The Making of A Fairy Tale

A post by ABDA member Allison Colpoys

Once upon a time, I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to design a cover for Jonas T. Bengtsson’s brilliant novel A Fairy Tale. The story is set in northern Europe and is about a father and son who are constantly on the move,  living on the margins of society. The father takes a series of odd jobs and home schools his son, and at night he conjures up a fairy tale about a prince and a king on a secret mission. The setting is quite grimy and industrial and some pretty heavy events take place, but they’re interwoven with surreal scenes from the fairy tale and the young boy’s vivid imagination, drawings, dreams and nightmares.

It was tricky to try to capture all of these different aspects of the novel in a single image. To start with I got quite fixated on an early scene from the fairy tale where the king and prince are walking down a narrow path of carnivorous flowers. And further on in the book there’s an evocative passage where the father takes on some gardening work and the young boy is left to explore the landscape – half in real life, half in his imagination. He does loads of drawing and day dreaming here. I’m not sure if you can see the common theme, but pretty much I latched onto any scene that had plants in it.

Here’s one of the first (reeeeally!) rough concepts I tried, the carnivorous plants:

a fairy tale_01

Urgh gross, not really working and also, what about the father and son? They’re kind of important to the story…

Here they are! Amongst those carnivorous plants:

a fairy tale_02

Then I tried to create a concept that looked as though the boy’s imagination had come to life and he was immersed in a tangled world of PLANTS!

a fairy tale_03

Plants, plants, plants, plants.

I was also really keen to try a concept that represented their depressing, domestic reality, with their imaginary fairy tale world poking through.

This one is supposed to be of one of the boy’s bedrooms, and out the window is their foresty, planty fairy tale:

a fairy tale_04

Another idea I had was to try to see if I could make it look as though one of the son’s (plant) drawings had come to life . . .

a fairy tale_05

. . .  but I abandoned ship quite quickly on both of these, because where did everyone go? There’s no father or son again and they look like books for children, Besides, the son used a little sketch pad to draw in, not an easel.

I thought it was probably time to check in again with Miriam Rosenbloom, my wonderful art director, and Ian See, the excellent editor on the novel, and thankfully they put me back on track. The title A Fairy Tale immediately conjours up cliched images of castles, unicorns and Rapunzels, so instead I needed to use contrasting imagery – to hopefully make the magic of the cover arise from the interplay between title and illustration. In other words, focus more on the father-son relationship and their industrial surrounds, and less on the imaginary scenes of the novel and the dumb plants (what!? I know!) and let the title do the work.

I started with something along the lines of this, which I guess addresses the above a bit but I was aiming to marry it with just a tiny hint of the surreal.

a fairy tale_06

Keeping the title up big, I thought perhaps the father and son could be walking amongst the title of the book, and that might create more of a strange, dreamlike feel. I started doing this, but then quickly stopped because another idea came to mind:

a fairy tale_07

Perhaps the letters in the title are the drab industrial buildings, rather than having them scattered around them, and perhaps this could straddle both the real and surreal more effectively? I gave this idea a quick go to see if it might work.

a fairy tale_08

I ran the rough past Miri and Ian – they said yes it would (phew!), we presented it to Jonas T. Bengtsson for his approval (pheeeew!) and then I spent one million hours working on the final art.

a fairy tale_final

And (hopefully) everyone lived happily ever after.

The end.


A Fairy Tale won Best Designed Literary Book and Designers’ Choice Cover of the Year at the Australian Book Design Awards 2015.

Allison Colpoys is a Melbourne-based freelance book designer and illustrator.






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  • Debra Billson

    I think all of your rough concepts are beautiful in their own right, Allison!

  • Sandy Cull

    Great insight Al, into the many twists and turns that a designer takes before arriving at the destination. And how fortunate to have a creative director at junctions along the way to help steer the journey and help you back on course. Not o mention the fabulous editor too, who knows the book better then anyone. I'm quietly glad you didn't get it all sorted in the first go, whip up that illustration and then head out for a celebratory g and t after a hard days work.

  • Sarah Odgers

    Beautiful work Allison - all of your concepts look fantastic