Bringing Book Covers to Life With Thom Stead

Thom Stead couldn’t get the crocodile right. He ended up making the reptile out of clay, then pitching it. It took weeks for an “aha moment” to rear its head. And that moment? Thom lives for it. Stead recreates book covers and posts them on his Instagram account, readbooks.servelooks. And the cover of Swamplandia was a doozy.

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Swamplandia by Karen Russell

He loves “letting his brain think and finding out how to make impossible pictures possible.” And he’s good at that, recreating head-scratchers such as Where The Sidewalk Ends and Life of Pi.

I want people to sit and wonder how the f*** I did it. I have to grab [their] attention or they’ll just scroll by. But I also want to make them happy, provide a moment of joy. And that takes work.

Wonder and work are the perfect words to describe Thom Stead’s book cover recreation art.

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Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein

Artistic Roots

Art has always been a part of Thom’s life. His dad is an art professor (and head of the art department) at Shawnee State University. Thom grew up among those classrooms. He started painting at age eleven but put it down after college. Adult life crowded out the mental and physical space for that outlet. But, when COVID-19 and the resulting quarantine hit, Stead found himself with a lot of time on his hands.

And he had some new(ish) skills. While attending grad school, Thom learned to use more advanced software programs. He had no idea how handy these programs would be in recreating book covers.

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The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

When Looks Turned Into Books

Thom and his friend were bored. They began posting pictures of themselves in monochrome outfits using wacky hashtags. Stead found himself holding different books to match his outfits. He soon ran out of books and outfits but had an idea. What if he could recreate the covers of his favorite books?

His first recreation was easy enough. It features Thom holding a red book, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, wearing a red outfit, sitting on a bench draped with a red cloth, under a red painting. Stead tagged the author, Alexander Che, who immediately responded. The heady combination of creating art, celebrating literature, and connecting with his favorite authors encouraged Thom to keep going.

Bibliophile Life

See, Thom loves books. All books. His house is filled with them. “I just like to be around them,” he says. Thom looks to books for inspiration, knowledge, and “a shock to the system.” Thom says, “those are the moments I look for in books. Knowledge is power.”

Stead describes himself as a “before bed reader,” not a “nose in a book all day” reader. But Thom’s latest artistic endeavors have him more engrossed in books than ever before. He’s now reading, recreating covers, and listening to books while painting and exercising.

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Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Thom Stead’s Process

In the beginning, Thom was making easier pieces that took only a couple of hours to complete. Now, he’s branched in “a bunch of different directions.” He draws, takes photos, paints in acrylics, works in ceramics, and has even painted trash bags to complete a recreation. It may take him from a few days to a couple of weeks to finish a book cover.

Once he’s done creating the materials, it’s time to use software. Thom edits photos with LightRoom and Adobe Illustrator. He’s begun using Bazaart to layer photos as well.

Choosing the Books

Big surprise: Stead chooses the books he recreates mostly by the covers. At first, he chose the books he liked and was drawn to. Or what he had around the house. But he soon ran out of options. Now, he picks “famous books that people will recognize, but that I can do a twist on.” It helps if the books have people or animals on their covers. Thom finds it understandably hard to recreate covers with just pictures or graphics on them.

“When I see a book I want to do, I know instantaneously. I just know it.” Thom likes covers that are campy and weird and also ones that use a lot of color. These give him the space to add humor and drama. When a book cover features a photo fans often expect an exact reproduction. Stead enjoys the wiggle room that an illustrated cover gives.

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Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

An Overwhelming Response

Stead’s book cover recreations took off immediately. “At first I was posting them on my own Instagram handle,” he states, “but [the recreations] were getting more likes than my own pictures.” Thom’s art took on a life of its own. His book cover recreation of the cookbook Nothing Fancy was reposted by the author and garnered Thom many new followers.

Thom doesn’t want to get pigeonholed into recreating certain types of books. What differentiates Thom from other literary social media figures is that he’s not reviewing the books he posts. He doesn’t take a particular stance; there’s not a lot of room to disagree with him. And that’s great, where he’s concerned. “I am a reader and I do write about the book, but I’m not ready to polarize,” he says. “I just want to be a weirdo.”

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Circe by Madeline Miller

He Doesn’t Want Our Money

Thom is not looking to monetize. I know. It’s shocking. He just wants to make art that makes people happy.

Stead saw how hard it was for his dad to make money from art. And he doesn’t want anything to do with that side of the art world.  Being able to make art is reward enough for him. Thom’s art is “a respite, my form of art therapy. Let’s keep money out of it.”

I find that extremely refreshing.

Follow Thom Stead on Instagram under the handle readbooks.servelooks to see all of his book cover recreations. He often asks followers for suggestions about what book covers to recreate next. And you won’t wanna miss one literary (and interesting!) piece.



Megan writes everything on Ish Mom. She possesses a bachelor's degree in psychology, a flair for theatrics, and a whole lotta nerve. She lives in the Midwest (and loves it) with her wonderful husband and three young boys.

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