Joel Chasnoff: Judging a Book by its Cover

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Joel Chasnoff, author of The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah: A Memoir , is guest-blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

If writing a book is like giving birth, then receiving the PDF of the jacket cover is like seeing the first ultrasound: finally, it hits you that this creature is for real.jewish_authors_blog2.jpg

When it came time to discuss the cover of my book, The 188th Crybaby Brigade, I made two requests. First, that the jacket art be directed by Chip Kidd, the “rock star” of book jacket design. I’ve always loved Kidd’s ability to produce a single, iconic image that perfectly captures the essence of a book—such as he does in these two covers for Augusten Burroughs and David Sedaris:
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My second request—it was more of a demand, actually—was that the cover not be overtly Jewish. The 188th Crybaby Brigade is my memoir about my year as a combat soldier in the Israeli Army. Throughout the book, I discuss my strong Jewish upbringing and my resultant connection to Israel—a connection that, ultimately, led me to volunteer for a combat unit of the IDF.

But I’ve always felt that, despite the Jewish themes, Crybaby Brigade is a human story with mass appeal. It’s a story about a father and son. It’s about myth and the inevitable disappointment that occurs when we come face-to-face with our heroes. Most of all, it’s a book about identity: as I progress from hapless basic trainee to tank soldier in Lebanon, I ask myself just who I really am.

So when it came time to discuss the cover, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted, but I certainly knew what I didn’t want: anything that might drive away the general audience because the cover was too blatantly Jewish. My editor agreed.

So I was shocked when the following PDF showed up in my inbox:

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I stared at the image. Speechless.

A minute later, my agent called. “Well?” he asked.

I shook my head. “It’s so…Jewish,” I said.

“It’s a tad Jewy,” he agreed.

Actually, it was tremendously Jewy—way too Jewy for my taste.

I was crushed. Here, I’d just spent three years crafting my masterpiece, and now it was about to be ruined by this screamingly Semitic cover.

My agent (and here I’ll give a shout out, because he was so incredibly wonderful throughout the book cover process—the entire book process, for that matter), the talented Dan Lazar, promised he’d relay my feelings to the publisher. “But don’t be surprised if they ignore you,” he said. “They decide the cover. Not you.”

Not wanting to leave matters to chance, I racked my brain for a way to finagle a new cover. I glared at the image on my screen. That star—so big and vulgar—like one of those yellow stars Jews were forced to wear in Germany. And the soldiers, hanging on the star, as if they were caught on barbed wire…

Then it hit me!

I Googled the terms “holocaust museum jerusalem statue barbed wire,” clipped out the below image, and sent it to Dan with the note, “Tell the publisher that their cover will remind Jews of this sculpture at Yad Vashem“:

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Ten minutes later, Dan emailed back. “They’re doing a new cover.”

In the end, Chip Kidd dropped the project. (Or the project dropped Chip Kidd; I never did hear the final version of the story.) Instead, my cover was designed by a young art-school grad in Boston, Holly Gordon. I stumbled upon Holly by chance (a friend introduced us). After a few phone conversations, Holly and I came up with the iconic image that, in my opinion, perfectly captured the theme of my book—the absurdity of life in the Israeli Army:

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Miraculously—and I want to stress that it was an absolute miracle—the publisher went for it. “This NEVER happens!” Dan emailed me. “I have never, in all my years of publishing, seen a house accept a cover design from an author!”

Maybe I was lucky. Or, more likely, the house got sick of my complaining and wanted to shut me up.

I immediately sent the cover to friends and asked for feedback. The one note we consistently received was that the image reminded them of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

hitchhikers_guide_box_art.jpg

I took the criticism to heart. After a few tweaks, Holly and I came up with this:

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And then, finally, the image that would become the cover to my baby, The 188th Crybaby Brigade:

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It was a harrowing process, but worth the effort. I certainly didn’t want to give birth to an ugly baby. And anytime the process got especially rough, I reminded myself of the following quote by none other than the rock star himself, Chip Kidd:”Whoever said you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover never worked in publishing.”

Joel Chasnoff’s The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah: A Memoir will be on sale February 9th. Visit Chasnoff’s official website: http://joelchasnoff.com/.

Posted on February 8, 2010

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