New information about the mystery of Janet Halverson, book design icon, surfaces

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It was a mystery.

That’s what we were left with when I last wrote about Janet Halverson, the creator of iconic book covers from the 1950s to the 1990s, including Joan Didion’s “Play It As It Lays,” Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and Jack Kerouac’s “Big Sur.”

Despite creating indelible designs for classic books, Halverson herself is largely unknown and unheralded. And that shouldn’t be.

That’s what Michael Russem, book designer and owner of Katherine Small Gallery near Boston, thought. So after years of tracking down everything he could about Halverson and her work, Russem mounted an exhibit of her designs.

As Russem, who’s also a friend, told me earlier this year, he’d been shocked at how little information there was.

“There’s nothing about her anywhere. There are all sorts of magazine articles about these other guys, but nothing about her,” he’d said then. “Graphic designers … all recognize her work and recognize it as being good. But she just went unnoticed, which is true of all the women of her generation. There are no magazine articles about any of them.”

Even after years of searching, he’d come up empty. Then something changed.

“I got an email not long after your article came out from one of Janet’s nieces,” Russem told me this week, adding that Halverson’s niece Susan lives a little more than 10 miles away from him. “She’d found your piece online.”

“That is something I never expected to happen,” says Russem about connecting with a family member so near. “Somehow we caught her at just the right time.”

Book covers from “Janet Halverson: An Introduction.” (Courtesy of Katherine Small Gallery)

Halverson’s niece told him that the designer had died in early 2018, having spent the last few years of her life battling Alzheimer’s disease. Russem invited Susan and her husband to come see what he’d collected.

“They came to the store. Unfortunately, the show had just closed. So we didn’t get to look at the show, but I pulled out some of the books and we talked about them … Janet was Susan’s aunt, not ‘a famous graphic designer,’ so I learned about her as a person, not necessarily what she thought about design,” he says.

I asked Russem how they’d described Halverson. She could be challenging in certain circumstances, he was told, but she could also be a charmer.

“She was smart and funny. She skipped grades in school, which explains how she graduated from college at age 19 – that was something I’d always found weird. She hung out with artists and writers and she lived the life of an artist. And then when she was no longer designing,” he told me. “She switched to painting.”

Was there anything he learned about her work? Apparently, Russem says, Halverson loathed her design for the ’70s blockbuster novel “The Thorn Birds” – the publisher had insisted on a naturalistic illustration – and never wanted to see it again.

Halverson’s niece remembered seeing her aunt’s designs in bookstores as a child. How did she and her husband respond to an entire exhibit devoted to the work?

“They were kind of surprised by all this, even though they had known from googling her that people were interested,” says Russem, who then poses his own question. “Why were people interested? There was just something special about her work – and then to know this work was made by a woman at a time when women weren’t getting any attention made her story even more special.”

Book covers from “Janet Halverson: An Introduction.” (Courtesy of Katherine Small Gallery)

Despite the belief that Halverson’s materials, papers and letters did not survive, it’s possible there will be more to unravel, more to learn. A library sciences student has already reached out to Russem about Halverson’s work, he says.

And for Russem, connecting with Halverson’s family was a powerful experience on its own, whatever comes next.

“Oh my gosh, I was ecstatic, because I’d hoped that this would provide all the missing answers,” says Russem. “It didn’t, which I’m almost glad for because then it would mean this was all done and over.”

See more of Russem’s collection of Halverson’s designs at The People’s Graphic Design Archive or visit Katherine Small Gallery.

Jenny Erpenbeck, International Booker Prize winner, in Southern California

Writer Jenny Erpenbeck signs books at the Wende Museum in Culver City on May 18, 2024. (Photo by Erik Pedersen/SCNG)

This week, the writer Jenny Erpenbeck won the International Booker Prize for her novel, “Kairos.” Translator Michael Hofmann shares the prize with her.

Just a few days prior, I ventured out to the Wende Museum in Culver City to see Erpenbeck in conversation with Louise Steinman. It was a blustery day and a community event in the park nearby added to the festivities (and the dearth of parking), but it was a pleasure to return to the unusual museum, which is a “art museum, cultural center, and archive of the Cold War.”

Held outside, the discussion was a little hard to hear in some spots, but it was being recorded (I reached out to the museum to find out if it would be made available to the public but hadn’t heard back as I wrote this). Erpenbeck, as she began to read from “Kairos,” joked that Southern California was good for her: “I don’t need my glasses. I become younger here.”

Afterward, I was able to chat with the author for a few minutes as the book signing got underway, mentioning that I’d been introduced to her work by Jean Gillingwators who runs Blackbird Press in Upland and who has great, eclectic taste in books (so I may have picked up a copy for her along with my own from Village Well, which was the event vendor).

And in keeping with the event’s small world feeling, I also ran into Laura Silverstein and Tom Nissley of the excellent Phinney Books, one of my favorite bookstores in Seattle, who were visiting. (Tom is another Backlisted podcast fan, too.) They were with Krank Press printer Elinor Nissley and jack-of-all-cool-trades Alex MacInnis who made a series of audio programs called Valley of Smoke that I really liked. They’re an accomplished bunch – google Tom’s “Jeopardy” run, for example – but also friendly folks. It made the day even better.

Why am I sharing all this? Possibly as a suggestion that it can be a good idea to go to an in-person author reading and pick up a signed book or three. Or that Southern California had the International Man Booker Prize winner in our midst, and it was pretty terrific.

Julia Hannafin likes the covers of old paperback novels

Julia Hannafin is the author of “Cascade.” (Courtesy of Great Place Books)

Julia Hannafin is the author of the novel “Cascade,” published in April by independent press Great Place Books. They have worked as a staff writer on Showtime’s “The L Word: Generation Q” and as an assistant to screenwriter Eric Roth while he was writing the script for Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune.” 

Q: How do you decide what to read next?

A mix of friends’ recommendations, Twitter, and following the syllabi of the online classes I’ve taken after college. Rabbit holes of writers I admire.

Q: Do you remember the first book that made an impact on you?

I was a big reader as a kid and don’t remember the first. But I loved Gabrielle Zevin’s “Elsewhere” and her vision of an afterlife. I read the Tamora Pierce series on Alanna’s journey to becoming a knight cover to cover. And my middle school English teacher made us memorize poems and perform them, which introduced me to e.e. cummings, who showed me I could do whatever I wanted with nouns and verbs.

Q: What’s something – a fact, a bit of dialogue or something else – that stayed with you from a recent reading?

I’m thinking about what Hanif Abdurraqib said in a recent interview, how in a desire to love someone in a big way, we can rush to love the imagined person, not the actual. Also, from Maya Binyam’s “Hangman”: “I tried to go home — home was inside of me.” And from Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain,” “If you can’t fix it you got a stand it. … I been looking at people on the street. This happen a other people? What the hell do they do?”

Q: Do you have any favorite book covers?

I love small, ‘70s and ‘80s style paperbacks — graphic and bright and simple. I also love the Clarice Lispector series of books where her portrait comes together in four parts.

Q: Do you have a favorite book or books?

“Things We Lost in The Fire” by Mariana Enríquez, “Jesus’ Son” by Denis Johnson, “The Parable of the Sower” by Octavia Butler, “To The Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf.

Q: Which books do you plan, or hope, to read next?

José Saramago’s “Blindness.”

Q: What’s something about your book that no one knows?

I think part of my writing this book was an attempt to understand my mom Dawn better, whose father, my grandfather, died from a heart attack and the disease of alcoholism. She was pregnant with me when he died.

More books, authors and bestsellers

“All Fours,” a new novel by Miranda July, is the top-selling fiction release at Southern California’s independent bookstores. (Courtesy of Riverhead Books)

The week’s bestsellers

The top-selling books at your local independent bookstores. READ MORE

• • •

Christine Ma-Kellams debut novel “The Band” tells the story of a canceled K-pop star who hides out in Southern California with an older psychology professor he randomly meets in a South Bay H Mart. (Photo by Tirza Cubias, book image courtesy of Atria Books)

Band(member) on the run

A disgraced K-pop star hides in Southern California. ‘The Band’ tells the story. READ MORE

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Former Lush singer and guitarist Miki Berenyi is the author of a new memoir, “Fingers Crossed.” (Photo credit Abbey Raymonde / Courtesy of Mango)

Lush life

A ’90s pop star, Miki Berenyi tells her own story ahead of LA show. READ MORE

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Hari Kunzru’s new novel, “Blue Ruin” largely takes place on an estate in upstate New York during the 2020 lockdown. (Photo credit Clayton Cubitt / Courtesy of Knopf)

‘Blue’ Clues

Hari Kunzru’s “Blue Ruin” examines love and relationships during lockdown. READ MORE

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Amy Tan, the critically acclaimed author of “The Joy Luck Club” and other works, will discuss her new book “The Backyard Bird Chronicles” at two Southern California venues on May 20 and 21. (Photo by Kim Newmoney/Cover image courtesy Knopf)

Avian calling

Amy Tan hopes “The Backyard Bird Chronicles” makes you a conservationist. READ MORE

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Book pitch

Why Los Angeles Dodgers great Clayton Kershaw agreed to a new biography. READ MORE

Bookish (SCNG)

Next on ‘Bookish’

Check out the next event with Alex Espinoza and Mike Madrid

June 21 at 5 p.m. Sign up for free now.

• • •

Have you read anything you’d like to share with other readers? Email with “ERIK’S BOOK PAGES” in the subject line and I may include your comments in an upcoming newsletter.

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Thanks, as always, for reading.

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