Over the past month I’ve spoken to about 350 middle graders (4th-6th grade), giving a talk called ‘Can you judge a book by its cover?’ I came up with the idea partly because I didn’t want to spend 45 minutes talking about myself, and partly because over the past year I’ve learned how many authors stress over their covers. It is one of the aspects of publishing that is out of most authors’ control, yet we all know a good cover and a good title can be critical to sales.
It has been fascinating to see the responses to my talks. I show the students 10-12 book covers of great books for middle grade, enlarged to almost poster size, and have them choose what they think they would like to read based just on the covers. I chose recently released books because I wanted those they were unlikely to have read yet or had even heard about. After they have chosen, I tell them a little of what the books are about, and ask if any have changed their minds. Luckily many do or my talk would be a failure!
This wasn’t a scientific study by any means, but I wanted to post my observations. While the gender division is present, it has been less than I expected. I wasn’t surprised to discover no boy selected an obvious ‘girl’ book as his first choice, but I was somewhat surprised by the negative reaction of most girls to overly girly covers. A few had them as their top choices, but most did not put them in their top three. I was happy to learn that these girls had moved beyond the pink aisle in toy stores.
I know nothing about the cover design process, but I used to teach design principles to my landscape design students, talking about the whole concept of negative and positive space, the idea that less may be more and so on. I’m not sure any of that influences a middle grader.
Here’s the top two choices by both boys and girls based just on the covers:
It’s obvious that having the image of at least one boy and one girl on these covers has influenced the selection of these, but the students also commented on how they liked the complexity of the covers. They didn’t use the word complexity, but that’s what they meant when they talked about how they liked all the ‘stuff’.
The cover I most liked and thought had a great design was popular with boys, but did not move up the girls’ list until I mentioned there was an important girl character in the book. After I told them, many asked me why she wasn’t on the cover.
It’s been quite a learning experience to do these talks, and to hear the students’ opinions on what they like and don’t like. I know now from talking to teachers and librarians how hard they work to expand kids’ reading choices, and how a great cover would help them do that.