Sexing Up the Classics for Teens

Hoping to capitalize on the frenzy over Y.A. book sensations like The Hunger Games and Twilight, publishers are returning to their design departments and asking for new teen-friendly looks for the classics.

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Hoping to capitalize on the frenzy over Y.A. book sensations like The Hunger Games and Twilight, publishers are returning to their design departments and asking for new teen-friendly looks for classic high school staples like Emma, Jane Eyre, and even Shakespeare, according to The New York Times' Julie Bosman. This only makes sense knowing what we do of the publishing business: When there's a big hit, others flock to follow it, whether that means writers rushing to create similarly themed works, agents hoping to snag their own dystopian success stories, or houses publishing more books of a particular genre or category. (Note the surging popularity in Y.A. and its crossover appeal, as well as the upswing in erotic, BDSM-themed fiction due to Fifty Shades).

Of these classics with new covers, Bosman explains: "The new versions are cutting edge replacements for the traditional (read: stuffy, boring) covers that have been a trademark of the classics for decades, those familiar, dour depictions of women wearing frilly clothing. In their place are images like the one of Romeo in stubble and a tight white tank top on a new Penguin edition of Romeo and Juliet." She also cites, somewhat horrifyingly (to this writer), HarperCollins' Twilight-inspired Wuthering Heights covers (see above, next to the "original") as well as a new Dracula cover from Penguin imprint Puffin featuring a "ghostly woman" and lots of blood, made for "that Urban Outfitters customer," according to Puffin's Eileen Kreit. 

There is a key benefit with redesigning the classics: Those books are frequently in the public domain, so any publisher can try its luck with an "Urban Outfitters-esque" cover, and see how sales go. Some have been successful, which means we can probably expect more. But do they actually work at what they're intended to do—get teens to pick them up and read? Or might this be just another case of adults presuming what kids want, and attempting to market those ideas?

Sarah Gerard, who runs the children's section at McNally Jackson, told The Atlantic Wire that she doesn't think kids judge a book by its cover, at least not in this way: "My experience with jazzed-up covers, with teens at least, is that they make no difference at all. There are plenty of classic books that kids still read -- The Wizard of Oz, Wind in the Willows, etc. -- and when the cover is jazzed-up or gifty, it's the grandparents or the family friend who buys it as a birthday present. The kids don't care. If they don't want to read Pride and Prejudice, they won't read it, regardless of what the cover looks like."

Tracy van Straaten of Scholastic added that this "trend" isn't really anything new, necessarily; it's just business: "Since the beginning of publishing time there have been repackages to look like popular books of the day," she said. "It’s probably most successful when the content is truly similar. I think readers do appreciate help in finding other books like the ones they like, but it’s less successful when you try to make something look like a genre/type of book it isn’t." Colleen Mondor, who writes the monthly Y.A. column for Bookslut, told us, "There will always be a market for a sexier books for teens just as there are for adults. When I was a kid it was Judy Blume's Forever that we passed around, with the appropriate pages dog-eared. But the idea that Twilight readers will suddenly notice and then purchase classics just because of the covers seems a bit silly to me. They might pick them up, but trust me, after reading two pages they will know these aren't the same kind of romances as Bella & Edward. And honestly, that is a GOOD thing in my opinion."

There's also something nice about a classic that's not trying too hard, a book comfortably clad in its old sweats (or pantaloons), hanging around the house, or whatever. As 15-year-old Tess Jagger-Wells told Bosman, "It’s fun to have the originals in your house to look at and show people. It kind of goes with the feeling of the classic as something that’s treasured, something that you want to keep. The new covers make the books look like cheap romance novels.”

Here is the most worrisome thought of all, however: If this trend crosses over into adult lit, in the future, will all of our "grownup" classics look like Fifty Shades of Grey?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.