WHEN IT COMES TO MY MIDDLE SCHOOLERS, the old saying "You can't judge a book by its cover" couldn't be further from the truth.
To prove the point, I recently booktalked a stack of titles to a class of seventh graders. I intentionally chose them because our library had two of each--an original and a redesigned copy. One was Sarah Dessen's Someone Like You (Viking, 1998). The kids seemed genuinely interested in this coming-of-age novel about rebellion, first love, and the usual contemporary teenage themes. But when it was time to take a closer look at the book, a brief tug-of-war ensued.
"I want that one," said Brittany, referring to the newer version, featuring a photo of two teens from the waist down, embracing on a beach.
"Me, too," said Amanda.
I quickly stepped in to tell them we had another copy. But after they took one look at the dated illustration of a daydreaming girl, there was clearly no interest.
"But they're exactly the same book," I reminded them.
"That's OK," said Amanda, disappointedly. "I'll just wait for Brittany to finish the good one."
"Cool" or "uncool." Those are two words that describe the way kids view covers. And if a book falls into the latter category, it's a tough sell. About 15 percent of our collection consists of books with outdated covers, and those books rarely circulate. But interestingly enough, even classics like C. S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia suddenly start making the rounds again when they're updated.
Aging covers and those that miss their mark and lead to sluggish sales are often targeted for makeovers, many times with good results. Up to 75 percent of Viking's books get redesigned, says Assistant Art Director Jim Hoover, because the publisher sees it as a chance to reintroduce a book to the market.
Makeovers are considered the fountain of youth for books, and Cynthia Voigt's Izzy, Willy-Nilly (Atheneum, 1986)--which went from sporting a frumpy illustration of a reclining girl to a cool headshot of a blond teen--is one example that has stood the test of time, thanks to the power of Botox for books.
Another book that missed the "right" cover was Pat Murphy's The Wild Girls (Viking, 2007), says Scottie Bowditch, director of school and library marketing for Penguin, explaining that it was updated with a contemporary photo and design. "The book was a house favorite, but the cover didn't do it justice," she says. "Now it has a great new cover, and we're excited about renewed interest in this title."
What's considered cool these days? The simpler, the better. Photos are definitely more popular than illustrations. Nothing too cutesy--and that includes animals. Black with bold colors or bright pink with one central image works well. Take the sleek black background in Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" series (Little, Brown), the green dress on Rachel Vail's Lucky (HarperTeen, 2008), or the vampire smiley face on Brian Meehl's Suck It Up (Delacorte, 2008). Just about all of my students would choose one of those over the tree on Ann Brashares's 3 Willows (Delacorte, 2009), the girl and dog facing each other on Helen Frost's Diamond Willow (Farrar, 2008), or the childish cover on Jerry Spinelli's Smiles to Go (HarperCollins, 2008).
Teens are smart and savvy--and they know what they want. They'll gladly shop in the adult fiction section, and publishers know it. "For this reason, we tend to make our books look older," says Hoover. "Designers are always trying to push the envelope in this regard and come up with something that will stand out."
And with good reason. In 2006 I did my dissertation on the appeal of books to sixth, seventh, and eighth graders and found that covers consistently rank as the number-one way students choose library books. While booktalks and recommendations help, it's an interesting cover that ultimately clinches the deal.
If you're trying to decide whether to scrap some old fiction covers, try soliciting input from your teen readers. I ended up replacing about 15 percent of my titles over the course of five years. Survey Monkey is a great way to find out which covers get a passing grade. Another is to include a student poll on your blog and place it on your library's home page for a few days. Readers' advisory is another opportunity to ask opinions about certain book covers. Or try bringing up the topic at your next book club meeting or getting your student library advisory committee involved. I created a display using a range of books like Neal Shusterman's The Schwa Was Here (Dutton, 2004), Walter Dean Myers's Shooter (HarperTempest, 2005), and Catherine Gilbert Murdock's Dairy Queen (Houghton, 2006) and left a comment box next to it. Students love when their voices are heard--and, for us, that can mean increased circulation. By the way, the latest cover of Dairy Queen (Graphia, 2006)--which went from a cow wearing a tiara to a close-up of a boy and girl lying head-to-head and looking up at a blue sky--is just flying off our shelves.
Once you determine that your collection needs a makeover, continue using teen input as much as possible. Our avid readers are active in book clubs, including our lunch bunch book club, and after-school manga clubs, so they're more than willing to offer feedback about their aesthetic likes and dislikes. My group pre-selected books for weeding and placed them on a cart for me to examine. To my surprise, most Newbery winners prior to 1998 ended up on the cart. Before throwing out any books, however, make sure the title isn't out of print. A friend made that mistake with Lois Ruby's Miriam's Well (Scholastic, 1993) and later regretted it. Another helpful tip: be careful when placing new orders--even just-purchased books can arrive with old covers. That's what happened when we accidentally ordered Louise Rennison's entire "Confessions of Georgia Nicolson" series (HarperCollins)--and ended up with illustrated flip-flops rather than cool-looking teens on their covers.
After scouring your usual review journals, print out color copies of books that you plan to order and ask students which ones they'd select. Mine ended up saying yes to Dead Is the New Black by Marlene Perez (Harcourt, 2008), Beastly by Alex Flinn (HarperTeen, 2007), and Aftershock by Kelly Easton (McElderry, 2006) but nixed Scat by Carl Hiaasen (Knopf, 2009) and Jimi & Me by Jaime Adoff (Hyperion/Jump at the Sun, 2007). If kids happen to pooh-pooh must-have books such as the recent Newbery Honor-winner The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt (Clarion 2007), I'd still buy them and "hand sell" them to readers who may be interested.
How do you decide which books to replace? Books that were turned into movies--like Dyan Sheldon's Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen (Thorndike, 2004)--tend to top my list. Several of our students who failed to buy into the "Twilight" craze ended up checking out the book after they saw it on the big screen. Ditto for Neil Gaiman's Coraline (HarperFestival, 2008) and Jeanne DuPrau's City of Ember (Yearling, 2008).
Another target for an overhaul is series fiction with inconsistent covers because they were purchased at random times. Our library had a boost in readership for Anthony Horowitz's "Alex Rider" series (Philomel) when I replaced the old mismatched books with attractive, new, matching volumes. I often visit our local bookstores to shop covers and ended up replacing books ranging from J. R. R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" series (Houghton) to Chris Crutcher's Running Loose (HarperTempest, 2003).
Consider buying "branded" YA authors like Lauren Myracle. Like many publishers, Abrams gave her instant messaging series, ttyl, ttfn, and l8r, g8r, a uniform font, coordinating color scheme, and easily recognizable design.
If your budget is tight--and whose isn't these days?--then get a little creative. Host a book fair and publicize that funds will be used to "save" your fiction collection. Make the case to your administrator or local PTA that you need additional funds to update some books. Add a request for an extreme makeover in one of your grant applications. I've received anywhere between $500 and $1,000, which helped pay for about 60 new books, including nearly 20 hardcovers.
Don't despair if there's simply no money to replace your old books. You can still draw students in, but it'll take work. Try showing them the popular online book trailers on many publishers' Web sites and Teacher Tube. Raise funds with an adopt-a-book campaign by asking for donations for the cost of an updated book. Throw out a few questions during your booktalks, like what would you do if you fell in love with a vampire, or how would you feel if your best friend committed suicide? That line of questioning worked well with Christopher Paul Curtis's Elijah of Buxton (Scholastic, 2007). The cover illustration looks like it's for young readers, but many students are fascinated with the story of Elijah, the first free-born child in Canada, once they get past the cover.
Try covering your ugly books with a brown paper bag. My kids agreed to give Edward Bloor's Tangerine (Harcourt, 1997)--with an illustration of a kid wearing goggles--a try because they liked the booktalk. Some student artists even offer to make new dust jackets, which goes over fairly well. And nothing beats a peer recommendation. So ask students to compile a list of their top 10 books and promote them as best you can on the library's Web site and on posters displayed throughout the school.
Lastly, educate your students. Many are shocked to hear that authors have little or nothing to do with their book covers. Tell them to read the flap copy or the first few pages before saying no. Remind them to ask you for other books by authors they like and don't forget to promote books in similar genres. With help, these books can be saved.
Leigh Ann Jones (email@example.com) is library coordinator for the Frisco Independent School District in Frisco, TX.