The Art of Covers

Some deep part of me was thrilled last week when the cover art for Penguin’s newly released Modern Classics edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory caused such kerfuffle. This wasn’t because of any passionate opinion one way or the other about the cover art itself (for the record, I like it and I get what Penguin were trying to do, but it’s far from being my favourite cover and if I didn’t already own the book the new art wouldn’t entice me to pick it up), but because people were getting worked up over a book. More specifically, a book cover.

In case you missed it, here’s the ‘offending’ art:

Image: bbc.com

Image: bbc.com

Now, of course, I’m well aware that the internet can get itself worked up into a foam of outrage over the stupidest things, and that the anger over this new cover had probably dissipated before it had even built up to a head, but I still thought it was interesting. In this era of e-books, it showed we still care about how our books look, and that cover art – and how covers are designed – still counts for a lot. I think a lot of people lost sight of the fact that this was a Penguin Modern Classics edition of the book (in other words, not really an edition designed for children), and so the cover didn’t have to have swirly, kid-friendly designs or luminous font or images from the movies, or whatever – that’s all been done. Some commentators lamented the fact that the work of Sir Quentin Blake wasn’t used in the design, and that made me wonder ‘what on earth for?’ What would be the point of a new edition if the artwork from a previous edition was used? I think the new cover’s emphasis on superficial, mindless children and their equally superficial parents, plus the weirdness in the little girl’s fixed gaze, suits the darkness at the heart of the story perfectly. When you think about it, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is an extremely dark book – which is what makes it an enduring favourite, of course, and it’s also a large part of its cultural importance – and it shows more effectively than any other book I can think of the dangers of fixing one’s gaze and effort on the wrong thing, and how damaging it can be. So, in that sense, the new cover is perfect.

I’m not an artist, and I’m certainly not a designer, and so I don’t have much idea of the thought processes or work involved in creating a cover. Nevertheless, cover art matters hugely to me. I have bought (and probably will continue to buy) books based on their covers; sometimes it works out, and sometimes it decidedly does not. I have often been seduced by a beautiful cover only to find the book inside is not so good, but somehow I don’t mind – the cover is a work of art in itself, and I admire the designers who can make the book look as good as it can while still reflecting the story in the image somehow. It’s not an easy task.

Some of my favourite covers (of books I’ve not listed before, at least) would include the following:

1. The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet (Reif Larsen)

Image: sourcesofgeek.com

Image: sourcesofgeek.com

This whole book is a work of art. Not only the story, but the ‘interactive’ nature of the text itself, which is full of drawings and scribblings and notes and maps, is wonderful. The story of T.S. Spivet (a prodigiously gifted twelve-year-old from Montana) as he journeys across the US to Washington, D.C. in order to collect a prize, is a gem. The edition I have is a large, oversized hardback, a real object in the hand, a weighty and precious thing, and I love it. Even if the story inside were nonsense (which it’s not) I would enjoy this book as a thing of beauty.

2. Tinder (Sally Gardner)

Image: goodreads.com

Image: goodreads.com

I have to admit that I haven’t read this book yet; it’s something I’m saving up for a treat, but I already know I’m going to love it. I had the pleasure of hearing David Roberts (the creator of this fabulous image, and also the art inside the book) speak about the process of bringing this cover to life at the recent CBI Conference in Dublin, and it was a joy to watch the different sketches of the cover art and how much sheer graft it took to get it right. This reproduction does the book no justice; it’s a sleek, handsome hardback with a beautiful texture and excellent paper quality – a real treasure.

The fact that I got David Roberts to sign my edition is icing on the cake.

3. Wildwood (Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis)

Image: en.wikipedia.org

Image: en.wikipedia.org

This is a huge, thick, handsome book too (I’m seeing a bit of a trend here), and the cover art – as well as the illustrations inside – are sumptuous. Colin Meloy is the author of this book and his wife, Carson Ellis, is the illustrator, which might explain why the book and the art are in such harmony. I had problems with the story itself (it’s rather overlong and somewhat overwritten in places) but one thing’s for sure – it’s a pretty thing, and the art is amazing. It’s the sort of illustration which shows you something new every time you look at it, and I love that.

4. Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories (H. P. Lovecraft)

I have the Penguin edition of Call of Cthulhu and its cover art, a ‘simple’ line drawing which reminds me of a stately, portly gentleman being slowly eaten by a strange, octopus-like creature, caught my eye when I was looking for this book. You can get cheaper editions, and you can get less ornate editions, but I wanted this one not only for the cover art (which, for some reason, my blog won’t let me insert here – clearly, the power of the Old Ones remains strong), but also because of the rough-cut edges on the pages. It’s a gorgeous edition and, even though I may never read all the stories in it, I treasure it.

5. Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales (Virago)

Image: rebloggy.com

Image: rebloggy.com

The contents of this book are the real treasure, but the whole thing is just beautiful. Another sumptuous hardback, it feels beautiful and is produced to a high standard, but it’s the cover – the font, the illustrations, the design and use of space – which really drew me. The stories in this book were originally published in two separate editions – The Virago Book of Fairy Tales, Book 1 and Book 2 – and I had bought Book 1 and was on the lookout for Book 2 when I came across this. Even though it meant ‘re-buying’ Book 1, I couldn’t pass it. It’s one of my all-time favourite books, in every respect.

So, there you have it. What did you think of the Charlie cover? Did it offend or horrify you – or, were you like me and quietly pleased with it? What are your thoughts on cover art in general, and do you have favourite books based on their covers and/or illustrations?

 

 

8 thoughts on “The Art of Covers

  1. Kate Wally

    When you think about it, yes, but when I read ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ as a youngster, I didn’t think about how dark it was at all!
    Lovely book covers. Another book of Sally Gardner’s, ‘I, Coriander’ is one of my favourite modern book covers.

    Reply
    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Thanks – yes, of course, I’m not saying I got all the darkness in Charlie when I was a younger, either, but the point I was (inexpertly) trying to make is that the cover is aimed at adults who would, hopefully, have some idea about the dark heart of the story and so would see the allusions and resonances of the image. Ideally, anyway. I must check out ‘I, Coriander’ – I’m not familiar with it at all. Thanks, Kate. 🙂

      Reply
  2. Surendran

    I feel the cover art in the new penguin edition is interesting, even inspired. However, I don’t think I’d be enticed into buying this particular edition of the book just because of its cover art.

    And speaking of cover art and ‘re-buying’ books, I re-bought ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ simply because I came upon a new penguin modern classics edition with a photograph of Audrey Hepburn dressed up as Holly Golightly on the cover with some part of the New York skyline in the background!

    Reply
    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Oh, lovely. I would buy a new edition of Breakfast at Tiffany’s for a cover like that, too! I’m glad I’m not the only one who was intrigued by the new Charlie cover art; I wouldn’t buy it, either, but if I was a Penguin Modern Classics completist, or something, I wouldn’t be ashamed to have it on my bookshelf either. Thanks for commenting.

      Reply
  3. susanlanigan

    Interesting discussion about covers – none of those now would lure me in necessarily. I don’t like the Chocolate Factory one either. However I admit I’m a sucker for those ones with couples on the cover in an embrace with a hint of war. Thankfully I have little say in the design of covers as I’m rather unimaginative in that regard 😉

    Reply
    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      I guess it depends what sort of books you like – I’m actually turned off by covers with photographs of people on them, and particularly of couples! Funny, that. I much prefer illustration and beautiful font. I’m definitely a lettering nerd. 🙂 Thanks for commenting, Susan.

      Reply
  4. Mishka Jenkins

    That Wildwood cover was stunning!

    Covers are such a big part of the book, it’s good to get them right. But then they do say bad publicity is good publicity, right?

    Reply
    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Well, exactly! Someone said on Twitter last week that Penguin won’t even have to advertise this book; the controversy over the cover will sell it for them. Yes, covers are vital, and it is important to do a good and professional-looking job, for sure.

      Isn’t the Wildwood cover amazing? The illustrations inside are just as lovely. 🙂

      Reply

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