A to Z: Judging a book by its cover … and other ways of choosing children’s books

Throughout April, I’m tackling 26 A to Z topics related to children’s literature. Today’s topic is a subject I addressed on my old blog, EveryJournalist Fiction: judging a book by multiple elements and what convinces us to buy books.

I have a confession.

One moment. Let me take a deep breath …

Here goes: I judge books by their covers.

I know, I know. That “don’t judge a book by its cover” adage is a time-honored favorite. We’re supposed to judge a book by its contents, not by its design.

As a reader, I should know better. Even an ugly book can have  a great story hidden between its covers. But the author side of me says covers are important. And the reader within me reluctantly admits that covers often are the first thing that attract me to a book sitting on the shelf.

As a consumer, when I go book shopping, undoubtedly there are dozens — hundreds, in fact — of books worth buying. However, when I go on a book-buying excursion, I can neither afford nor carry hundreds of books. That means the selection process has to be narrowed somehow.

Over the weekend, the husband and I went to Chipotle for lunch. With Barnes and Noble just a few streets away from Chipotle, it’s inevitable that we end up there. We’ve been slowly but surely building a home children’s literature collection in the hopes we eventually have a Baby Barichello to enjoy them. As I combed the children’s section, I found about 15 books I wanted to buy.

But with picture book prices ranging from $7.99 for paperback to $21.99 for hard cover, I had about $255 worth of books in my hand.

And $20 to spend for the day.

So, what criteria attracts me to children’s books in the first place?

Where the WIldFAMILIARITY. When it comes to picture books in particular, familiarity and name recognition go a long way. Picture books have several classics, such as “Where the Wild Things Are,” that are must-haves for every kid lit collection. During our weekend Barnes and Noble excursion, this is one of the titles I ended up buying. I want our kids to meet the Wild Things in our home and have a copy of their own.

Familiarity is the same reason I bought $50 worth of Dr. Seuss books a few weeks ago. But what about books that aren’t on my radar?

COVER/JACKET DESIGN. The first thing to catch my eye on unfamiliar books is the cover and/or jacket design. Interesting cover art is sure to make me beeline for a book. Clever covers also draw me in. “The Book With No Pictures” has the blandest cover you can imagine, but its bold declaration of being a children’s book without pictures attracted me to it.

On the flip side, a bad cover is a fast way to make me skip a book. Even though I know “Smile” is a popular graphic novel, I never picked it up at a store because the smiley face with braces didn’t capture my attention. It gave me no insight into the book, other than the assumption that a character has braces. The first time I flipped through it was when my niece shared it with me.

Smile     Sisters

Conversely, I think the cover of “Sisters” is more interesting. It’s the same design concept, but now the cover tells me something about the story: There’s some friction and conflict present.

TITLE. The next best thing to catch my eye is the title. A good title can intrigue me into plucking the book from its brothers on the shelf. It’s harder to determine what makes a good title. On our weekend excursion, I stumbled upon a copy of “Tuesday,” by David Wiesner. At first glance, it’s a dull title, but it immediately planted a question in my mind: What happened on Tuesday?

BACK COVER COPY. When I flip to the back cover, the book has passed the first two hurdles. Now I’m interested in the content and want to read what the book is about. Now is the time for the plot or character synopsis to make its mark.

TuesdayWhen it comes to picture books, the back cover copy is replaced by reading the actual book. If I like the story and interior art (because in picture books, art is part of the reading), there’s a good chance the book is coming home with me at this stage. Take “Tuesday,” for example. The title first caught my attention, and while the cover art isn’t particularly exciting, when I opened the book I found beautiful illustrations and a story (told almost exclusively in pictures) that made me laugh. “Tuesday” is now in my home collection.

FIRST PAGE. Next comes the First Page Test for chapter books. I read the opening line. On any given book excursion, I read anywhere from 25 to 40 opening lines. I dig through a lot of books. Most of the time, this is where a book loses me. (Yes, writers, your opening line matters immensely.) If a first line hooks me, I read the first page. If the book has strong opening paragraphs, it comes home with me.

EXCEPTIONS TO THE RULE. There always are exceptions. If a book was highly recommended by a friend, that gives it a boost. If I find a book written by an author I like, that also weighs in favor of purchasing it without going through as much examination.

How do you choose which books to add to your children’s literature collection or your home library in general?

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3 Responses to A to Z: Judging a book by its cover … and other ways of choosing children’s books

  1. Marna Reed says:

    I judge a book by its cover too – but I go through pretty much the same process. Sometimes the cover is BLAH but the title is hooky and I have to pick it up. If I get to reading the blurb and I’m still intrigued, I’ll flip through the first few pages and if the voice resonates with me I’ll take it.

    It’s all about the process and I like my process and since it’s my time and money, I think I can judge away. No need to feel ashamed. ^_^

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Carrie-Anne says:

    If I see yet another headless person on the cover, I immediately don’t want to read it. Seeing first-person present tense is also a huge turn-off at least 95% of the time. I prefer the old-fashioned illustrated covers, which allow readers to use their own imagination to picture characters and settings. A good typeface is also a must.


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