For Want of a Good Cover

I’m not personally a huge fan of the American edition Harry Potter art by Mary GrandPré, although I’ll happily agree to its iconic-ness. Iconicism? Anyway, I’m willing to appreciate it, even if I don’t like it, because as far as book covers go, things could be a lot worse.

Yup, that’s what we’re talking about today. Book covers. I’ve been wanting to do a post on this for a while, because I love nothing more than a good book cover, and nothing more than that than the whackiest, wildest, most unnecessarily upsetting book cover you’ve ever seen.

Book covers sometimes ride the trends of the genre as much as their content does, and sometimes way more. Part of this is intentional, because it is a Good Thing to be able to tell Manga from Adult Fiction in a single glance. Part of it is also just, because, if you’re already taking a gamble on a $15 book, why not also ensure it’ll look good on your bookshelf, since that’s where it will spend most of its time. Part of it is because it’s just simpler. “Hey, that book hit the bestseller list? Yeah, make this one look like that.”

Sometimes that’s just a downright bad way of going about things, and sometimes it’s a genuinely racist way of going about them. We’ll get to that – first let’s just have some fun.

These two are from one of the first science fiction/fantasy series I ever picked up, and hoo boy does it have some interesting covers. The first image is the original hardback of Wild Magic (1992) by Tamora Pierce, the first in the The Immortals quartet. The second is the original UK edition of Emperor Mage, the third in the series, published 1994. The flying metal human bird is called a Stormwing, by the way. And yes, she’s riding a wooly mammoth (it’s a zombie, too). Love the pretty little potted plants and the purple backdrop. Also love the quote: “She reached deep inside herself … ”

For some reason the publisher thought these glories needed modernising.

AAHHHH NO WHo thought this was a good idea? Aping the style of a paranormal romance novel? Don’t do that, please.

I should explain, the one on the left, also by Tamora Pierce, is The Woman Who Rides Like a Man (1986, this cover 2011), from the Song of the Lioness quartet. I’ll admit, I haven’t read it in a while because it was never my favourite, but although there are two men in love with Alanna, that is not the point of the book at all. Every other version of this cover, and the other three in the series feature Alanna alone, as she should be, because it’s not a paranormal romance novel. On the other side, The Host (2008) is by Stephanie Meyer, the author of the infamous Twilight series. Although, from my not-very-extensive research, it does seem that one of the men (staring at her soulfully) in the background might be the girl’s brother. We can take bets as to which one of the handsome dirty-blond white boys he is (and no, I can’t tell who’s who on the Alanna cover either).

Okay, but as weird as those covers are, they’re not, like, that bad, are they? They’re just awkward and not something I would necessarily give to a young adult. On the other hand, there are some book covers that are really bad, and not just because of the design.

I think we can all see where Octavia Butler’s Dawn (1987, left) went wrong. The 1997 version is just the more accurate depiction of the main character.

This article on The Book Smugglers does a really good job of explaining the whitewashing problem in book covers, and I don’t want to repeat too much of what they said, but I do want to talk about Ursula K. Le Guin, the author of the Earthsea series. She has been dealing with this for a really long time, including when the Sci Fi Channel made a miniseries based on her books, and promptly cast almost all white actors. She actually wrote an article for Slate about it, entitled “A Whitewashed Earthsea: How the Sci Fi Channel Wrecked My Books.” Worth a read.

Let’s have a look at what Le Guin’s books actually look like.

earthsea robbins

This is the first edition, all the way from 1968, illustrated by Ruth Robbins. The description of Ged’s red-brown skin has obviously been noted. Then we get:

The first is from 1989, the second is a particularly weird UK edition from 1973. The fact that they’re both black and white is not an excuse for drawing an obviously white person there. And then there is this:

earthsea iceland

This one is the Icelandic edition from 1977 … and while they did get the red-brown skin …  and the whole abstract look is interesting … I’m really struggling here to find a way to describe this other than “truly disturbing.”

The SFF genre is not the only genre to have bad book covers, or even book covers that are less bad and more funny. It just seems to have most of them. I’m not as familiar with the other genres (apart from history, cough anything medieval cough) but I have seen some truly beautiful covers in the past few years.

tuchman cover.jpg
A Distant Mirror, by Barbara Tuchman. This might be the audiobook, but no matter, a fight with the grim reaper shall never be silenced.

The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry, won several awards last year, which meant this beauty was displayed in literally every bookstore window for months.

essex serpent cover

I’m a huge fan of the current flowery trend in book covers! The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, by Theodora Goss, is one of the prettiest I’ve seen. Very Rifle Paper Co.. And Hurricane Child, by Kheryn Callender, is not only gorgeous but managed to depict its main character properly as well!

If we talk about pretty book covers, we obviously have to talk about cookbooks, because if the cover of your cookbook doesn’t make us drool, you’re doing it wrong. The Arab Table, by May S Bsisu, has been making me drool for years.

arab table.jpg

I came across this book in the bookstore the other day, and I have to say not only is this one of the cutest book covers I’ve seen in a long time, the story within is cute and funny too. Yeah, I sat down in the bookstore and read it. I like dragons, okay? And Dragons Love Tacos (Adam Rubin).

dragons love tacos

I think that’s probably enough book covers for now – oh, wait, I am legally obligated to leave you with the Animorphs series, by K. A. Applegate.

Apparently they were actually good books.

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