COLOR THE SHELVES: How the “A Phoenix First Must Burn” cover was born – by Patrice Caldwell

Color the Shelves (7)

Hello friends and welcome to Color the Shelves!

I am so over the moon to be bringing this post today!! Do you ever look at a book cover, gasp at how gorgeous it is and then start wondering and marveling at how the artist, designer and whole team put it together? Well I do! A lot! And the cover for A Phoenix First Must Burn was no different. This book is, hands down, in my Top 5 most anticipated releases of the year, and how could it not be? It’s a an anthology of 16 tales that range in genre that center and celebrate the Black experience and specifically the queer Black experience and Black Girl Magic, and that means so much to me. Like Patrice says later in the post, it’s something I wanted as a teen. I’m here for it, and to scream about this book at the top of my lungs. Cherry on top is that some of my favorite authors are featured in it.

I will stop rambling and circle back to the beautiful cover and how it was put together, which I won’t be the one to tell you about. Patrice will, in collaboration with her team, and I can’t tell you how exstatic I was when she suggested talking about the cover making process for #ColorTheShelves. Now without further ado, here’s how it all happened:

How the “A Phoenix First Must Burn” cover was born 

Thank you so much, Fadwa, for giving me the platform for this post. I’m SO excited to share the behind-the-scenes of the making of A PHOENIX FIRST MUST BURN’s amazing cover.

This anthology went to auction on March 1st of 2018, so basically two years ago. My Penguin Teen editor and I spent the first year working with everyone on their stories and didn’t really start cover conversations until 2019. Which I feel is pretty standard. Anthologies are sold on proposal, so we wanted to see what more of the stories looked like before putting together the cover—in case we wanted to pull inspiration from one of the stories.

Before I was a literary agent, I was a children’s book editor. So, my then Penguin Teen editor, Kendra Levin, and I had a pre-existing relationship, and I had worked on covers with designers as an editor, so I knew the process. But even then, it was super amazing to go through it with my own book. It was also incredibly anxiety inducing because a lot of times authors have very little say in the entire process. Covers are a marketing thing, and to be honest, not everyone has an eye for art—I’ve sent authors sketches and said hey this is really rough, etc etc. and they’ve gone in with all this critique that honestly took up a lot of time when I already said it was very far from final. That said, I do think it’s important to try to involve authors before the cover is final, and to honestly listen to their wishes and concerns. I’m so grateful that my team went above and beyond during this process.


When I found out that my in-house designer was Samira Iravani, who’s a woman of color and did some cover I just love ( like We Are Okay, The Downstairs Girl, Darius the Great Is Not Okay, I knew I was in great hands.

First, we all agreed on two things:

  1. We wanted the cover to have teen and adult appeal. Again, my initial inspirations were like I see this in the adult space, I want something like this in YA. I knew it had very strong crossover appeal, so we wanted it to look like something adults would read too. Especially since like for me, I’m 26 and this is the first time I’m seeing myself represented like this. It is absolutely created with teens in mind, the characters are teen girls, but I want others to feel like they can pick this up and read it and pass it to their daughters, to their mothers, to their friends.
  2. Illustrated cover. Woman of color or GNC artist. Preferably a newcomer to get a look that’s super fresh / hasn’t been seen a lot in the kidlit space.

We talked a bit about having a phoenix on the cover, but I think Adam had just sent me a cover sketch of his book that had a phoenix on it (go read INFINITY SON!), and in general I wanted to do something different because it is this Black Girl Magic anthology. It needed a Black girl on it.

From there, they picked Ashe Samuels:

I love indie comics, some of the most diverse work happening is in that field, so I knew of her work from this (amazing) Queer witch anthology (I believe there are two volumes now: I went through her portfolio and found some art pieces I loved the most, because I noticed that in some of her pieces the colors were a bit muted and that she tends towards yellows and browns. I wanted the cover to be like burn my eyes out vibrant, I love vibrant colors. So, I really wanted to make sure they could push her in that direction.

Here’s some pieces I loved of hers:

(Re: these, it’s really about the details. With the photo of John Boyega on the left, loved the way his Black skin looked in moonlight… the second is the art belonging to that witch anthology, those ombre shades of purple on the gowns and the brighter yellows in the liquid are everything.)

We went back and forth, each of us showing favorites we liked from Ashe’s work to try to really nail down the look we wanted. I also sent a moodboard with covers I love AND covers I hate. Again, having been an editor, sending things you hate helps just as much if not more because then they know to stay away from that.

By the end of January, we’d agreed to go with Ashe! Ultimately, Kendra trusted Samira to work with Ashe and produce the stunning cover we needed, and I trusted Kendra. Plus, they told me that if it didn’t work out, they were happy to start again.

MARCH 2019

By this time, the anthology had been publicly announced. YAY. (A whole year…but it was worth it! I knew people would be excited about this anthology, so I didn’t want to announce before we knew for certain that everyone was definitely on board i.e. we waited until all stories were turned in.)

In early March, WE GOT (black & white) SKETCHES! And I cried tears of joy!

In the words of my editor,

I know it can be pretty tough to make the mental leap from a sketch this raw/rough to final art. But I also know you’ve had to do it as an editor before. So, as you might have in that role, try to be looking more at the overall concept than at the nitty gritty of the art, which will get much more developed in further drafts.

As you can see, the central design is the same as the final cover. Instead of pulling something from the stories, they decided to do something original… I loved that decision and this direction.

Ignore the tagline. We kept working on that A LOT. Every single word of copy was very carefully chosen. We went for Black Girl Magic on the tagline because the characters are Black girls and the contributors, and I agreed that that encompassed the stories the best. But as you’ll notice on the back cover etc, we use “Black women and gender non-conforming individuals” when also talking about the contributors because that is specific to the contributors’ identities. Penguin Teen/Viking Children’s crushed it with all of that, from day one they were like what are everyone’s pronouns, how do people identify, can we use this word, what about this, etc. I truly feel that love and care is conveyed on this cover.

My main comments, aside from I love it, were that I liked the middle one the best—it felt powerful and epic, but also with a the perfect hint of vulnerability. I also had didn’t love the tagline (which we changed) and had issues re: readability of the type. As I said,

“A Phoenix” and “Burn” are fine but the “s’s” and the “m’s” run together a lot in this font so I feel from far away or shrunken down for online retailers no one would be able to read it. So maybe a new font or tinkering with this one?

Editor brain, haha, so I always think about how covers look from far away on shelves and online.

Towards the end of March, we got COLOR SKETCHES.

2020-01-23 (1)

As my editor said,

Still not final art but this is an opportunity for us to choose a color palette—the design team has given us two to choose from. I’ll be interested to hear which you prefer.

I also asked them for a variety of fonts for the title just to look at. None of these is at all final and we can totally do something entirely different type-wise if you don’t see a direction here that you think gets the book’s tone across.

I believe that the design team actually liked the first color palette the best. And then my agents liked the font of the fourth one the best. I was gravitating towards the brighter pinks and purples, because it me haha and I love those colors, so I sent to a bunch of friends and we pretty much all agreed on the last one, which is the closest to the final cover. I still felt the “s” wasn’t working. My agents also thought the type needed to be moved down, to not block the girl. I passed along all that feedback. Everyone agreed to go with the cover I liked the best.

APRIL 2019


So, publishers often have these art meetings where they take covers, in various stages, to be approved by the wider team or just to get feedback. Towards the end of April, Kendra came back saying it was approved. This is that cover:

  1. I totally loved it.
  2. My comments were that I felt that “Phoenix” got a little lost with the necklace and vice versa.

We went back and forth a bunch with little tweaks, blurring the necklace more, raising up the type, things like that… there are a lot of mini iterations, so I won’t share them all here as this would be the world’s longest post.

On April 26th I got this from Samira:

She said:

Attached are three options: the original art, one with the type moved down, and one with the girl moved up. In my eye, the type moved down isn’t a great choice because it crowds all the text at the bottom. It could be more balanced if there was a blurb at the top, but as is, it’s very awkward. And the girl moved up is technically okay, except the A starts to cut into her face! Not sure if that’s what we want, but I leave it to Patrice to decide.

I liked the middle one the most and asked them to move the “A” up just a bit.

And they did and they loved how it looked, YAY—I got the final art on April 30th!

We didn’t get a blurb for the top, haha. There was just a lot going on at the time and I felt like we had a rockstar list of contributors and didn’t need it. The anthology speaks for itself and I love that. Since then, we’ve gotten some FANTASTIC trade reviews, so I suspect we’ll be adding one/multiple of those for the paperback. Honestly, I love it.

Here’s what Samira, the in-house designer, had to say about this process:

I knew, when researching artists for the cover, that I wanted to prioritize finding a woman of color whose work showed passion for this genre. There’s something to be said for an illustrator having an innate understanding of both the identities represented in the story as well as the style in which they’re shared. Ashe was someone I pitched from the beginning for this very reason. Her portfolio—full of powerful women and breathtaking beasts in rich, elegant colors—told me she could intrinsically channel what we wanted to produce.

Her work also strongly brought to mind beloved cover art of my youth. The 90s were a special time for a young reader who loved fantasy but could also feel ostracizing for people of color, who were rarely shown on covers even if the story could be said to represent them. One of the goals of my career has been to help fill that void in a tangible way, anywhere I can, so no young person who seeks wonder or comfort in a book ever has to feel diminished or cast aside. I took great relish in suggesting our cover should depict a black feminine figure, in no uncertain terms. And rather than try to pull a specific character out from one of the many gorgeous stories in the collection, we chose to show a symbolic figure: one that captures the essence of all the stories, as well as the desires of the reader.

Ashe took our direction and ran with it, perfecting this floating space seraphim that bowls me over every time I look at her! And after exhausting a number of exciting type options, we landed on one with some sharp edges to complement the figure’s ethereal curves. I couldn’t be more satisfied with the end result, and truly hope this cover invites as many young people as possible into this book’s pages.

Samira is amazing, right? I was in the best of hands.

And then having Ashe as my cover artist has just been the biggest gift. It’s so clear how much she loves this book. She said:

I was first approached on this project as I am on most projects: a happy surprise in my e-mail. Phew, was this one happy surprise.

I’m familiar with Octavia Butler’s work, though I hadn’t read much beyond excerpts and quotes. This was a great reminder to get in touch with well-known authors that have slipped under my radar (and to stop rewatching shows I’ve already seen thrice over). Working with the Penguin Random House team has been a lesson in passion and professionalism. I am always grateful for smooth working experiences and doubly so for any insight provided in the artistic process. For example, the blue stars hadn’t been my idea, but a suggestion brought up in the end stages, and it totally blew (ha!) my mind. It was the perfect contrast for the peachy colors of the character’s dress.

This project is going to hold a forever place in my soul. My vision for the cover of A PHOENIX FIRST MUST BURN is the vision I see every time I stare off into the middle distance. Of dazzling expanses and effervescent hues. Galactic goddesses and parallel spaces. My art is a peek into my constant lean into the fantastic, and I’m touched that my lens has been added to the fractal of today and yesterday’s most stellar black writers.”

And, this is the not-final jacket (we made some small text tweaks… I’ll definitely do a reveal of the final one, likely on my Instagram but I just wanted to share it all put together here):

Please don’t share this/any of the images from this post except for the final cover as I was specifically allowed to use them for this post!

I’m tearing up as I’m finishing writing this. This cover, this book, it’s literally a dream come true. As I said in this letter I wrote for some booksellers,

A PHOENIX FIRST MUST BURN is the book I never knew I wanted (as a teen) because it’s the book that didn’t exist. I just never saw anything like this on shelves.

I was absolutely inspired by greats like Toni Morrison and Octavia Butler who so wonderfully and powerfully centered Black people—as well as Beyoncé’s Lemonade that’s very powerfully centered on Black southern womanhood and also has so much hope and vulnerability throughout (the anthology was pitched as Beyoncé’s Lemonade meets Octavia Butler) as well as the Dark Matter anthology, edited by Sheree Thomas. But I never saw anything like this growing up, for me as a queer, Black girl. I’m so thankful this cover exists exactly how it does. The UK one is similar yet different but just as powerful. I hope this was fun to see the many different paths/forms a cover can take on the way to the final product.

Find me on Twitter @whimsicallyours, where I’m happy to talk about this more.

Pre-order the book: (links to all major retailers can be found here)

And, thank you, again, Fadwa for having me!

About the author & editor


Patrice Caldwell is a graduate of Wellesley College and the founder & fundraising chair of People of Color in Publishing–a grassroots organization dedicated to supporting, empowering, and uplifting racially and ethnically marginalized members of the book publishing industry. Born and raised in Texas, Patrice was a children’s book editor before shifting to be a literary agent at Howard Morhaim Literary Agency.

In 2018, she was named a Publishers Weekly Star Watch honoree and featured on The Writer’s Digest podcast and Bustle’s inaugural “Lit List” as one of ten women changing the book world.

Her anthology, A PHOENIX FIRST MUST BURN–16 stories of Black girl magic, resistance, and hope–is out March 10, 2020 from Viking Books for Young Readers/Penguin Teen in the US/Canada and Hot Key Books in the UK! Visit Patrice online at, Twitter @whimsicallyours, and Instagram @whimsicalaquarian.

About the book

Patrice Cadwell - A Pheonix Must first burn

Publication date : March 10th, 2020

Publisher : Viking Books

Genre : Young Adult | Anthology

Page Count: 368

Synopsis : A PHOENIX FIRST MUST BURN: 16 stories of Black girl magic, resistance, and hope

Sixteen tales by bestselling and award-winning authors that explore the Black experience through fantasy, science fiction, and magic.

Evoking Beyoncé’s Lemonade for a teen audience, these authors who are truly Octavia Butler’s heirs have woven worlds to create a stunning narrative that centers Black women and gender nonconforming individuals. A Phoenix First Must Burn will take you on a journey from folktales retold to futuristic societies and everything in between. Filled with stories of love and betrayal, strength and resistance, this collection contains an array of complex and true-to-life characters in which you cannot help but see yourself reflected. Witches and scientists, sisters and lovers, priestesses and rebels: the heroines of A Phoenix First Must Burn shine brightly. You will never forget them.

Contributors: Elizabeth Acevdeo, Amerie, Patrice Caldwell, Dhonielle Clayton, Jalissa Corrie, Somaiya Daud, Charlotte David, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Danielle Paige, Rebecca Roanhorse, Karen Strong, Ashley Woodfolk, and Ibi Zoboi

GoodreadsAmazon USAmazon UKAmazon CABarnes & NobleIndieBound – IndigoWaterstones

The gorgeous banner template was created by Skye @shuurens on Twitter. Here’s her website and portfolio.

That’s it until next time.

Hope you enjoyed, write to you soon.


13 thoughts on “COLOR THE SHELVES: How the “A Phoenix First Must Burn” cover was born – by Patrice Caldwell

  1. I loved reading this post so much!! I’m really interested in cover designs because I remember my sister telling me about her novel idea when we were younger then I designed a cover for it straight away (and by design I mean probably stick people and random things) but still I’ve remained interested in the process!
    I think I somehow managed to full more in love with this cover as I read this post– it is so beautiful and the team behind it are amazing!!
    Wonderful post!! (I really loved it) ❤


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