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: 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


Judging a Book by It’s Cover: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

CharlieWhile browsing through Book Riot News the other day, I stumbled across an article about the redesigned cover for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I could take it or leave it, but it’s one of my sister’s favorite books (and movies). She even named her cat after Charlie himself. (That’s Charlie on the left. I like to call him Charles Wallace.)

So, okay, I thought I would click through. (You’re going to want that kitten picture.)

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1998) What on Earth?

According to the article, this is for Penguin’s “Modern Classics” label, and thus not intended for children. Okay, I get that. Bloomsbury, after all, has quite a nice line of “grown-up” Harry Potter covers, the original and recently redesigned versions marketed towards adults without looking, well, adult.

The E! article goes on to add that the creepy looking girl/doll on the front cover is “not meant to represent any of the female characters in [the book], including Veruca Salt,” even though little Veruca has often been depicted in a fur coat and pink tutu like the girl on the cover.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (movie)My library has the familiar Quentin Blake cover, left. Admittedly, that might be a hard sell to the over-12 crowd. (I find the illustrations a little unsettling, but the text is kind of creepy, too.) Roald Dahl’s books spread through my library by word of mouth, or when a teacher reads one to his or her students and they come to me wanting more. I don’t think it’s the covers that are “selling” these books to my students, and maybe they could use a little spiffing up.

I’m not a big fan of book tie-in covers, but I think even this one with Johnny Depp would be an improvement over this weird glassy eyed girl. At least it shows us two of the major characters in the book, instead of an anonymous, sexed up, underage girl.

Judging a Book by its Cover: Castle of Shadows

Castle of Shadows I read Castle of Shadows by Ellen Renner this week. When I went looking for a cover image for What Are You Reading? Wednesday (which I didn’t even use…) I found that there was more than one cover. I guess this shouldn’t have surprised me so much, but I loved the hardback cover (pictured, left) so much that it didn’t even occur to me that it would get a major redesign.

This is the cover I saw when I was browsing for something new to read, and it pulled me right in. It promised some good, clean middle grade fun. There was some intrigue in there and I liked scruffy looking Princess Charlie right away. In fact, her frizzy hair and the look on her face sold the book to me. I thought, “this is a girl I would love to read about,” and I was right. I just adore Princess Charlie, but more on that another time.

Castle of Shadows The first cover image I found was this one. I still liked the first cover better, because of Charlie and the more imaginative use of type, but this one still told me what I was getting into. The story was actually a little darker than I expected, so I liked that about this cover; the silhouetted castle is imposing and the lights burning inside make it kinda creepy. The kind of castle, which I can’t name but have seen before in movies, helps set a time for this story. Because it’s set in a world similar to but not exactly the same as ours, I had a hard time figuring out when this book took place.

So I asked Ellen Renner about it on Twitter, of course.

… but let’s be honest, how many readers are going to do that?
(I love talking to authors on Twitter. Let me save that for another post, too.)

What I didn’t like so much about this cover is that it obscured Charlie (and Tobias) from view.  Their silhouettes could be running from (or to!) anything, and maybe they’re skipping? It’s hard to tell. I just loved Charlie in the first cover so much that I read a whole book about her; I’m not sure I would have picked up this edition because you can’t see her, not really.

Castle of ShadowsWhich brings me to the paperback.

What is with this cover? I mean, really. This isn’t the Charlie that I read about at all. This is not a book I would have picked up to read for myself and it’s not a book that I would be just dying to get into my library to share with my students.

This looks like a paranormal romance YA novel. I don’t want to knock paranormal, romance, YA or paranormal romance YA, but that’s not what this book is about. It looks like this teenaged princess just escaped another boring soiree and she’s just about to find out about her vampire hunter bloodline or something – not an eleven-year-old girl getting in over her head in political scheming trying to find her missing mother.

Despite my background in graphic design (true story), I never really noticed book covers before I became a librarian. I picked up on some stuff, sure: I bought The Divide because of the cool way the cover opened and I collect different editions of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone from around the world.

… but that was all just personal interest. I never thought (consciously, anyway) about what covers mean. I could “sell” the first two covers of Castle of Shadows to my students, but the last one would be a tough “sell” to the boys and even to a lot of the girls who I think would really love this story because it doesn’t feel like the book inside.

Sure, that last cover is trying to sell the book, but not to the audience that I serve in my job as a librarian.