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Features | Judging Books By Their Covers

We've all heard the old saying 'don't judge a book by its cover' and we all know that really, that has nothing to do with books at all. People build their whole careers on designing covers that you can judge a book by and, whether you notice it or not, you do. We all have preferences, design choices that make us more or less likely to pick up a book, more or less likely to think a book is 'for us', but how often do you really think about why that is?

What exactly is it about certain types of book covers that makes you think the book inside is the sort of thing you'll enjoy? It's often as simple as the fact that a cover might, in some way, look like the cover of another book you've enjoyed before, like an adventure book with lots of shiny foil and monsters on the cover, or a romance book with a script font and pretty illustration of shoes and cakes. The most interesting thing, to me, is how a cover can represent the story behind it and, with certain design choices, be made to appeal to different people in different ways.

Take, for example, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, one of my favourite books and one which has had many different covers over the years. I Capture the Castle is about a young girl called Cassandra, whose family live in a crumbling old castle in the countryside in the 1930s. Cassandra's family have little money and when their castle is inherited by two young American men they worry that they will no longer be able to afford to live in it, but the young men end up affecting all of their lives in a very different way. It's the story of Cassandra's coming of age.

The very first edition of I Capture the Castle was printed with this painted cover, showing a girl walking along a country lane, towards a castle in the distance. Today, it looks dated. This looks more like something you would find on your grandmother's bookshelf, rather than something you would see in a bookshop now, but it does show you Cassandra's world exactly, and it feels appropriate to the book inside.

This later cover has a similar vibe, showing two girls running towards the castle through a field of grass. These girls look a little younger than Cassandra and her sister in the book, but again this cover seems to be suggesting a countryside innocence and simpler times, both relevant to the feel of the book, even if the visual isn't that exciting.

Then we have this. A sharp turn away from the calming greens and blues of the countryside. This is the cover of the copy that I first read, and it kept me from reading it for a long time. This cover, with its bold colour, burnt layers of images, and dreamy modern looking girl, was obviously trying to appeal to a teen demographic of the late 90s and early 2000s, but in doing that it has lost some of the feeling of the book inside, and any suggestion of the time period in which its set.

Much better examples of trying to appeal to different age groups with the same book are these two more recent editions from Vintage. The first, a beautifully illustrated cover designed to appeal to younger readers, and the second a simple photograph designed to appeal to adults. The children's version fits in with the rest of Vintage's children's books, and the adult version fits with the rest of its red spined modern classics. These covers suggest to totally different readers that this book might be for them.

This cover from Penguin is completely different to any we've seen so far. Its bold, simple design is attractive but it tells the reader very little about the story, except for a hint to the time it is set during. The clean, fun design is obviously meant to appeal to teen readers, and it's much prettier than the orange monstrosity above, but I'm just not sure who this girl is supposed to be. She certainly doesn't look like Cassandra to me.

Finally, this recent special edition, again with bold, bright colours, and a clean design, obviously intended to appeal to young adult readers, but it doesn't lose the charm of the earlier covers. This cover incorporates the castle, the countryside, Cassandra, and the pen with which she writes her diary. It's attractive and eye catching and it tells you a little about the story inside. These covers all signal different things for different people in different time periods but this is probably the one that most signifies to me that this is a book I would enjoy. What about you?

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