What’s in a Cover?

Guest Post by Hazel Mitchell

How’s that saying go? ‘Never judge a book by it’s cover’? Wise words when applied to people, but as far as picture books go — the cover is certainly the first thing we judge. No matter how wonderful the contents of the book if the cover doesn’t appeal to the viewer, it’s all over. And viewers come in so many different guises–marketing people, reviewers, book buyers, librarians, teachers, parents, readers–and your book has to compete with a gazillion other books for shelf space or on a  website or in a catalog. So baby, that cover had better have vavavoom!

In days gone the cover image was often an illustration from an interior spread. Now the cover is usually a completely separate illustration.

Think of it as a movie trailer or a poster. It’s the first selling point of your book. You are looking to sell the best parts of the story without giving away the entirety of the plot.

First things first. What size is your cover? How can you utilize that shape to greatest advantage, including enough space for the title and author and illustrator’s names? Start by working on thumbnail-size drawings.

What’s the essence of your book? Is it funny? Serious? Non-fiction? Cute? Great setting? If your book is filled with cartoon style art, it’s likely you’ll reflect that in the cover artwork. That way the reader knows what to expect inside! It’s important to reflect the mood and theme of your book on the cover. Take time to consider this. If you showed the cover of your book to a child, would they have some idea of the contents from just one image? If so, then you’ve done your job. Even better if they can’t wait to find out what the book is about!

What’s the age group of the reader? More intricate and detailed artwork may appeal to an older reader. Small children are attracted to bold shapes and bright colors. The cover, like your book, needs to be age appropriate.

Do you have a very strong character? An arresting image of the main character can be one of the most enticing book covers, especially when used in a simple, stylish way. Remember, picture books are often viewed from across a store. You want the eye to be drawn straight to your book!

If your book features a very strong setting, that may be the way to go. Non-fiction? Make sure the cover sings out  about the subject matter.

Composition and color are very important in the design of your cover. The fastest way to understand how a good cover works is to browse through the shelves at your local bookstore … or online. What keeps your attention? What covers do you remember later?

Let’s look at the four Caldecott Medal Winners from 2014.

LOCOMOTIVE by LocomotiveBrian Floca
The cover of the Caldecott Medal winning book is coming straight atcha! You’re already in the action with this head-on view of the engine flying along the tracks. With great use of symmetry (and typography) the eye can’t help but be drawn into this cover. We feel the speed of the train, the landscape rushing by. The eye’s directed along the curve of the train (which stops the image being too centralized). Smoke streaking out behind enhances the illusion of speed. We know from the style of engine and use of color, detail and typeface that this is a story with historical grounding. It could be non-fiction, it could be a narrative. It is, of course, both. This book is about trains … the cover tells you exactly what’s inside the book!


journeyJOURNEY by Aaron Becker
The cover of this Caldecott Honor book instantly attracts you–just like its main character, a girl with a magic crayon on an adventure. So many good things about this cover! The illustration portrays the title: the girl is on a journey, we can see that straight away. It’s probably a fantasy. She’s in a boat and sailing (how?) towards a beautiful and mysterious city– which we immediately want to visit with her. (It
might be exciting!) She’s sailing from left to right, the use of perspective is enticing us to open the book and read on. Most clever of all is the use of color. The bright red boat immediately draws the eye (akin to a Renaissance painting trick) and the blues and greens of the background give depth.  It’s a cover you’ll recall long after the first glimpse.


Mr WufflesMR. WUFFLES by David Weisner
There’s a lot going on in the cover of this Caldecott Honor book. A bit like ‘Locomotive’ it utilizes a symmetrical, head-on approach. The cat (Mr. Wuffles) is front and center, emphasized by the floorboards (a bit like the tracks in Locomotive), pulling you into the image. There’s a lot of character here as well. The cat looks kind of fed up. (Why? For sure, he’s not a cutesy cat!) In the details we see lots of kitty toys (funny ones) and then we see a spaceship?? Hmm, not all is as it seems. We also see that this is a domestic cat from the setting. The bright colors, fonts and style tell us that this is going to be a fun read. We need to open the book up and find out why the cat is looking mean and just what’s going on with that spaceship.


Flora and the FlamingoFLORA AND THE FLAMINGO by Molly Idle
In Molly Idle’s Caldecott Honor winning book the characters of the title are the main attraction. The pink is immediately stunning, especially on a shelf, and there is something so charming about Flora and the Flamingo so that we want to know their story. They are not looking at us, they are looking at each other. And who is mimicking who? Flora doesn’t look like a typical girl. Her outfit is fun and
quirky. And why is she friends (if she is?) with a flamingo? The cover has a great 1940’s feel to it, from the black fonts to the ellipse, that  gives an intimate feeling to the cover, and the decorative border – it’s  pulling the eye in. Another great cover!



My latest cover is for the book ‘Imani’s Moon’ by JaNay Brown-Wood, Charlesbridge Fall 2014.

Imani's Moon Cover









I enjoyed sharing some thoughts about covers with you! Leave a comment and share YOUR favorite picture book covers, and what you think makes them work. 

Owl and TurtleConnect with Hazel Mitchell
Tweet me: @hazelgmitchell

Related posts:
Meet Hazel Mitchell, Interview by Carol G. Ekster
Seeking the Specific in Illustration by Diana Zipeto


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