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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

A Series of Unfortunate Book Jackets (2012)

Children’s librarians bear more in common with their pint-sized clientele than they would often like to admit.  Sure, we don’t eat paste or anything (not cheap paste anyway) but there’s no denying that when it comes to the old saying “You can’t judge a book by its cover” that statement is a flat out lie.  You most certainly can judge a book by its cover.  You just shouldn’t.  I’m no better.  I get my boxes of new books, take a look at their jackets, and unless I know the author’s previous work or have some prior knowledge of the title, I’m probably gonna pass it over for other books in the season with prettier packaging.

Fortunately for me, I’ve a troop of dedicated children’s librarians working for the NYPL system and they’re just raring to read books.  Particularly those with awful awful covers.  As such many of them (particularly Stephanie Whalen who gets a special shout-out for going above and beyond the call of duty re: fantasy books for kids) have helped me to find some of the most amusing books of the year, smooshed into so-so packaging.  Here are the keenest offenders:

The Star Shard by Frederic S. Durbin

I begin with the most egregious jacket of the year.  Originally published as a ten-part serial in Cricket magazine between April 2008 and April 2009, Durbin’s story is akin to Philip Reeve’s Hungry City Chronicles but in a kid-friendly way.  Bloomsbury published it as a proper book and it’s really a delightful fantasy for kids on the younger end of the scale.  However, it’s hard for me to forgive that cover particularly because when the story was published in Cricket it was illustrated by one Emily Fiegenschuh (scroll down and you can see her art for it here).  Now would you rather read a book with the image up above, or something like this?

Or this?

Nuff said.

Goblin Secrets by William Alexander

So.  A couple problems here.  First off, though I suppose you could call this book Steampunk for kids, I liked this one even more than The Star Shard.  It’s more like Steampunk Baba Yaga for kids, which you will have to admit sounds a whole lot more interesting.  There are goblins, yes, and masks and theater and great villains too.  I may review this one so I won’t give away too much but Alexander creates a wholly unique world even while using tropes we’ve seen before.  That’s why this cover miffed me so much.  I disliked it intensely.  It wasn’t until I finished the book that I realized that the Frankestein’s monster-esque goblin isn’t being impaled on a flaming torch but is supposed to be juggling them.  The boy is holding a bird for some unknown reason, and it isn’t even a pigeon (pigeons play a very big role in the book).  Add in the crows at the top (also not pigeons) the CGI awfulness in general, and you’ve got a jacket that I wasn’t going to even look twice at until Stephanie assured me of how good it was.  Thanks goodness she did too.  Seems to me that if you’ve got a villain with mechanical bird legs, how is that not what you’ll put on the cover?  Also, the whole book revolves around using masks in some way.  I don’t see a single mask in evidence anywhere on this jacket.

The Unfortunate Son by Constance Leeds

There are covers I won’t pick up and then there are covers other folks won’t pick up, even after I sell them on the book.  This book was assigned to me to review and thank goodness it was.  I had never read Ms. Leeds’ previous novel The Silver Cup (also a victim of poor jacketing) but when I mention it to some librarians they get this little light of recognition in their eyes.  That book they really liked, and if they read this one too (which has been a difficult thing to get folks to do) they’ll find it of equal if not even better quality.  The whole premise is that a boy is born with only one ear.  Because his father is a lord and insists on complete and utter physical perfection (he has tiny thumbs and with tiny thumbs come body issues) the boy is given to a farmer to be raised as his own son.  Not knowing any of this the boy apprentices himself to a fisherman and then is promptly set upon by pirates and sold into slavery in 14th-century Tunisia.  It just picks up from there.  Historical fiction isn’t usually my bag but Leeds is so doggone readable that I may have to brown bag this book to sell it to any kids.  Brown covers, I can tell you right now, never move off of shelves.

Deadweather and Sunrise: The Chronicles of Egg by Geoff Rodkey

I didn’t actually consider this a terrible cover until I read the book.  Then I went back and looked at it long and hard.  The title is this amazingly amusing pirate novel, and I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say it’s the funniest middle grade pirate book for kids I’ve ever read (sorry, Peter Pan).  Clearly the first in a series, it sets up all sorts of crazy stuff for future books.  Unfortunately this busy busy jacket commits the egregious sin of showing an exciting scene that never happens in the novel.  I’m the kind of person who will wait patiently for a moment featured on a book jacket to appear in a book.  I mean, say what you will about The Star Shard and The Unfortunate Son, at least their moments happened (not so much Goblin Secrets).  I can’t even parse what’s happening on the cover of Rodkey’s novel, though.  Are pirates going to the bad guy’s remote home to destroy it?  When on earth did that occur?  So strange.  Great book, though.

The Case of the Deadly Desperados by Caroline Lawrence

There are only thirteen copies in my library system at the moment and only one of these is even checked out.  That’s a real shame since this True Grit for kids title from the author of The Roman Mysteries is a hoot.  You want action/adventure and a twist that NO ONE will see coming (unless, of course, you read a review or summary that spoils it for you)?  Then this is the book for you.  The cover isn’t bad in the way some are.  It’s actually quite lovely to look at, but selling Westerns to kids is difficult work.  It’s not exactly a genre the children of New York ask for (I would be very interested in hearing if kids in other parts of the country ask for them regularly).  And to be fair, it’s not like the British edition of the book hit it out of the park either:

The Travelling Restaurant by Barbara Else

Loved this one, but only discovered it because it got a nice star in Kirkus.  Wouldn’t have pegged it for a winner from the cover, certainly.  A New Zealand import, this is the original cover that came straight from its native land (which is clear when you realize how they spelled the word “traveling”).  Maybe that’s why I’m not as fond of it as I might be.  We just don’t see a lot of turquoise, red, orange, and purple jackets in a given year.  The book itself exists in a land where magic has disappeared and one boy must solve the mystery of his own history before he can defeat his enemies.  It’s honestly very different from any other fantasy you’ll read this year all thanks to its funny little tone.

Now off to appease the Art Directors that I hath offended.  Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.  I love everything else that you do.  Scout’s honor.

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. I was a big fan of the original presentation of The Star Shard in Cricket, so I was excited when I heard it was being turned into a book. But I’d have to agree with you, the original art was fabulous and I was disappointed that it wasn’t used on the book.

  2. My heart just broke for all those hard working illustrators out there who get painted into a corner with an art director’s directing. Those ADs and designers are responsible for reading the manuscripts as well for these types of problem solving solutions which they missed. Hopefully, these illustrators will be getting other assignments soon and not take full blame. Shards: the first cover makes me wonder and I was drawn to the art. The first action art is not so appealing, violent even, not a style I enjoy, and I would not pick up that book. Viva la difference when it comes to art.

  3. As an illustrator who does book covers, this was a terrifying read. I scrolled down slowly, fearing I’d see one of my own covers. It was like crossing a minefield.

    I’m proud of these art directors for using illustrators and not taking the stock-photo route. I’ll take a bad illustration (and these aren’t that bad are they?) over a photo-based cover any day of the week.

    • Elizabeth Bird says

      Viva la difference indeed! And I never blame the artists. More often than not a cover wasn’t their idea in the first place. Don’t forget too, Fran, that Barnes & Noble can make a difference as well. An art director and illustrator might come up with the perfect image only to be told by B&N “we’ll only stock this if you change this and this and this”.

      An excellent point too, Nathan, on the lack of stock photos here. Also a lack of feet, torsos, socks, and other standard book jacket fare. Obviously this is entirely subjective on my part. One man’s poison and all that. I think it’s fair to say that you can have good art and a bad cover. For example that Unfortunate Son image is really quite lovely. Like a woodcut I’d love to own on my wall. It just doesn’t work as a jacket in this particular case.

  4. I love this post. Stand up loud and proud and say the cover matters! I’m a judger. You’ve made me SUPER curious and excited to read THE UNFORTUNATE SON over your last couple posts, and you’re right…I would’ve skipped over it before.

    I do like the sunsetty colors and texture of the DEADLY DESPERADOS!

  5. Thank goodness there are people like you, who look beyond the covers. I know I don’t always.

  6. Great post! There are definitely some book covers to which I return and hunt down all the million little details I never noticed before reading the book but which are, actually, pictured on the front cover (Yolen’s Snow in Summer cover comes to mind). And good ones accurately depicting mood/tone (Splendors and Glooms). But some… I have to WONDER if they even read the book (Wonder comes to mind here… what’s up with that cover??).

    • Elizabeth Bird says

      Have you seen the Australian book jacket for Wonder? I suspect you’d like it more.

  7. This was really fun to read. I loved the cover for Wonder, but the students I read it with didn’t like it at all.

  8. I thought the goblin was being impaled too.

  9. I actually loved the cover for DEADWEATHER AND SUNRISE! I thought it was eye-catching and appealing. It’s interesting to see your take on it!