Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Covering Up: Same Characters, New Pictures

Don’t judge a book by its cover.

Writers know this only too well – after all, we have little say on what goes on the covers of our books. Publishers know that covers are far too important to take much heed of writers. (Rightly so, in my case. I have little visual sense at all.) Publishers take covers seriously, because readers do. This is clear from the children I meet in schools. They are absolutely up front that they will read a book – or not – based on what they see on the cover.

Sometimes I show them a series of different covers and ask which they would read. The responses are unambiguously for or against. I then reveal that the covers all belong to different editions of my book Jessica Haggerthwaite: Witch Dispatcher. Huge surprise! How can the same story be presented in such different ways?

It’s fascinating to me, too. As I have admitted, I am not visual. New paint, new clothes or new garden plants are all a challenge to me (and probably to those viewing the results). When I first wrote Jessica Haggerthwaite, it was my editor who suggested I might like to mention what Jessica looked like. I had to stop and think. What did she look like? I knew lots of things about her, but not that.

So seeing my characters brought to life by an artist has been endlessly fascinating. While a more strongly visual writer might feel a clash with their own imaginings, I’m always intrigued to see how each artist brings out a slightly different aspect of the book.

The first cover artist, for the original Bloomsbury hardback and paperback, was Tim Archbold. As numerous children I have met since have pointed out, there is undoubtedly a touch of Quentin Blake in the squiggly, eccentric style of drawing that Archbold favours. It suits the eccentric nature of Jessica and her family extremely well. And a lot of the foreign editions went for slightly different versions of the Archbold cover.

In the German translation, what I love most is how determined Jessica appears. I also like the prominence given to the tomatoes – a key element of the plot. I won’t tell you why.

The Dutch version is probably my least-favourite: however, as the book has done extremely well in the Netherlands, I shouldn’t really complain!

Last September Jessica Haggerthwaite: Witch Dispatcher was re-issued in the UK by a new publisher, Strident, with a completely new cover by Emma Chichester Clark, the well-known creator of classic Blue Kangaroo. I love the results. The way the foliage arch frames the cover. Jessica is sweeter-looking, somehow, than the other versions, and more thoughtful – but still exasperated with her mother, as you can tell by her expression. Mrs Haggerthwaite looks suitably dippy. And there is a likeness between mother and daughter – which is completely true of their personalities, even if they have completely opposite views. It’s also beautiful without being “girly” – and this is definitely not a “girly” book.

To me, this is a slightly “retro” looking cover – bringing out the more old-fashioned elements of what is essentially a family story. Yet other readers have told me that Jessica reminds them of a “manga” character – an association I would never had picked out myself.

Manga character?

Which book covers do you love? And which books do you feel have suffered from the “wrong” cover?

Emma's Barnes's web-site
Emma's latest books are How (Not) To Make Bad Children Good and Jessica Haggerthwaite: Witch Dispatcher


Playing by the book said...

I run a weekly book swap for 6 and 7 year olds at my girls' school and you are spot on - the kids base their choice solely in the cover if they are left to their own devices. I've taken to reading little excerpts from books if I think the kid would enjoy it, but wouldn't pick it based on the cover alone.

Joan Lennon said...

A clever librarian I met recently covered books in white paper and left them in a lucky dip box on the counter - his reading group LOVED it! And found themselves reading things they wouldn't otherwise have touched with a barge pole.
Cunning stuff!

Joan Lennon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Emma Barnes said...

Yes, it's a shame the cover is so important. It has all sorts of side-effects like dividing boys and girls' reading even more than would otherwise be the case, but also I think it puts children off reading older books because they look dowdier. My daughter has been astonished to find that even if the cover is not nice and shiny, the story can still be a real cracker. An old copy of "Lise and Lotte" by Erich Kastner just one recent example...

Emma Barnes said...

Joan - that is cunning indeed. I'm going to remember that trick, might come in useful.

Lucy Coats said...

Loved looking at all your covers - fascinating to see the differences in other countries. Mine all seem to stay the same, but I did get some Korean editions the other day, which were completely stunning, and totally changed the 'feel' of the books to something much more serious.

adele said...

Emma C-C is a wonderful illustrator! She's done a cover or two for me and also illustrated a book called MY First Ballet Stories. I think her cover is best, though lots of the ones you show are ace.