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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.




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.



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.



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.


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.”




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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