Judging A Book By Its Cover

Originally posted April 29, 2014

Since I first became a reader, I’ve been cautioned not to judge a book by its cover. It was advice I found impossible to follow. I discovered Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little Town on the Prairie (I thought the blonde girl holding the kitten was beautiful), and Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins because their covers intrigued me. Best of all, the covers more than lived up to their visual promise. They introduced me to unforgettable characters, to books that made a lasting impression on me--and set me down the path to become a writer.

I’ve been thinking a lot about covers this month. I worked with designer Mark Conahan to develop a new cover for a reprint of my novel A Voice From The Border, and the South Dakota State Historical Society Press has just unveiled the cover for my next book, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. Here’s the link: http://pioneergirlproject.org.

The two covers are radically different, and not just because they represent different genres—young adult fiction and adult memoir/academic nonfiction. The two covers reflect entirely different philosophies to cover design.

The Traditional Approach

The Pioneer Girl cover reflects the standard publishing approach to developing covers for books across most genres. Editors work directly with artists and book designers to create covers that fulfill their visions for the books they publish. Editors hire artists, approve their sketches and illustrations, oversee the cover design, and, for illustrated manuscripts like picture books, decide which illustrations go where within a book’s pages. Authors usually have little or no involvement with this process. They see the finished product a few weeks or months before readers do.

One of my students recently wrote that she liked the way Laura Ingalls Wilder sprinkled illustrations throughout the Little House series. She was surprised to learn that Wilder’s editors at Harper’s and Brothers had chosen the illustrators for both the original edition of the Little House books and the more familiar edition illustrated by Garth Williams. Wilder herself had little to do with how her books looked.

Like most authors, Wilder had mixed feelings about the end result. When her first novel was issued in 1932, she admired a drawing of her parents created by illustrator Helen Sewell, and based on a photograph of Charles and Caroline Ingalls taken shortly after their marriage. In 1941, however, Wilder was displeased with the rosy cheeks Sewell and her fellow illustrator Mildred Boyle had given Laura on the cover of Little Town On The Prairie. “Have you seen the book in its published form?” she wrote her literary agent. “It is quite striking especially Laura’s cheeks for which…[Harper & Brothers] apologized and promised correction in [the] next printing.”1

I’ve had mixed feelings about my covers. I was disappointed with the original cover for A Voice From The Border. The title was hard to read; the collage approach lacked visual focus; and the Confederate flag had been inaccurately reproduced as red, white, and green. But I loved the cover illustration for Ghost Horses. Not only did it convey the right image for the main character, but it subtly signaled what the book was about: a bank of billowing white clouds shaped like dinosaurs soared over the windswept Badlands. Those dinosaurs were ghost horses.

The Downside to Convention

Still, when authors are excluded from the cover design process, visual details from the original manuscript are often blurred, portrayed inaccurately, or sometimes disappear completely. Blue eyes become brown; a sixteen-year-old looks twelve; the magic key on which the entire plot hinges appears nowhere on the cover. My Garth Williams edition of By The Shores Of Silver Lake features an illustration of Laura on the back of a brown pony, streaking across the prairie. The cover is lovely; the colors appealing. But in the book, Laura rides a black pony, not a brown one.

Outside the Box


Not every cover from a mainstream publisher adheres exactly to the conventional philosophy. Editors sometimes go outside the box and work directly with authors. For example, when writers are also artists, they sometimes illustrate their own books, coordinating the final design with their editors. This is especially true in the picture book category. Think of such legendary titles as The Tale of Peter RabbitGreen Eggs And Ham, and Where The Wild Things Are. But sometimes novelists too are given the opportunity to illustrate their own covers. Eloise Jarvis McGraw created the original cover illustration for her Newbery Honor Book The Moorchild.

Infrequently, editors break with publishing convention all together, and decide to work closely with an author on cover design, whether the writer is an artist or not. My editor at the South Dakota State Historical Society Press allowed me to choose the cover photograph for Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life. In the photograph I selected, Wilder is in her early forties, elegantly dressed in a dark gown, with a fringed shawl and an extravagant hat that looks as if it’s about to take flight. In profile, with her arm behind her back, she gazes off camera, looking at once self-confident, sophisticated, and determined. The photograph was taken before Wilder launched her career as a columnist for The Missouri Ruralist. I like to think that she’s gazing into her literary future.

A Totally Different Process

The new cover for A Voice From The Border emerged from a totally different process, primarily because the publisher is a small press, specializing in supplying school districts with reprints of books for young readers. The new cover design fell entirely to me—and an art director of my choice. Mark Conahan, who has designed one beautiful cover after another, read my book before launching into his design (something not all designers do), and then used elements from the novel, as well as its historical setting, to create the new cover. Even the text in the background script, which he hand-lettered himself, comes directly from a passage in A Voice From The Border. From the image of the main character to the title’s typeface, all the elements of this new cover have their roots in the book or its historical setting.

Image Is Everything

Covers play an incredibly important role in the lifecycle of most books. Readers indeed judge books by their covers, even more so now as our society becomes more visually oriented. Image is everything. But I like to think that the creation of a traditional book—its cover, its size, its shape, the way the text appears on the page, and, most importantly, its contents—gives readers something more. I once heard children’s book editor Arthur Levine say that a beautifully written and beautifully designed book is an objet d’art. I couldn’t agree more.


1. Laura Ingalls Wilder to George Bye, November 19, 1941, James Oliver Brown Collection, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University, New York.

Rosalie Stanton