Book Brawl: YA Covers vs. Adult Covers

Everyone does it. Some people might claim they don't, but they're lying. It's ingrained in our human DNA. It's a natural reflex that can't be denied. We can fight it, but our first instinct will always be to judge a book by its cover.

And what's so wrong about this behavior, anyway? We may not have evolved enough as a species to overcome our superficiality, but haven't we developed as artists and designers? Is there any excuse nowadays for a bad cover? (The answer, by the way, is no.)

In order to bring attention to this irksome problem that continues to plague literature, I'm bringing together books from the young adult and adult shelves to face off in a battle for design supremacy. It's widely known that YA novels suffer from stock photo abuse and an incessant parade of emo girl faces, but adult books aren't always much better. In order to determine the most artistically egregious offender, let's take a look at how covers of books, paired by topic, stack up.

Round 1: Cancer

Just because a book involves cancer doesn't mean the cover has to be a Debbie Downer! The use of color is marvelous, and the cut-out paper artwork is charming without being twee.


It all comes down to... a poor man's Mandy Moore in overalls? Yikes. While this image is appropriate for the style of Nicholas Sparks, it seems more fitting for a high school guidance office poster that everyone secretly mocks.

Winner: YA - Me, Earl and the Dying Girl

Round 2: The Apocalypse

I assume that the designers were going for "terrifying," and they definitely got pretty close with this grainy zombie image. Even though the cover does its job by indicating the scary contents inside, I'm turned off by the low-fi look of the whole thing, especially the cheesy fade of the title into the artwork.


In contrast to its opponent, the cover of The Passage isn't nearly terrifying enough. But I still give it points for the beautiful simplicity of the tree image, which provides potential readers with a glimpse of the epic, haunting nature of the story.

Winner: Adult - The Passage (Barely!)

Round 3: Vampires

It's hard to look at this image without all of the stigma attached to the Twilight franchise, but if you can forget about all of that hoopla, you'll appreciate the stark nature of this cover. Sure, there's tons of copycats out there now (including some classics, because certain members of the book industry have no shame), but back when Twilight was released, the elegant symbolism of this cover really stood out.


I'll never understand why someone thought it was appropriate to market Sookie Stackhouse books with folk art from the '80s.

Winner: YA - Twilight (I know. I can't believe it, either.)

Round 4: Bluebloods

This cover is what designers technically refer to as a "hot mess." The craftsmanship is shoddy, and none of the pieces really come together. If you're planning on reading this in public, I suggest putting another, more respectable book jacket over it.


Dizzang! This cover hits you harder than an apple falling on Newton's head. The color scheme totally pops, and the retro style is insanely appealing. If you saw this book on the shelf, you'd be hard pressed to ignore it.

Winner: Adult - Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Round 5: Homosexuality

Maybe it's the typeface, or the strange juxtaposition of the photo with the tiled design, but this cover is just plain fugly. (Which is a shame, because the book is devastatingly compelling.)


Excuse me while I take a minute to soak in the glory of this cover. It's positively breathtaking, and the symbols hint elegantly at the story inside. I wouldn't be surprised to see this hanging in the MoMA, and you certainly shouldn't be surprised to see a blown-up version of it hanging in a prominent place in my house because WANT.

Winner: Adult - Tell the Wolves I'm Home (Duh!)

Round 6: Royalty

There is nothing about this artwork that indicates the young adult nature of this book... which is awesome. It's bright and fetching, and the image of the woman gives you a sense of the historical elements of the novel while keeping the design fresh and contemporary.


This cover is fine, I guess? There's nothing inherently bad about it, but it's just not exciting or dynamic. I wouldn't be surprised to see this novel basking in the banality of an airport bookstore, if I even noticed it at all.

Winner: YA - Prisoners In the Palace

Well, after six brutal rounds, it's time for the final tally.

YA: 3
Adult: 3

Hold the phone, it's a tie! There is no champion in this battle! Folks, I know you're disappointed, but hopefully this score serves as a wake-up call for publishers everywhere. (Because everyone reads my column. Obviously.) It's time that we as readers stopped settling for mediocre design and started fighting for better artwork, because good books deserve good covers.

(Or, you know, you could just read everything on an e-Reader and make this whole argument totally obsolete.)

Sarah Pitre

Column by Sarah Pitre

Sarah lives in Austin, TX, where she programs screenings at the Alamo Drafthouse and coordinates events at The Highball, a playground for adults. Tired of feeling like a creepy old lady in the bookstore YA section, she created Forever Young Adult to provide grown-ups with a community where they can gush about young adult literature without shame. In addition to crushing on fictional teenage boys, Sarah enjoys fancy cocktails, dance parties and macaroni and cheese.

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Pretty Spry for a Dead Guy's picture
Pretty Spry for... August 9, 2012 - 3:41pm

Art [of course, you know, cue yawn] is subjective, and I think that probably contributes to the one's perception of the abundance of bad covers.

For instance, I reacted differently than Sarah to some of these covers. She's absolutely right in that hidden has, overall, a teribble design, as none of the individual elements come together, but I did not have a problem with the cover. The photograph is beautiful and compelling, and that's the first thing I react to. I don't notice how poorly done the cover as a whole is until I've gotten past my first impressions. On the other hand, I find Special Designs in Calamity Physics so bright it's gharish, and Tell the Wolves I'm Home is just too busy for me. [I'm not sure about the color scheme, either.]

My favorite covers featured here are by far those of Earl and Me and the Dying Girl and Twilight. I've often commented on how striking the Twilight covers are, especially the first one. Here, you have Bella, as Eve, offering the Forbidden Fruit, herself, her body, to Edward. This underlines the sexual undertones not just of this particular book but of vampirism itself. [Vampires penetrate their victims, bodily fluids are exchanged, etc. You all know this. I don't even know why I'm typing this.] The childlike hands underline Bella's youth and innocence; all in all, I'd say the cover has more depth than the story it represents. Plus, I like the combination of black and white and red.

Covers have been a hot topic on Litreactor as of late, with threads by Scott MacDonald and myself. Yes, I really am just that shameless.

Courtney's picture
Courtney from the Midwest is reading Monkey: A Journey to the West and a thousand college textbooks August 9, 2012 - 9:09pm

I agree with Bret -- Special Designs in Calamity Physics is horrific. The color scheme is tawdry, the layout cheap, the design trite... so if I were to see it on a shelf, I'd pass over it in the assumption that it's probably another book of "wacky" facts or "crazy" things humans have done (like weirdest eBay auctions, or a certain numbered list of the most ridiculous websites, etc.)

Philip Heckman's picture
Philip Heckman is reading Everything Philip K. Dick published August 10, 2012 - 12:51pm

A funny and perceptive piece, Sarah. But don't apologize for judging books by their covers. It works for all kinds of unknowns.

Jared Johnson's picture
Jared Johnson August 10, 2012 - 1:08pm

The Passage has one of the most boring covers I've seen. It looks more like the cover to a secular Christmas album than a book worth reading. Ashes at least catches my attention, even if it isn't particularly good looking. Seriously, that Passage cover is the thing that my brain generates over the blind spot in my eye when I'm at a book store.