunning, but I almost had a heart attack because Jo reached out and touched it with her finger and I said, ‘Oh, be careful, it’s not fixed!’ and she pulled her forefinger away and it was just covered with pastel. It didn’t spoil the painting, just so you know, but it was a moment of panic. She was just so entranced by seeing it in person.”
In designing each chapter’s leading sketch, GrandPré’s first instinct was usually right (“There aren’t any of them, honestly, that we didn’t use,” swears Saylor). But for book covers, the illustrator would propose a trio of art options, and as it turns out, the face of Sorcerer’s Stone was almost, well, three faces. “There was one she did that had the Three-Headed Dog guarding the trapdoor, and it was a really good cover,” says Saylor. “But it just wasn’t right for a first book. We had to see Harry. It had to be him on the broom, it had to be him going after the Snitch. It’s that iconic thing that you just have to see.” Still, the sketch of Fluffy enjoyed plenty of use…
Fluff Love (Part 2)
And here’s that original cover sketch!
Accio My Friends
For all the Easter eggs GrandPré included in the Sorcerer’s Stone cover, Ron and Hermione are perhaps the two most significant characters who didn’t just get left off the cover — they aren’t illustrated in the book at all (Hagrid, Quirrell, and even Dudley got their own portraits). “I was actually revisiting the book this weekend and I realized, wow, those two did not make it into the chapter sketches, and it kind of surprised me,” admits GrandPré. “I think perhaps…we know they became friends, but there was so much to talk about in that first book. This boy with magical powers at this new school, and all these creatures and characters and professors in between. So maybe there was just so much juicy stuff happening in all the chapters, we just never quite made it to them visually. Maybe Ron and Hermione are just too normal!” (See them pictured here, perferctly normal, in Half-Blood Prince.)