Melissa Lee Johnson


I put a lot of time into my work. I’d like to put more time into sharing my work. Instagram is great, but it’s only good for the short story. So I’ll be sharing the long story here. Each project I work on has a process behind it, which is oftentimes collaborative and meandering. Maybe you’re a fellow illustrator, or maybe you’re a prospective client. Either way, I think you’ll learn a lot from taking a look behind the scenes.

A Castle in the Clouds Book Cover


I illustrated my first ever book cover for @macmillanusa!!! Achievement unlocked!!! This has been a goal of mine since I was a wee high school-er, illustrating book covers in my AP studio art class. Because I put so much work into this project, I’d like to share some of my process.

A Castle in the Clouds a Young Adult novel about a girl named Sophie and her adventures at the old Swiss Hotel she works at:

“Way up in the Swiss mountains, there's an old grand hotel steeped in tradition and faded splendor. Once a year, when the famous New Year's Eve Ball takes place and guests from all over the world arrive, excitement returns to the vast hallways.

Sophie, who works at the hotel as an intern, is busy making sure that everything goes according to plan. But unexpected problems keep arising, and some of the guests are not who they pretend to be. Very soon, Sophie finds herself right in the middle of a perilous adventure—and at risk of losing not only her job, but also her heart.”

The author, Kerstin Gier, is a New York Times bestselling author. Her Ruby Red Trilogy series was translated into over twenty-seven languages. A Castle in the Clouds was originally released in German, with the English release featuring my cover. I was given an early translation of the manuscript to aid me in my process.

The Illustration Process

Because the novel is set in the Swiss Alps, at a chalet-style Grand Hotel, I was inspired by the Prince of Wales Hotel. Although it’s in Canada, it had the perfect Swiss look. I find architecture to be difficult to draw without reference. Oddly enough, I also think it’s difficult to draw architecture on my iPad…so I drew the entire thing on my computer. With a mouse. I don’t understand how I picked up that habit, but here we are.

Earlier Version of Sophie

Final Version of Sophie

Sophie Detail

The element I spent most of my time on was the portrait of Sophie, the protagonist of the novel. Sophie is a ordinary 17-year-old girl with wild red hair and hazel eyes. She wears a hotel uniform that looks plain on the hanger, but surprisingly lovely when worn. She is smart, determined, and has a trademark witty humor. The Art Director and I had to make a few round of revisions to get her age, personality, and expression just right. Illustration is an odd skill in that you need to know how to convey specific abstract traits, like wit, using only facial expression and body language. As you can see in an early version of Sophie (and even more so in my sketches), I didn’t have these details ironed out yet.


Always one for detail, the artwork I submitted before final revisions was much more involved than the final edit. While this version of the type treatment is my personal favorite, I understand why Macmillan went for a simpler execution. Quick legibility is always a concern with covers that feature script-style text.

Original typography variation

Original typography variation


On the left is the artwork I submitted before final edits were given to me. On the right is the final artwork that was approved- can you spot the differences?

Submitted Artwork

Submitted Artwork

Final Artwork

Final Artwork


On the flip side, the illustration of the “The Forbidden Cat” was pretty easy. While pets are not allowed in the hotel, the Forbidden Cat has always been there. I thought he would be a playful addition to the cover. In my experience, throwing in an animal illustration never hurts. I also love to layer the illustrated elements with the type to marry them together.

Of course I had to include the “Forbidden Cat”

Of course I had to include the “Forbidden Cat”


While the cover has been approved, some final touches need to be completed before the entire book is complete. including spot illustrations for the back cover and inner flap (you know what they say- don’t judge a book by just its cover!) I’ll be updating with a new blog post once the entire jacket has been completed. And I might even get an Advanced Reader Copy to show off. If you’ve gotten this far; Set your alarms for 1/28/20 so you can scoop up A Castle in the Clouds!