Monday, May 12, 2014

Children's Book Covers: Old vs. New

Some of the best books I’ve ever read were children’s books. Not even joking. For the young, aspiring, bookworm, there’s plenty of quality literature out there, if you know where to look. Trust me, the books you love as a kid will remain in your memories all your life. You can revisit them. I know I do. And I’m always delighted to see that some of my favorite kid’s books are still on the shelves, ready to be snapped up by another generation...

Problem is, I despair that no one will buy these awesome books because of their utterly moronic cover art. New editions of old books, especially kid’s books, get updated covers because, I dunno, the old covers weren’t hip enough or something? Hey, it provides work to struggling career artists and that’s fine. But I swear to GOD, kid’s book covers have just gotten lamer and lamer as time goes by. And I’m gonna prove it to you with some side-by-side comparisons. Hop aboard the bitter nostalgia train! (And don't forget to click on the images for larger versions. You're gonna want to see all the detail, for better or worse.)


The Book: A classic of wilderness survival. Bourgeois young Brian Robeson is stranded in remote Canada after a plane crash, and must learn survival skills from the ground up, with nothing but the clothes on his back and the titular tool/weapon. Terse, gripping, very harsh in places, it represents the kind of badassery that these days is considered too “dark” by many parents. Who are retards.
The Old Cover: Back in the olden days, they knew how to work with minimalism. We have a stark portrait of our hero, looking solemn and determined. We have a wolf, a plane, trees, the hatchet. What else is needed? This bare-bones collage tells you that you’re holding a book that doesn’t fuck around. It pops out and gets its point across perfectly.
The New Cover: This isn’t as bad as it could have been, but...come on, seriously? The book is called Hatchet so apparently they decided the hatchet was the main character. Instead of something bold and poetic, we get a giant glass axe floating in the middle of waaayyyy too much neon green foliage. This cover, and many others, suffer from what I like to call the “Dirty Windshield Effect,” when a whole lot of shit is superimposed together and it just looks cluttered and grimy. Why are those vertical bars even there? Because it’s “artsy”? Hatchet does not need art direction. I do like how the little wolf is clearly going, “HOLY SHIT, look at this giant fucking hatchet!” But that’s all I like.

The Book: The best young-adult sci-fi murder mystery ghost story you’ve never heard of. Set in the far future, it follows a resourceful tomboy who finds herself on a spaceship with a stolen alien artifact to find and an eclectic rogue’s gallery of weirdos who might be the culprit. And there’s alien ghosts and secret agents and even some cute kitties. Why aren’t you reading this?
The Old Cover: Another trend that’s largely vanished is the book cover that actually shows a scene from the book. I know the image quality sucks, but you can still see how awesome everything is. There’s nifty spaceships and a colorful planetscape. There’s a happy alien with a turnip for a head. The heroine is holding what looks like an exploding Twinkie, and there are those ghosts again! This cover is interesting. It grabs you. You want to read the shit out of this, if only to learn WTF is going on here. Also, the girl looks like an actual girl and not an underwear model.
The New Cover: So it’s no longer a slam-bang space adventure; now it’s an episode of Star Trek: Enterprise. Our heroine is looking more underwear-modely and is staring slackjawed at an unseen glowing something-or-other. Is it the Holy Grail? Is it the briefcase from Pulp Fiction? Do we care? Yeah, it’s projects a nice sense of mystery, but it’s pretty drab compared to the older art’s explosion of color and coolness. Points for use of a kitty, though.
The Even Newer Cover: Aaaaand there we go. The insufferable, needs-to-die modern trend of plastering blank, puffy-lipped models across the cover of every YA book in the universe. The heroine now looks way too old, has stupid hair, and is framed by...strange curvy lines...that signify nothing. And there again is the Dirty Windshield Effect, with swirling smoke and ghosts that look like leftovers from your high school principal’s lame, chaperoned Halloween party. The kitty’s still there, but it looks ashamed to be caught on such a generic book cover. Who’s gonna want to read this now? It tells you nothing about the story or characters, just “Here is a hot girl and also there’s outer space involved. Woohoo.”

The Book: It’s the second entry in a four-part series about kids discovering their teachers are aliens in disguise. In this one, a dimwitted bully becomes a genius, thanks to an alien experiment. He also learns that he and two classmates are gonna have to save the world. But the aliens aren’t really the bad’s complicated. And it gets very mature for a kid’s book.
The Old Cover: Gasp! Thrills and chills! Red Sweater Kid is getting his noggin electrified, Mary Jane Watson is really a three-eyed monster, and only Nancy Drew and one Hardy Boy can save the day! Or something like that! This exciting image once again demonstrates the power of A) lots of color, and B) having an actual scene. Doesn’t matter if it’s a scene that appears in the book (in this case, it is not) just gotta know what happens! Also, the title font is perfect, invoking old-school sci-fi just as it should.
The New Cover: Wow. That’s...actually kind of horrifying. For some reason, they went with an overly cartoony art style, and the end result may give younger kids nightmares with its depiction of a boy having his soul violently ripped out through his sideburns. Seriously, who looked at that dude’s facial expression and found it funny? On the whole, I dislike this “whacky” style of art because it cheapens the material. It says, “This book is juvenile; do not take it seriously.” Note also the minor title change, which I find oddly insulting. Yes, publisher, we’re smart enough to know that “brain” in the singular is more grammatically correct, but do you think kids give a shit? You already scared them off with the Evil Dead artwork.

The Book: The hip alternative to Harry Potter, this fantasy adventure (the first in a series) follows two NYC kids who discover they have wizarding powers and must join the world’s spell-casters in fighting death, entropy, and so forth. For my money, it’s actually a bit better than Harry and co., with great young heroes and an interesting, highly technical take on magic.
The Old Cover: Hello, most metal kid’s book in the world! Look at this shit! It’s like the artist was channeling Bosch or something! Cars and helicopters are turning into snarling monsters. A fire hydrant is eating a fucking pigeon. And whatever’s going on with that tree, Lovecraft would approve. All awesome creepiness aside, just bask in the amount of detail poured into the image. These days, people create book covers with some lazy mucking about on a computer. Back then, cover art was ART.
The New Cover: Lazy mucking about on a computer...check. So our heroes are taking a stroll high above the city on...a trail of spoo? Gross. Also, generic. Magical glowy portal things equal fantasy, yay! The original cover told you exactly what sorts of badass shit you were going to find between the pages. This cover screams, “Harry Potter knockoff,” which is hideously unjust as Duane’s series began in 1982. J.K. Rowling was seventeen in 1982, and probably not thinking much about boy wizards. Also, I see a bit of Dirty Windshield going on, yet again.
The Even Newer Cover: I will give them credit for making the kids look age-appropriate, but...a dragon? Just a dragon? Yes, the dragon is in the book, but so are helicopter monsters and sentient stars and a climax wherein all the statues in NYC come to life and kick the ass of a malevolent god. Any one of those things would make for a cooler cover image than a goddamn dragon, aka, one of the laziest of all fantasy tropes. Oh, and there’s that overly cartoony art style, never mind that Duane’s writing is very mature and doesn’t condescend. They’ve taken a great book and made it “Dick and Jane’s Very First Magical Dragon Adventure.”

The Book: Oh, you know. Only one of the most iconic kid’s books ever. Long before The Hunger Games and its imitators, this was the original YA sci-fi dystopia, only it was also deeply poetic, profound, and metaphorical. They’re making a movie version that will ignore everything good about the book in favor of wooden teen actors and hovercraft chases. Fuck Hollywood.
The Old Cover: Instantly recognizable and truly perfect. A stark photo of an old, old man, his craggy face carrying all the memories, joys, and tragedies of his species. That hint of trees and snow in the corner, a bit of darkness ripped away to reveal something warm, strange, and long-forgotten. You wouldn’t even know you were looking at a book for children. It gives me goosebumps.
The New Cover: Well, this might have looked nice before someone spilled pea soup everywhere. Here is the worst example of the Dirty Windshield Effect, taking the original image and just smearing and pissing and glopping unwanted filters across it. And even the original image is kind of dumb. Something deep and metaphorical, the passing of memory, is given an overly literal interpretation. “The Giver teaches Jonas about snow and winter and Christmas. Sooooo...maybe have him hand the kid a snowflake? Symbolism?” Nice try, guys.
The Even Newer Cover: What? WHAT? No. Just...fucking no. I hate and loathe everything about this bullshit; it’s everything wrong with the marketing of kid’s books today. Nothing poetic or subtle at all. Even the “handing off the snowflake” nonsense looked kind of pretty. Here we get Jason Bourne’s silhouette running through a tunnel of swirling Kool-Aid, surrounded by distorted stock photos. Bicycles! Trees! An elephant! Why an elephant? Who gives a fuck! Kids are stupid! They don’t read books willingly, so why should we make the books look appealing in any way? The Giver is a thoughtful, slow-paced read, but the publishers are desperately trying to make it look Hunger Games-y because they think kids won’t want it otherwise. Hey, assholes, maybe kids WOULD want to read if you didn’t plaster the stupidest, laziest, most generic “artwork” across the covers of really wonderful books!

And now, just to spite the big publishing houses, here are two kid’s fantasy novels written by my dad:

Were these books a huge success? No. But you know what? When they are on bookstore shelves, adults and kids alike noticed them. Picked them up. Maybe didn’t buy them, but were at least captured by their gorgeous, evocative covers. I theorize that if today’s youth weren’t conditioned to expect dopey teenage hotties and cheap Photoshop effects, they’d all be reading more. A book might be something a child would be proud to carry around and show off. It certainly couldn’t hurt.

If and when I ever become published, for kids or otherwise, I’m gonna have some FUCKING AWWWWWESOME cover art. Wait and watch.

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