Jacqueline Woodson’s readers know that she is skilled at moving the goal post for herself, always exploring new themes and genres in her work. Adding to her long list of prestigious career accolades, just last week she was named the winner of the 2020 Hans Christian Andersen Award for writing, the first U.S. author to receive the international prize since 1998. Looking ahead to fall, her new middle grade novel, Before the Ever After (Penguin/Paulsen, Sept.), tackles the emotional territory in a story focused on family, football, and the effects of neurogenerative disease CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). We have an exclusive first look at the book’s jacket, as well as some insights from the author and editor.

In Before the Ever After, 12-year-old ZJ struggles to understand the recent changes in his beloved father, an adored pro football star who is now angry all the time and has trouble remembering things, including ZJ’s name. Though his mother explains that these tendencies are likely due to the repeated head injuries his dad suffered on the playing field, ZJ worries whether his family will find a way to hold on to the happier memories and traditions they’ve shared. “As always, I wanted to write about something I felt was important—in this case it was the deep bond between fathers and sons and what happens when outside forces work against that bond,” Woodson said, recalling the genesis of the book. “I also wanted to explore CTE in a way I had not seen done in literature young people will read.”

Woodson reflected on just some of what she has treasured during the process of bringing ZJ’s story to life. “Writing a book is a journey—filled with highs and lows and frustrations and glories,” she said. “Right now, I love the sweet space between finishing the book and seeing it in the world one day soon. And then I love when I begin hearing from the young people who’ve read it. I also love how much I learn from writing a book. In this case, learning so much about CTE, what causes it, how long it took for people to acknowledge the damaging effects of contact sports, the fact that the doctor who brought it to people’s attention was African American—my list goes on.”

Woodson’s longtime editor Nancy Paulsen, publisher of her eponymous imprint at Penguin Young Readers, believes that Before the Ever After will be a draw for readers “because it deals with some of the big questions we all have—[including] how do you move forward when you are aching for the past?” Paulsen noted that CTE “was rarely diagnosed in 2000, when the book takes place. Jacqueline writes vividly about what it feels like when your father starts to feel like a stranger and when he appears so lost and tearful that your own heart wants to break too. But there is plenty of joy in the book as well—ZJ is a songwriter and has a great group of friends who have his back—those are the things he can count on to keep him focused and supported.”

When it came to drafting a concept for the book jacket, Paulsen worked with associate director of art/design Theresa Evangelista, who has art-directed a number of Woodson’s covers before. “We knew we wanted it to convey the loving relationship ZJ has with his father,” Paulsen said. “There’s one poem in the book about all the things that happen to ZJ when he is on his father’s shoulders and I asked our fabulous design team to focus on that, and they found the perfect illustrator in Stephanie Singleton.” Paulsen elaborated on the cover image. “There’s a real majesty and timelessness to Singleton’s work,” she said. “She captures stillness, what it’s like to really experience a moment in time, and there’s an elegance to her art that we thought was the perfect accompaniment to Jacqueline’s writing.”

Woodson said she is pleased with how it turned out. “Getting the right cover is a process—and eventually we landed at a place where I can look at my cover and smile,” she said. “There is a lot of love in the image—and hope. It’s not the cover I imagined because I’m a writer, not an illustrator. I actually had no idea of an imagined cover. But once this cover was here—the beauty of a boy sitting on his father’s shoulders with the leaves falling around them—it all feels right, exactly what this cover should be. It feels true.”