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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

History in 2011: Conveying or Concealing the Past?

In my travels I’ve been perusing the historical fiction that’s been coming out lately and I think I have detected an interesting trend.  An interesting book jacket trend, no less.

Consider the following:

What do all of these have in common?  Well, first off, they’re all historical fiction.  Historical fiction that, in some cases, is desperately trying to look like modern day.  Let’s take this chronologically then.

Freedom Stone by Jeffrey Kluger.  Era: Civil War.  Thoughts: Admittedly I didn’t realize that this was historical when I first looked at it.  The cover is making use of the old silhouette technique so common on books where the protagonist is African-American.  I’d love to see a study done on black kids in silhouette on covers versus kids of any other race, just to see whether or not my perception that this happens FAR more often to kids of color is true.  In this case, nothing about the cover seems particularly anachronistic.  It gets a pass then.

Bird in a Box by Andrea Davis Pinkney. Year: 1936.  Thoughts: More silhouettes.  And the characters?  Black.  If you get beyond that fact you can see that they are looking at historical objects.  I don’t like silhouettes much these days, but I appreciate that the book isn’t shying away from its era.  Which brings us to the most blatant misrepresentation on today’s list:

The Romeo and Juliet Code by Phoebe Stone. Era: 1941.  Thoughts: I haven’t seen a cover that misrepresents its time period this blatantly since Patricia McKissack’s beautifully written but lamentably jacketed A Friendship for Today.  On the back cover of Ms. McKissack’s early 1950s American South tale you could see two pairs of legs wearing jeans and Airwalk sneakers.  Airwalks came out in 1986 (and we’ll just ignore the whole “jeans” problem) so clearly the publishers learned their lesson by now putting a lot of Converse All-Stars on the covers.  That’s what The Romeo and Juliet Code has done here (and thank you, Roger Sutton, for pointing out how weird this is).  The trouble?  Colored “Chucks” didn’t show up on the market until the late 1960s.  And for that matter, can you really see a girl in coastal Maine during WWII wearing jeans and chucks at that time?  Whatever the case, I wasn’t going to read the book since it looked like a contemporary teen novel (which I don’t read).  Now that I know the plot . . . . geez.  I just have a hard time getting over that cover.

Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt. Era: Vietnam War.  Thoughts: Now I’ve heard at least one person I know say they don’t like this cover, and personally I have to object.  This take on Okay for Now is almost pitch perfect, even if it is cheating a little.  First off, everyone likes smiley faces.  The paper bag shown here even harkens back to Doug’s deliveries during the story.  The unraveling baseball references not only the disappearing, reappearing, disappearing ball Doug wins in the trivia contest, but also the number of stitches each ball contains (an important plot point).  As for the clothing on the kid seen here, white undershirts are eternal, and I don’t think a kid could walk onto the street in 1968 wearing those pants and those shoes (again with the Converse) and have to worry about getting beaten up.  Nothing dates it, but nothing is dishonest either.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai.  Era: Vietnam War.  Thoughts: Almost a silhouette, though if you look at the picture you can make out a lot of details in Hà’s clothing.  They’re going for “timeless” with this cover, I think.  Note the pretty background colors that aren’t too dissimilar from those on the jacket of Freedom Stone.  It’s not saying it’s historical, but it’s also not saying that it’s not.  And really, in the end that seems to sometimes be the best one can hope for.  If a publishers isn’t going to come out and admit that a book takes place in the past with their cover, at the very least they shouldn’t including misleading elements (like, say, pink Converse All-Stars).

Name me some other historical children’s novels for the year.  Any spring to mind that are remarkably honest Vs. strangely misleading?

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. Betsy, that cover for The Romeo and Juliet Code annoys me very much. It’s getting terrific reviews, and I can’t wait to read it (I have a few books to get to before I do). As I noted on my blog, Scholastic is advertising this (in Baker and Taylor) as “The Secret Garden meets Chasing Vermeer.” Another example of the cover artist not knowing what the book is about?

    It looks like a cover for a historical fiction book set in the 1980s.

  2. I haven’t actually read Romeo and Juliet Code, just flipped through it and read excerpts here and there. But from what I have read, I would say that this cover is incredibly misleading on a number of fronts, and not to its benefit. As a kid I wouldn’t have picked the book up because, as you mentioned, it looks like a contemporary teen novel filled with lots of icky kissing. The title doesn’t help. From what I can tell, it’s actually a quite interesting mystery/historical fiction/coming of age novel about preteens during WWII. I suspect that it’s really going to miss its audience: the ones who pick it up for the romance and snuggling are not going to get what they want, while the kids who’d really dig it are going to pass right by. Too bad.

  3. You asked for covers. One of my recent favorites is the cover for Taking Off by Jenny Moss. It’s a YA novel about a young girl who meets Christa McAuliffe. There’s nothing 80s about it-just a lovely cover.

  4. Your point about African-American characters and silhouettes is intriguing–and I have a feeling you may be right. Let’s hope someone is inspired to do some research.

  5. You wrote that Freedom Stone is Civil War era. The girl on the cover is wearing a short dress. That seems misleading to me.

  6. Thanks very much for this post. I’m the author of “Freedom Stone” and read your thoughts with interest. I must say that few people have mentioned the concern you raise, but one other person did and it opened my eyes a bit to how much meaning an image can convey. I can say that nothing about the cover struck me as problematic when I first saw it–and indeed, I found it beautiful. I still find it beautiful, though your concerns are well taken. I do hope you’ll give the book a read no matter what. I wrote it with the idea of not only telling a compelling story, but raising issues about African American and female empowerment, and I think it does achieve those goals. Booklist and Publishers Weekly ( both gave it starred reviews, which of course was gratifying.

    Again, thanks for your thoughts and all the best.

  7. I think I have a little different take here. From a publishers perspective, I think any cover that gets books into a reader’s hands and doesn’t leave her feeling misled is a good cover. (And I would differentiate between “misled” and “a bit surprised.”) I think a trend toward more contemporary cover design aesthetics in historical fiction is absolutely a good thing.

    Are the anachronisms on some of these covers irritating, given the subject matter? Yes, I suppose in extreme cases, but I wouldn’t fault the Romeo and Juliet Code cover much for its slightly anachronistic footwear. Would you also fault it for anachronistic typography? For the fact that it is a color photo clearly not taken with Kodachrome film, the only historically accurate consumer color film for the period? Where does one stop? For me, I think the shoes are a great choice of iconography (which is really what they are). Chuck Taylors are something iconic that connects generations of American kids, and isn’t that part of the pleasure of reading historical fiction? Making those connections? Isn’t that something that authors in this genre strive to do? We don’t recreate the past for the sake of recreation; we recreate because it affects and informs our present.

    I think viewing covers as literal illustrations or even strict representations of some thing or some scene in the book unnecessarily limits designers to dull cliches, particularly in historical fiction. It also underestimates the audience’s sophistication (not to mention the fact that they can read the jacket copy–which I haven’t read in the Romeo and Juliet case).

    Why shouldn’t historical fiction benefit as much as fantasy, sci-fi, and other subgenres have from the blending of genre aesthetics? This is a strong suit of children’s books. Let’s embrace it.

    I think the Romeo and Juliet Code cover is definitely pushing some genre aesthetic boundaries, and from my point of view, that’s a good thing. A publisher is taking a risk here. Maybe they’ve gone too far and they’ll miss the book’s readership, but I’d say they’re to be commended for reaching for something a little different.

    Hey, how’d I end up on this soapbox? Somebody help me down.

  8. “Hey, how’d I end up on this soapbox? Somebody help me down.”

    Andrew, you have good points. Thank you for offering your take; definitely something to think about.

  9. One last thing. We’re publishing an historical YA in fall 2011: In Trouble by Ellen Levine (, scroll to bottom). It’s set in the late 50s, NYC. I love this cover. For me, it does say “historical,” but it’s not conveying any scene in the book (and the setting of the photo is more suburban than anything in the book). Instead, it nails the mood and the sense of being at a crossroad with no good way forward.

    For fans of Photoshop-based smoking cessation plans (Clement Hurd, charter member), I’m happy to say Adobe helped the girl in the photo quit. Part of the reason for the change was that making her hand clenched rather than holding a cigarette immediately made the photo more tense–a good thing for this cover.

  10. I didn’t know anything about the time frames for these books. Here’s what I thought when I saw them:
    Okay for Now: looks contemporary, which puzzled me because I thought it was a continuation of The Wednesday Wars
    Inside Out: looks like and sounds like fantasy, nice etherial cover
    Freedom Stone (wondering by now why these are all faceless people) looks like another fantasy because I am on a fantasy jag and the colors look mysterious and otherworldly
    Bird in a Box- looks like 30’s items. Never occurred to me that the characters were any specific race (same as the other covers). Noticing the author, I would connect with them being black.
    Romeo and Juliet Code- looks contemporary to me.
    I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but I always do that, and these covers don’t tell me much. I’ve learned not to let my bad habit of judging put me off careful examination (I think) but you’d think they could do better, anyway.

  11. by “better”, I meant “more in keeping with giving historical clues as to the time frame of the story if that’s what they are trying to do”. I don’t think most kids know much about what kind of shoes were worn in what era.

  12. This book is on my school’s Scholastic Book Fair, but I never would have picked up the Romeo and Juliet code if not for the discussion of the cover. Having just finished it I have to say it’s not so much that the cover is an anachronism, it’s that it totally misrepresents the book. No part of that cover suggests a story about a British girl finding herself in an American family in coastal Maine during WWII. And no part of the book has two kids lying together on blanket in a big grassy field. It might be a coming of age story about a girl, but if not for the cover, I’d be able to sell it to boys who like codes and wartime stories.

  13. Am I the only one that thinks we could avoid most of these problems all together if publishers would simply stop using photographs on their covers?

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      And to think, all this conversation and I didn’t even get to mention the hot pink bra strap on the cover of Jenni Holm’s The Trouble with May Amelia (year = 1900). Ah well. There’s always next time.

  14. I agree with Colleen. I can state from experience as a new librarian, the cover is vitally important. I have been weeding recently and with some extra space on the shelves have taken to facing a book or two forward on each shelf. The ones with outdated covers stay put, but the ones that look fresh have been flying out. Additionally, the more a cover is aimed at one gender in particular the less likely the other gender is to pick it up to even give the cover blurb a chance. My patrons would like the subject matter of Romeo and Juliet Code, but no twelve year old boy is going to walk around with a book with that cover no matter what is between the covers. This obviously could open a debate about why kids pick on other kids, but until we solve that particular problem, book covers should 1) Accurately represent the content of the book, and not just in a nebulous, symbolic way, and 2) Since many books are trying not to be “boy” books or “girl” books the covers should also not be skewed one way or the other.

  15. I have to go with the hilariously innappropriate cover for the mid-nineties publication of Seventeenth Summer, by Maureen Daly:

    It’s set in the late forties, if I recall correctly.

  16. I’m a big costume history buff and have done a fair amount of research into various time periods, with the result that quite a few book covers drive me insane. For some reason, we tend to get Tudor and Regency eras done well, but Victorian? Forget about it. Even if the clothes are crazily inaccurate, the posture and/or hair is. However, there is hope! Y.S. Lee’s Agency novels both have covers which combine very nice period clothing and a gorgeous aesthetic. So I guess my problem is over-information–if a book looks sloppy, I tend to judge it by that, even though the story itself may not be. But since costuming is such a big deal for me, I’m afraid I can’t help it. Of course, I also have been fascinated by history since I was pretty young and therefore was always willing to read historical fiction.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      I’ve been trying to get my friend at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to help me dissect all the period costumes that grace our jackets. Sadly, she’s pretty busy and I have a hard time keeping track of what’s out there anyway.