Kids and Adult Book Covers (or, how the late Timothy Findley gave me a complex)

I just returned from spending seven lazy days at my family’s cabin in Saskatchewan. The highlights of this trip included a whole buncha reading, eating an entire jar of Nutella, and continuously being amazed at the sheer number of gophers that inhabit my home province.

The low point of this prairie vacay entailed losing sleep over the memory a book cover I first saw 16 years ago.

As a chidler, I spent a good portion of my summers with some cousins at Loon Lake in Saskatchewan.  When I was nine or ten, my Aunt was in loco parentis for a bunch of us as all the other adults were off doing who-knows-what.  This Aunt was the model reader.  She always had a book in hand (usually impressively thick) and I longed for the time I would be able to tackle tomes of that girth.  But one day, I glanced over and saw that she was reading this:

I had to wait until the very last second to insert this image because it makes me want to put a blanket over my head and weep with fear. But at least Findley's Canadian. Sheila Egoff would be proud.

Holy Mother of Pearl. That was one scary sack of potatoes for me circa 1993.

I saw the word “Headhunter” and it dawned on me, for the very first time in my life, that there could actually be people in the world, perhaps at our very lake, who hunted human heads.  And these individuals were bald and had highly expressive eyebrows.

Us cousins often slept up in the deluxe treehouse my Uncle had built and that evening, after our nightly routine of everyone making fun of the amount of allergy and asthma medications I had to take before bed, I laid awake in terror thinking about the “Headhunter.”  I made up a simple yet detailed narrative  about how he would break into the treehouse at night and, after much snarling, glaring, and general intimidation, rid us of our young heads.

This was my standard scared-of-the-dark scenario at the lake, but after my Uncle sold the cabin a few years later, I didn’t give the Double H much thought.  But last week, when a reasonably assertive Saskatchewan thunderstorm started brewing around the new cabin, something went off in my brain and I remembered that book cover.  I tried to shake it off but I eventually had to jump out of bed, turn all the lights on, and pace about while the cat looked at me with a mix of empathy and disgust.

And then I got to thinking about book covers.  Children’s lit types (and all lit types, in fact) have been speculating about the elusive book cover since the dawn of the codex. It’s fascinating stuff. What will lure kids into opening a book? What will turn kids off?  Is there some kind of magic formula that will appeal to both the child reader and the librarian, educator, or parent who handles the cash? There is even talk of judging a book by its spine which is equally as fascinating.

But, has anyone ever wondered how young people judge covers of adult books?  Probably not, because it doesn’t really matter.  After all, most children under ten don’t have much money, and if they did, the last thing they would be doing is hitting up Amazon for the new Yann Martel for pops.

So, while I don’t think my Findley-induced phobia suggests that adult covers should be designed with children in mind, I think it does serve as tangible evidence of the power that books, and their covers, have on young people far before they may be ready to crack the spine.

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