I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, 371 pp, RL: TEEN

This Review Originally Appeared on 1/9/15

Back in 2011 I bought the sky is everywhere, the debut novel by Jandy Nelson, when it came out in paperback. She graduated from the high school my kids go to and I was curious. Like so many books I buy, I still have not (but I will, I will!) read it. When I saw Nelson's newest book, I'll Give You the Sun, I was enthralled by the cover art and impressed by this bold choice for a YA book. A stellar review in the New York Times by fellow YA author Lauren Oliver (read my reviews of Oliver's books here) cemented my decision to read/listen to I'll Give You the Sun.

Writing this review, as the writing of many book reviews does for me, sent me down the rabbit hole of the internet. Having worked for a literary agent for a year and being privy to a handful author-agent-editor discussions on book covers, especially for YA books, I got a glimpse of the decision-making process and what the wrong cover can  do to a book. I wanted to know more about the cover for I'll Give You the Sun, which reminded me of covers for contemporary adult fiction I had seen. Before I stopped working as a bookseller this year, I noticed a change in the covers of YA books and I feel like the cover for I'll Give You the Sun spearheads this shift away from pictures of teens on covers toward less specifically suggestive, more artistic (and mature?) cover designs, perhaps reflecting the fact that an increasing number of adults are reading YA. For more on YA book covers and the work of Theresa M. Evangelista, the designer of I'll Give You the Sun, read on after the review.

Jandy Nelson, who has an MFA in poetry from Brown and an MFA in writing for children and young adults from the prestigious Vermont College of Fine Arts, worked for many years as a literary agent. On her blog she says she loves to teach and might go back to school again to study art history or religion. Nelson's love of knowledge - of art, poetry, diseases, superstitions - and love of sharing this knowledge pours out of every page of I'll Give You the Sun, a book about artistically gifted fraternal twins who are the children of college professors, their mother having written a definitive book on Michelangelo's sexuality. A strong voice in a first-person narrative always makes for a powerful book, and in I'll Give You the Sun Nelson gives readers not one but two compelling voices in Noah and his sister, Jude. Not only do the twins take turns narrating, their stories unfold in different timelines, reminding me of the amazing award winning  Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

Fiction can give us happy endings that don't always happen in real life. Really good fiction gives us happy endings that make us believe happy endings in real life are possible, and this is exactly what Nelson achieves in I'll Give You the Sun. While either twin will tell you, it's always been Noah and Jude, or, more precisely, NoahandJude, each has a distinctive voice and powerful way of describing their art, their creativity being the filter through which they see their world. Noah's voice is the first we hear. He begins his narrative at the age of 13 1/2, while Jude begins hers at age 16, almost two years after their mother's death. Noah's narrative leads up to the tragedy and the immediate devastation while Jude's reveals a lingering aftermath that is a tangle of lies, jealousy, guilt, regret, pain and isolation. However, as we learn from both narrators, small tragedies began undermining the family foundation well before their mother's death. Hugely competitive, and in part (unknowingly?) spurred on by their mother, Jude falls away from her brother, mother and from her creativity - dressmaking and sand sculpting - when it seems that her mother is more impressed by Noah's gifts for drawing and painting than her own. Noah, always feeling like an outsider because he is cautious and unathletic, unlike his father and Jude, both golden haired surfers and daredevils, believes he has to hide his sexuality from his family and everyone, already tormented by high school bullies.

Nelson does a masterful job plotting and populating I'll Give You the Sun, especially with the dual narrative and timelines and gradual revelations, but it is the characters of Jude and Noah who rise up off the page, much like the giant stone sculptures of Guillermo Garcia. Garcia, along with Jude and Noah's parents and the ghost of Granny Sweetwine, make up a cast of adult characters  with complex emotional lives and get a fair amount of page time, not uncommon for a YA book. Noah has an "Invisible Museum" and is always composing drawings and paintings in his head and titling them like, "Self-Portrait: A Window Flies Open in My Chest," which is composed when his mother tells the twins that they should apply to the local fine arts high school, an inspiration that came from communing with Grandma Sweetwine's ghost, or, "Self-Portrait:Boy Dives into a Lake of Light," when his mother praises his drawing. Jude's narrative, which is titled, "The History of Luck," is almost suffocated, initially, by her obsessive superstitions and hypochondria, the first fueled by the "bible" left to her by her grandmother, a blank leather journal filled to overflowing with collected superstitions, many shared by patrons of her shop where she designed and sold dresses. Both narrators find their way back to the selves they set aside after their mother's death, and back to their creativity, through a sometimes painful path of human connection that Nelson presents with depth and sensitivity in a way that is very satisfying.

Source: Purchased Audio Book

Thoughts on YA Book Cover Design

First off, I need to mention 50 Best YA Book Covers, as well as a list of bests for adult fiction and non-fiction. As someone who has been cutting and pasting images and creating links on this blog since 2008, as well as someone who obsessively feels the need to credit authors, illustrators, narrators and as many of the people I can track down who design amazing covers, I have a deep appreciation for the time and effort these lists took to compile. Below you'll find an overview of Evangelista's cover design work, then an overview of current YA covers, past YA covers and a shortlist of covers from the Casual Optimist's Top 50. I have to confess, even for someone who has a keen interest in cover design, they did start to blur and run together for me. In fact, last year writing for the YASLA blog, the Hub, Sharon Rawlins wrote a great piece on Copycat Covers.

Of course, the cover Theresa M. Evangelista designed for I'll Give You the Sunmade the list. Evangelista also an updated cover for the paperback edition of Nelson's first YA novel, seen below, alongside the original hardback cover and the first paperback cover, which she also designed.


The cover for  I'll Give You the Sun is radically different from Evangelista's other work, all YA except the cover for counting by 7s, which is a middle grade novel.

Here is a look at some current YA book covers:

Some older book cover designs for comparison
(note: most of these are Printz winners)

Covers from the Top 50 of 2014 list:
(starting with my Top 2)

These two covers struck me as the most adult of the group, along with Evangelista's design for I'll Give You the Sun:

And finally, a bête noire of mine. Below is a trilogy I started reading in 2010 and continued to buy in hardcover on the release date. I never really liked the original cover, but it still bugs me that I don't have a matched set . . .

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