Use Your Gray Matter: Covering Cover Art

This is a topic that has certainly been, ahem, covered, in a lot of places already. But since we’ve been referencing our feelings about book covers, at least briefly in all of our reviews, I wanted to start the conversation formally on the blog.

I’ll start with a confession: I am constantly judging books solely by their cover art and aesthetic presentation. Aphorisms aside, I”m pretty sure that most of us do. Let’s be honest, we’d all rather be seen on public transportation reading one of these





than one of these





And all of these books are great! On the inside you have terrific stories that contain complex characters and multi-faceted representations of girlhood. But the marketing package suggests that those in the latter category are something very different than those in the former. For that matter, I’d much rather take this book into a public place

than this one

And they are the SAME BOOK!* But when I look at them, from a purely aesthetic standpoint, the first version suggests the sad, lovely simplicity of the story, without layering too much on top of it, and the second tells me that We Are Dealing With A Tragic Girl Here Everybody! The first cover evokes stark emotions and the  essence of the book’s central grief, the second tells me that the girl in this story is pretty and sad and maybe dead and could probably get her story retold on Lifetime or maybe even the WB.

Now as I understand it, writers rarely get much say in the way their book looks once a final draft gets sent to publishers. Their opinions regarding the cover and back matter are often not reflected in the artwork we see on bookstore shelves. So please trust me when I tell you, that, whatever criticisms I’m putting forth throughout the rest of this post are not related to my esteem for those writers. In fact, I like every one of the books I talk about in this post. A lot. Some of my favorite books, and some of the most interesting, multi-dimensional young women in contemporary literature, are cursed with terrible covers, and these covers do NOT detract from my enjoyment of the writing.

What I’m interested in, really, is how these books, their characters and their intended audiences are represented through their packaging and presentation on the shelf. Of course, while the issue of awful covers is by no means contained exclusively to YA books, I find that young adult books and especially young adult books for girls most frequently fall victim to the terrible cover phenomenon. And so, throughout the rest of this post I will explore some of the biggest traps that cover art for young female readers seem to fall into, breaking down why I think these traps are bad, both for characters and for readers.

Pink, Pastels and Soft Focus.

I think we can all agree that there is entirely too much pink on a lot of YA covers.** All too frequently we see these inherent trappings of girlhood being placed upon even the least traditionally girly of narratives. Even when the characters are more traditionally feminine, these covers suggest a sensibility of girls who only care about their boyfriends and their manicures, and are certainly Not Serious Literature.





Take, for example, Sarah Dessen’s entire body of work. I cannot emphasize enough to you how strong the quality of writing is, in each of her novels. These are sincere, well crafted books that feature empathetic and thoughtful characters who navigate the complexities of teenagerhood with a mix of realism and small town charm. HOWEVER, I have to admit, that even I held off from reading her books for way too long, because based on the covers and titles (see above) I assumed that I would be reading a cautionary tale about teen pregnancy.

There was a great conversation on Twitter that I remember reading maybe a year ago, and spent a good part of the morning trying unsuccessfully to find again, where a bunch of YA authors discussed the idea that “pink books don’t win the Printz***”. The argument here was actually not that pink covers are bad, but that books that are explicitly packaged as “girl” books are less likely to win acclaim and awards than those that are packed with Serious Colors like Brown and Green (regardless, it seems, whether the writer or protagonist is male or female, it’s more about the perceived audience).  Girl books get frivolous marketing packages in anticipation of their all-female audience, and are ruled out for consideration as being Worthy of Awards.

I have by no means done an exhaustive study, and I am generally pretty impressed with the quality of books that win these awards, but a quick glance through the winners of the past few years reveals a lot of this:

And only one of these

Which was an honor book in 2004. Interesting

Disembodied Girls and Floating Bodies

But even more than the pink books, I have a major concern regarding the decapitation epidemic that has been plaguing YA for the better part of a decade. No, I’m not talking about Law and Order SVU-style hypersexualized violence. I’m talking about the unfortunate tendency YA publishers have to cut off the heads or other body parts of their protagonists when it comes time to market them.










This is the worst you guys! Really and truly the worst. I can’t even begin to count up the amount of covers I have seen like the ones above. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to disembodied girls in cover art. There’s enough material here for a museum exhibit.

To a certain extent, I understand the argument here. It’s a variation on the argument that we don’t need actual photographic imagery of people on book covers, that we ought to allow the reader to create his or her own vision for the characters. To which I say yay! Let’s do it! Let the reader create his or her own vision for the characters that does not involve a super skinny and pretty version of that character being posed in a glamour shot which literally cuts off her head. Or her eyes. Or the whole top half of her body. Regardless, of which body part is being cut off, the implication of objectification is clear. These young women are being reduced to simply their bodies as the sum total of their worth and what they present to the outside world. Their eyes (how they see the world) are eliminated, as are their mouths (how they have a voice).

Maureen Johnson, a terrific writer and frequent victim of Disembodied Cover Syndrome has this to say on her blog’s FAQ.

“Covers don’t make a huge difference to me, honestly. My job is to write the book. The cover is the shiny thing designed by the art department to catch your eye in the store.
That being said . . . I know what you’re saying about the headless (or eyeless) girls. I get a LOT of comments about them. I know that the idea is . . . the face is obscured so that you can make your own ideas about what the character looks like. What some people are seeing are girls with fabulous abs and no heads. And I get that. I’m really kind of with you on that, actually . . . but at the same time, I appreciate all the work that goes into the cover design. My best suggestion is to take over the dust jacket or put some other cover of your own design on the book if you don’t like it. In fact, some people send me their versions of the covers. I love them!”

Another dangerous thing this can all lead to is the idea that a lot of these YA books start to look the same, and the uninformed haters out there can start to assume that every book published for young female readers is a rehashing of what came before it. Take, for example, these three very different books that were published in 2010:





Rehashing issues aside, the thing I hate most about these covers is that the design and posturing of these girls on the covers takes away all their agency. The strength of the characters that comes out in the narratives is impeded by this helpless posing on the cover.

Only Pretty Girls on Covers

It also brings me to a big problem that I continue to have, which is that, when it comes to YA covers, everybody has to be thin and pretty. Miles, the protagonist of Rachel Cohn’s You Know Where to Find Me (cover pictured above) is described as overweight with dyed black hair with the roots growing but look at that glamorous picture we see on the cover. Even if the girl on the cover is meant to be her cousin Laura, it begs the question why the girl on the cover wouldn’t be our protagonist, but instead the girl who died before the book even started.

I notice this dilemma in particular when I read books about girls who are explicitly not super thin. Either they disregard that entirely, like in this book, and put a skinny girl on the cover (she has a head though, so perhaps we ought to be grateful)

Or they disregard the issue entirely and stay as far away from a picture of a girl as they can. Check out the covers for the two editions of Susan Vaught’s My Big Fat Manifesto:

Yes. Really. Ice Cream.




Cover Whitewashing

The other thing we tend to see on covers is a whole lot of white girls. This is an issue that I can only begin a conversation about in this post, but I want to address it since it has come up a lot recently, when at least two books featuring nonwhite protagonists ended up with a white girl on the cover. When Justine Larbalestier’s book Liar was released in 2009, the protagonist (described in the book as black with short, curly hair) ended up on the cover as a white girl with long straight hair. Though this was far from the first time we’ve seen this kind of white-washing, it was one of the first times there was a large, public outcry. Bloomsbury changed the cover, in what one would think of as a big victory.But less than a year later, it happened again, with Jaclyn Dolamore’s Magic Under Glass. Dolamore, a first time author, didn’t have the huge fan base that Larbalestier did to cause a stink about it, and the cover stayed as it was (though slightly adjusted in the paperback version.

If you want to read more about this, there are some great articles on Salon and Reading in Color and Justine Larbalestier’s blog.

That said, I’ve noticed recently a couple of really gorgeous books with nonwhite girls on the cover. This one, the paperback edition of Mare’s War by Tanita S. Davis took my breath away.

Beautiful, no? And I like the new paperbacks of Laurie Halse Anderson’s historical thrillers Chains and Forge, even if I do wonder why Isabel is on the cover of Forge when it’s very much Curzon’s story.

This is barely scratching the surface of a much bigger dialogue, and I’d really like to continue it in a later post.

So if you’re still with me after all that, what do you think makes a good cover? What makes you want to pick up a book off the shelves and display it proudly when you read in public, hoping that someone might notice and ask you about it?

I’m interested in hearing from readers, but I’d also love to get a perspective from authors and publishers. How do you strike a balance between marketing to an audience and creating a piece of artwork that reflects the story and characters inside? As a reader, I don’t know that I care that much. I’m going to seek out the books I want to read regardless (or maybe despite) the fact that I’m judging it’s cover. But I worry about the fact that the huge range of girls and giant spectrum of femininity we see represented in the pages of YA lit is reduced to an alarmingly thin spectrum of cover art? What’s more, what does this say about publishers’ expectations for the market, and the perceptions of the audience for young adult literature on a large scale? Are we branding the readers of young adult literature as lesser-than readers of general fiction?

*For the record, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend reading this book in public anyway, because it will make you cry so much that a flight attendant will come up to you on an airplane and ask you if everything is ok. Not that that happened to me or anything (it totally did). But at least I was reading the hardcover.

**Preparing our readers for the Romance Novel Industry, which, as a predominantly female market is subject to many of the same problems. But that’s a whole different conversation.

***American Library Association Award for excellence in YA writing

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9 Responses to Use Your Gray Matter: Covering Cover Art

  1. Brianna says:

    What strikes me while looking at the covers you’ve selected is how very gendered they are, with the exception of the first row of Printz winners (which are sort of gender neutral). I think that publishers/marketing departments (who exactly decides on the cover, anyway?) are so obviously targeting girl readers that boys might be missing out on stories that they could find very satisfying. (Forge, for example). Do you think that cover art is ever part of the discussion among the panelists who select the Printz and Newbery winners? You do a great job of addressing the cover elements that target girl readers. I wonder what cover themes we could find if we looked at books targeted at boy readers?

  2. Kathleen says:

    I completely agree with your comments about covers, Sarah, particularly all of the disembodied girls! I personally prefer the (original) If I Stay or Out of My Mind style of cover – that is, no people at all, but subtle, evocative images that capture the tone and feeling of the book. That way, I can imagine the protagonist myself. Great post!

    • Sarah says:

      Thanks Kathleen! I totally agree with you about the non-personified essential images making the best covers. Have you noticed that often a hardcover will start with this kind of cover image, and then will be reissued in paperback with a photographic/girl’s face kind of cover. I wonder why this is…

  3. Kathleen says:

    Also, YES PLEASE Grey Matter post about diversity in YA!!!

    • Sarah says:

      Oh EW. Pathetic. Plus it looks like the alternate cover shows a girl actually hiding behind a tree. And even that girl’s arms look skinny.

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