A century ago, it was common for a book to have a plain cover, with the title and author stated simply on the spine. Now, many books have bright or flashy covers. There are even series which feature young models clad in designer duds, with clothing copyrights on the back cover.
There are books with gorgeous, eye-catching covers that are also highly misleading - like a comedy wrapped in a dark, foreboding cover that screams, "This is a scary story!" There are amazing books with frightfully dull covers. Sometimes, a cover would be fine, were it not for the fact that it depicts a sixteen-year-old blonde when the story is actually about a twelve-year-old brunette.
Then there is the great photo versus illustration debate. Flip over a book that uses a glossy photograph, and you may see a copyright for Getty Images, which is a stock photo agency. I like to see the name of the actual photographer, giving credit where credit is due.
The pictures by Nick Vaccaro, featured on one of the waves of Alice McKinley books by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, are completely adorable. Vaccaro's photos have been used on many juvenile and teen fiction releases in the past few years. Perhaps the best researched and most kudos-worthy would be the cover of The Steps by Rachel Cohn in hardcover, which features multiple characters, all captured as described in the book.
I like to see the name of the cover designer. The image(s) used is/are only part of the result. Someone still has to crop, edit, blend, and place the image(s), select fonts, backgrounds, and colors, for the final look, the feel, the presentation.
There are books fortunate enough to be shelved in multiple sections. I say "fortunate" because this allows the book or books to find a wider audience. When the trilogy His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman came to our fair shores, each book had three different covers - paintings featuring the main characters graced the books in the juvenile section, while edgier covers, featuring objects, were given to the series in the teen and adult sci-fi/fantasy sections. The trilogy has since been reprinted many more times, with many more covers. One set uses astrological symbols, and the trilogy's title is spelled out on the the spines of the books when they are lined up properly.
At times, a book has one cover upon its initial release in hardcover, and a completely different cover when released in paperback a year or two later. Sometimes I rejoice ("Oh, this time they got it right!"), and other times, I groan ("Why did they change the cover? It was lovely!"). Sometimes they do get it right the first time, but the reissued cover is even better. Look at Straight on 'til Morning by Christopher Golden. All lovely, all straight out of the book, but I fancy the latest cover the most.
Classics, of course, have been reprinted, reissued and re-covered all over the world countless times. There are editions that retain the original illustrations both on the cover and within. There are editions with new pictures inside and out. Then there are editions with new covers outside but classic illustrations inside.
One of my favorite books is The NeverEnding Story by Michael Ende. Talk about gorgeous illustrations! Every chapter begins with a full-page, intricately detailed picture, wrapped around the first letter of the first word of the chapter. Here's the cover of the edition I own, given to me as a young child, and still in pristine condition despite the decades and re-reads. Then have a look at the cover of the current US cover, seen in both the teen fiction and adult fantasy sections of the bookstore.
My favorite illustrated classic is Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. If you haven't seen the reproduction of the original manuscript, track it down. It is written in Charles Lutwidge Dodgson's (aka Lewis Carroll) own hand and features his own illustrations. My favorite edition is the most famous version, which features John Tenniel's artwork. Other editions and movie adaptations have tried to copy Tenniel's artistry with varying levels of success. Readers will note that the text often refers to the illustrations. One of my favorite lines appears along with one of my favorite illustrations:
(If you don't know what a Gryphon is, look at the picture.)
The Spiderwick Chronicles by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black also feature a gryphon. The first five books in this fantastic fantasy series for kids have black-and-white insets as well as full-color pages, featuring DiTerlizzi's stunning artwork. It led to additional releases, such as a fully-illustrated companion book entitled Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You. The series is currently being made into a feature film.
The Judy Moody series of books by Megan McDonald has adorable black-and-white drawings of Judy, her family, her friends, and her pets by Peter Reynolds. Judy's little brother Stink now has his own series, also boasting Reynolds' adorable artwork. Reynolds has written and illustrated his own picture books, as well as picture books written by others.
I am pleased when novels have covers that both catch the eye and match the story. Take, for example, the Body of Evidence series by Christopher Golden and Rick Hautala. The ten books, written by two men, revolve around a female college student who works for a medical examiner. The book covers never have models and never show a girl dressed in hip clothes. Depicted instead are toe tags, X-rays, bones, eyes, markings and tools used within the story. The covers are dominantly grey, with each book having a different bold accent color. All have a trademark striped pattern down the left edge that repeats itself on the chapter breaks within.
I would love to design book covers, making certain that the images - and jacket summaries, for that matter - match the stories. But that, as Michael Ende would write, is another story.
This piece was published in the January issue of The Edge of the Forest, a children's literature monthly.