As a follow-up to her acclaimed 2011 debut, Between Shades of Gray (Philomel), a Lithuanian girl’s tale of tragedy and triumph during WWII, Ruta Sepetys’s new historical novel, Salt to the Sea, set in Europe during the same era, will be released on February 9, 2016 (Philomel). PW spoke to the author and the jacket designer about the book and its cover, exclusively revealed here.

Salt to the Sea is set in winter of 1945 and unearths a story of World War II that has been hidden for 70 years,” Sepetys explains. “Told through the journey of four separate young people, the novel weaves together the population expulsion of East Prussia, the disappearance of the Amber Room treasure, and the tragedy of the [German ship] Wilhelm Gustloff.” The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, she says, was a maritime disaster larger than both the Titanic and Lusitania combined, “yet somehow it’s a story that history has conspired to forget.”

Like Sepetys’ first book, this new project delves deeply into a little-known historical event, a practice that drives the author. “History, particularly hidden history, is absolutely a passion of mine,” she says. “I often wonder, what determines how a culture’s history and legacy are preserved and recalled? Can fiction play a role in that? Why do some aspects of history become common knowledge while others remain unknown? I’ve collected countless pieces of hidden history and have a list of over 20 projects that I’m dying to write.”

But discovering a piece of hidden history is merely the first spark for Sepetys when she contemplates taking on a new writing subject. Certain stories demand her attention because of a connection she feels to them. Salt to the Sea evolved from one of those. “Stories of strength through struggle resonate strongly with me,” notes Sepetys. “I’m the daughter of a refugee. After fleeing from Stalin, my father lived in refugee camps for nine years. He lost his country, his home, and his extended family.” For Sepetys, writing Salt to the Sea gave her an opportunity to explore how young people face this kind of exile, provided a deeper understanding of her family’s experience, and confirmed for her that “humanity can prevail—even in the darkest of hours.”

The response to Salt to the Sea from very early readers, including fellow authors, booksellers, and librarians, has been effusive. But getting the look of the book just right is equally important. Finding the best way to visually let readers know what they will find in one of Sepetys’ novels has been a task entrusted to Theresa Evangelista, assistant art director at Penguin Young Readers Group. “For both covers, the challenge was to find a way to convey the fact that although these are tragic stories, they ultimately leave you with a sense of hope and humanity,” says Evangelista. “Actually, the cover process for both was similar in that we started with very literal depictions of what was going on in each story – a girl’s eyes peering through the cracks on a refugee train for Between Shades of Gray, a hauntingly lit sinking ship for Salt to the Sea – but always ended up with an image that was more abstract and symbolic. We settled on the final image for Salt to the Sea after many rounds of ideas and it was the result of a truly collaborative process between myself, my art director, and the editorial team.”

Sepetys believes the jacket hits the mark. “I love the fact that it is atmospheric and gender neutral and speaks to the tone of the book!” she says. And now readers and retailers can consider it too, before Salt to the Sea officially hits shelves.