You might not notice the 12 pairs of cherry-red lips pressed into the cover of “I Kissed Shara Wheeler” unless you’re in the habit of disrobing your hardcovers — or if you’re a serious book nerd, like the author of this novel for young adults.
Casey McQuiston, who uses they/them pronouns, was able to provide the technical name for this unsung design element: The foil lips are what’s known as a “case stamp,” which functions as “a little Easter egg surprise when you take off the dust jacket.” In a phone interview, McQuiston explained, “Sometimes it will just be the title, but it can also be something that’s a symbol of the book.”
“I Kissed Shara Wheeler” is McQuiston’s inaugural original hardcover; their previous novels, “Red, White & Royal Blue” and “One Last Stop,” arrived in the world as trade paperbacks. “This is the most involved I’ve ever gotten to be in the cover and packaging,” said the Louisiana native, who now lives in New York City. “I geeked out so hard. I put together a full 15-page PDF of mood boards and cover comps.”
McQuiston’s ideas ranged from dogwood blossoms to a close-up portrait of a main character to “Southern debutante stationery,” which plays a pivotal role in the novel. Kerri Resnick, an art director at Wednesday Books, ran with these concepts, designing a floral spine and pastel Laura Ashley-style endpapers that pull in the pink and green from the jacket. (After a deckled edge — which gives a stack of pages an artisanal, feathery look — endpapers are the best way to tell a book means business.) Even the “scrapbook papery texture” of the cover of “I Kissed Shara Wheeler” was chosen with care: “We thought it would feel like holding a card,” McQuiston said. “We wanted to have this very tactile moment for the reader. And then the lips because we wanted it to have this feel of a letter sealed with a kiss.”
McQuiston grew up in an environment much like the one where “Shara Wheeler” is set: “I went to evangelical Christian school for 13 years. There was so much shame culture. We weren’t allowed to learn about sexual reproduction unless it was AP bio because it was on the exam. I learned evolution in an academic setting for the first time in college.” They described learning Latin declension from the same teacher who informed students in chapel that being gay was “against God’s will.”
Now McQuiston has some wisdom and perspective to share with young readers, especially the “baby queers” they met on a recent book tour: “You’re OK. There is nothing wrong with you. All of the things that make you feel like a freak and make it harder to fit in, very often those are the things that make you cool and draw people to you as an adult and help you find your people.”
Elisabeth Egan is an editor at the Book Review and the author of “A Window Opens.”