My Book Design Gateway Drug: Milton Charles and the Covers of V.C. Andrews
A post by ABDA member Miriam Rosenbloom
It was 1989 and I was mooching about in the Woodend library – wandering the aisles, feet lazily sparking static on the carpet tiles – when a paperback on the shelf flickered in the light. Shades of red foil surrounded a tiny girl’s face only to reveal, upon closer inspection, a terrifyingly Aryan-looking family lurking behind this attic window — a window cut into the actual cover! The blurb read: ‘Such Wonderful Children. Such a beautiful mother. Such a lovely house. Such endless terror!’ (and such disconcerting capitalisation in the first sentence). I was hooked, and immediately had to borrow this irresistible and illicit object (don’t let mum see the library bag!). Like millions of other teenagers, my secret obsession with Virginia Andrews had begun, and so had my fascination with the power of book design.
Milton Charles was the accomplished designer and artist behind the cover of Flowers in the Attic. He worked as a designer for Jaguar Cars in the 1950s, and taught at the Pratt institute in the 1960s. In 1973 he became Art Director at Pocket Books – the famous imprint of Simon & Schuster that introduced mass-market paperbacks to the American market in the model of Penguin in the UK. During the 70s, he designed jackets for some of the literary greats of the time including Pynchon and Vonnegut, as well as creating genre-defining work including Harold Robbin’s Spellbinder and Jackie Collins’s Hollywood Wives.
In 1979 Charles was tasked with the challenge of creating an appealing look for a gothic horror novel about incest and torture. In an interview about the genesis of the book’s publication, the acquiring editor Ann Patty (later to acquire Life of Pi – another mega-bestseller in a completely different zone of the publishing ecosystem) reveals that it look a while to get to the final cover, and it was, in fact, her insistence that the children be somehow shown in the actual attic that led to the final jacket. As she said ‘Cutouts had been done before, but nothing like that, with so much shiny foil, had been done. And then he found an artist who really got V.C.’s sensibilities, to do the painting on inside cover. After that, it became a template.’ (source)
Charles’s genius was the idea to create a die-cut window that would show a single character on the front cover at first glance, and then would reveal a cast of characters behind the ‘house’ when the reader turned the page to what is sometimes called the ‘stepback’. The contrast in the cover between the stark, graphic, almost secessionist-style house – resplendent in foil – and the almost photo-realistic portrait of the family (illustrated by Gillian Hills) is both queasy and intriguing. It also cleverly evokes the narrative without being too explicit – had he shown the whole family in the attic on the cover in the first place, the magic would have been completely lost. Interestingly, Charles was also responsible for art-directing one of the most famous paperback covers ever among girls aged between 12 and 15: Judy Blume’s Forever. This cover also features a face in a graphic device in a layout not entirely dissimilar to what Flowers became. My conspiracy heart says ‘clear precursor!’, and I cannot miss the incredible opportunity to link these two giants of teenage girls’ bookshelves in the one narrative.
Flowers and its sequels proved to be hugely successful, hitting the bestseller lists two weeks after publication and selling a combined seven million copies internationally, along with its sequel Petals on the Wind in only two years. Charles’s design was instrumental to this success, and became instantly iconic.
V.C. Andrews continued to publish prolifically until her untimely death in 1986, and yet after that books continued to be released (often more frequently than annually) as V.C. Andrews® – and most often ghostwritten by Andrew Neiderman (interesting background on this here). The books that followed directly after Flowers employed Charles’s established template – stark imagery with foil and a die-cut revealing photo-realistic illustration of the book’s characters.
The longevity of the impact of Charles’s work is evidenced by the fact that up until 2007 the covers still often employed this template. Less successfully than the early iterations, perhaps, but perfectly illustrating the idiom ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ that is so loved by publishers globally. Post 2007, the cover designs have varied wildly in what seems like an attempt to find a new visual home that will provide the je ne sais quoi of Charles’s model. The latest release from October this year has moved to a kind of post-Twilight, Evanesence-ish Photoshop cornucopia, but even so, it is still not able to quite get out from under the influence of ‘that’ house.
In graphic design, as in life more broadly, sometimes the great innovations stand in the bright light of the mainstream, forged in the crucible of pressure that this brings, yet still sparkling.
Miriam Rosenbloom is the Art Director at Scribe Publications and the Commissioning Editor of its imprint Scribble. She was one of the founding committtee members of ABDA and currently serves as the Association’s Vice President.