What Makes a Good Book Cover?

We have all seen book covers we don’t like. Some suffer from unfortunate aesthetics, being too busy, poorly rendered, or just plain dull, deterring readers with their intimations of boredom within. Others misrepresent the text they introduce, unintentionally or deliberately promising a book they can’t deliver. The offense of a bad book cover feels especially egregious when it seems to alienate young people from a book we feel particularly fond of. It might be tempting to define good book covers as those that attract wide, enthusiastic readership. But that would be simplistic. A book cover has a variety of jobs to do, with responsibilities to the book, the publisher, and the reader. Mr. Robert Hawkes (my high school Russian literature teacher) taught us that the way to assess something’s quality is to measure how well it achieves its own goals. And so, the exploration of book cover brilliance depends upon a thorough understanding of just what the book cover is trying to do.

Responsibility to the book

A book cover’s paramount job is to communicate the book’s content and convey information concerning both what the book is about and what the book is like. The front and back flaps have something to say, and experienced readers may find clues in a summary statement or author’s note. But the text and graphics on the cover deliver the most immediate and indelible impression. A cover’s imagery can establish character, setting, and plot. A cover’s style can suggest tone, mood, and narrative quality. And extraordinary covers employ both elements in synergy.

Splendor's GloomConsider the cover of Laura Amy Schlitz’s Splendors & Glooms (Candlewick), and imagine seeing it with no knowledge of the text. Right away we know that there are two protagonists, a girl of about thirteen and a boy slightly younger. Their dress and appearance suggest nineteenth-century squalor, and a jump to Victorian London isn’t much of a stretch. We also appreciate something sinister, in the concrete malevolence of the puppet strings and the abstract foreboding of the shadows. Beyond this visual expression of the story, the cover gives us a sense of the narrative as well. The decorative title font, ornate backdrop, and formal proscenium curtain promise just the sort of florid language and elaborate plotting that the book delivers. We can wonder about how many children might find the cover enticing, but there is no denying that it delivers a clear and faithful vision of the book it represents.

Bo at Ballard CreekThe cover for Kirkpatrick Hill’s Bo at Ballard Creek (Holt) achieves similar resonance through different means. The cover is broken into three horizontal bands. The top features an exuberant, pig-tailed blond girl rejoicing among a group of Inuit children in a fluffy flurry of snow. The middle band, festooned with decorative borders, bears the book’s title, and the bottom band features a rustic town on the water. The brilliant smiles on the children’s faces, manifested in illustrator LeUyen Pham’s spirited character work, signal community concord. The rectilinear town is orderly and secure. Together these elements deliver a message of people, place, and harmony, a particularly apt expression of the charming, episodic, slice-of-life yarn.

greenberg_mad potterJust as the choice of what to feature on a cover imparts information about a book, so can the way it is featured. The cover design for The Mad Potter (Porter/Roaring Brook), Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan’s biography of unconventional artist George E. Ohr, signals copious information about its subject through its color scheme and composition. The sepia photograph fixes the portrait in the late 1800s, and the image itself portrays someone of unorthodox sensibilities, establishing a tension between subject and period, right from the start. The photograph is cropped and pushed off center, with Ohr’s eyes gazing out of frame, reinforcing a sense of jubilant eccentricity. And the title itself, tilted and skewed, proclaims its own refusal to conform. Before we arrive at the first page, we are primed for a story about a feisty, enigmatic artistic pioneer.

Responsibility to the publisher

While a book cover’s primary relationship is with the book it introduces, it also exists in relationship to all of the other covers on the shelf. Thousands of titles for young people are published every year, each competing for the attention of booksellers, librarians, and readers. The cover has a critical role to play in giving a book a unique identity. Also, it has to sell the book!

smith_grasshopper jungleWildly popular books often generate copycats as publishers look to replicate commercial success. It should come as no surprise, then, to find those books’ covers following formula. If the next dystopian steampunk paranormal romance is supposed to attract fans of the last one, should not the cover follow suit? One strategy for standing out in the resulting sea of sameness is iconic simplicity. Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle (Dutton), a fulsome, funny amalgam of insect apocalypse and libidinous adolescence, features an abstract pair of antenna on its acid-green cover, and nothing else. Rather than trying to capture the plot’s terrifying, giant-sized praying mantises or the hero’s “romantic” obsessions, the cover stands out by saying very little. The cover of Teeth (Simon Pulse), Hannah Moskowitz’s dark tale of the eerie, resonant co-dependence between a young man and a creature, part boy and part fish, offers only a pair of fish hooks, arranged in the shape of a heart, on a backdrop of silvery scales. This sort of cover design piques our curiosity, almost daring us to investigate what’s inside.

p.s. be elevenBut sometimes publishers capitalize on the familiarity of existing imagery to define a book’s identity. Not surprisingly, the covers of books by the same author with a thematic connection often share elements of visual representation. The cover of P.S. Be Eleven, Rita Williams-Garcia’s sequel to One Crazy Summer (both Amistad/HarperCollins), makes undeniable reference to its predecessor. While the style of art is new, the palette of orange, yellow, lavender, and pink and the period typeface (white with black outline) link the two unmistakably. These patterns, however, are not limited to books in series. Clare Vanderpool took home the 2011 Newbery Medal with her first published novel, Moon over Manifest, and the cover of her (unrelated) follow-up, Navigating Early (both Delacorte), features virtually an identical composition: protagonists make their way along a pathway that cuts to the horizon through peripheral banks of trees, with clouds hanging low in the sky. Even the paddles on the cover of Navigating Early echo Abilene’s outstretched arms on that of Moon over Manifest. The new cover fairly broadcasts its connection to its award-winning predecessor, suggesting corresponding similarities within. It’s hard to imagine that this is an accident. In an age where so many books are purchased or accessed electronically, with the thumbnail cover images the size of postage stamps, this kind of visual iconography can be invaluable.

Responsibility to the reader

dubosarsky_golden dayWhile marketing may constitute a book cover’s primary role, it is not its only one. Some covers inform the reading experience along the way, setting a tone that follows the prose, or even sowing tension between the story and the reader’s attitude toward it. The title of The Golden Day (Candlewick) by Ursula Dubosarsky suggests romantic comfort, and the cover of the American edition, with its warm, idyllic landscape, echoes that halcyon feeling. The story itself concerns a group of schoolgirls who follow their teacher and her illicit boyfriend into a cave, never to see the pair return. The eerie, strange novel unsettles the reader with sinister restraint, and the disquiet is magnified by the emotional bait and switch. A cover that telegraphed the apprehension would have compromised the powerful, exquisite unease that develops as expectations of happiness slowly erode.

In a similar way, the cover has a role to play for some readers during and after the consumption of the book. Remember the cover of Splendors & Glooms — it gives us a fine preview of the nature of the narrative, but once we dig in, we have questions. Some details on the cover are fiercely accurate (look closely and you’ll see Parsefall’s missing pinky). Others defy the book’s eventualities. Lizzie Rose was never made a puppet, was she? And where’s Clara, the third central figure whose puppet-fate figures so prominently? These elements defy a literal interpretation of the novel’s events, but in a figurative way enhance our reading of the story, inviting a more layered reading of the text and posing metaphorical questions: What does it mean to be a puppet? Who is really pulling the strings? To be sure, not every child will dig so deeply, nor need she. But for those who do, the cover offers another entry into wonder.

The Thing About LuckThe best book covers fire on all of these cylinders. Take, for example, the cover of Cynthia Kadohata’s The Thing About Luck (Atheneum). For the book, it promises a vital, careful story. The vivid yellow background bristles with energy, contained by the ordered symmetry of the pattern of pebbles, and the narrative, straightforward and honest, follows suit. For the publisher, the uncommon palette and harmonic composition establish something iconic and distinct. And for the reader, a single event in the story becomes a metaphor for broader themes. The siblings, in diametric corners, are in opposition and in balance, and dedicated to a common purpose. Such a cover is the complete package. What more could you ask for?

From the March/April 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Illustration.
Thom Barthelmess
Thom Barthelmess
Thom Barthelmess is Youth Services Manager for the Whatcom County Library System in northwest Washington State.

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