“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” I’ve said it countless times to students, usually as I have attempted to entice a reluctant reader to take a chance on something that I know will be worthwhile. Each time I say it I feel like I need a slap. I mean, irrespective of my recommendation, students will do exactly that. I’m guilty of it too.
A few months ago I was scanning the book shelves of my school library when a particular title caught my eye. Incidentally the book was a hard copy version of A. G. Howard’s Splintered. The cover has the most amazing cover art featuring a head shot of the blond heroine of the story; her face interwoven creatively with creepy crawlies. It was a gorgeous example of a front cover and one that I could not ignore. I picked it up and started to turn the pages. The inside artwork was similarly delectable, the pages were of a beautiful quality. Victim to clever marketing on behalf of the publisher, I just had to read it. As it happens, the story was enjoyable, yet paled in comparison to the promise of its packaging.
Young and old alike, we are all manipulated by a book’s packaging. Its cover art, blurb and even the quality of the paper (especially how it feels and even smells), the font size and type, the choice to integrate graphic headers into the story or even illustrations, has an impact on whether or not we will choose to read what is inside. For many, the amount of white space (or lack thereof) will potentially deter a reluctant reader. Even as we move towards reading books in digital format, the cover artwork still has a massive influence upon our choice to read a particular title. Accordingly, when a publisher gets it wrong it can spell disaster for what is otherwise a worthy piece of literature.
A simple solution for educators is to ensure that our libraries are stocked with titles that possess crisp new books with fresh cover art. We know that even the classics need to be replaced periodically with versions that are packaged in a more contemporary manner. Students are intuitively quite savvy when it comes to marketing. After all they have been targeted by the adevertising machine since birth. They are particularly sensitive to trends in graphic design and will immediately dismiss anything which looks like it has passed its ‘used by’ date. However, in the real world it is not always possible to ensure that all the books in our libraries are suitably appealing. Budget constraints make it tricky to purchase the new titles that are being released, let alone allow us to replace the classics with newer versions. The question emerges what can educators (and librarians) do to counteract this natural inclination?
Librarians have a whole gamut of strategies that they employ to entice kids to read books they would normally pass over. Personally I don’t think there is one strategy that works better than another. Rather it is persistence with a range of approaches that wins in the end. Some of the obvious tactics include displays of books grouped by author, theme or genre. I have observed one librarian cash in on the trend for all things retro by using this as the theme for a display; although I am not sure if it was successful. In a similar manner, using library time to provide book talks that promote older titles alongside the newer acquisitions can be useful, along with getting real authors to speak to students about their books and their writing.
In most schools exist a small minority of avid readers who seem to be less susceptible to the condition in question. Identifying these students in your community allows you to exploit them as a solution for the problem in question. You might employ such a reader to review such titles and get them to share their reviews with students. Reviews might be delivered in a Book Club setting or in a reading blog online. You might even ask students to prepare a special sleeve to fit over a great title with an unappealing cover. The sleeve might include a personal student appraisal of the merits of the book in question. You could do something similar using brown paper bags (although they might not have a great longevity).
Certainly there is a place for discussing book covers in the English classroom. A great activity that many educators employ is to evaluate a range of covers for a given title across the years, before you commence reading. This works really well when you are dealing with a classic (try Robert C O’Brien’s Z for Zachariah, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet) and the activity is made simple with google. Students should be able to identify the covers that they find appealing and suggest why this is the case. For a bit of fun, you might even get students to try and organise a series of covers in the order of release. For more recent publications, especially those with worldwide distribution, you might assess how the same book is marketed to different readers in different countries. However discussing book covers need not just be a topic explored in the English classroom. You might also engage your Art/Design teacher to explore this in their lessons from a design angle.
It is a dreadful shame that for the sake of a dated cover, students are lured away from what might otherwise be an enriching read. Certainly, our role as literacy educators must be one of developing critical thinking in our students. Only then will they be able to effectively identify what is otherwise simply clever marketing with what is true quality.
How do you deal with the problem of promoting great books with dated book covers in your classroom? Share your thoughts and ideas with us. We’d love to hear from you.