How To Judge a Book By Its Cover, Part 2

Okay, in Part 1, we talked about a cover that works really, really well: the hardback jacket of The Hate U Give. That cover is a great way to meet the book and takes on additional depth as you read. It’s also really beautiful.

What about a cover that’s kind of terrible?

Take Ella Enchanted. This is a book I love that has several different paperback covers, so it’s a little miniature case study in itself. The paperback I have, copyright 1997, does its job. It suggests, at least to me, a story with a fairy-tale element that is focused on its protagonist rather than on the quirks of its setting. Like The Hate U Give, it centers its main character on the cover; the girl on Ella Enchanted is painted in a more portrait-like style suggesting an indeterminate historical time period, but she’s still not quite photorealistic. Check, check, and check; I’d consider this a useful depiction of the book, even if the Ella on the cover turns out not to have many features in common with Ella the protagonist.

Ella Enchanted cover 1

Now do your impression of this book a deep disservice by doing a search for the two more recent paperback covers, the ones that mostly come up when you just look for the title.

There are flourishes. There are sparkles. One has the uncanny, faintly cartoonish style that’s inexplicably very popular with children’s fantasy publishers at the moment; the other has lurid magenta faux-embossing and a photograph of a girl who definitely doesn’t look old enough to be the protagonist.

Contrast the 1997 paperback with the others, and tell me: which do you think is going to be most appealing for a kid looking for a straightforward, adventurous, somewhat awkward main character whose primary concern isn’t romance but breaking herself free of a curse that’s sometimes inconvenient and sometimes dangerous? Which do you think looks most apt for the seventh-grade reader who I’d say is the target audience?

Ella Enchanted is a book I love, and frequently it’s a book that my customers love once I can convince them that the sparkles aren’t the whole story, but I can’t tell you how many kids have told me after reading it, “You were right, it’s not like I was expecting from the cover! It was so good!” That’s a bit rough, because it means that those same kids likely wouldn’t have given the book a second thought at the library. It’s not just the sparkles, either. The girls on the new covers look significantly younger than the older teenager Ella is for most of the book. There’s no violence or sexual content to make the book straight-up inadvisable for younger kids, but I still think that the nuanced humor and specific dilemmas Ella faces make it a much more engaging book for a thirteen-year-old than a nine-year-old.

And yeah, we can tell people not to judge a book by its cover, or by the premise, or by the first five pages. When we’re filling our bags at the library, it’s true that we’ll miss out on things if we reject a book outright just because of the way it looks. But there are a lot of books in the world, and a lot of people like me talking about them, and thus there’s a lot of information swirling around. We can tell ourselves we should do all of our research and make each book decision with the utmost care, lest we fail to optimize our reading experiences; or we can tell ourselves it’s okay to go with our guts as long as we keep an open mind about sometimes being wrong.

The sky hasn’t fallen because the newer paperbacks of Ella Enchanted (or Circus Mirandus, which has a striking red-and-white-striped cover in hardback and an overcrowded digital collage in paperback, or The Goose Girl and its sequels, which in their first paperback versions kept Alison Jay’s gorgeous cover illustrations but were later redone with photos) misrepresent the stories. The books haven’t been consigned to oblivion; some people might even have read them who wouldn’t have otherwise, though I do wonder what those people thought when they cracked the covers and found what kind of stories actually lived inside.

Still, for all that bad cover design doesn’t have to be the end of the world, it certainly doesn’t do a book any favors. No matter how many platitudes we may come up with to the contrary, judging a book by its cover is frequently a perfectly useful exercise (see Part 1). Covers, like anything else about books, have developed their own conventions and their own spin on our collective visual language. We can declare that null and void if we want to make our trips to the bookstore and the library a lot more complicated, or we can agree that we’ve made these things into much more than pretty pictures.

So go ahead–judge those covers. Pull a book off the shelf just because you like its spine. Decide that today you’re going to read something yellow. You can always put it down if things don’t work out, and you might find something you’d never think to read otherwise.

But maybe consider Ella Enchanted too, even if all you’ve got is one of the more disappointing paperbacks. It’s funny and sharp and clever without losing sight of how messy, delightful, and frequently alarming it is to be an individual human in a very large world. And hey, if all else fails, you can always wrap the covers in paper and draw your own.