Judging a Book by its Cover: The Littlest Angel

Today is December 18th. Do you know what that means?

It means there is one week until Christmas!

The Littlest AngelOne of my favorite Christmas traditions is the picture books my mom would read to us every Christmas Eve, after our one present and movie, just before bedtime. One of those books, my favorite, is The Littlest Angel. My mom still has her childhood copy, complete with scribbles. Obviously, that one, the angel’s dresses sloppily colored with a blue crayon, is my favorite.

When I moved to Japan in 2011, my mom bought me my own copy. It’s the most recent edition, with illustrations by Paul Micich. They’re very beautiful, but not quite what I grew up with, so I went looking into other illustrated editions.

I mean, I didn’t know re-illustrating picture books was a thing you could do. Certainly, no one would ever dare redo the illustrations for that other Christmas children’s classic, How the Grinch Stole Christmas? (As if the live action movie wasn’t sacrilege enough!)

The Littlest AngelSo off I went to investigate these other versions.

I like this one a lot. I think the angel looks like a cutie, and they’ve captured his facial expression perfectly – but maybe a little too perfectly. I miss the cartoony, soft look of my mother’s book. It might be dated, but that’s what Christmas tradition is all about.

I know it’s unfair to compare these books to my book. It’s like buying a loaf of banana bread, even from a fancy bakery, and complaining that it doesn’t taste just like my mom’s.

I should be glad that this book gets redone, the story updated with new illustrations for new readers. Maybe someday the copy I had will become someone’s favorite, the illustrations they cherish.

Judging a Book by its Cover: Hunger Games

China GlazeMarketing for The Hunger Games has always been a little strange to me. I mean, Capitol Couture is a thing that exists. There’s a line of Hunger Games tie-in/inspired nail polish, with names like Smoke & Ashes. I love nail polish, but that’s a little… aren’t the Capitol the bad guys? Don’t you remember that the “smoke and ashes” are from District 12, which the Capitol firebombed in retaliation?

I’m not going to lie. Those glitter polishes – Electrify and Luxe & Lush – are really pretty, but I kinda feel like the whole line is missing the point.

… which is kinda how I feel about some of these covers. I liked the original American hardcover. It doesn’t tell us too much about the book, but I think it fits the mood of the story – and by now, everyone knows about it, anyway, so it doesn’t really need to sell itself.

Hunger Games

My first run-in with unexpected covers was the Japanese edition. (You might have noticed a theme. This is because I live in Japan and I can’t resist browsing through bookstores.) I asked a coworker if she had read it, and she said the cover put her off. It “looked too much like an adventure anime” and she ignored it. I asked what she was talking about and she pulled up an image of the Japanese cover of The Hunger Games.

Hunger Games


While there are recognizable elements from the story – Katniss with her braid and bow, Peeta’s flaming cloak – it looks more like … Well, let’s be honest: It looks like an adventure anime.

I’m not sure if it’s significant, but the title goes for a straight transliteration of Hunger Games into Japanese syllabary as ハンガー•ゲームズ (Hāngā Gēmuzu).

Other Japanese covers I’ve, ahem, covered have gone instead with a translation: Etiquette & Espionage (ソフロニア嬢、空賊の秘宝を探る, Miss Sophronia and the Treasure of the Sky Pirates) and Among Others ( 図書室の魔法, Library-Room Magic). Although I won’t make too much of translation conventions, check out this fan essay about the intricacies of translating Lord of the Rings (指輪物語, Epic of the Ring) into Japanese.

For a story like Hunger Games, which explicitly takes place in what’s left of North America, the “foreign”-sounding connotations of a katakana title are apt. (It’s weird, reading the British editions, in a future where apparently the United States of America adopted metric before collapsing.) The cover, however, really doesn’t get the spirit of the story at all. It looks like the illustrator was given a description of the characters and a handful of keywords.

Hunger Games I mentioned reading a British edition in my library, and you’re looking at it. There’s also a cover with the same design, but with Katniss in the cut out HG, but the decision to give Peeta his own cover was just a cynical ploy to gain more boy readers, because “boys don’t read girl books.” Or something. (There’s nothing gendered about the original cover…)

I don’t have much else to say about this/these edition/s. It looks like a thriller, which I guess it is; it’s certainly a page-turner.

The Stephen King blurb definitely reinforces the thriller feel.

I just can’t get over Peeta here. He’s an important character, but Katniss is the narrator. I guess it could be argued that we’re seeing Peeta as Katniss sees him, through the lens of the Hunger Games, or something, but I’m leaning towards the “cynical ploy” assumption.

It’s not a bad design, but I think it’s going to become dated pretty quickly (illustration trends change fast) and it has none of the iconic staying power of the Mockingjay pin design versions, but at least it’s not as bad as the Japanese cover.

…or this Russian one.

Hunger Games

I have nothing to say. I’m not even 100% convinced that this is a real thing.


Last but not least, there’s this raver edition. This is the cover that inspired this post. It’s just so weird. I guess the “marketing to boys” thing with Peeta on the cover was going a little too well and someone in marketing decided to doll it up a bit to appeal to teenage girls? As if teenage girls weren’t already the fanbase. Maybe marketing was just giving the fans what they wanted.

I like the return to the Mockingjay pin design, and the graffitied look fits in well. I can imagine this stencil spray painted onto train tunnels and the sides of buildings all over Panem, just… not in lime green and hot pink.

I just can’t quite figure out where this design is going. Is it supposed to “match” the new Scholastic Classics pack? I don’t think The Hunger Games needs “hip” repackaging quite yet. It’s still selling well enough on it’s own, what with Mockingjay just out in theaters. (Well, not here.)

Judging a Book by its Cover: Anne of Green Gables

Anne of Green Gables While I am under the weather, go check out Book Riot‘s 3 on a YA Theme: Beautiful Editions of Anne of Green Gables.

I love seeing what a designer can do to breathe new life into an old story. Anne might not need refreshing, but believe me – kids are judgy about covers, probably even worse than adults. A stodgy, out of date look will almost guarantee a book won’t circulate, no matter how famous, how important, or how good.

I’d like to see more childhood classics get this treatment, and I’d like to see more of them in my library, so kids stop wrinkling their noses at A Wrinkle in Time without even reading the jacket copy.

Judging a Book by its Cover: Sassy

Sassy For some of my students of a certain age, they love series chapter books. I probably shelve and reshelve more Rainbow Magic and Beast Quest and Geronimo Stilton books than everything else combined for this age range (Grade 2~5).

Some kids go in for fantasy – Rainbow MagicBeast Quest – but others like realistic fiction, like the Little Animal Ark books and Critter Club. Some combine their love of princess and cute animals with the Rescue Princesses books.

Judy Moody and Junie B. Jones go in and out daily, but Sassy sat on the “chapter books” shelf, mostly ignored, even while Sharon Draper’s Out of My Mind is a huge hit with slightly older students. Every year, I have at least a handful who come in, clutching it to themselves, breathless, telling me ohmygoodnessit’sthebestbookeveryouhavetoreadit all in one breath.

So why not Sassy? It’s a heartwarming story about a quirky, adorable little girl and her family and her best friends – so, basically all of the things Junie B. Jones is about, or Judy Moody, and really what’s at the heart of the Rainbow Magic books, except they have wings.

6609765 Out of My Mind looks like this. In a Q&A on her website, Sharon Draper says that Melody’s race is intentionally left ambiguous.

We’ve all heard about the doll test, and a more recent study showed similar results. I do honestly believe that this is why Sassy books aren’t flying off the shelves with Junie B. Jones. (Can you imagine Junie B. and Sassy in a classroom together?)

Although this blog post at YASLA is about YA lit, it probably filters down to middle grade and even early chapter books. The Rainbow Magic fairies that my students love so much come in a variety of colors, but there’s not much/any diversity in shape, hair texture or style, clothing…  Junie B. goes home every day in kids’ backpacks, but Sassy is a tough sell.

So what do I do? I keep selling ’em. When younger students ask me for Dear Dumb Diary (a series that lives in the secondary library), I suggest Sassy as an alternative. I mention Sassy to the kids who read Out of My Mind and come back jumping up and down to tell me it’s soo great.  (They’re shelved in different areas of the library, so students wouldn’t necessarily find one with the other.)

It’s not just Sassy, either. As a librarian, I make a conscious effort to purchase, display, book talk, and share diverse books – not just during special theme months, but all of the time. I believe in the importance of diverse books, and I believe in the power of good books. I believe in windows and mirrors. It’s not enough to simply buy these books and let them gather dust on the shelves. It’s my job to put books in students hands, and help them find titles they might otherwise miss.

Judging a Book by Its Cover: Etiquette & Espionage

Etiquette & EspionageEtiquette & EspionageWhen I bought a copy of Etiquette & Espionage to carry to the Sakura Medal meeting, my co-worker was surprised by the cover. She had read the Japanese translation, which looks nothing like the American/English cover I ordered.

Like Among Others, the American/English cover looks a lot “older” and fancier than the Japanese translation. I think it looks more “girly,” too. Sophronia looks a lot older than her fourteen years in the American/English cover, more like sixteen, seventeen years old. It looks like the higher end of young adult; I think the actual age range is somewhere between the two covers. (I found the same thing with Castle of Shadows.)

I hate this “girl books” and “boy books” thing and I regularly explain to my students that, yes, boys can read Rainbow Magic and girls can read Beast Quest. This comes as a surprise to some of them.

I wonder about the students – girls and boys – who might miss out on this book. I’m not sure I would have read this book in high school without a librarian to reassure me that it’s about steampunk spies. Which I guess is why we have librarians.

EDIT: I finally figured out the Japanese title with help from a friend: ソフロニア嬢、空賊の秘宝を探る, Miss Sophronia and the Treasure of the Sky Pirates.

Judging a Book By Its Cover: The Golden Compass

I never used to buy a book until I had read it. This was in school, when I had access to a well stocked public library and parents who were happy to take me to the library at least once a week. When I got older, I would walk there after school every day with my BFF.

Only once I had decided I loved a book would I go buy it. (Exceptions were made for Redwall and Harry Potter new releases, because I knew for sure I would like it.)

Somewhere along the line, I think I owned a set of His Dark Materials books. I was so strict about my book buying (or perhaps, my parents were so strict about it) that I even waited the two months it took for someone with The Subtle Knife out overdue to return it so I could find out what happens next – but I got it eventually, and I loaned it out, and it was never seen again.

The Golden Compass This is the version my mom checked out from the Johnson State College library children’s section for me one summer during TDI. I read it sitting in the dorm closet/wardrobe in the dorm room I shared with my mother. (They ran a “TDI for Grown-ups” back then, too, and it was my first time at sleepaway camp.)

This is also the edition we have in the secondary library at my school. It’s in rough shape by now, but it’s not so ugly that my students tell me, “I don’t want to touch it.” (That’s an actual student quote about an older edition of A Wrinkle in Time.)

When I eventually admitted that I was probably never going to see my copies again, if I ever even had a copy, I decided to go find a new edition. I was so frustrated, because it was right around the time the movie came out and they all had the printed-on “sticker” announcing “NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE.” As a book collector, this was an unacceptable blemish.

The Golden CompassI eventually found a special edition hardcover, with bonus additional materials. It does still have a “sticker” on the front cover, but at least it’s advertising the new material instead of that awful movie.

From a book collector’s perspective, t’s a nice cover. As a librarian, I don’t think this is the version I would want. It doesn’t tell me anything about the story. It’s a collector’s edition, for people who already know the story, but it wouldn’t tell my students anything about what’s inside. The version I first read told me there was a girl, at least – an important factor for me, then and now – and a bear and a mouse, and it took place somewhere cold. (The British title gives a better idea of the setting with Northern Lights, but I like the continuity of titles in the American editions.)

Another consideration is the age range implied by the cover art. The version I own is the “adult” cover, but His Dark Materials has been published as everything from children’s/Middle Grade, to YA, to adult. Our school only has a copy in the secondary library, but elementary students may visit to check it out. (We don’t often double up on copies for budgetary reasons.)

The Golden CompassThis Spanish edition looks like a kids’ book. It would fit in comfortably with my collection in the elementary school, and I think the high schoolers would pass it over as too “childish.”

I like that this tells me a lot about the story, more than most editions. We have a girl, a bear, a man, a cliffghast and and a woman. You can’t, however, see anyone’s dæmons. I remember flipping back to the front cover of the version I read and realizing the little mouse was Pantalaimon. I guess this cover has the same pleasures of realization: oh, so that‘s Lyra, and Iorek, and Lee Scorseby, and Serefina!

The Golden Compass I like this Dutch edition a lot. If I had free choice for a new copy, and this cover was available in English, I would want this one for the secondary library. It looks like a YA book, but it still says a lot about the story: the bridge to the stars, the alethiometer, and Lyra herself. The cover is a lot darker over all, which I think fits the story better, and it adds to the “older” feeling of the book. The detailed illustrations make it feel less childlike, but students might find the style dated, and kids are harsh art critics when it comes to book covers.

(Why isn’t she wearing gloves? Are her fingers freezing to that gold?)

This is the only cover so far that doesn’t feature Iorek. I guess huge armored talking polar bears are just that awesome.

The Golden CompassMost of the covers depict one of a few scenes. This German edition shows the same point as the American edition that I read in school, or the scene just before the Dutch cover. The Spanish edition above is the only one to show a completely different part of the book, although Iorek still features.

I wonder why this scene, and not something in Oxford or London? Is it the “Rule of Cool”? Some other reason?

Only one version goes a different way, and that’s this American version from Scholastic, which features a Balthus painting that we’re probably supposed to think is Lyra, possibly in the dining hall at Oxford?

The Golden CompassThis must be one of those editions for “grown-ups,” because it would be a hard sell to most kids. It lacks the action and adventure in the other covers – hot air balloons! polar bears! witches! cities in the sky! Lyra is dynamic and active in those covers, in hot air balloons, riding bears, reading her “golden compass” by the light of the aurora where she can see a city in the sky! This Lyra is still, stiff, and the painting is dark.

As a “grown-up,” I think I prefer the hardback special edition I bought. It harkens back to the fact that this is a children’s book, even if you’re reading it as an adult.

Judging a Book by its Cover: Hetty Feather

Hetty Feather          Before starting at the school where I work, I had never heard of Jacqueline Wilson. Since then, I’ve read many of her stories and just fallen in love with all of her characters. The previous librarian purchased a full set of the Nick Sharrat illustrated paperbacks, and they’re very charming. The first title I read was The Lottie Project, and I like to use the lovely new version in contrast to the very dated 1999 edition to illustrate to my students why we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

I recently finished reading the Hetty Feather books – Hetty FeatherSapphire Battersea and Emerald Star – and went looking for other versions, out of curiosity. For the most part, Goodreads lists the Nick Sharrat illustrated versions that I read from my library – no weird old 1990s vibes here!

I like the simple, straightforward and inviting look of these books. They look like books I want to read, and I feel like they capture the tone very well. Although Hetty’s life is difficult, she is an optimist, and she finds love and kindness where she can and never turns bitter, so the cheerful look of the covers is well suited to the books.

… but then there’s these Kindle edition. 19314546

I have no idea what this book is about. There’s a sad redheaded girl, holding a black cat – does Hetty ever have a cat? it’s been over a year, so maybe I’ve forgotten – wearing what loos like a tutu or dance petticoat, and definitely not Victorian-era proper undergarments. The lettering and curlicues make this look like a YA novel, except that the age of the protagonist is too young for that. I seriously don’t know what the cover designers here were going for, but I don’t like it. I can’t imagine that my elementary students would want to read this book, and if you sold it to a high schooler on the cover, I think they’d be disappointed, because it wouldn’t be the book they thought they were getting into.

What’s up with these covers? Maybe cover design isn’t quite as important for ebooks? I knew a guy in undergrad who liked to lament about the move from vinyl to .MP3 because smaller space would mean less design. I laughed then, but now maybe I get what he meant then.

Judging a Book by Its Cover: Among Others

My fiend and I have this thing about Among Others. Neither of us can decide if we like it. I liked parts of it and didn’t like other parts of it, and I’m not sure I’ll ever reconcile those bits into a book I have a definite opinion about. We’ve talked about this a lot, so when I saw the Japanese edition for sale at Village Vanguard, I snapped a photo and sent it to her.

Among Others

I thought it was a strange design choice, because it doesn’t hint at all about the fantastic/magical realism elements that make this book this book – but it is right there in the title, 図書室の魔法, “Library-room Magic,” or “The Magic of the Library,” as best as I can translate. But it looks, visually, like a school story; I get an almost Anne of Green Gables-ish vibe out of these. My friend said they looked much “younger” than the book; I think this is just “kawaii” in action.

Among OthersI read this in ebook format originally, and thus I rarely even saw the cover as I was reading – one of the major drawbacks of ebooks, if you ask me. I have a lot of opinions about cover design, which is why I write this series. (Obviously.)

So of course, I went to Goodreads to investigate.

We got talking about the other editions of this book. My friend said she didn’t like the American edition: Morwenna’s injury and her subsequent disability is a major part of this book, and the American edition (left) shows a slender girl frolicking in a field, wearing a floaty white dress. I think the hazy photograph captures the feeling of the book, but maybe not the orange.

Among OthersThe French edition, retitled Morwenna, has the same vibe: a white girl in a white dress, skipping and surrounded by stars or glitter or fairy dust for some reason. This one is a little more excusable; I think this is little girl Morwenna, before the accident, working magic somewhere as a young girl.

What gives with the frolicking? Morwenna is a protagonist with disabilities. The French and American editions erase that part of Morwenna’s character which, in an age of #WeNeedDiverseBooks, is honestly a bit disappointing. Even the oddly kawaii and not-at-all magical Japanese edition clearly shows her with a cane in the first book, though she’s lost it in the second where she’s holding hands with her friends.

(*Note on Japanese books: many longer books are published in two or three sections to make them smaller and easier to carry. Among Others is split into two, 上 and 下 (first half and second half); other books are divided into thirds, 上, 中, and 下.)

Among OthersThe Spanish-language version ignores Morewenna’s cane and looked too genre for the book, which I guess is a strange thing to say about a story that’s a love song to science fiction/fantasy genre fiction, but I don’t think that’s the tone of this story. This cover comes off too paranormal romance for my tastes. This isn’t a book I would be “selling” to my students, but if I was trying to get a friend to read it, I’m not sure this cover would tell them what I want them to know, going in, about the story I’m asking them to read.

I ask people to read this book a lot. I’m always saying, “I don’t know how I feel about this, please read it.” I want someone to make up my mind for me. I want someone to work out the tangle of opinions I have about this book, because I can’t decide how I feel, and so I ask people – smart people, people I trust, people whose book recommendations I always accept – what they think.

Among OthersIf I had my pick of any cover, I would go with the Polish edition. Morwenna is depicted, and although you can’t see her cane in the cover art, it also isn’t not there; there’s no reason that it’s not just out of the frame. I think this artwork captures some of the magic of the story, carrying over the sparkles and stars from the French and American editions without any frolicking in sight.

It also recalls a specific scene for me, which I think is strong cover design. I like the aha! moment when you read a book and realize, this is that picture. Maybe that’s just me, though.

The reflection is a nice touch. I don’t want to spoil the story, but I think that adds a lot to my fondness for this cover. This is the one I would most like to give to a friend and say, “read this.”

Among Others

The next-best option would be the Turkish edition. Morwenna isn’t depicted at all, which is un/fortunate: fortunate, because at least she’s not depicted frolicking, and unfortunate because it missed the opportunity to say, this is a book about a protagonist with disabilities. But it gets the mood right for the story. It highlights the awards won, and the Ursula K. LeGuin review quote signals what kind of fantasy we’re in for, here; Among Others is a magical realism/urban fantasy border story. It’s an ode to the kind of story that Ursula K. LeGuin writes, and the kind of story that wins genre awards.

I would hand this book to my friends, if any of my friends read Turkish.

Among OthersI think the Polish cover deserves a special mention. It’s got the genre (although this “reads” a little more sci-fi and a little less magical realism, but that could just be me), the awards, and it very prominently features Morewenna as she’s described in the book, using her cane. I wish I liked this cover better. It has everything that I said I wanted, but somehow it doesn’t speak to me. However, if I were buying this book for the secondary library, this is the edition I would want… too bad our collection is mostly in English, not Polish.

I think I would actually like to suggest this for the secondary library. Regardless of how I feel about it, it won the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award, and the British Fantasy Award. There are kids in my school who need to read this novel, and this is the cover they’ll first encounter in my library:

Among Others

Judging a Book by its Cover: A Clockwork Orange

Lately, I’ve taken to nosily asking people, “what’s your ‘magician’s book’?” and explaining the concept, roughly, from Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book: loosely, a book against which all other reading experiences are measured and, I think, usually found somewhat wanting.

My mother, to my surprise, said A Clockwork Orange. I never thought of my mom as the “Clockwork Orange” type. I mean, here’s a picture of us: 10565188_10202280447283500_810555654795963155_n

I don’t know what I was expecting her to say, but A Clockwork Orange was not it.

Usually these “Judging a Book by its Cover” posts come from books in my library, or books I’ve been reading lately. I wrote the first post, about Ellen Renner’s Castle of Shadows, because I was surprised (in a bad way) by the default cover/edition on Goodreads. Today, I’m writing about a book that I have never read and, given what I understand about the story, probably never will.

I used to be in design. I’ve never read this book, but I’ve seen this cover. It’s iconic.

A Clockwork OrangeWhat do you do, as a designer, when redesigning an iconic book cover?

Do you go with the same idea, like a callback?

A Clockwork OrangeOr do you do something completely different?

A Clockwork OrangeI’ve never read this book. I probably never will. I definitely won’t be buying it for my (elementary) library, so I’m interested in this one less as a reader or as a librarian, and more as a designer. It’s certainly a conundrum. I like the callback, and I like the jarring, unexpected discontinuity of the all-white cover. I mean, even the Penguin Modern Classics paperback uses orange as the accent color:

A Clockwork Orange



My favorite cover on Goodreads is this Georgian edition, published in 2013. It reminds me of (M.T. Anderson’s) Feed.
მექანიკური ფორთოხალი


Judging a Book by Its Cover: Redwall

Ah, Redwall. Nostalgic memories abound of my bff Mousey and I running around outside in the woods outside my house playing at being, well, mice. The best was when we went camping at the North Beach Campground, because there was this big red brick building you could see from our camping site and we liked to pretend it was either Redwall or Tsarmina’s castle, depending on the day. My first fanfiction was Redwall fanfiction. I have a lot of feelings about Redwall.

So, I was thrilled to recommend it to a student.


It looks like this:

RedwallI held it behind my back and made her promise me not to judge this book by its cover. She promised, and she took it. (It didn’t pass the “Five-Finger Rule.” I had forgotten how rich the language is in Redwall.)
I don’t know how much appeal this would have with students nowadays, but it’s a little too nostalgic for me to really tell. I loved it, but maybe I only love it because that was the version my library had when I was twelve? Maybe for my student, that ugly cover above will someday mean the same thing to her that this purple border does to me. I can only hope.

One of my favorite things about my job is recommending books to students, but man, are they picky. I like to show them “before and after” covers of their favorites to convince them to try something beautiful wrapped in an ugly package.

RedwallSpeaking of ugly packaging, what is this? I would not have read this book when I was twelve, no matter how much my friendly local librarians tried to convince me I would love the story inside. It looks so scary, like a “grown-up” (relatively speaking…) Beast Quest, but maybe that’s what they’re going for, here? A lot of scary, violent stuff happens in these books. (I seem to remember boiling water – porridge, even? – being dumped on some invaders over the parapets.)

Mostly what I remember from Redwall (the whole series) was the warm and inviting abbey, and the characters I wanted to be my friends. I wanted to live with the mice in the order and wield the Sword of Martin to defend my home.


I guess that’s the thing with book covers. Just as each reader takes something different from the story, each cover tries to sell different aspects of those stories to the right reader. For me, the homey warmth of Redwall Abbey – the adventures forth and safe return – were the draw of the books, and the camaraderie of the characters, best mouse friends or Long Patrol mates.

Maybe for readers out there, the “scarier” covers will sell them on the story. I’m guessing they’re going after reluctant readers here – interesting choice, for a 300+ page middle grade novel – where “reluctant readers” are coded as “boys.”

Finally, there’s this cover. Just reading that opening line fills me with nostalgic longing, but I doubt I could sell this book to my students:Redwall