A Book Cover in Time: The Changing Art of Our Childhood Reads

That old aphorism, "You can't judge a book by its cover," it turns out, is completely and totally untrue. We took a look at a few of our most adored childhood reads and compared the covers we pored over then with earlier covers and some current ones, too.

This article is from the archive of our partner .

When I gather book covers to use in this column, I'm usually drawn immediately to the ones that fronted the editions of the books that I read as a kid. Those are the ones that I see and think, Oh yes, old friend, I remember you! Far less evocative are the later versions, which don't hold that same familiarity, even if they're interesting in the way they reveal how book design has changed over the years, or the earlier ones, which are appealingly retro but still aren't those books I read under the covers at night by flashlight. The content of the books and stories are the same, of course, but the covers make them different.

That old aphorism, "You can't judge a book by its cover," it turns out, is completely and totally untrue. Even if perhaps we shouldn't, we can and do judge books precisely by their covers, just as we are quick to form initial opinions about people based on what they look like. And covers are therefore very important to writers, publishers, and people who read. They're the faces of books, what we see first, and often even what we think of when we picture a particular novel or story. There's an enlightening piece in Hazlitt from CS Richardson, an author who's designed 1,500 covers for other writers' books, while writing his own, to pay the bills. He writes, "A cover designer is not a book designer. A cover designer creates small posters (swanky though they may be) that are held up by the books they are wrapped around." But the covers hold up the books, too, and as the large posters once used to decorate our childhood bedrooms would remind us, viscerally and perhaps mortifyingly (hair band rockers or NKOTB?), of those old days, the small posters that adorned our books have the power to transport us to another time.

We took a look at a few of our adored childhood reads, comparing the covers we pored over then with a range of earlier and later editions.

A Wrinkle in Time 

The cover of the first edition of Madeleine L'Engle's classic, published in 1962, looked like this:

Interesting, trippy, a little bit Vertigo-esque even, but with a modern enough flair that this design has been updated for the 50th anniversary edition and a slipcased Quintet collector's edition. The most recent version, prior to those retoolings, was this one:

Those two covers, while nice, pale in comparison to the awesomely creepy, sci-fi and awkward versions I remember:

Those were followed by still others, each reflective of a slightly different design sensibility of their time.

Bridge to Terabithia

The cover of the original book published in 1977, is the one at left; the one I read, at right:

Then there's the more recent, romanticized treatment, in which the characters look older and are less specifically rendered (easier to relate to), and an older version in which characters look much younger and almost Rockwellian (at right):

The Baby-sitters Club

While in some cases publishers have pushed to make their Y.A.-targeted books more "sexy" or appealing to teens by featuring close-ups of boys, girls, and boys and girls together, there's another current trend in which the covers get a more simplified, iconic font- and/or symbol-based treatment. Take, for instance, The Hunger Games:

The first Baby-sitters Club book I read was Kristy's Great Idea, which kicked the series off with an image of the four girls on the front. Later books would also feature the girls in whatever setting the plot required. Compare what's at left to the redesigned, current cover—girlier and younger than Collins' book's design, of course, but with a similar focus on font treatment as opposed to images of the characters:

Sweet Valley High

The Baby-sitters' original cover art, though, isn't all that different from the way the Sweet Valley books put the faces of its characters, usually the Wakefield twins, on each new installation of the paperback series with the same frame, a kind of franchise-based paperback design model that let you know you were getting exactly what you were getting.

Later versions of the book look like this, though—still standardized but notably sexier than they are sweet:

And then there's Sweet Valley Confidential, the 10-years later nostalgic look at where the Wakefields wound up, which looks like this:

The Roald Dahl Books

Ah, remember these?

Now they are these:

Several of the Roald Dahl books have been released for the first time as e-books today, on his birthday (he would have been 96). That means those covers get new treatments yet again, this time digitally.

The Girl With the Silver Eyes

This Willo Davis Roberts book that I read as a kid (it features a girl with the power of telekinesis) has gone through a number of interesting changes. "It's fun to make things move just by thinking about them!" is a tagline on an especially creepy early version of the book. The flying toast is just silly, though.


And more recently, there's kind of a sci-fi stylized redo:

Harriet the Spy

I love the use of the word zany in one of the early books (it cost $0.75!), and am glad that, nearly 50 years after the books' publication, a recent cover returns to some of that initial charm. There were a couple of embarrassing diversions through the years:

It's been said that the most successful children's books allow the readers to see themselves in the characters. That, you'd guess, would be an aim of book covers as well, so it's particularly interesting to see how they continue to change with the times in ways that publishers hope will attract the next generation of readers and continue to reflect modern aesthetics. On the opposite side of that, though, is the way the cover of a book read in childhood can stick with a person over the years, forever coloring our interpretation of the book itself—and making it the one in which the reader him or herself is able to stay, in some ways, forever young.

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