So, I could probably carry on rambling about all the random things I think and feel about book covers indefinitely, but that would get boring and I would get tired. Instead, I decided I’d go back over my list of all-time-greats and pick out some of my favourite cover designs. This doesn’t really work that well (because these books mean so much to me that I sometimes feel love even for the bad covers) without some kind of criteria to work to, so I’m only going to pick out book covers that (a) were the primary reason for me reading the book, and (b) capture (for me) some of the book’s flavour, to the extent that, in my mind at least, the cover and the story have become synonymous.
Hurrah! Let the list begin!
Wise Child by Monica Furlong – Cover art by Leo & Diane Dillon
This gentle, beautiful book was a library discovery I made one summer holiday when I was about eight or nine years old. I remember it being at the end of a shelf so that I could see the cover as I walked towards it, and I picked it up simply because of Leo and Diane Dillon’s artwork. I was at an age where I wanted every book I discovered to look like Bastion’s copy of The Neverending Story and to be filled with magic and/or portals to another realm (hmmm, I haven’t changed all that much …) and this glowing yellow hardback was about the closest I could get to that ideal. It fulfilled every promise made by the cover, and I loved it.
Incidentally, all her life our Mom was a big forager (way before it was a hip thing to do, because our Mom was awesome), and after reading this I started following her around asking her the names of plants and their uses in the very serious belief that she was secretly a witch and just hadn’t told us yet.
The Blue Sword & The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley – Cover art by Anon
These two books were bought for me by my best friend when we were around fourteen years old. She bought them on the strength of their covers (we had the same criteria in many ways: the more magical a book looked, the more likely we were to buy it/read it … although she was broader minded than me and also enjoyed horror). I remember starting The Blue Sword immediately. I read it at school, on the train journey home, and when I got off I decided reading while walking couldn’t be all that hard. I finished it that night at home in my room, crammed into a too-small chair and with a very numb bum. But I was full to the brim with Damar and believed that I too could be a warrior woman. After finishing The Hero and the Crown I spent a lot of time studying and copying the artwork on these two covers and I am irritated now that not only can I not find my copies of these two books (most of my books are still in boxes until we get some bookcases), but also I cannot find out online who the cover artist is to give credit where it’s due: This artist is responsible for Robin McKinley becoming one of my all-time-and-forever favourite authors. Thank you, whoever you are.
Mort and Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett – Cover art by Josh Kirby
Pairing Josh Kirby’s work with Terry Pratchett’s was the smartest thing anyone ever did. Our school library bought a bunch of Pratchett titles (I like to think they mistakenly assumed these were junior/teen books because of the pretty colours – not that Pratchett was or is in any way inappropriate for a younger-than-adult reader), and my best friend and I, as school library assistants, got first dibs. She took Wyrd Sisters and I took Mort. I loved that Kirby had obviously read the book before he’d done the jacket design (it hadn’t occurred to me before that artists could also be readers – I was a very dumb kid), and that I could pick out bits of the story in his wraparound cover art. I know two people who collect the Kirby editions of Pratchett’s books, which means I know at least two people who also feel that book covers matter enough that only the ones they love will do.
Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey – Cover art by Steve Weston
I have rhapsodised about McCaffrey quite a bit recently. Forgive me – I get sentimental occasionally. Anyway, while it was David Roe’s covers for Dragonsong and Dragonsinger that first got my attention (perfect covers), it is Steve Weston’s artwork that says Pern to me (I didn’t realise he was a different artist from Roe for a loooong time). I remember getting a book token for my birthday and using it to buy Dragonflight because Weston’s dragons were just so darn pretty. I know now that by the time I was reading McCaffrey she’d been around for a while and I was reading repackaged copies of her books, and I understand that McCaffrey herself felt that Michael Whelan was the artist for her books. I wonder if this is a US market versus UK market thing? The Whelan covers are gorgeous (they can be seen on his site here) but they are completely unfamiliar to me, and Roe and Weston remain my McCaffrey artists.
The Chestomanci series by Diana Wynne Jones – Cover art by David Frankland
Some books just shouldn’t be labelled as “junior” or “young adult” or “adult” because they are for everyone, and this applies to everything that Diana Wynne Jones has written. I remember these copies of Jones’ Chrestomanci series arriving brand new at the library I first worked in. I was smitten from the get-go. They’re covers that capture all of the mischievous magical fun to be had in these stories and have something of the appeal that sweet wrappers do. They are so thoroughly tied up in my mind with the books themselves that just seeing them on a bookshelf makes me salivate and I feel a sort of nostalgic tug to read them all again immediately. Diana Wynne Jones is one of my most re-read authors – she’s the ultimate pick-me-up when a person feels a bit blue, and don’t these covers promise exactly that?
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern – Cover art by Vania Zouravliov
For a while I forgot my SFF-loving self. I don’t know why it happened. I found myself reading a lot of general fiction (as in, not about anything) and crime and historical novels, often recommended to me by the people I was working with at the time (as in, not library people). Maybe I was trying to fit in, (I have since learned there’s no point even trying to do so as it’s far too tiring and is ultimately disappointing). Anyway, I shall call it my Grey Period because that’s pretentious and amusing to me. During my Grey Period I met a book in a library. It didn’t look overly fantastical, but there were stars and birds and a red ribbon worked into the cover design, and there was a certain whimsy to the whole thing. This book had black page edges and the casewrap beneath the dust jacket was red. It had a red ribbon bookmark. It looked like a world chock-full of magic disguised as a book. It looked like a way back in to something I’d lost touch with.
Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson – Cover design by Anon (even on the dust jacket it says only “Shutterstock images”)
I’m finishing with Alif the Unseen because it would seem that after all my readerly-wandering I return to where I began. This simple, beautiful cover had just enough of a whiff of Bastian’s big old leather-bound tome to draw me in when I first saw it a couple of years ago. That lovely archway, the intricate pattern in gold and white and lilac, even the title font (Bembo?) carries a hint of the magical. I’d be happier if there were no cover blurbs at all (I’ve seen an alternative cover where there is an old book stand holding a book instead of Neil Gaiman’s hearty recommendation, and I prefer it), it’s hard to like other people’s opinions scratched into the covers of your favourite books, even if you like the authors doing the blurbing and agree with them. Nonetheless, the whole story is tinged purple because of this lovely design and the cover and story suit one another.
I do feel, however, that my list demonstrates the move from artwork to design in book jackets. I mourn the crazy-beautiful full-on artwork of 1980s fantasy, and I miss book covers that I could spend days exploring visually. It doesn’t seem to be so much of a thing anymore. I guess money comes into it, and visual trends, and the desire to draw in as many punters as possible (don’t go limiting your potential readership by looking too fantasy – and I guess I am talking mostly about fantasy here). I suppose I’m lucky I find fonts as interesting as I do pictures, since that’s where we’re headed at the moment – big fonts and bright colours. Don’t employ an artist, just play about with Photoshop … I know your game publishing people.
N.B. I am hyper-aware that there’s not much SF on this list. I kind of ruined any chance of SF appearing here with my criteria. I love Chris Moore’s covers for Alastair Reynolds’ books, but I discovered Reynolds through recommendation, so he didn’t qualify. I loved Ready Player One, but the cover was the last thing to get my attention (despite big font, bright colours). Dune came to me via the film first, as did 2001: A Space Odyssey, everything by Philip K. Dick and Boroughs’ A Princess of Mars, (it’s not in the slightest bit relevant, but John Carter of Mars is a deeply underrated film and Woola is the greatest not-a-puppy ever). None of those covers would have made the cut anyway, because while they were ok, they weren’t great.
Anyway, book covers = important. End of transmission.