Saturday 19 January 2013

The Beauty of Covers in YA

So, last week, The Book Smugglers did the cover reveal for The City's Son, US version. My thoughts- YAY! Pen :) Yay-her scars :)  And then I thought, why aren't there many scars/unconventially beautiful people on covers? We've already had this discussion with whitewashing, but I thought it would be interesting to bring up a different issue.

Body image and self esteem is an important topic.
I believe that everyone should be proud of what they look like, and not worry about weight, blemishes etc. But there's a lot of people who feel insecure about their looks, society  does not help by promoting that beauty=key to getting partner=happiness, and I'm wondering if YA book covers are doing anything to help.

I've been asking the internet about books with main characters  who don't typically conform to society's  standards of beauty, and I have a list. Thank you people! (You're all listed at the bottom). With the covers, I take either the one I've seen most often in the UK or the first one that came up in Google Images.

So what happens with books with main characters who aren't typically beautiful?

1. Publishers get it right. They get portrayed accurately.

The City's Son by Tom Pollock.Mortal Instruments by Philip Reeve.

2. They get shown in shadow, they're covered up, or you see the character but you can't tell that they don't fit society's ideals. 

Jepp Who Defied the Stars by Katherine Marsh. I've been told that  the main character is a dwarf, but the lack of scenery gives you nothing to compare him to.
The Days of Judy B by Rose Heiney. I believe the issue here is weight. The skirt and hand could be anyone.

Black Heart Blue by Louisa Reid. Rebecca, the sister with Treacher Collins Syndrome, is in shadow.Henry Franks by Peter Adam Salomon. Henry has a lot of scars for reasons you'll find out, and the cover hints at this, but doesn't make it clear.

North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headly. Terra has a large birthmark on her cheek. Pushing the Limits by Katie McGarry. After the incident, Echo has scars up and down her arms.

Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carlson. Not only this an example of whitewashing, you don't get a full picture of Elisa.Shark Girl by Kelly Bingham. Jane's attack meant that her right arm was amputated, we only see her left here. 

Skin Deep by Laura Jarrat. Jenna is in a car crash that leaves her face scarred. These have magically disappeared (I doubt that a car crash would leave scars on just one side. Correct me if I'm wrong) The Duff by Kody Keplinger. Bianca gets called the Designated Ugly Fat Friend, and her esteem suffers as a result.
Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce. Scarlett is scarred and missing an eye.Wonder by RJ Palacio. The big one. August has a facial deformity. This cover doesn't really say that he's deformed, and doesn't say he isn't.
3. Symbols or  other abstract things are used on the cover, and the character isn't depicted at all.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Hazel's cancer visibly takes its toll and Augustus had his leg amputated. Fat Vampire by Adam Rex. I'm assuming that weight's the issue here.

Pure by Julianna Baggott. Apparently, it's full of scarred characters. 

So why is this done? It may be for practicality reasons-obtaining models etc. It may be because it is just better for the book-Black Heart Blue and Henry Franks both have covers that suit them. But the reason those who are less than ideal-looking aren't shown on covers is:  Publishers or cover designers don't think that they'll sell. It may not be that person's personal view. It probably isn't.

 But it is society's. Magazines aimed at teen girls are often full of tips to look better, clothes and makeup pages-sometimes for other people's benefit. I have nothing against looking good, and taking pride in your appearance. But we're being the sold the message that those who don't look "perfect" won't get anywhere. And this leads to problems in people's psych, lead them to feeling worthless.

School's might try and help. At mine an all girl's school. I think we get (the same) talks in years 7,9,10, or around age 12 and then again 13-15.  Other girls  get less than this. The sample of the few teenage boys I know tell me that they don't get this at all.

Stories are an important part in people's lives. They have the power to take your to another world and to change your thinking, your ideology. Teenagers are easily impressable.

So what kind of message are we getting when the majority of covers try to avoid the fact that they are centred around someone who isn't traditionally picture perfect?

Thank you to: Laura Ferguson, Cait from The Cait Files, Cicely Loves Books, Laure Eve, Jace McCoy, Kim Curran, Ellie from Curiosity Killed The Bookworm, Tom Pollock, Clover from Fluttering Butterflies, Keris from UKYA, Melissa Maria, Sean Cummings,Laura Sister Spooky, Philip Reeve, Lucy  Queen of Contemporary, Rhys from Fiction Thirst, Bella/Cheezyfeet,  Caroline from Portrait of Woman, Emily datawesomeunicorn, Faye, Cara, and Sarah mindspiel for giving me different viewpoints, suggesting awesome books and making my tbr list grow.

PS. This post should not have taken five hours to put together. It did. XD Please comment!


  1. I had been thinking about that recently too. It went more along the lines of why are romance heroines usually portrayed as beautiful. Even if they are shy/quiet or wallflowers after the makeover wand has been waved or a change of clothes takes place, they become hot. Why can't we have over weight or curvy protagonists?
    P.S This is coming out after unsuccessfully going on a diet in the last week.

    1. Hey, diets aren't necessary unless your weight is affecting your health to the point you can't walk anywhere... It's really annoying how fat people tend to be relegated to side characters.... Looking on my shelves, about three of them have a curvy protagonist.

  2. This is such a valid post and it's a shame, but I think the main reason these issues are not displayed on covers, is the one you mentioned, because the people in the industry don't think they sell well, same for whitewashing. It's also not just publishers etc, BOOKSHOPS actually have a huge impact on covers. Places like Smiths can refuse to take a book if they don't like a cover, which does put pressure on the publishers to make the covers more 'acceptable'. I do think everyone (from publishers down to us) should make more of an effort to ensure accurate covers that do portray these differences. Great post Nina!

    Cait x

    1. Ooh, I never knew bookshops got a choice in the matter! *files info away* It's a shame that people can choose not to sell a book on the basis of its cover, but I understand the sales POV.

  3. Great post. I particularly agree on Girl of Fire and Thorns, which I thought had a really compelling protagonist (not white! Not thin!), but I'm also unfortunately forced to agree with publishers on the subject of what kind of cover sells.

    The general perception is that in western culture, the majority of your *commercial* (i.e. not just heavy readers) audience for YA is white and female. So logic would dictate that if you're a white girl, you want to see a pretty white girl on the cover in order to identify with her and 'aspire' to be her.

    However crappy that attitude is, until it goes away we're left with a swathe of YA covers that feature 'pretty white girls in dresses'. There's nothing wrong with pretty girl in dress per say (I personally really like the Clockwork Princess cover, for example), but there is when the protag is actually nothing like that.

    1. I love the pretty dress option too, but only if 1.the girl is actually the girl in the book and 2. if she has cause to wear the dress. I get that sales are important in the design process, and I totally understand the aspiring to be like the protagonist. I think the industry should take into account multiculturalism and more realistically shaped people.

  4. I really don't agree with the fact that people on the front of covers are portrayed as perfect. This is actually quite misleading and isn't very good for self-esteem.
    I've just started to not care about how I look to other people because, at the end of the day, if I think I feel fine, then that's all that should matter.
    YA covers particularly annoy me because teens are at a stage in life when they need to be shown what real life is like. And real life isn't pretty girls strutting around in designer clothes.
    This is a really interesting topic! And thank you for the mention, Nina!

  5. This post is really great, Nina. It is pretty upsetting that society's perception of beauty is so exact in most of our media, not just book covers. And this whole pretty white girl in dress trend for covers (that has died down a bit now, thank god) is not only problematic, it's just boring and unimaginative. Body image should be a bigger part of education because loving yourself and your body is real,lay important for mental health, too.

    Oh, and the girl of fire and thorns cover is a lot better than the first one, which was just a pretty white girl in a dress.

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    1. Great post! There's another cover of _The Days of Judy B_ that simply shows a skinny girl. If publishers persist in choosing to keep flaws and differences off covers, I prefer when the cover is at least clever or an illustration, as in _Wonder_ and _Fat Vampire._


Thanks for taking time to read this!
Comments are much loved.
Nina xxx

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