Cover Girls

Whether it’s called reissuing, repackaging, or
rebranding, the process of giving new life to an old book is a
time-honored one. In the highly competitive field of young adult novels,
however, there’s a key difference. The market for these books is,
of course, teenagers, whose tastes and styles change constantly in the
timeless quest for identity. Publishers face a conundrum: The high
literary value of the best of these books aside, how can they help a YA
novel speak to the latest group of teen readers, across generations,
cultural shifts, and trends? Simple: They redesign the cover.

In the
years since she first got out her trusty magnifying glass, for example,
Nancy Drew is still “Titian-haired,” but on the covers (as
in the text) from the mid-’80s onward, she’s traded in her
dependable roadster for a hot blue convertible. Remember The
Outsiders
? Ponyboy and the other Greasers from teen author S. E.
Hinton’s 1967 novel made their angsty cover debut as sinewy
silhouettes against an urgent swath of red. In later covers, the boys
stand defiantly in leather jackets, first as illustrations and later as
photorealistic drawings of Matt Dillon, C. Thomas Howell, and Ralph
Macchio, the stars of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 movie
adaptation. The latest cover boasts an existentialist photo worthy of
the title, with a boy who could be a French rebel by night, model by
day. Meanwhile, twins Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield, absent from
bookstore shelves for five years, reappeared at the end of 2007 in a
rerelease of the Sweet Valley High series. The girls are as blonde and
popular as ever, but now have cell phones and a new cover
image—TV-bright photos to replace those pastel ’80s
illustrations.

 

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WEETZIE BAT
With its
cutout ransom-note-style letters and bright orange torn-from- magazines
collage, Stephen Spera’s cover for the 1989 hardback of the
subversive California fantasy paid homage to L.A. punk rock. Later
editions featured ’80s shades, lipstick, and cute trinkets. In a
survey, boys found David Diaz’s darker and more subdued 1996
update “less embarrassing.”

 
Young adult novels, like their adolescent readers,
have long represented something of an awkward phase, wedged between the
dreaded children’s area and the daunting adult section. Amy
Pattee, a professor of library and information science at Boston’s
Simmons College and the author of the literary blog “YA or
STFU,” says that Seventeenth Summer, published in 1942 as a
“junior novel” by 17-year-old author Maureen Daly, is
probably the first YA novel. Its first cover had an illustration of the
lead couple spooning sweetly in a boat; the latest edition has a
photograph of a girl smiling shyly into the distance. Daly’s
novel, says Pattee, launched a genre of books that “explicitly
anticipate a primary audience between the ages of 12 and 18 and tend to
address the broad issue of ‘Who am I?’”

It’s
a question the cover of a YA novel has to pose, alluringly and
convincingly, for its teenage reader even to want to pick it up. The
Outsiders
was a model for how YA books were first packaged: as
mass-market paperbacks. “The book’s size set it apart from
the trade paperbacks and suggested the book was intended for a more
mature audience—not a child, but a Young Adult,” wrote
critic Cat Yampbell in 2005. The inexpensive YA books appealed not only
to their readers’ allowance budgets, but to publishers, who found
them relatively cheap to produce—and to redesign when the need
arose.

 

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FOREVER
“If I had
to pick, I’d go with the current [Forever] cover, which
captures some of the content in a way that respects the audience and
looks good,” says Amy Pattee. “Though the design itself is
pretty spare, the latest cover is explicit—although not as
explicit as one would hope.”

 
And that’s often. Judy Blume’s novel Forever, for
instance, was first published in 1975 with an illustrated cover showing
the protagonist’s face in a locket. Since then, there have been
numerous other covers for the book’s trade and mass-market
editions. A perennial hot potato among censorship fans and foes for its
sexual content, Forever now contains a note by Blume that emphasizes the
importance of protection against STDs. Meanwhile, Francesca Lia
Block’s Weetzie Bat, a dreamy L.A. tale of teen pregnancy,
gay love, and witchcraft (Nick Hornby wrote recently that reading
Weetzie was like “coming across a chocolate fountain in the
middle of a desert”), has been repackaged an astonishing five
times in the past 10 years.

The massive Nancy Drew series, which has
run for more than 75 years and sold more than 200 million copies,
straddles the line between YA and children’s lit. Though Nancy
herself is a teenager, bookstores may shelve the books in either
section. The series seems timeless, perhaps, but it’s under the
same pressure as any new title to attract readers, and the first major
overhaul was in 1958. Some of the updates have been subtle—a
typeface altered here, the addition of a bright yellow spine
there—but the illustration and text changes are significant.
Originally composed by several authors writing as “Carolyn
Keene” for the Stratemeyer Syndicate, the books were first revised
to eliminate untoward racial references, as well as Nancy’s habit
of carrying a gun. Each novel was also cut by five chapters.

 

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THE OUTSIDERS
The original,
graphically striking Outsiders cover morphed into a movie tie-in
with photos of its teen stars. The commemorative 40th-anniversary
edition returns to the original art—a marked contrast to the
current trade paperback edition, which evokes a still from a Jean-Luc
Godard film (or a Calvin Klein commercial).

 
In the
first few decades of the series’ cover history, Nancy kept up with
the times, ditching her ’30s pearls and gloves for casual
’50s skirt ensembles and a pageboy haircut. In the ’70s,
though, unfazed by the counterculture, she sported preppy double-knit
suits, and as early as the ’60s, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, who
wrote many of the Drew books, began clipping photos from Vogue
for the art director and suggesting that Nancy’s bust be
“slightly more full.” Most recently, Nancy has appeared as a
teen action heroine with sun-kissed hair and computer smarts. She hit
the big screen in 2007; a Nintendo game based on the series debuted the
same year.

The hero or heroine of a typical YA novel is trying to
make sense of the world and his or her own place within it, but the
physical book is a clearly defined object unto itself. Indeed,
it’s an accessory, explains Marc Aronson, author of Race and a
longtime YA writer and editor. “It has to sit comfortably next to
all the other objects in the reader’s world, their magazines and
clothes and music. It’s all about a sense of coolness and
intelligence. It’s a style—it’s saying, ‘We are
exactly who you are. This is the world you’ll feel comfortable
with. Nothing about this book is going to make you feel awkward to carry
it and wear it. It’s as sleek and cool and as with-it as you
are.’” That might explain YA author and feminist Paula
Danziger’s seemingly incongruous bias against picturing the main
character of The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, a girl struggling with her
weight, on the original cover.

 

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THE CAT ATE MY GYMSUIT
Although Paula Danziger said Marcy Lewis—the protagonist of her
1974 novel The Cat Ate My Gymsuit—was her most
autobiographical character, she was dismayed that an illustrated Marcy
appeared on the cover. For the 1998 reissue, Danziger worked closely
with the illustrator and publisher to develop the new image, the cat
dashing through the chalkboard-style title face.

 
Also, the protagonists of these books
are generally a few years older than their readers. The “age of
aspiration” factor is essential to YA publishing: If you’re
13, you want to be 15, so you read about 15-year-olds; when you hit 15,
you want to be 17. Few readers of Seventeen magazine are actually
17. So YA books partly serve as instruction manuals, as Pattee notes.
“If you don’t have older brothers or sisters, and no real
way of connecting with high schoolers, you’ve got Sweet Valley
High.” Whether the central character is solving crimes or dating
boys, YA books give readers—particularly girls—a way to
picture themselves in the part.

That means that any clues that the
cover isn’t current, whether it’s a highly graphic rendering
(so early ’80s!), an outdated star (like Courteney Cox and Lori
Loughlin, who modeled for the Sweet Dreams romance covers ), or a wispy
romantic typeface (so ’70s dime-store romance!), can hurt the
book’s chances with prospective readers. “If someone is an
unconventional beauty—or even not white—that’s usually
a more contemporary novel, clearly different from the conventional
homecoming queen and Ken doll boy who might be on the cover of an older
book, which kids will see as out of date,” Pattee says. “But
ultimately, it has more to do with what they’re wearing. If the
cover looks lame, then it’s all over.”

In recent years,
there’s been intense media focus on the label-crazed Gossip Girl
books, whose copyright pages include fashion credits. Writing in The
New York Times
in 2006, Naomi Wolf charged that the series—and
its sex-and-money-mad sisters like the Clique and A-List books—not
only break every virtue-rewarding rule of YA fiction but “package
corruption with a cute overlay.”

 

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SWEET VALLEY HIGH
“One day we shot [the model as] Elizabeth and the next day
Jessica, which made it easy for makeup and hair; we had planned out all
the clothing and the styles for each girl so we could get enough shots
for 12 covers,” says Random House designer Marci Senders.The
model, All My Children actor Leven Ramblin, “is a
professional; she really took on the girls and got into
it.”

 
Enter Sweet Valley High, once
again. The long-running series, which has so far sold more than 150
million copies, debuted in 1983. A team of ghostwriters writing as
“Francine Pascal,” the creator of the series, chronicled the
adventures of wild cheerleader Jessica and her twin, sensible student
journalist Elizabeth. Sweet Valley’s 152-book run (with spin-offs
including a short-lived TV series) finally dwindled, then came to a halt
in 2003. Reissues of Double Love and Secrets, the first
two books in the series, hit shelves this April; 10 more are in the
works. The new Sweet Valley High is targeted to readers ages 12 and up
as well as to nostalgic adults. “We realized we had two
markets,” says editor Pam Bobowicz. “New readers, plus
people who are in their 20s and 30s and are remembering these
books.”

Random House designer and YA book veteran Marci
Senders, formerly at 17th Street Productions (the outfit responsible for
A-List, Gossip Girl, and Clique, as well as the original packaging of
Sweet Valley High) oversaw the revision of the outdated Sweet Valley
brand. Gone are the painterly, circle-framed portraits of the twins and
the dated pastel hues. The new editions incorporate elements from the
old (the mass-market trim size, the slightly tweaked but familiar
varsity-style type and mini-banner) into a bright new California color
palette and make room for photos of the twins or their friends and a bit
of palm-tree, sun-drenched backdrop. “We wanted to restart the
series but make it more classic-seeming, to give them staying
power,” Senders says. “We kept everything really simple and
clean, but at the same time we wanted it to be really graphic, to update
the whole vibe without dating it for the future.” In a convention
familiar from chick lit, many YA covers feature sections of girls’
bodies rather than their faces, but Senders was adamant about showing
the twins as individuals, not midriffs: “People really reacted to
the blondes, to these sisters, and we wanted to keep them, but do a
modern version with photographs.”

Perhaps surprisingly, as much
as a new cover can reenergize a YA book, publishers don’t expect a
big sales spike for their efforts. Generally, they reissue these books
from strong backlists, and the long-term goal is to sustain the life of
the book and influence sales of the author’s other titles.
“From a publisher’s point of view, selling backlist books is
like nirvana,” Aronson says. “When you see a book puttering
along or fading a bit, and you can make it relevant, then why
wouldn’t you?” Or, as Jessica Wakefield once said,
“You just can’t let a look get stale. You know what I
mean?”

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