Cover Trends & The Female Body

I’ve talked about how ya book covers don’t portray fat girls on them. I’ve talked about girls under water as a cover trend (and I could add even more to the list now). I’ve also talked about the use of windswept hair on covers, too (this one I could add tons of books to, too). If you haven’t read Rachel Stark’s post about the trend of elegant death, which ties into the girls underwater trend, I suggest diving into it. There’s also a great post over at Ellen Oh’s blog about why the sad white girls in pretty dresses cover trend needs to stop. 

In thinking about these covers and thinking a lot more about the notion of gendering books, I’ve really found myself finding fault with a lot of ya covers. More specifically, the ones marketed to teen girls. Aside from the fact so many of these covers look exactly the same, they tell us a lot about the female body and what it can or should do.

Think about it for a second. We’ve moved from using illustrations to using stock photos for the bulk of ya covers. This means we’re selling an image on a book now, hoping that readers will pick up a story based on the image on the front. We want it to be attractive and we want it to entice people. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that purpose and on the surface, there’s nothing wrong with making that cover as attractive as possible. The problem emerges, though, when we step back and actually look at what messages we’re sending within the images. Part of why many believe books are gendered — why some books are for boys and some are for girls — is because of the images and what they’re doing or saying. Even if the story itself doesn’t have a message about the female body within it, readers, especially teen girls who are already bombarded with a sickening number of messages about their bodies thanks to every other media they encounter, the cover is telling them something. It’s further offering up beliefs about the ideal image. It’s not just teen girls getting and internalizing the messages though; teen males are, too. They’re seeing books as gendered and they’re also internalizing those messages, which only continues the cycle. We sell the female body on book covers in a way we don’t on male book covers.

Much of this isn’t new territory in terms of trends or messages, but that’s maybe what I find most troubling. Aside from the problems of these covers not being unique or interesting or memorable (which as I’ve mentioned before is a disservice to both the author who has written a distinct book and to the reader who deserves to know that the book isn’t the same as every other one out there), these are only further selling messages that are troubling. Further widening the gap and notion that there are “girl” books and there are “boy” books.

I’ve dug out a ton of interesting cover trends emerging this year in ya fiction and they’re all worth spending a little time thinking about. Some say a lot more than others, but they all have some sort of message within them about the value, power, role, and meaning of the female body.

Girls are submissive

In each of these covers, we have a girl either curled up or sprawled on the ground. Their body language speaks to their submissiveness, their weakness. In the first two, the girls are not balled up, and while it could come off as a moment of power and ownership of their bodies, it doesn’t. The way that their hair falls behind them and the way their dresses hang loosely detract from that ownership because they’re made to look needy. Like they need help or protection. Moreover, the expression and gaze in the image suggest a powerlessness (in the case of the first image) and, more troubling, a “come hither” look in the second image. The second cover reads so sexual to me, and it’s not in an empowering way; it’s instead very need-driven. Sure the cover fits with the fairy tale elements to the story, but the blatant appearance of need sends a message, however subtle, about the need to be demure to be attractive and gain attention. The third cover is maybe the most problematic for me in that it’s not only the girl on the ground, but she’s giving up completely, via her expression and her arms.

In the following three covers, the girls have their faces buried or partially obscured from view. They’re hiding themselves from the world, making themselves small and invisible.

To make the message about submissiveness and weakness more obvious, in all of the covers, the girls are all dressed in highly feminized dresses and skirts. For me, these covers drive home a statement about how girls should and shouldn’t feel. The traditional female attire, the skirt and the dress, is put in play with girls who are physically broken and aching. That their faces are hidden, either partially or fully, suggests that ladies shouldn’t feel things that aren’t pleasant because it’ll break them. The other message I pull from these covers is that of a need for rescue and protection. Where the second cover offers the sexualized version, the fourth cover romanticizes it via the expression on her face, and the third cover has a girl simply giving up and giving in.

I don’t necessarily think that having a girl lying on the ground is a problem in and of itself on a cover. It’s the manner in which it’s depicted in each of these that bothers me, since it necessarily equates the feminine with the weak, the demure, the needy. The body in each of these covers becomes the message. Because if you look at those and look at the cover below — also a girl on the ground — there is a marked difference in the message.

Bodies are to judge

When I started rounding these images together, my first thought was there were far fewer headless bodies this year than in years past, but it’s still a pretty sizable number. This trend bothers me because it’s nothing but a show of bodies in one capacity or another — and since it’s the female body, it becomes the object of judgment, whether good or bad. There are no faces or expressions to give insight into what the inner workings of the girl being rendered. She is literally a body to look at and nothing more. While this works in terms of the fact it allows readers to picture what the girl would look like visually for themselves, the problem is the message of the headless body, period.

The bulk of these covers feature the female body in decidedly feminine clothing. The images are all of female bodies in form-fitting dresses, which play into our beliefs about the female ideal, both in terms of shape and size, but also in terms of dress. If you haven’t read Charlotte Cooper’s fantastic essay on the notion of the “headless fatties,” take a few minutes and do so. Even though all of the girls in the images above are thin, the idea the content of the book is being sold through the image of the idealized body on the front is troubling. Not only are these covers further suggesting that bodies sell products, but they’re furthering the idea that there is an ideal body and that ideal body is what makes something (in this case, a story) appealing. The girl attached to the body doesn’t matter.

Although I don’t think the covers below excuse the problems of the headless body all together, the fact they feature girls dressed more like an average teen girl make them more stand out. I like both of these because while they are bodies, they’re girls who are in the midst of some sort of activity, suggesting they’re more than simply their bodies (the one cooks! the other one plays sports!). These are girls who do things, rather than are things in and of themselves.

Girls are made of parts

This trend isn’t as prominent as it was in the past, but it’s still out there. To be fair, some of these are simply set up this way because of their design (Reunited, for example, has the map to obscure anything but the girls’ legs). Regardless, what all of these covers have in common is they home in on one particular feminine body part. There are legs in more than one image, and they’re perfect legs. There are lips.  There’s the long neck and cleavage. The clavicle. These are all representative of ideals but more than that, they’re delicate. In some cases, they’re breakable parts and in others, they’re parts meant to be protected (check out the expression and the hand in The Academie). These girls aren’t fully imagined, but rather, they’re composed of their parts, and thus, we have a similar problem with the representation as we do when we have a headless body. My biggest problem with these particular covers, though, is less the delicacy and feminization of certain body parts, but instead, that they’re all identical, mix-and-match parts. Like they could belong to any female and not one specifically. It makes these girls all the same.

The last one I’ve talked about before and even though it’s not a cover out this year (it came out last year as a repackaging), it illustrates my point so well I can’t not talk about it. The combination of individual body parts on each of the individual covers that then make up a very thin, very disturbing image of a female when put together really bothers me. This may be the most problematic cover choice I’ve seen in YA fiction. Not only is the girl completely objectified here, both by her parts and her whole, but she is made of nothing solid. She will disappear!

 Only from the backside 


Other people have noticed this trend this year, right? The photo of the girl from the backside usually is of her full body. The thing worth noting in these images is that most are wearing the same tell-tale dresses from the headless bodies. Not all of them are, though, which is refreshing. Those who are not in dresses, though, almost all have their butts in the image, and it draws our attention for one reason or another (the very short shorts or the very fitted jeans with a paintbrush poking out of it or the katana just inches away or the bikini bottoms). Our eyes are drawn right to that body part, even in the bulk of the dress images, as we see the dresses either form-fitted or flowing away from there. While I could go on about the meaning behind that, what’s more problematic for me in these images is that every single one features a girl with long, flowy hair. That’s another idealized female trait, and we have no shortage of it here. There’s little to no diversity at all in length or style or even color.

Notice, too, the bulk of these girls are holding themselves tight and closing themselves off. Their hands lay at their sides. They’re not exploring or thinking. They’re simply existing. So many of them have interesting things going on around them, but they themselves are anything but interesting. They’re so stock that they’re simply part of the scenery, part of the story, rather than the story itself. Girls are the props here, not the actors.

Lucky for us, these aren’t the only backs of girls covers this year. There are more!

These two feature not only the hair (and the second features the form-caressing dress), but both of these also give us angel wings. Perfection.

All four of these covers feature the back of a girl, but this time she’s at least looking over her shoulder. The first is somewhat coy. The second two show a girl exhibiting some sort of fear or fright. The last one is a much tougher girl. But all four of them feature the self-same long, flowy hair. Even when there is an opportunity for a kickass girl in the last cover, she’s stuffed into a tight, form-fitting dress. Where she could escape the company, instead, she’s tossed right in with it. This isn’t to say that a kick ass, powerhouse of a girl can’t wear a dress and still be strong, but when she’s out of the same fabric as everyone else wearing a pretty dress with long hair, she loses her power by association. By simply being flooded out by all of these other images of what a girl looks like.

Why can’t more backs of girls give us this?

In the first cover, notice there’s not long flowy hair! The girl has a hat on. She’s wearing a long coat and not a dress. She’s engaging and welcoming her world. In the second, the girl is welcoming us into her world. These are markedly different than the other covers above, even though they employ such similar styles. The messages are a entirely different and much, much less problematic. As for the last cover, I can’t quite tell whether or not her hair is short or just pulled back, but it’s DIFFERENT. It shows variety in form and styling, and I appreciate that.

This is only the tip of the iceberg as far as covers featuring girls that are troubling to me. There are numerous other instances of girls cowering, of girls with their eyes cover or obscured, of girls who are wrapped in the protective grip of their male counterparts. Each of these covers on their own are not problematic — in fact, many of the covers I’ve talked about are ones that I like or I find appealing and would pick up. But taken as a whole, there’s a problem worth talking about. We’re giving readers, particularly female readers, certain images. We’re selling books and stories with images that are telling us entirely different stories.

Please note that there are no fat girls on covers so far this year. We’re still fixated on an idealized body, which is thin and toned. We’re also not getting covers that feature people who may not have every part of their body or may not have long, silky hair, or who may not have perfect skin or pouty lips or delicate, “feminine” features. There’s little to no variation on that whatsoever. Looking through what we’re getting on YA covers, the ideal is the thin girl, wearing a well-fitting dress, who has curves and long, flowing hair. I’m not sure if that represents many of those in the target readership for these books. More than that, though, it’s instilling the notion of perfection not just for girls, but we’re giving it to boys, too. Not only are they picking up on the cues, however subtle or not, about what a female should look like, they’re also picking up the message that these books aren’t meant for them. The contents are for girls.

If covers continue to offer the same thing and offer the same troubling images of the female body, we’re going to continue teaching the notion that one size fits all and that there is one ideal. We’re going to continue teaching the notion that Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of Katniss wasn’t right because she was “too fat.” We’re going to continue to teach that females can only be one Thing or they’re nothing (that Thing being perfect, of course). We’re going to continue judging ourselves and others against some false standard of beauty. As much as books aren’t the “mainstream media,” and as much as they aren’t tabloids or television or magazines, they’re still reaching a sizable portion of the population. And YA books, aimed at a particularly impressionable audience, are selling these same problematic notions of gender and of the role and purpose and use of the female body.

Know what YA could offer more of and challenge all of these messages with? Covers like this:

Talk about flipping gender norms on their head. We have a girl who can wear a dress, shoot a bow, be an average size, exist as the force in her scene (rather than as the background), have confidence in her mission, and look fierce as hell.

Here are a few others I think are taking things in the right direction. I do not in any way believe all girls need to look fierce or powerful on a cover because that would be limiting what girls can and cannot feel or look like. But I DO like when I see it because it is rare, and I think the first cover not only nails strong, but she is also dressed like your average teen girl (you know, minus the sickle, which she is owning, rather than having it own her). The second cover gives us a face but it’s so shadowed it’s hard to distinguish what the face looks like, leaving a lot to the reader’s imagination. And while I’m making a huge assumption it’s even a girl, there’s the possibility it’s not. Ambiguity is not a bad thing! The third cover features a girl in a dress, but look how she’s engaging in her world. She’s not a prop. She’s the actor. The fourth cover features a girl who has a great expression on her face, but more than that, she’s weak and vulnerable without being submissive. She’s small, but she’s not diminished. The last cover, offers us a girl with a great expression with her eyes. I love, too, that her hair is pulled back from her face so we can actually see the expression.

What these covers all do is make the person a person, rather than an object. Rather than something to be assessed and judged against some standard. These girls are owning their stories, their bodies, their worlds, rather than having us do it for them. The covers, despite not being diverse in the sense that they portray girls of differing shapes and colors, ARE diverse in that they offer us girls who aren’t of the mix and match variety. Who can’t be substituted for one another in any other covers. We get girls who can be strong as hell in a stress and who can have fun in a dress. We’re not sizing up their bodies. We’re instead exploring the whole of them as individual people.

That is what makes a book appealing.

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  1. says

    Thanks for this post. I do agree that there's a huge and underacknowledged problem with society's attitude towards the female body. I wonder if you have any thoughts on how you would modify the designs of some of the not-great covers you pictured above to make it better? Just curious to see if it's possible that publishers can make small changes and send out a more positive image about girls. :)

    Also, have you read this essay by Ashley Judd? It's been going around the Internet, but I feel like it's pretty relevant to what you just wrote about:

    • says

      I think a simple solution would be more diversity, period. There's a huge difference between the girls with their backs to us and the covers near the bottom that show them in different stances, with actual expressions on their faces.

      I have read the Judd essay and actually linked it up in the post. Pretty powerful stuff.

  2. says

    Fantastic post, and your examples were great!

    Though, I have to say that I prefer covers where you can't see the characters face because I don't like being told what a character should look like. I would rather create them in my mind with their descriptions. So in that sense, I like the head cut off, body part, back to us trends–but that's just me.

    Well done!

    • says

      There is definitely something to be said about not having a face on a cover because it does allow the reader to imagine something themselves. But if it comes at the price of having a perfect body instead, I think it becomes a bit problematic. I think both "Cameron Post" and "Drowning Instinct" do a great job of obscuring the face and allowing the reader to imagine without falling into that trope.

      And thanks!

  3. says

    This is like a whole dissertation topic! You could get your PhD with this Kelly!

    I have to admit, I haven't thought as deeply as you about this issue, but I have thought about the fact that these covers are gendering books and immediately saying "This is a girl book." As a teacher who is trying to get boys to branch out and try different books, handing them a book with a submissive girl on the cover is not going to do much to motivate them to read it. Most likely they'll laugh in my face.

    • says

      Maybe some day someone will cite this in their own PhD research since I can't say that's something I've got planned for my future 😉

      The fact that so many of these covers DO portray such "feminine" ideals, they gender the books (I like to think it's inadvertently but the truth is, it's marketing to that female audience so, I don't think it's accidental). I have to say, though, I've been surprised with male reaction to some book which I've written off — quite shallowly! — as "girl" books. It comes down to selling the book for its content. One of my book club's favorite books was "Paranormalcy." My book club was made up 50/50 guys and girls, and this was a universal hit, despite featuring a girl in a pink dress on the cover. But I have to say, that's a cover I do NOT take issue with in the way I take issue with the ones above.

  4. says

    I've said this before, but I seriously love your cover posts, Kelly! I'm showing this to my students this week so we can have some of these discussions. I've noticed many of the same issues. My big problem which I've been considering write a post about, is giving books with male protagonists "girly" covers. I wish publishers would stop making covers so gender specific.

    • says

      I'd love to hear what your students think about this and whether they're reading these covers like I am, especially when they're lined up all together.

      I agree there is a problem, too, when books that could so easily appeal to male readers find themselves with covers that market more to females. I think you mentioned once your dislike of "I Know It's Over" being one of those, and I couldn't agree more. I don't think there's a problem with putting a girl or a guy on a cover and having it appeal to both males and females, but it has to be done in a way that's not conforming to gender norms. It's becoming rarer and rarer.

    • says

      I mentioned I Know It's Over in my post yesterday. I have guys reading "girl" books and girls reading "guy" books. They don't care, as long as it's a good book. If publishers would recognize this, everyone would be much happier. I just wish I didn't have to talk up some books simply because the cover is misleading. I have plenty of kids in class that are weary of books because of the cover. I've even considered covering some of the covers because I want them to read the book and not worry about the cover and what it says about them. For instance, one of my girls was reading Hooked by Catherine Greenman and kept worrying that teachers or students were going to think she was pregnant because of the cover of the book.

  5. says

    This is an excellent post–well researched. I hadn't realized that people thought Jennifer Lawrence, who was excellent as Katniss, was too "fat." Unbelievable! And I also heard about the Ashley Judd essay. As a society, we are in desperate need of change.

  6. says

    I love this post :)

    It's also interesting to note how, in some cases, the title can combine with the visual rhetoric to further weaken these females. "Taken at Dusk", for instance, is a very passive title — as if the girl is just sitting there waiting to be claimed or dominated. Some titles imply violence against or harm to the girl: "Struck", "Until I Die," "Small Damages." In "Partials," the girl is literally only a partially formed human. I don't take issue with any of these titles on their own, necessarily, but when combined with the images it can create a problematic message.

    Also, do you think images without people in them would be preferable to these types of covers? Covers of "Fire" or "Graceling" come to mind.

    • says

      Elyssa, I didn't even THINK about the titles when I was looking through the covers. But you are so right about how when they're combined with the images, they become much more problematic.

      I don't mind all covers with people on them, but I prefer them when they're done well or creatively. I do think covers without people on them are becoming more and more rare and I think that in and of itself makes them stand out a little more. I LOVE the Cashore covers for that reason.

  7. says

    I may have the only semi-agreeing/semi-dissenting opinion here, but while some of those covers are concerning for the reasons mentioned, many of the others are not.

    Some must be considered within the context of their story, such as PARTIALS or GIRLS OF NO RETURN. In NO RETURN, she's sitting in a boat, and it's difficult to see many details about her. It's the overall composition that's important. The girl in PARTIALS looks ready for a fight. No frilly dress, but she does have long hair. I'd said hair length is the least of the concerns about idealized beauty. Consider the VIXEN books. Those girls have short hair, but the sexualized/idealized bodies are worse than many of the covers shown here.

    Others portray a main character who is described as skinny or fit in the books, so it would logically follow that the girls on the covers would be as well. KATANA, for instance, shows a girl who is a trained fighter. She is obviously going to be fit. And her stance indicates preparation to fight, which shows strength.

    As for showing butts, most of those covers wouldn't work nearly as well if they cropped up above the waist. It would also look off if every cover had the full body without cropping at the knee. The fact is that our posteriors take up a good section of the mid point in our bodies. There's nothing designers and photographers can do to change that, as it has much to do with creating a good composition. There are certain crops—right at the knee, for instance—that just look strange.

    TAKE A BOW, as well, is fine within the context of the scene. She's performing on stage. In a dress, probably because it's a special occasion and she dressed up. Plus a straight-on shot of her from the front wouldn't be nearly as compelling as this scene.

    One that was pointed out as being a good example, GLITCH, I'd actually consider worse than many of the "bad" covers. I don't know of many things more sexualized than a half-naked girl looking over her shoulder. She could just as easily have worn a shirt and captured the same concept.

    I am just as concerned about how media portrays girls and women, but it doesn't help to push the comparison too far. Like with LIFE IS BUT A DREAM; she's curled up, but she's supposed to look like she's sleeping. And just the title of LIVE THROUGH THIS indicates a girl who is really struggling, so to portray that on the cover is accurate.

    These girls don't all need to be skinny and wearing flowing dresses with long hair blowing in the wind, but just because a character has long hair or is skinny does not automatically make it a bad cover. UNRAVELING ISOBEL does not give off a feminine vibe. Her clothes and hair are so nondescript that I see nothing that implies she's an oversexualized or idealized figure. So was it included because she has long hair? It seems like a non-issue when there are so many covers showing teens in skin-tight, revealing clothing in highly sexualize poses.

    To sum up: yes, there is a problem with too many skinny white girls in flowy dresses on book covers, but including covers that aren't much of a concern makes the scope of the criticism too broad, thus losing much of its impact. It seems like misplaced effort to go after the small things when there are so many covers with serious problems.

    I do want to reiterate that I appreciate this post for opening the discussion. It's something we need to bring up more.

    • says

      Michelle, you make excellent points and you're not necessarily disagreeing with anything I pointed out (nor do I disagree with you about the notion of context and how some of these cover definitely FIT with the story). My bigger point in this is illustrating how many of these covers are showing such similar elements and when you look at them all in one place? It sends a message, whether or not that's fair. For what it's worth — and I mentioned this in my post — I LIKE a lot of these covers. Girls of No Return? Totally spot on and I like it a lot. But it's still fitting into an odd trend.

      I don't know if you've seen the physical cover of Unraveling Isobel, but it's definitely photoshopped which is as disturbing to me as simply having a thin girl.

    • says

      I haven't seen that cover in person. I'll have to look at it next time I'm at B&N.

      And I do see your point about fitting with the trend. I think I just misunderstood what the groupings meant for the individual covers within them. My mind jumped to the assumption that placing covers that weren't really a problem beside some of the really problematic covers meant they were committing the same sins by association.

      I see how the covers were selected because they fit within a set criteria, but I still think that, to some extent, the criteria was too broad. For some of the issues, like long hair or where the image is cropped, it would be more accurate to compare how many covers had these issues compared to the entire crop of YA books published within that same timeframe.

      I realize it would require a lot of effort and I'm not saying you should even attempt it, but that kind of data gives a better overall picture than selecting a few images from the hundreds published that year. Something might be a problem, but it might also be happenstance. We can't really know until we look at the data as a whole.

      And I just remembered an example that does exactly that, from Kate Hart:
      How she has the time and patience to do all that work (plus graphs!) astounds me.

    • says

      My methodology wasn't scientific and wasn't much different than Kate's. I went through this list at Goodreads of 2012 YA releases, eliminating the titles that were either for adults, were self-pubbed, or were not actually 2012 pub dates: So my sample group was huge. In fact, when I did this post originally, I didn't even have the backs of bodies as a category. It caught my eye because it was so prominent throughout the list.

    • says

      I also meant this to be illustrative of a problem related to the idea of gendering books. Because there's not a question about that, I don't think — these books are marketed to a certain gender over another one, and they're so abundant, it's hard to ignore. It's further problematic the messages these covers then contain, especially when you look at them all in one place.

    • says

      Why did you eliminate self-pubs? Are their/our/my covers not liable to influence teens who read? [And here I was congratulating myself on having some 'normal', non-flowing haired girls on my covers.]

  8. says

    Boom! Ya just slam dunked us with this post.

    Seriously, as I read this I just nodded my head and was like I totally learned about this from that Killing Us Softly documentary. It's sad that even in the world of books, girls are being told what their bodies should look like subtly, with the covers and all.

    • says

      I think the biggest problem is that in isolation, these aren't problematic at ALL. Some are great, in fact. But when you look at them all together? They send some weird and uncomfortable messages.

  9. says

    Brilliant post! As a short-haired girl by choice (rather than having lost it for medical reasons or whatever), I admit that the long flowing hair is a bit of a pain. I mean, when everybody thinks people like Emma Watson are really pretty with short hair, why are we still looking at the long hair like it's the only way to be beautiful? For people who had nice hair and lost it to cancer that's just a kick in the teeth; for people who chose to cut it off it's making them feel like they're never going to be as pretty as anyone else, you know?
    Really interesting post, and I'll be sharing this with my writerly friends 😉

    • says

      It's less an issue of the long hair vs. the short hair but more about the portrayal of femininity via that trait (because the ideal female has long hair or so we're told/shown repeatedly). It's totally a kick in the teeth for anyone who doesn't have a choice in the manner of their appearance.

  10. says

    I adore your cover posts, especially because you analyze them so deeply and bring up such excellent points. I've been noticing more "parts" covers, which can be good but often are just, as you mentioned, focusing on one aspect exclusively. Keep on posting stuff like this so I can keep thinking deeply about it.

  11. says

    Wow this looks like it took a lot of work. Kudos. You have given me a lot to ponder. I also think about the debate of faces/bodies on covers vs. not. I like symbolic covers best but photo covers can be pretty and fun. We just need more diversity, mostly. And I never thought about the hair before. So true. Thanks!

    • says

      It was fascinating and really left me with more questions than answers. I agree with you that photo covers can be great, and yesss…we definitely need more diversity!

  12. says

    Fascinating stuff! Have you read Jean Kilbourne's Killing Me Softly yet? She identifies pretty much the same imagery you've analyzed on these YA covers in advertising and the media, arguing how harmful they are for females of all ages.

    • says

      I've seen the documentary, and it's startling to think even decades after it was originally made, this is still a rampant problem.

  13. says

    Ah, my comment got published before I was done –

    Your analysis absolutely dovetails wonderfully in the context of how women are represented throughout media. Thanks so much for your hard work and sharing this post!

  14. says

    Great post! One other thing I notice is that most of the covers that are displaying the body in negative ways do not have the cover girl engaging in eye contact with the viewer. Yet another way in which the female figures are powerless and objectified.

    • says

      Great observation. I wonder if that's the case for covers where the girl is facing straight on, too. I haven't looked into that, and I suspect the direct eye contact may be part of why I think the covers of "What's Left of Me" and "Croaked" are great.

  15. says

    Very thorough, and thoroughly distressing. As writers, we should be at least trying to make more noise about how our characters (male or female) are portrayed on covers. YA books don't all have to be about "empowerment" but selling books to girl readers by using images based on unattainable, male-gaze pleasing looks, is so wrong.

    • says

      I don't even necessarily think YA books need to be about selling books to girl readers. I think it should be about selling them to readers, regardless of gender. These kinds of covers in such abundance single out girls and push boys away…and I've already talked about the messages they send both.

  16. says

    Kelly, I loved this. I will admit that from time to time that I have been swayed by these covers. Some of them look absolutely gorgeous until you pause to consider them more, and what they show and what they are telling the reader.

    I would personally like more boy-oriented titles, books that show boys (and not romantic interests, like actual teenage boys) and covers that seem more catching to males. There are quite a few "girly" covers in YA now. I can think of a few great boy covers — the hardcover of Destroy All Cars, for instance — but I think that it would be great to see more covers oriented towards boys and covers that show actual boys, portrayed as boys, not love interests.

    • says

      Absolutely some of these covers ARE great and ARE attractive. Some of them are spot on with what the content is. But it is in that stopping and considering what they're saying when you look at them next to one another that starts making you scratch your head.

      There are a fair number of great male-oriented titles, though many of the covers aren't always the easiest to spot. I'm thinking I might have to pull together this year's covers that feature male leads/are geared for a male readership and see what sort of trends emerge there. And I agree on the Nelson cover — one of my all-time favorites. Such great gender-neutral appeal.

  17. says

    First of all, thank you for linking me! I really appreciate it and I'm feeling very honored to be mentioned in this piece because I love it.

    Secondly, truly an excellent piece with so many important points that I'm just absolutely completely in agreement with! You covered so much more of what I wanted to but ended up not going over. Bravo for this post! I love your analysis of what works and why and what doesn't work and why. I wish this piece was in a national magazine or journal. It is so important because this issue is about books geared toward our teens! The most vulnerable ages!

    thank you for this post! I do believe that the more we talk about it, and the more people hear it and start spreading the news, only then will publishers listen and seek to change this trend.

  18. says

    I actually found your blog through this post. Between this and a few others, I'll be following you from now on. :)

    I agree with you: Too many people think books have a gender and it's always based on the cover. I know books that are amazing, but guys wouldn't be caught dead reading them. This actually sort of reminds me of last year's hardcover release of ACROSS THE UNIVERSE by Beth Revis. The really romancey cover could be flipped inside out to portray a map of the spaceship so you could hand it off to a guy and "trick" him into reading. Why not just have a cover that was universal for males and females alike?

    I find myself, as a bookseller, recommending books differently based on who the audience is. I'll talk up GRACELING to both guys and gals, for example, but mention completely opposite things to get them both intrigued! Because, yay, Katsa can kill people! But, ewww, Katsa can kill people? I also find it easier to sell guys who like THE HUNGER GAMES books with emblems such as LEGEND and DIVERGENT. They're not interested in books with pretty faces such as WITHER and DELIRIUM.

    I really don't like the submissive girl covers (though I do LOVE the ENCHANTED cover. She looks so happy and dreamy and her dress is gorgeous. I also just finished re-reading this tonight so I can properly review it when I have the author on my blog next week, so I think I'm biased, but I don't think it fits with the other covers that are darker, with sad girls completely in the fetal position or sprawled on the ground, etc.

    Oh…*blinks* Hey, wait…ENCHANTED and DREAMING AWAKE…that's the same dress on those two girls…and the blonde hair…I bet those two stock images are from the same exact shoot!!!! *blinks and looks again* Did you notice that, too?

    I do think the covers for EVERNEATH and MASQUE are pretty stunning, but that's due to the graphic design work that's been put into them both. I wish we wouldn't have these headless bodies, though in a way, I can see that this way, the reader can "visualize" the characters. Oh, I hadn't seen the cover for STEALING PARKER yet! I remember being really annoyed by how thin the girl on the cover of CATCHING JORDAN looked because she was supposed to be a tall football player, not a petite, delicate girl. I do think the PIZZA cover is adorable despite the lack of upper-head. It made me want to read more about the book!

    • says

      Haha, I just said in another post of yours that I love the new Roobiin Wasserman covers, and now here they are on display as a bad example! I think that, when put together, the effect is amazing. On their own, I don't care for them because they don't necessarily make sense. But together, oh, be still my beating heart! I never focused on her thinness, actually, though it's glaringly obvious now that you've mentione dit. I was looking at the way she was made of glass and water and crumbling into nothing when I saw it. I liked the metaphor of it. You've definitely made me reconsider the cover.

      I have DEFINITELY noticed the "back" trend this year. I think it's because everyone revolted against the "headless girl." The designers decided not to do that, but they still want readers to envision the characters, so they hide their faces in this new way. I do love the cover for GIRL OF NIGHTMARES, even if I'm not planning to read it! And GLITCH's cover did make me take notice of the ARC the other day. I like the gradient that has her face pink and her back purple and blue, as well as the detailing over the font and that glowing…whatever at the nape of her neck. I didn't focus on the fact that her hair is up, though I am now that you pointed it out!

      I looove the cover for GRAVE MERCY! I'm so glad it has an amazing cover that makes people sit up and take notice! DROWNING INSTINCT is striking as well. I agree with your thoughts on THE LIST, as well. She looks so vulnerable! I'm so excited to read WHAT'S LEFT OF ME, ahh! I like that we only have half an image!

      And now that I've written an essay…*hides*

  19. Anonymous says

    While I mostly am glad you wrote this, and agree with many of the problems you point to here, especially about the submissiveness-passivity-veering-on-appearing-dead, I find it deeply ironic to then argue for many of the covers you put forth as better, to say for example that "Grave Mercy" "flips gender norms" by, in part showing a girl "wearing a dress and shooting a bow" and "looking fierce as hell," is so troubling. I am SOOOOO tired of YA and Science Fiction and Romance communities and writers (like Marjorie Liu, for example, who posted this link—->though has she seen the very problematic messages of the bodies on her own white-winded covers and of her female superheroes!) who want to argue in any serious way that women being "BADASS" in the same way men have always been "BADASS," through violence and hardness/toughness/emotionlessness, etc. is somehow progressive, when all of those characters continue to fulfill the typical male fantasy via Laura-Croft-ism . . . by taking super hot chic, making her hotter in culturally stereotypical ways by putting her in slinky superhero outfits (bigger breasts, etc.), giving her a weapon, and then having her "kick some ass." Seriously?!?! This is feminist in any way???? Sometimes I feel like we are in the freaking dark ages where women are concerned. Until we start to reconsider what "strong" means altogether there is a problem. But then we would ruin all the sensationalism of death and destruction and violence that is Oh-So-Enjoyable, wouldn't we? Perhaps we need to worship less superheroic acts via superpowers or superviolence and learn to explore the depth and range of real human experience and the various very real (very noble) strengths that are required to survive everyday life, poverty, betrayal, etc. I suppose we've always, as a consumerist culture preferred escapism over depth. Although, in this case, I guess ultimately part of the problem IS not just the covers but the messages of much of this type of writing—–> replete with conventional notions of what it means to be TOUGH, that relies on genre conventions about "being kickass" rather than having the werewithal or skill to approach life with unorthodoxy and boldness and depth, to become a part of the culture of attention vs. the culture of distraction.

    • says

      And this would then be where I pointed out that no, I don't think all females NEED to be portrayed as fierce or badass to make a good cover ("I do not in any way believe all girls need to look fierce or powerful on a cover because that would be limiting what girls can and cannot feel or look like.") You get to the heart of my point and I agree with you on the issue of violence/fitting the "male" ideal of that.

      I pointed out a pretty good range of covers that are good and that do buck the trend, and no, not all of them do have violence at their heart. In fact, one of the covers features a very hurt and aching girl, without her being submissive/dead/her back to us. I pointed out a cover with a girl having fun with her world, engaging in it whole heartedly. No where did I make the point or suggest all girls have to look fierce or strong nor that they have to be violent.

  20. says

    The major trend that I would like to see go away is to use less photographs and more illustrations. It's easier to make and tweak compositions that can buck trends and not fall victim to the sterotypes you write about. Maybe being an illustrator influenes that opinion.

  21. says

    I've been slightly hysterical about these covers for years–and they're getting worse in many ways. I think we need to organize and address publishers. Things are not moving in the right direction. If covers like these sell books, does it necessarily mean better, less demeaning covers won't? No.

  22. Anonymous says

    I must admit that I've found myself AVOIDING books like these, with actual people on the cover. They've all begun to blend into one another. Especially the one's with the curly and awkward title fonts. :(

  23. Anonymous says

    I agree with what you say but it's exactly the same with 'Male covers'. I've seen HUNDREDS of covers that basically consist on a hot, toned, masculine torso.

  24. says

    (I am thnidu at LJ and DW, here from a post on DW by ysabetwordsmith. I tried to post this with my LJID, but if you see this as "from anonymous", the process is refusing to let me.)

    Generally I agree with you. My wife was a YA librarian for a long time, so I've seen a lot of covers.

    I'm baffled by one of your comments, though: the part I've underlined here, under "Only from the backside":

    Those who are not in dresses, though, almost all have their butts in the image, and it draws our attention for one reason or another (the very short shorts or the very fitted jeans with a paintbrush poking out of it or the katana just inches away or the bikini bottoms). Our eyes are drawn right to that body part, even in the bulk of the dress images, as we see the dresses either form-fitted or flowing away from there.

    The only katana I see in that section is on the cover of Katana. That woman's wearing blue jeans, and my (male) attention wasn't drawn to her butt at all. Has the cover image at that URL been changed since you wrote this post?

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