Sunday, September 25, 2011

Does a Different Book Cover Change the Experience of Reading the Book?

  As I was browsing the bookstores in London for...ahem... research, I realized how many books have different covers in the UK. It was odd for me, seeing a different cover on Howl's Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones or And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. While it was a bit disorienting to me, it made me wonder: does a different cover change the experience of a story?

   In some ways, I think it would. Browsing the shelves, I came across a different edition of The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman. Instead of illustrations by Dave McKean, it had illustrations by Chris Riddell. I love Dave McKean, he gave an ethereal quality to the Sandman comic books. But I was drawn into Riddell's illustrations as I flipped through the pages. The cover features the main character, Bod, and his guardian looking sleek, tall and antique. Would I have experienced the characters differently if I experienced Riddell's version first? I think so. Just considering the first page, there's a big difference. In McKean's version, there is a disembodied hand that hovers with a knife. It accompanies the famous first line of this Newbery winner, "There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife." Immediately I, as the reader am wondering what this knife is going to do. After all, knives sneaking around in the darkness are up to no good. 

    Riddell's version has a drawing of a severely elongated man with hair arched like a crow's. His shadow curls around the page as his hand is threaded through a knife. "The man Jack paused on the landing." It says below the illustration. This is a different approach. I'm suddenly interested in this character Jack with crow hair and what is he going to do with that knife? It makes me think about the character more than the knife itself. The difference in the two versions is that one directs my attention to focus on the actions of the knife, and one focuses on the actions of The Man Jack.

    No less dramatic are the different covers in each country for the famed Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. Any reader seriously has to be under a rock to have not heard of Harry Potter at this point. But before readers grace the first sentence, there is the impression of the front cover. I was surprised at how much the character depictions took on their own life depending on which country they were from. The Philosopher's Stone in Italy depicts Harry Potter with a sort of rat hat puzzling over a game. In France, the same book has a different title. A L'Ecole Des Sorciers, translates to "At the School For Sorcerers". The Czech cover has a wacky line up of Harry's teachers in the background. I imagine all these changes would put a reader in a different mindset before they even picked the book up.

Czech Republic

     Another book cover that would have a dramatic impact on the reader is the cover to Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. In America, the cover depicts the famed Mockingjay pin that is central to the symbolism of the story. But in Italy, this same story has a darker mood. Katniss peers out of a hood with menace. Not someone I would want to sit with in the cafeteria. Instantly, I have a preconception about the story before I've even read a word.

United States
   How far do preconceptions about stories go? In Scumble by Ingrid Law, the different covers give you two separate ideas about the same character. In the American version it shows an abstracted colorful illustration of Ledger Kale and his metallic personality. It's eye catching and whimsical. 

United States
   The German cover of Scumble still transfers the same information about Ledger, but gives the impression of a more mature character with more subdued colors and shaggy neo-Beatles hair. With his hair around him in a curtain, it makes me think of the quiet teens at the computer in the library, the ones who look stricken when I ask their name.

   So in the end, do different covers and illustrations change the reading of the story? I think they do. Just in the way that the background of the readers will influence how they experience the story. These covers create impressions about the character, impressions that it is difficult for words to change. But then, that's not the purpose of words. Words lead us into places, take us into scenes or settings. How we get there and what we think once we're there... that's our own business. 


  1. Great post! I am still puzzled by the Italian cover for Harry Potter. Mice heads? Did I miss a part in that book?

  2. I always wonder what our book covers say about us. The Fforde novels have such fun English covers. Are we more serious, or boring?