A few thoughts on covers

At UBC today Dr. Vivian Howard of Dalhousie University gave a talk about Atlantic Canada – readers, illustrations, authors, literature – which I found stimulating not only because of her research, which was indeed noteworthy (check out Sea Stacks, one of the results of her and others’ labour http://www.seastacks.ca/), but because of little comments she made both during the presentation and beforehand in an informal chat with interested students.

One of the things that came up was that only recently have there been any representations of Nova Scotia’s two hundred-plus years old black community (the province’s largest visible minority) in picturebooks. As in, there are precisely two picturebooks which have black characters in them at all. Both were written by poet Shauntay Grant and illustrated by Susan Tooke. The first, Up Home, was published in 2008; the second, The City Speaks in Drums was published in 2010. From what Dr. Howard showed us, I can’t wait to read these books, which are unusual and lovely.

But that blew my mind. Over two hundred years of invisibility in Nova Scotian literature, at least in picturebooks. I’ve read a few YA novels set in Atlantic Canada; none of them had characters of colour, either.

The other thing that startled me was that Dr. Howard said that the populations of her children’s schools were entirely white. 100% white. Mind you, this was rural Nova Scotia, and I know rural areas tend to be populated by groups of European ancestry, but still…

Which goes to show how west coast Canadian I am, I guess, or how citified. But it seems so strange to me.

I’m wandering far off my original plan, which was to talk about something that came up in the discussion before the presentation: book selection.

Regrettably, because I’d love to reproduce pertinent points and fascinating facts (please admire my alliteration; it wasn’t even intentional), I probably can’t repeat a lot of what I heard, because the information doesn’t belong to me. (If you know otherwise, let me know and I will spill all.) But: I can probably say this – that some kids have difficulty choosing books that they enjoy, and eventually repeated failures make them so reluctant to read that they stop reading for pleasure.

Which is a tragedy! Some kids/teens, on the other hand, become very adept at finding books that they enjoy, and pursue reading for pleasure all the more. (Which brings to mind the debate: are you good at something because you like it, or do you like something because you are good at it?) (Apparently, actually, you become good at something because you work hard at it and persist, which makes it more rewarding and so you like it better, and keep working hard at it, and keep getting better…)

I was one of the kids, and later, teens, who was very good at finding books I liked. I found books almost exclusively (to the best of my memory) by prowling the library shelves. If a title, cover, or the write-up on the back caught my eye, I would consider it. Once something caught my eye, I might consider the books next to it – behind, beside, before, above, and below. I might read a page or two. I was almost always right (that I remember) and, although I may have delayed reading or missed out on books I would have liked, I rarely borrowed a book I did not enjoy. (Although it did happen.)

Leaving aside my hours of experience at selecting books (you have no idea how many times I prowled the stacks, or how many hours I spent reading every day), which gave me a considerable (I say modestly) knack for assessing books correctly, what were my main tools for finding the books I came to love?

Obvious, isn’t it? Title. Cover. Write-up.

And of those three, which stands out the most?

Yeah. Cover.

Maybe it’s no surprise to you, if you’ve been following this blog, because we devote a lot of time and attention to book covers. I mean, it’s the content that matters, and that is what takes up the bulk of our discussions/posts. But for children, and teens, and (let’s face it) adults who are just trying to find a book they’ll enjoy reading, the cover is the thing that most catches the eye, whether to entice or to repulse.

Which means that the cover’s visual representation of the book’s contents is a significant factor in who reads it. Which is obvious. I’m not saying anything new here!

But before I entirely lose track of what I was going to say, because I have a cold and am very tired… Representation. Ideology. Representation of minorities.

I don’t know what to say because I feel like it’s already been said by other people, much more eloquently than I am capable of at the moment, but – covers are important. Seeing oneself – not as typecast, not as invisible/absent, not as victim or villain or not-quite-good-enough sidekick/best friend – is necessary. Seeing multiple representations of oneself – so that one isn’t bound by one set image or by rigid expectations but is free to choose between or reject entirely a multiplicity of images – is necessary. Or at least desirable.

I am so blasted sick of those stupid photographed white-girl-in-dress-in-pose-that-draws-attention-to-her-body covers. Show me real women. Adults. Overweight people. Black and every shade of the rainbow protagonists. Handicapped people. The elderly. Warts, birthmarks, irregular features and all. Make the book cover a thing of beauty.

Make it art. Not an ad.