Finding design inspiration in Russian fairytales

Designer David Grogan tells the story behind the cover for Katherine Arden's beautiful new book, The Bear and the Nightingale

The Bear and the Nightingale is inspired by traditional Russian fairytales. How did you draw on Russian culture and folklore when working on the cover?

I wanted to use an illustration that drew on the rich colour and style of traditional Russian folk art. Aitch, the illustrator I commissioned for the cover, has a style that matches it perfectly.

Traditional Russian folk artwork
Traditional Russian folk artwork

Which aspects of the story did you want to highlight in the design?

The fairytale magic, the winter landscape and the epic journey Vasya makes. I thought it was important to show our heroine, her allies and adversaries, and to give a sense of the tradition and simple village life that are key aspects of the book.

What were the first ideas that came to mind when you read the book? Did any of them make it into the final design?

The image of a snowy path winding through the lush forest was definitely one of my initial thoughts. As a white ribbon running through the illustration, it also helped to bring a sense of movement to the typography, and - from a purely practical point of view - to make the text on the cover more readable.

The Bear and The Nightingale, black book cover
The Bear and The Nightingale, white book cover


Can you describe the process you went through to design this book – from working on the concept of an idea, to creating the finished product?

Having decided on an approach, I sketched out a rough design and presented it to the editor with a selection of Russian folk artworks, and samples of Aitch's beautiful illustrations. Aitch was then commissioned to produce detailed rough artwork of the forest, the path and the characters that Vasya encounters. After the rough had been aproved, he produced the finished painting, which was the centrepiece for the cover design, and we added the other elements.  

The Bear and The Nightingale, book cover

Finally, what’s your favourite book?

Apart from The Bear and the Nightingale, it would have to be A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving – a heartbreaking tale of childhood, angels, destiny, humanity and God, which happens to star one of the most extraordinary heroes in modern American literature.

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