Go ahead, judge this book by its cover.
FSG Paperback Art Director Charlotte Strick had a serious vision for the design of Juan Pablo Villalobos’s book Quesadillas—a satiric masterpiece, chock-full of inseminated cows, Polish immigrants, religious pilgrims, alien spacecraft, psychedelic watermelons, and many, many “your mama” insults—all she needed was the perfect person to execute it . . .
Over to you, Charlotte.
Juan Pablo Villalobos’s writing seems to beg for illustration.
While reading his last novel, Down The Rabbit Hole, I could not shake the image of Tochtli, the child protagonist, sitting atop his prized pygmy hippopotamus, his mini sword drawn and his massive hat collection piled heavily upon his small head.
Villalobos’s latest novel, Quesadillas, is an equally darkly comic, populated with scenes of unlikely flying saucers, large clusters of fertile cows, memorable family portraits and names, and most appropriately, mountains of steaming-hot, cheesy tortillas for breakfast, lunch and dinner. How to cram so much madness onto one 5 x 7 ½” cover is always our design challenge.
I have a deep affection for Papel Picados (“perforated paper”), a Mexican folk art tradition. Typically crafted from colorful rectangles of scalloped tissue paper, they are often strung together to create vibrant banners for both secular and religious occasions. I admire the Picados’ unceremoniously kitchy charm and their potential for skilled intricacy; traditionally they’re hand-cut with small chisels and exacting precision.
Capturing a sense of place was essential for the Quesadillas cover. Conveniently for me, Picados not only make great storytelling devises, but they are also synonymous with Mexico. Typical Picado themes include birds, flowers, and the sombrero-wearing skeletons that help ring in the annual Mexican Day of The Dead holiday. For Quesadillas I thought it would be fun to play with this time-honored paper medium by finding an illustrator who could “chisel” the more surprising themes of Villalobos’s new novel into our cover art. Picados also commonly include typography, so they are ready-made for book cover adaptation.
Enter Joel Holland. The vibrancy of Joel’s illustration style pairs well with Villalobos’s writing, and, lucky for me, he was immediately game for interpreting my Picado cover idea and making it his own. All of the elements I had originally imagined are there in the final cover. The traditional Picado grid creates a controlled-chaos for both the whirling imagery and typography. Once we had an approved design, I talked with Joel about his experience working on the cover.
JH: I had long admired your work and was psyched when a great project came along for us. You had the idea of riffing off of the Mexican Papel Picado art form. I loved reading the book, as it was filled with lots of kooky imagery that lent itself perfectly to the cut-paper medium. My job was to take that list of objects and make it work in the Picado format and then tell a visual story worthy of the novel. It was fun to disregard scale and reality in the process. The book is crazy! There are watermelons, disappearing kids, kids that go to jail, UFOs, and even Oreo cookies. I was excited to work on such a smart and funny book. I got into the characters and the story and the imagery was fun to play with.
CS: “Did you find the Papel Picado grid easy to work with, or did it present unexpected challenges?”
JH: It was a challenge because I tend to think in a linear way. For example, if I want to draw an apple, I start by drawing the outside lines, then the stem and fill in accordingly. My first impression of Papel Picados was that the imagery was simply silhouettes, but as I got into it I realized that they contain details within the shapes of the images. Not all, but some Papel Picados use the same grid structure that I used for the cover of Quesadillas. It was freeing for me. It helped because the grid lines became kind of invisible, and they didn’t end up competing with the objects. The harder part for me was the interior of each illustration. I kept thinking about “shapes within shapes.” This helped me create the objects in a semi-silhouette style, sort of like a stencil, and I realized I could move things around as I needed to. It was a learning curve, but once I got the ball rolling with these ideas in mind, I felt like I could use the proper language to draw the cover.
CS: Had you ever played with Papel Picados imagery before?
JH: Nope. I've always appreciated them, but we hadn't crossed paths.
CS: You and I considered some different color backgrounds but ended up with a neon green cover and a spot of red for our FSG Originals logo, hoping to evoke the Mexican flag. For the type, how closely did you stick to the typographic examples you found during your research of different Picado styles? Did you end up creating your own styles or did you feel that you needed to mimic the actual letterforms you found in the authentic versions?
JH: I followed the examples fairly closely, I suppose. Most of the references I saw had a blocky sans serif type, like what we used for the cover. But usually the baseline of the type is straight, so the way the title is curved around the UFO illustration is unique to our cover, as far as I know.
CS: Was it helpful to read the manuscript even though you already had a pretty good idea of what I was looking for?
JH: Yes, yes! I wouldn't have been aware of the author’s sense of humor otherwise. Having read the novel I realized how truly wacky the story was, and this allowed me to move the objects around to make them work on my end, and it also helped me not to be so confused by your request for “watermelons, UFOs, and cows”!
Thanks to both Charlotte and Joel for letting us behind the scenes on Quesadillas. We’re thrilled to reveal the finished design, right here! You can behold it for yourself on February 11, when the book goes on-sale at your favorite bookstore.
Juan Pablo Villalobos was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1973. He studied marketing and Spanish literature. He has researched such diverse topics as the influence of the avant-garde on the work of César Aira and the flexibility of pipelines for electrical installations. He lives in Barcelona, Spain.