Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Every picture sells a story

"Reading Helps Me Figure Stuff Out: Part Two, How I Feel About Book Covers."

Many a great chef has stressed the importance of presentation on the basis that diners "eat with their eyes."

The great Irish middle grade writer Oscar Wilde once said, "It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances."

I don't eat books (although I sometimes read them voraciously), but I can say I have an appetite for them, and, more often than not, it is the picture on the front that makes me want to pick one up in the bookstore or library.

Yes, I admit it. I do judge a book by its cover (among other things). And I side with Mr. Wilde, as he seems to think that makes me deep, not shallow!

A book cover I like makes me excited inside. (Outwardly, of course, I remain cool, calm, and collected at the bookstore/library.) Why? Because it hints at great things to come in the story on the inside. Whether it's shivers or laughs to be found on the pages, a successful cover will whet the appetite for them.

Here is one of my favorite covers, designed by artist Edward Gorey for The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken.

Headstrong Bonnie Willoughby and her delicate cousin Sylvia must ward off the winter chill, evil Miss Slighcarp, and a menacing pack of savage wolves in this ripping yarn. Edward Gorey sets the stage for thrills.

Here's another fave of mine: artist Kevin Hawkes's cover for The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron.

Best friends Chuck and David are on their way to the mysterious planet Basidium in their homemade rocket ship (built at the request of the even more mysterious Mr. Bass). Kevin Hawkes makes it clear that amazing adventures are in store for them!

Here's artist Jon Klassen's cover for The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood.

With this illustration, the artist has convinced me that I want nothing more than to read a humorously sinister story about a 19th Century governess and her mysterious charges, who dangle from tree limbs when they're not sitting on their haunches.

These are all middle grade books (my favorite genre), and this is one thing they all have in common: the artist who designed the cover has pictured the characters in a way that is NOT realistic.

Here's how I feel about book covers: I DO NOT like realistic depictions of characters. For me, a cartoony picture of a person can bring to mind many different people; a realistic illustration (or photograph) brings to mind only that one person.

Look at the cover of a book that, for me, is hallowed ground: Harriet the Spy, written and illustrated by Louise Fitzhugh:

In the cartoony way that Harriet is depicted here, I'm able to see traces of a bunch of different headstrong, independent kids I've known. I can spot her all over the place, not just in the book. She's bursting with personality!

Here is an alternate cover:

This illustration is so specific about a certain girl that I am unable to picture anyone other than her. Same with this one:

The audio version of the book is even worse (for me).

I didn't even try to find out who designed these covers because I can't stand picturing Harriet so exactly. I find it limits my imagination, and I don't like that. (Never mind that the girl pictured here is so different from Louise Fitzhugh's vision. Refer to the picture of Harriet at the top of this post. The author knew her character inside and out.)

Here's a book I picked up today:

My love for what I have already read from E. L. Konigsburg is what attracted me here. It is going to take some effort for me to ignore the photo of the kid on the cover. I know when I start reading this book I will not want to picture THIS kid as THE kid. How I wish the cover had featured a nice illustration instead! Oh, well. That's what I get for being so picky and such a grump. :)

Clearly, there are readers who prefer photographs to illustrations on book covers, or have no preference either way. I'm interested in everyone's point of view on the subject. What do you think? Can you help me see the brighter side of book-jacket realism?

Given my ways, I consider myself fortunate that the cover chosen by Bloomsbury Children's Books for my book was an illustration, not a photograph. (Needless to say, if it had been a photograph instead, I would have been thrilled no matter what. Publication has a distorting effect on stuff like that!) The illustrator is Victor Rivas, and I'm utterly thrilled with it.

It's pretty clear from this picture why the boy has howled, and in what way. And I've seen that mischievous grin on a thousand different kids!


  1. You know, you've brought something to light I wasn't conscious of. I have found myself disappointed when a book cover didn't match discriptions I read in the book, particularly if it was a photograph. So I'm with you, illustrated covers are the coolest.

  2. I agree--illustrated covers have the edge for me, too. They have more appeal, I think, because they immediately speak to the reader's imagination, whereas the photo locks the image in too soon. Great post!

  3. Wow, it's a shock to see all those covers for Harriet the Spy, especially that awful audio version! Fun post!

  4. I should add that I see aspects of ADULTS I know in illustrations of kid characters, not just kids! Adults are ex-kids, after all. :)

  5. Haha, Dee, you're right. And why would Harriet be hiding under a potted palm?

  6. I too am drawn to the covers of a book. The ones with illustrations instead of real pictures do seem to stick with me more. I was very surprised about how I felt about each cover of Harriet the spy you showed. What a strong way to make a point. Thank you.

  7. Judging a book by its cover--bad, I know--but I do it, too. Something about a really great cover just jumps off the bookstore shelf. Great post!

  8. I agree with you! The only thing worse than photographs (in my opinion) is cover art that is wrong. Fantasy seems especially adept at this - a character will have blonde hair when described with brown, wearing clothes nothing like what's described in the book, that sort of thing. Drives me nuts!

    And that first Harriet was the one on my (well-read) copy. :)

  9. P.S. Your cover is AWESOME, Tim.

  10. I agree--I feel the same about the various editions of Beverly Cleary's books (Henry Huggins, Ramona, etc.) and Judy Blume's Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. Give me a stylized illustration, and let my imagination do the rest!


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!