While you were growing up, how many times did you hear, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”? Innumerable times, no doubt. The expression appropriately encourages us to look beyond the exterior to what is underneath.
It is obvious to me that this expression has seen its time, at least in the literal sense. Yes, it used to be that book covers were pretty generic and unvarying. Most of these dull book covers would lead readers, especially children, to make assumptions about the stories that may not necessarily be true. But now, covers add personality to books that would otherwise be nondescript.
Illustrators are some of the most famous artists of our day. They are paid greatly for their bookcover contributions. And they are guided by savvy editors who know what markets they are trying to reach with each book.
What can a cover tell you?
- What age group this book is appropriate for.
- What gender (if there is a specific gender) it is targeted to.
- The tone of the story--if it is silly or serious.
You can see that the Snow White story (Jarrell) is a more serious, artistic take on the fable. Snowballs, by Lois Ehlert, is fun for young children.
How do illustrators and editors do this?
- Selecting a font that fits the mood of the story.
- Choosing the color scheme that will draw potential readers in.
- Deciding on a specific character, item, or scene to highlight on the cover.
By the tone and font, the reader can see that Andrew Clements' Frindle is a friendly book for kids. The serious tone of Number the Stars (Lowry) hints to its plotline during the Holocaust.
We are a visual people, aren’t we! We appreciate color and shape and texture. And since we all have different tastes, it is perfectly appropriate to let your initial reaction to a cover be something that guides you (although not exclusively) to or away from a book. If a book has a rugged font for the title and dark colors covering the front, I will shy away from it. (I realize I have just described an entire section of Young Adult literature--science fiction fantasy!) And that is perfectly appropriate! A book designed with that look is probably not going to appeal to me, and it wasn’t intended to.
e.e. cummings' Little Tree, illustrated by Deborah Kogan Ray
When I saw this book displayed a number of Christmases ago, I was immediately drawn to the fact that it was a picture book of a famous poem by e.e. cummings. But I don’t think I would have picked it up if not for the dreamy, wistful cover by Deborah Cogan Ray. I knew immediately that I had to have it—it’s a visceral response that we often have to books. If you feel you have to have it, it is not because the book has meaning to you yet or even because it was so cleverly titled (although many books are); it is because the cover and title font have done their job of speaking to your heart.
Certainly, a cover illustration should not be the only prerequisite for choosing a book, but don’t feel guilty if you are drawn to specific things! Books you will probably enjoy should look like you would enjoy them.
So the next time you warn someone not to judge a book by its cover, just be sure you aren’t talking about a real book!