Last week, I talked about covers changing from their hardcover debut to their paperback. This week, I thought I’d talk about another trend that I’m still wrestling with, and that is the aging up of middle grade covers. Middle grade for me has always been about cover art: there’s been less reliance on stock photos — particularly of people — and more use of actual art. There’s also been a lot of straight forward stock image use with a striking color background.
However, I’ve noticed this is also changing, as more and more middle grade covers are growing up. They’re getting covers with models on them — people — and they look more teen than tween appropriate. I think this is both a good and a bad thing; for many readers this age, it’s a good thing. It makes them feel older and makes them feel like they’re reading an older book. But the reverse is true: it could be what makes many unready readers feel they can tackle a tougher teen book.
Let’s look through some recent examples:
This is one of the common covers for Zia by Scott O’Dell. I like it: I really think the colors and the artistically rendered (note: not stock photo) person really give this cover its feeling. But there’s been a change for this one, and it’s one I quite like.
Isn’t it gorgeous? I think this cover has mega appeal and has a real contemporary feel to it. The only qualm I have with it is that it’s definitely not a middle school girl on the cover. She’s certainly older. But for this particular book, I’m not sure that’s problematic. I think the appeal is still to the right audience.
Here’s another one from Scott O’Dell, and this one’s going to be a rerelease. The original cover (dated, obviously):
I’m not sure how I feel about this one. The girl doesn’t work for me in this cover — too much attitude. I don’t know whether she’s appealing to readers; she’s a bit off putting. I do like what they’ve done with the newspaper ad as the background for the title and author, as it plays off the last cover.
Now, let’s take another well-known middle grade author and look at some of the cover make overs she’s had.
I don’t care much for this cover. It’s a little too technicolor for my tastes. I do like the makeover this one’s gotten, and I think it ups appeal too (but maybe for older readers more than middle grade readers):
This cover reminds me of a million others. I’m actually a little torn, though, since I think it increases appeal to the middle grade audience more than the prior cover. Part of that is, of course, simply because of the dating issue. But let’s look at the last two books released by Bauer. They’ve been released with stock photos first, and I think both make a real statement.
I love this cover. This is a book I’ve read, and I think it’s perfectly fitting. The story takes place in an area where apples are a big deal for the economy and tourism, and there’s also a big aspect of the story involving newspaper reporting. Definite middle school appeal on this one.
This is her latest book, and again, I consider it middle grade, but this cover reads older to me. I think that it will appeal to both the middle and high school readers. I’m also noticing a food trend on these books. Hmm…
Here’s another original release, and this one is quite recent.
I don’t think I care a lot for this cover. The girl definitely looks older than the target audience. And actually, the thing probably bothering me the most is the dumbest, and it’s the unbuttoned side of the overalls. I get what it’s trying to do but it doesn’t work for me. I’m curious about the appeal of this one — I think it will work for middle grade. I think the font and off-centeredness of the title and the girl are appealing and give this cover just enough difference to stand out on a shelf. But man, I wish she’d button the side of her pants!
A cover make over I really like this is one, and I think it will give this book an entirely new, fresh middle grade audience.
It’s got just enough creepiness to it, too. I think this is a fantastic middle grade cover, as it has loads of appeal to the target readership and it doesn’t try too hard to mimic covers of books meant for older readers.
One last one that stuck out to me for a while is this one:
This is the original cover of Erskine’s Mockingbird. It’s not bad and it’s not great. It’s quiet, which is what I understand of the book itself. This is the kind of cover that will let the reader find it; the right reader will know. I like it, since it doesn’t really age the book at all. It gives it a classicness but it does feel middle grade — I think that’s in the font use.
Naturally, the paperback gets a makeover, though.
Notice a few things with me. First, most middle grade novels do not have a blurb. They will include book subtitles or notes about the author’s prior works and awards. But this one? It gets the Publisher’s Weekly review blurbed on the front. Middle grade readers probably don’t care it’s “a moving and insightful masterpiece.” They want a good story.
They’ve kept the font for the cover, which I like, but they’ve ramped up the color a bit. I will say, though, I think the girl on the cover is the right age. But what’s she saying to the middle grade reader here? The cover is, no doubt, attractive and appealing, but this is where I want to talk a bit — for me, middle grade readers are less about the feelings conveyed by the cover than teen readers are. They want to know the story more. For me, this cover is almost off putting, since there is so much feeling conveyed in the way the girl is positioned, in how her back is to readers. She’s not inviting. It’s here where I begin questioning why books aimed at middle grade readers are looking more and more like teen books and almost more like they’re targeted at adults than the kids themselves.
For me, the clincher on this is the PW quote. There is nothing about the story in that comment, as it’s written to adults for adults. Why is it there?
I’m not sure this is a trend I like or dislike, as I’ve seen both sides. I know there are plenty of other covers that are doing this, so if you know of any particularly good ones, share them in the comments. I’m also interested in your take on this trend. Do you like it? Do you find it as a way to turn off readers or perhaps lead them into other books that they’re not ready for?
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).