EP 2 Transcript: Judging A Book By It’s Cover

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Intro: Welcome to the Picture Bookstagang Podcast 

I’m Ale

I’m Corrie

I’m Kelly

And we’re The Picture Bookstagang! We invite you to join us here every other week while we discuss amazing books and issues  in children’s literature.  As well as Early literacy education and parenting as it relates to reading.  We can’t wait to dig in and deep and get nerdy about picture books with you.

0:36 C: Hello and Welcome to the Picture Bookstagang Podcast, I’m Corrie and I’m here with my wonderful co-hosts Kelly and Ale.

A: Hey! I’m Ale.

K: Hello! I’m Kelly. Welcome back.

0:53 C: So, important question for you all, have you ever judged a book by it’s cover? Today..we have a very exciting episode to kick things off.  We want to talk about how with picture books you often can judge a book by it’s cover.  Oooo Controversial.

K: (laughs)

A: It’s definitely something that I do on the regular if I’m going to be buying a book. The cover is sometimes the only deciding factor for me.  

K: Yeah! Especially when you’re shopping online, like how else do you judge a picture book especially?  There’s usually not super detailed information on the online bookstore about what’s inside.  You don’t get a view of what’s inside so you’re going on the cover and a couple of views. 

A: And with picture books especially, their covers are designed to give you what you need to make a purchasing decision, that’s what they’re trying to do.  I mean for older (Adult) Books that’s probably not recommended although I am guilty of buying most of my adult novels entirely based on their covers, until recently when I got an E-Reader, I was kind of late on that wagon.  Now I find it really hard to tell from the kindle store if I’m going to like it or not because it’s black and white and it’s a very small picture.  So it’s like, well I guess I’m going to have to read a synopsis or a review now.  

K: Yeah I definitely browse for E-books, on overdrive or the libby app on the library and there’s very little information and there’s no reviews of any of the books there so I’m basing my decisions on what I’m borrowing entirely on the cover and I do definitely read the reviews after browsing covers for audio books though because there’s a lot of good information that you can get out of a review of an audio book.  But I’m browsing covers on most stores because I don’t feel like there’s any other way to tell.

3:14 C: And Honestly I don’t really read E-books unless I get specific PDFs from the publishers.  I am way more likely to seek out a physical books or an audio book.  But when I do read a PDF I for sure look at the cover and see how it plays into the story lines and the information that they put on the flaps.

3:42 K: Yeah.  So I’m definitely a big audio book fan, as I said as a parent I feel like it’s the only way I can download information into my brain because focusing on a black and white paper page which feels too big sometimes. So that’s how I keep up my reading, with audio books. But! On to the next thing.

4:02 K: When we are talking about adult novels, as we have been I was very interested to find out quite some time in a book I’m sure I’ll never find again, that a lot of cover designers for adult market novels have never read the book.  They’re given a synopsis, they’re given ideas, then they design a series of covers that are then picked out essentially by a marketing team. It’s a completely different process than what we see with children’s books.

4:33 That’s really true and I was actually talking about this with my brother-in-law (@ianturnerillustration) and he was saying that when it comes to designing children’s books.  The whole thing is done more as a conversation between the illustrator and the author to make sure they’re getting the right feel.

So with children’s books especially it’s easier to make a more accurate judgement based on the cover, whereas with an adult book if the illustrator hasn’t even read it how could they possibly know what kind of feel or what the story really is about.  And often with adult books the covers get changed over and over again for different editions, if it’s successful, if there’s a tv show or a movie they usually put that on the cover.  Which to me? Is a really big turn off.  If I see a TV show picture on a novel I’m thinking, “Mm I dunno why don’t I just watch the TV show?”

5:42 K: I’m not a fan of movie covers on books, even if I want to read a book after the movie’s come out I go and look for the original cover.

5:52 C: I do think it’s really interesting though that with picture books the cover is often the first part of the book that’s designed after the book is written and like Ale was saying it turns into a conversation between the author and the illustrator which I think over all makes for a better product. Also I’m interested too, Ale what are some things that draw you in about a book?

6:13 A: So for me when I’m picking a kid’s book out by the cover?  Colour is definitely the first thing that attracts me.  So some books set the whole tone for their story’s aesthetic based on the colours chosen, so like with some books like “The Giving Tree” for example, I’m sure you immediately thought of the bright green image.  The colour is a big part of what is attracting you and setting it apart.  Or books like, “Olivia” where they’ve taken out certain colours, so that one is like red and black.  And the choices that they make really affect, the overall ambiance of the style.  So when I’m talking about Ambiance I mean, when you look at an image what kind of feeling are the elements of that image evoking?  So for example, “Peter Rabbit” “Winnie-the-Pooh” “Brambly Hedge” are all sort of a similar ambiance, they have that sort of watercolour, teapots, frilly pansies kind of feel and it’s very different kind of general energy than a super modern clean line, bold colours book.  And it definitely attracts different kinds of people as well.

7:47 K: And you know the frilly-teapot-watercolour-classic-peter-rabbit-winnie-the-pooh  Style is not my aesthetic.  I immediately associate it in my mind when I see a cover with something out of date.  So that is a style that would turn me off right away if I saw it on the cover.

C: I agree with you Kelly, I am not interested in that style with the teapots and the lace, it just reminds me of how clumsy I am and how I can’t be around delicate things.

Everyone: Chuckles 

8:22 C: The next thing I wanted to chat about and consider is sort of the type and the font, meaning books that rely almost entirely on the font and the text and don’t have any illustrations.  So books like “This is Not a Box” “The Book With No Pictures” which I actually think is a strategy which can work really well if it’s well done, but if it’s not truly engaging to the kids then it’s gonna be a total flop.  I’m thinking about when I was a classroom teacher, “The Book With No Pictures” was a massive hit and I think it’s because it uses the authority of the person reading out loud like a teacher or a librarian to get them to say super extra silly things and that’s what keeps all the kids engaged, the desire to see what the person in charge is going to say that’s just so ridiculous next. 

9:35 A: That really is the height of 6 year old comedy where you’re saying something that is obviously not true and I think that part of why kids enjoy that sort of humour so much, as like an observation. Is that they feel like they’re in control more they understand what the real answer is and it’s a bit of a flip of the authority.  The kids know the answer and the teacher doesn’t. It’s just something that kids love being part of. They laugh so hard everybody is engaged and for that reason I actually think those books are wonderful.  But from the perspective of do I actually like the aesthetic? I don’t.  It does not entice me to pick them up, but I do know the effect is really successful. 

10:32 K: But from the viewpoint of looking at the cover of a book like “The Book with No Pictures” That is a book that the first time I looked at it on the shelf, I was like “I have to know what’s in there” because it’s just a white cover with black text and it makes such a statement- “This books has no pictures.” Well what do you mean it has no pictures? What is a picture book without pictures?  So from a cover aspect of judging that book I was immediately drawn to it so I think that’s something really important about a book like that.  And what is so successful about the book.

11:06 A: I was just going to say that it definitely tells you a lot about that book, that cover with no pictures, it’s a bold statement and it tells you, “Okay what am I expecting when I buy this book?” It’s probably going to be funny, it’s probably going to be edgy, they’re probably going to break the fourth wall, these are things that you can expect when you see a cover like that and it helps you make that decision pretty accurately I think.

K: Yeah, definitely. 

C: Yeah, that’s a good point Ale.

K:Great point, amazing point.

11:34 K: So one of the other things I think we all agree on is that the quality of printing and binding makes a massive difference when you’re looking at a book on a shelf and that’s sometimes a deal breaker for me when I’m looking at a book on a shelf if I’m going to actually going to decide I’m going to make the investment and put it on our bookshelf permanently, when I see a book really well constructed, good paper, mixed materials, holographic parts, things like that.  I’m like “Wow!” There’s a greater attention to detail here, the well crafted binding, that matters to me.

12:11 A: Definitely I have to say that that is one element of whether or not we really enjoy a book long term, whether we pick it up long term, that people often overlook.  People often think well if the illustration is good, if the story is good well then that’s it.  But it’s really more complicated than that because the feel of the book, whether it gets ripped easily, where does it go?  Does it just get thrown in a basket because it’s a floppy book? You’re not going to pick that up again.  So some publishers really put a lot of attention to that, like Cottage Door Press which is a fairly small operation you don’t see tons of books coming out by them, but what you do see is all this quality work which I really appreciate 

13:00 C: Yeah, I also think that books like that really help extend the life of a book in a classroom too, because if you have 20 kids reading the same book every day it’s gonna get destroyed in a couple months.  So having a book that was well made that will stick around for a long time, is something that a lot of teachers take into consideration as well.

13:23 C: To me also a sense of intrigue, action, unusualness are really important to me in a book because it leads us to….

13:34 A: Boldness, a bold cover for me and I think for a lot of people is so important and when I say bold I mean making new choices with materials, making new choices with style or lack of picture.  And, one of the wonderful things about children’s literature as a genre is the ability for creators to really play with the boundaries that you don’t see necessarily in other genres of writing or art and since children’s literature became its own genre in the Victorian period with works like “Alice in Wonderland” and all the works by Beatrix Potter that was really the start of children’s literature becoming its own artistic area and one where people could really play with it and make bold statements that no one else had really done before.  And it really pays off sometimes, and it elevates children’s literature from just a story to a wonderful unique piece of art.  Not that every book is a statement and a bold unique piece of art but there definitely are wonderful examples.

15:02 K: So there are some really classic examples where the art and the style and the choices made were really cutting edge for it’s time.  Ezra Jack Keats is gonna be one of the most important examples of that, back in the 1960’s they were bold they were simple and he made a choice that was out of the question for most authors of that time which was putting a Black child as the protagonist it had virtually never been done in mainstream publishing at that time. So things like that and having that choice, that Black character on the cover was groundbreaking and incredibly bold for the time.

A: And I feel like with Ezra Jack Keats books, the style has not aged for me, when I look at “The Snowy Day” or “A Whistle for Willie” I don’t think ‘oh this is a classic book’ I think ‘wow! This is a gorgeous book.  It really aged well because you can’t even tell it was made in the 60’s.  There are other books that didn’t age quite so well.

16:16 K: Yeah like Corduroy and all the Keats books they’re so classic they just transcend time. 

16:25 C: I agree and I think some other sorts of bold and unique choices that have really sparked a trend in children’s illustration would be individuals like Eric Carle, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” “Brown Bear Brown Bear” we’re still reading those today.  We read those when I was a child, we’re still reading them today.  Especially Margaret Wise Brown who did, “Goodnight Moon” which I think could be a very divisive book for some people. It’s arguably kind of weird but definitely memorable.  Although some people just think that it’s our modern sensibilities that feel it’s just kind of weird.

K: Definitely a controversial book yes. 

A: Some people are very protective of Margaret Wise Brown’s style of that book, everything about that book, where as other people find it garish and unsettling.  I am kind of on the fence, I can appreciate it and my kids actually really or my younger one does, it has a strange quality. Why is there a bowl full of mush?

C: (chuckle)

K: And why do we need to say goodnight to it?

C: It’s also definitely been repeated and taken on way different themes as well so it is iconic.  However we feel about it.

18:03 C:  I really think an artist that is setting a trend in art in books right now is Christian Robinson who did books like “Another” the recently published “You Matter,” “Gaston” he’s just so good.

K: He has quite a catalogue too of work and he is one person who I feel like no one can really touch him in terms of what he’s accomplishing and what he’s putting out there and the style and it’s so unique and so beautiful and I’m very excited to see where he continues to go in children’s literature.

C: Definitely

18:35 A: He is definitely somebody who I would like to visit his dreams because they are probably wild.

Everybody: (Chuckles)

K: Yeah!

18:44 A: Anyways there’s a lot that is going into the different aspects of what makes a cover, colour the ambiance, etc, but what is it that tells us immediately when we look at that cover what is going to be on the inside.  Because really we’re making the inferences from that cover and that is why we’re purchasing the book or borrowing it from the library.

K: Yeah and I think for me I am always when I’m browsing for a book, I am looking for characters and themes that are unfortunately out of the ordinary to jump out at me on the cover.  I want to see a girl in space, I want to see two grandpas, I wanna see a boy in a dress, I wanna see BIPOC characters that are playing, exploring, adventuring, more space more dinosaurs but I want to see something I don’t expect on the cover, and I want to get away from the bears.  I’m looking for humans doing cool stuff.

19:51 I have to say that for you it’s more like what subject matter do you see that is telling you about the story, but for me I’m not as focused on what things are happening or who is in the story. For me it’s more about the general feeling and the ambiance that the cover is evoking, so does it invite me into the world in whatever way?  Is there something about the feeling of the different artistic elements that is making me think I really want to see what’s going to happen.  It could be about anything, I dunno, puppies in teapots, it’s just for me more about how it’s done and less about what it’s about.  

20:44 C: I think I’m kind of with Kelly on this one where I want to see individuals on the cover that are smashing stereotypes, I want to see a beautiful font but that’s still easy to read for kids.  I want to see a cohesive colour scheme to really draw me in and see something I really didn’t expect to see which is going to make me want to open it. 

21:10 K: Yeah, and it’s like no I don’t wanna see comic sans on the cover, I want a great font, I want that font to make a statement, I want the colours to set a mood.  The art style is obviously so important but I also want to see a statement made about what’s inside and you have to see part of the subject represented on the cover to know…

21:34 A: Yes of course, that’s definitely part of it and there are definitely certain subjects that if I see it I’m going to grab it.  But I’m just open to any kind of subject if that cover is really doing it justice. If it’s really different and unique and it feels like a place that I want to visit, for me it’s going to sell me that book, personally.  Regardless of anything else.  

22:10 A: So the cover is supposed to be enticing it’s supposed to make you want to open the book and all of the design choices made are trying to invite you into the world of that story.  It’s trying to make you interest it’s trying to intrigue you.  Everything that they put on the back or the jacket, the illustrator author info, it’s all just added to try and get you to buy the book and take it home with you and open it up.

22:45 K: I am admittedly quite drawn to seeing a medal on the cover too.  If I can see a stonewall award or a Caldecott, I’m there I need to know why this got that medal.  There’s got to be something interesting going on here. And I need to know more about it.

23:00 A:  I have to agree even when we pick books at night, whenever River brings one that has a medal on it she’s like “look! Mum! This is gonna be good! There’s a medal, they only give that to the good books!” So it does have that feeling like someone’s done the research for you and it’s like “oh well then this has to be good.” Unless it’s a medal that someone’s invented for themselves. Which actually happened one time to us.

23:26 A:  So we will probably be talking about the self publishing industry.  If you know anything about that there are two streams or two paths you can go in publishing.  So either a publishing house, big or small will take your book and they’ll make it.  But some people decide to publish their own for a variety of reasons. Now, those people also market their own books we get a lot of requests and there was one person that gave themselves an award, I don’t remember exactly but it was like “THE BEST BOOK AWARD!” 

24:08 K: “It was like, it was like, “number one best book” or something, it was such an outrageous statement that it didn’t even make any sense.  And I mean you could just take the clip art of a medal and toss it on any book if you want to but that really doesn’t make any sense.

A: It was, it was definitely the highlight of my week.

Everyone: (Laughs)

A: Number one best book! It’s like a Number one best Dad. Or something you put on someone’s mug.

K: A mug, yeah.

A: That is not how this works. 

24:41 C: So I guess in summary we shouldn’t hardline judge people by what they look like the first time we meet them but is it ok for a book? I think so.  And I also think that varies so widely for everyone like based on who I am as a human I am way less likely to pick up a book covered in blonde princesses riding pink unicorns. 

A: I would buy that book. 

Everybody: (Laughs)

C: Which also leads me to the question for you both what about the trends that we see in artistic styles?  Do you think that impacts us in whether we buy a book or not?  If it’s in a trendy style?

25:23 K: Well first of all if that princess  was riding that unicorn in outer space and fighting for her rights?  I’m buying that book, immediately.  But yes, I do think there’s definite trends in artistic styles, and I get into them as well. And sometimes I think it just signals to my brain that it’s new and i t’s different and why is everyone kind of getting into this one trend of colour palette.  I just want to know more about it.  I do have a bit of a fascination with seeing is what’s new because I feel like the artform of picture books is always elevating itself so I want to know what’s new and different. 

26:09 A: I have to say I am not always attracted by what is super duper trendy especially if I have seen it a few times. So with what we do, we see a lot of books and if I see certain trends and they keep on happening I’m kind of over it.  I like to see people doing their own thing and maybe not always completely on trend.  And this also applies to a lot of the subjects that we see, so right now is like a lot of Unicorns and avocados, or unicorns eating avocados, or unicorns and avocados I don’t know.  There’s just a lot and it doesn’t always draw me in because I know it is trendy I like to see something different.

K: Yeah I think I would be more interested in art style trend rather than subject matter trend. 

A: No, of course, it’s just hard to explain when we talk about trends in art styles, but certain colours, blocky shapes, lots of things on white is super in, which I actually like it’s easy to know especially for small children what you’re looking at.  It’s punchy I like that.  But I also really appreciate people just coming out with their own thing and don’t care what’s happening. 

27:44 K: Absolutely but what do we do when the cover doesn’t match the inside? And I know that Ale has an opinion on this, so I’m going to let her…

27: 53 A: So this is something that sometimes does happens where for whatever reason when they published a book they have made the decision to create a cover that is not in keeping that is not in keeping with what you are going to see on the inside of the book.  So they’ll make the style more ornate or colourful or whatever decisions, so you look at that cover and you think “wow this looks great” then you open it up and you think “this is not the same book.” And that actually happened to us, with one book that I won’t name last year where we all got this beautiful book and we were like “Wow this looks gorgeous!” Then we opened it up and it looked like it had been done by a completely different person. The effect was disappointing to say the least and it felt a little bit like they were trying to trick us.

28:52 K: Yeah, for sure.  It was shocking to see one style on the cover and a completely different style on the inside.  A very beautifully laid out cover and then on the inside it was more like boxes with text on a white background and there was this disconnection that didn’t allow us to appreciate what the book really was I think because we were so focused on what we thought it was going to be.

A: It was very distracting. And that really goes to show how much we dor rely on the cover that when we had this one example of a book that did not sort of produce what was promised on the inside that we saw on the cover, that we were so fixated on this incongruence that we really couldn’t focus on anything else.  So normally we do see a cover that is a pretty good indicator of what we are going to find, which is why, judging books by covers is a good idea.  

29:56 C: Yeah I really think there is something to be said about our personal experiences in what is drawing us into a book since we are all visually driven in different ways and picture books are definitely a visual medium.

30:13 K: And on that note that kind of brings us full circle to the beginning of our discussion.  Ale is more into that “Peter Rabbit” “Brambly Hedge” kind of aesthetic and I definitely have more of an aesthetic preference to things that are more modern, more out there, mixed materials, I wanna see something different, new modern, and I have to say my impression of Corrie is always going to be that she gravitates to a cover with a strong central character or space and dinosaurs.

30:46 A: Or bugs.

K: Or bugs, definitely bugs, absolutely.

30:52 C: You’re not wrong, I am. Hahaha

30:59 A: I think we are actually in some way looking for covers speak to who we are inside, you know it means a lot, that we are looking for covers that draw us in who we are.  Like for me I am a very old lady who likes doilies and lace on the inside…although I do like more modern books I don’t just collect watercolour books about mice in teacups.  I could also go for the modern and bold.  It’s just when it comes to the books that really hold my heart, it’s those books.  Those are where I want to be.

31:39 K: And you know, I know you always like a book with a scary theme too, so you have a variety that different moods that you like and I think we all do but there are certain things that fall into this “I have to have it” category and other things that are just okay and as you’ve said many times, a book with a ghost is going to pull you in.

32:04 A: Oh we love ghosts and you know some people think that it’s too early, River is four now and we’ve been reading scary stories since she was 2 and she loves it.  And I don’t think it’s too scary, I think it builds character, I mean maybe she’ll sleep with me until she is 15 but…it will build character.

Everybody: (Laughs)

32:31 Corrie: Well friends I don’t think we can do any better than that so, I think I just wanna thank you for being here.  And I also want to thank our listeners and ask them to sound off in the comments with their opinions and your own opinions on judging a book by it’s cover.  We want to thank you for joining us for this episode of the Picture Bookstagang Podcast. You can follow us on Instagram @Picturebookstagang and be sure to subscribe on Apple, Google, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.  Be sure to drop us a note and let us know, what are you reading?

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