Erik DeLeo: “5 Things That Happened While Creating an Awesome Middle Grade Book Cover”

A charming new middle grade book is available today, and to celebrate, author Erik DeLeo has stopped by with a guest post about the making of the ADORABLE cover for The Squirrel Squire.

One of the things that’s different about self-publishing compared to traditional publishing is that the author is in charge of all aspects of the process, from marketing to art to copy. This isn’t for everyone, but it gives the author a unique opportunity to follow their heart or intuition of whatever their internal creative compass is.

So, here I’ve broken down the process of creating the cover to my upcoming Middle Grade fantasy story into five steps.


Some call it luck. Or coincidence. For me, it was a random post on Twitter. I didn’t intend to write a MG story. In fact, I was halfway through writing my adult fantasy novel when a picture appeared on my feed. It was the world’s most adorable owl, but armed with weapons. A halberd is what it’s officially called. See for yourself here:

Leesha Hannigan, a very talented illustrator, shares her work online. The minute I saw it, I thought…”Oh man, someone should write a story about that little guy. He’s so cute.” And that’s as far as things went at that point.

2)   DÉJÀ VU

Fast forward about 6 months. The picture popped up in my Twitter feed. Again. I don’t remember why or how. Except this time, instead of thinking, “Someone should write a story about that guy,” my thought was “I should write a story about that guy.” So I reached out to Leesha. Long story short, while Leesha was/is very nice, her schedule was such she couldn’t do the work. I was depressed. No seriously, I was like “That’s the person I want to do the work!” But alas, she couldn’t.

Then Leesha said she knew someone who might be able to help. One of her good friends, Samantha Key, is also an illustrator. So I emailed Samantha and described what I wanted. I was looking for something that could kill with kindness, much like the owl. Cuteness overload, but in a drawing. She felt she could help.


So, the first thing that drew me to the original owl drawing were the eyes. That’s where the magic was for me. So Samantha knew that going into the project. I just needed some characters. I happened to show the owl picture to a friend who then mentioned to me they read a series growing up called Redwall. I had never heard of Brian Jacques or Redwall, but I looked the series up. And that is how the idea for my story was born. I instantly had a vision of Redwall meets Disney in my head. After that, the characters came to me.

I didn’t want to imitate the mice of Redwall, so I settled on the next best option: a squirrel. But in my head, this squirrel wasn’t yet a knight—he was a squire. So that’s how The Squirrel Squire was born. And there needed to be a tournament for knights to fight in. Since squirrels love acorns, I called the event “The Tournament of Oaks.”


A brilliant illustration only gets you so far. Since we’re talking about books, you need a brilliant cover design too. Having spent time in the advertising business, I had been exposed to art directors and designers, and one of the things most often overlooked in any piece of commercial art is type design. In fact, type design is its own discipline. Besides having a good eye, I knew it would be important for the person who would design my book covers to specialize in type.

I often listen to podcasts featuring indie authors. One of the first things I always do is look up their book covers. After one podcast featuring Katie Cross, a YA author, I looked up her books…and I was blown away. I needed to find out who designed her covers. Not only were her covers great, but I could tell she used a lot of hand drawn and custom type. A few emails later, Jenny Zemanek was my cover designer.


While Sam was hard at work on illustrating the character, I went over the overall feel for the covers. Besides the type, Jenny and I settled on the idea that some sort of scroll or parchment could tie the titles together. Sam gave me the first round of black and white sketches, a step before going to color. Since I was still writing the story, serendipity stepped in. I had created a small, cute little squirrel named Puff who was too small to wield a sword. And Samantha just happened have a sketch that was a squirrel holding such a sword. Perfect. After a few minor tweaks, the art was sent to Jenny.

I had given Jenny some initial cover direction, including that I wanted the character to be on white so that it would “pop.” This is why I’m a writer and not a designer. It didn’t look that great. Luckily Jenny provided another option where there was a colored background. It looked fantastic. Since acorns were a big part of my squirrel story, Jenny also incorporated that into the corner design elements. And after a little more back-and-forth, the rest (as they say) is history.

Here’s the final art for the cover of The Squirrel Squire and the Tournament of Oaks. It’s out today, and it’s available at an online retailer near you.

A small but brave squirrel. An annual tournament. And threats from a dark challenger. Squire Puff faces many pressures, but searching for a missing knight isn’t supposed to be one of them. When things take a turn for the worse, can he face his fears and help avert disaster? If Puff can’t find the champion, he’s the only one left who can fight. If you like talking animals, epic sword fights and exciting adventures, then you’ll love The Squirrel Squire. Perfect for fans of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, Redwall by Brian Jacques and The Green Ember by S.D. Smith, along with other fantasy series including The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander.

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