Reading Covers


Sorry for my absence from the blog. Between the World Series and my trip to Chicago for ALA Fall Exec, time just got away from me.

But covers: yes, absolutely covers make a difference–in more ways than one.

I think your weeding examples are good ones. There’s no point in a book taking up valuable real estate if no one is looking at it. There can be lots of reasons for that, and dull covers can be a major contributor. Outdated covers can also kill a book’s circulation. Those paperbacks from the 80s, where the kids have big hair, are an example. Also, these 80s paperback covers were almost always drawings, not photographs. Today the trend seems to be  photographs of real people (or, frequently, parts of people–feet, parts of faces, headless bodies) or something stylistic but essentially non-representational.

So obviously, there are trends in cover art, and publishers are constantly updating the covers of some of these books, to keep up with the times. Look at two newer versions of the Judy Blume book pictured on the left:

The real question for libraries is whether they are taking advantage of these changes. Are we getting those books with hokey old covers off the shelves and replacing them with newer stuff? Because, let’s face it, if the cover is that old, the book itself is probably falling apart or brittle and yellow. If it’s still in good condition, then no one is reading it, and the question is why? Because it’s a crappy book or because they won’t come near it with a ten-foot pole with that cover on it?

I went to a readers’ advisory workshop once in which the presenter pointed out that as readers, we–that is, librarians–know how to decode book covers, where non-readers don’t. All of us judge books by their covers all the time, but we readers do it in what we think are “legitimate” ways.

Some examples: those books with feet or bodies or body parts tell us that the book is probably realistic, or possibly historical, fiction. The non-representational ones are probably also modern realistic fiction.  So when we see the cover of Siobhan Vivian’s The List we know that it’s realistic fiction and also that it has to do with girls and takes place in a high school. Or take  Small Damages, by Beth Kephart: we know less about the setting here, but it looks like realistic fiction to us.

Same with a new book I’ve just read (and will probably do a post on at some point soon), The Opposite of Hallelujah, by Anna Jarzab. It’s got the  partial-face thing going on, but there’s not much question that it’s a realistic novel.

And I can’t resist inserting this next one: The First Part Last, by Angela Johnson. Cute, hot black teenager holding a baby! When she had dinner with the 2004 Printz Committee, Angela Johnson told us that she got letters and emails asking about the cover model: did she know him, what was his name, what was his email address, etc.!

If a book is science fiction or fantasy, there will probably be something that gives it away. Think about Matched, by Ally Condie. Girl in a dress, so it could be realistic fiction, but the bubble tells us, nope, it must be sf or fantasy. Or Divergent, by Veronica Roth: weird symbol on dark cover–probably sf. Maybe even, because of the city in the background, we can deduce that it’s a dystopia.

Fantasies are usually fairly obvious, too. take Seraphina, which we’ve talked about before. Pretty clearly a fantasy, with the dragon and the spires and all.

Then, looking at these books, there are some of the other things you mentioned, like the size and location of the author’s name. In the case of Judy Blume, they’re obviously selling Judy Blume–rightly, in my opinion. She’s such a name (and the title is so ordinary) that they want to make sure that people know this is a Judy Blume book. Angela Johnson gets her name in larger type than the title for the same reason–she’s a known quantity. And even though her name is below the title, it’s clearly the dominant piece of the cover–it takes up almost a third. So even if we have never read anything by her, we know she’s an important author.

The other books here are by newer or less-renowned authors, so the author’s name is not featured.  We also look for things like award seals or cover statements like “prize-winning author” or “New York Times Best-selling author” or “by the author of [other well-received book].” This last is what is done on the cover of The Opposite of Hallelujah. 

Blurbs by other authors are also a clue. The cover of Girl of Fire and Thorn by Rae Carson has a blurb on the front at the top that says, “‘Engrossing!’–Tamora Pierce.” Since I know that Tamora Pierce writes fantasies, many with female protagonists who are fighters and leaders, I would reasonably expect–correctly, as it happens–that this book is going to be of a similar style.

Then there’s the question of what the publisher wants us to know about the book itself: is there a description on the back cover or the jacket flap? Even the style of the flap copy can tell us something about the style of a book, once we’ve read enough of them.

But we’ve all read a lot, and we know how to decode these covers, and we know what kinds of things we like and what we don’t. But non-readers, or even newish readers, which can include kids and teens, don’t necessarily know how to make sense of those clues.

And even those of us who work with teens in libraries don’t always know what is going to resonate and what isn’t. And obviously publishers don’t know, either. Look at last year’s crop of Printz Award and Honor books. A brown cover with a woodpecker? Really?  Some guy on a horse next to a leaf-less tree? Okay. A coffee cup? Some downed branches? A silhouette of someone on a horse?

Now that I look at these all together, I’m thinking–wow, that’s a bunch of fairly boring covers. Add those shiny stickers, and maybe librarians look at it more closely, but how many kids are going to say, “Oh, no, not for me.”

Often, of course, the covers get changed for the paperback edition. That happened with Where Things Comes Back. And here’s what I think must be the Australian cover of Jasper Jones. I guess the American edition gives a sense of the feel of the book, but neither one tells us much about the content. Anyway, covers are indeed interesting. They tell us plenty about the books inside them. Some become iconic, others change with every new printing, it seems.

I guess my question is what can we do and what do we do about helping children and teens decode book covers? Does it ever come up when we booktalk? (Well, I know sometimes it does, mostly when we say things like “Just ignore what the cover looks like–the book isn’t like that at all!”) Do we point out details of the cover when we’re doing one-on-one readers’ advisory? Or is it just something that everyone has to learn on his or her own?

– Mom



Filed under Awards, Books, Teens

3 responses to “Reading Covers

  1. I think those are the roots of the trees on the Jasper Jones cover, not downed branches. (Without having read it–shame on me, I know–I always supposed they had some metaphorical significance for the novel.)

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