The love and comfort of #PenguinBooks: A chat with illustrator Alanna Cavanagh

“Something about the classic orange and blue covers with the simple design and cartouche at top made my heart go up and down.”

~Alanna Cavanagh


Vintage Penguin Books: wisdom, beauty and comfort all in one tiny, perfect package. Alanna Cavanagh’s oversized (26″ by 40″) silk-screened prints capture the spirit of the original — tea stains and all — only magnified to magnificent proportions.

room3 tea

Cavanagh is a Toronto-based illustrator, artist and surface designer who elevates the everyday: whether it is her artful rendering of walking the dog, reading a book or drinking a glass of wine. Her work adorns book covers, walls, windows, tea towels (too beautiful to use!) greeting cards and magazines.


Cavanagh takes commonplace, often overlooked, objects and reminds us of their significance. Her scissors, for example, are a homage to her mother. Lenore Cavanagh, a mother of six, encouraged her daughter’s artistic ability by keeping her well stocked with craft supplies. Cavanagh told the Globe and Mail, “The scissors here represent being able to make things with limited means.”


As with all of her art, I had long suspected that there was an interesting story behind the Penguin covers. So I emailed her a few questions. Her response, her story, is as joyful as her art–and proves yet again that second hand bookstores are magical places. Here is my unedited conversation with Alanna Cavanagh:

L&FB: Where did the idea for the Penguin prints come from?

AC: After graduating from university in 1992, I worked in an used bookstore on Queen Street West (called  The Village Bookstore). Out of all the books in the shop it was the old Penguins that I loved looking at the most. In the paperback racks I used to make sure that they were the ones “facing out” as I found them so beautiful (especially the ones with big coffee and tea rings on them). Something about the classic orange and blue covers with the simple design and cartouche at top made my heart go up and down.

I thought then “I’d love to do something to celebrate these someday…”


I had decided I wanted to become an illustrator so I began working on a portfolio and eventually built a career in illustration.

Twelve years later, in early 2006, I took a silk screening course and was then asked to mount a show at Jet Fuel Coffee in June. I began sketching ideas for a show.

At the same time I was working on illustrations for a book on the history of handbags, and for my research the publisher wondrously sent me to New York City to meet with some well-known handbag designers, including Kate Spade! (A dream assignment!) The displays in Kate Spade’s midtown office were filled with vintage Penguin books and my love of them flooded back, and I thought: “AHA! Subject matter for my show!”

Feeling very inspired, I began doing sketches of a woman curled up reading a Penguin book, but none of them were working until suddenly I thought: “The book itself is beautiful enough! I’m gonna do it all on its own—and really big!!”

So I did.

It turned out there were many other folks in the universe that felt the same way about Penguin books as I did—as the seven prints I originally created all sold on opening night.

Since 2006 the prints have come to feel even more significant as more and more people read on devices. They are a celebration of reading and the transformational nature of books in one’s life, and now also a celebration of a beautiful and disappearing cultural artifact!

L&FB: Do you judge a book by its cover?

AC: I’m an illustrator and fine artist so I’m basically ONE BIG EYE so the answer is “Oh yes!”

L&FB: Favourite book/author?

AC: Too tough to pick just one. A short list:

The first three are books about designers/the creative process that affected me profoundly:

  1. Paul Rand by Steven Heller
  1. Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist Edited by Peter Hall and Michael Beirut
  1. The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp
  1. The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton
  1. A Widow for One Year by John Irving (Love!)
  1. Super Sad True Love Story  by Gary Shteyngart
  1. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
  1. Important Artifacts etc... by Leanne Shapton (Amazing!!)
  1. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

and like everyone else…

  1. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (everyone i knew was reading this novel this past winter) 🙂

I could go on and on…I love talking about books. They have taught me so much and provided such comfort for me over the years.

I love this quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

There are “books which take rank in our life with parents and lovers and passionate experiences.”


L&FB: Is paper still important in a paperless world? If so, why?

AC: They feel nice to hold!


Books collected on a shelf can serve as a physical embodiment of your intellectual journey. They are reminders of what you’ve learned, interests you’ve developed and also ideas you once believed in but have since grown out of.

A big thanks to Alanna for sharing her story.


You can peruse Alanna Cavanagh’s Penguin prints and other works of art here, purchase her newest prints and greeting cards here, read her blog, and follow her on Twitter.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s