7 Books We Judged By Their Covers

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Claire Handscombe


Claire Handscombe moved from Europe to DC in 2012, ostensibly to study for an MFA in Creative Writing, but actually – let’s be honest – because of an obsession with The West Wing. She is the author of Unscripted, a novel about a young woman with a celebrity crush and a determined plan, and the editor of Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives. She also hosts the Brit Lit Podcast, a fortnightly show of news and views from British books and publishing. Blog: the Brit Lit Blog. Twitter: @BookishClaire

We all do it, don’t we?

It doesn’t matter how often we’re told not to make assumptions about books based on what they look like. Covers matter. They tell us what to expect from a book – they’re a kind of an unspoken contract between reader and writer (or rather, as any author who’s argued with their editor knows, reader and publisher).

One of my favourite books, for example, also has one of my favourite covers: the hardback of Come to the Edge by Christina Haag has a picture that perfectly evokes the tone of the memoir – wistful and romantic.

Sometimes, though, we’re surprised when the content of a book doesn’t seem to match what the cover promised us. And sometimes that’s a pleasant kind of surprise. I asked my fellow Book Rioters to share some of their experiences with covers.

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman

I picked up this book because both the title and cover caught my eye. First of all, it had a yellow cover which is eye catching in and of itself. Then there was the red hair, which drew me further in. I also loved how the o’s in ‘book’ served as her glasses. And I did love the book. It did a good job of showing how a person who was used to being alone adjusted to finding out that she suddenly part of a huge family. Her awkwardness never got to the point of being annoying either, which is the risk you have with characters like that. And, in addition to the familial aspect of an almost quite literal found family, there was also a sweet love story.

P.N. Hinton

Scavenge the Stars by Tara Sim

The cover with a Desi girl clutching a silver dagger while her silky hair flows down immediately grabbed my attention. I loved the juxtaposition of glamour and danger, feminism and action. The book did not disappoint, there are plenty of scenes where Amaya wields her dagger.

Shireen Hakim

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

When I was in high school, I saw this book on a table in Barnes & Noble. The front cover depicts a school chalkboard with the title scrawled across it in uneven, childish letters. I assumed the book was about a poor child who attended a one room country school during the Great Depression and then picked himself up by his bootstraps after he overcame his tumultuous upbringing. I bought the book and then was so surprised when I started reading. If you have read anything by David Sedaris, you will not be surprised to hear that Me Talk Pretty One Day is not about the Great Depression or country school houses. As of today, I have read and reread that book many times. Sedaris is one of my favorite authors and I am so thankful that I misjudged a book by its cover and was introduced to an amazing writer!

—Katherine Willoughby

Absent By Betool Khedairi

I was given this old edition of Betool’s Absent as a gift, and honestly the cover made me cringe. I suppose the (“modern”) neon colors are meant to make a counterpoint to the (“traditional”) old woman fortuneteller, which makes it worse. But probably all I could see at the time was “agghhh Shutterstock image of fully covered woman to sell Arabic novel, aghhh!” Although I guess at least she’s an elderly woman vs. the “sexy fully covered woman batting her sexy eyelashes” Shutterstock image. For a while I didn’t read it; every time I glanced at my TBR, the cover annoyed me. But eventually, some afternoon, I must’ve cracked it open, and I was immediately sucked into Dalal’s fragmented, mosaic-like world of illness and loss during the ’80s, the years when Iraq’s economy was blockaded from the rest of the world by sanctions. (Yes, there’s a fortuneteller, Umm Mazin, but I don’t think she’d approve of being portrayed on the cover in this ridiculous way.) I still hate the cover, but the novel inside is a wealth of stories, centered around Dalal, lives shattered and reassembled into beautiful and painful mosaics.

Shireen Hakim

F*ck Your Diet: And Other Things My Thighs Tell Me by Chloé Hilliard

This cover SHOUTED at me when I first saw it, and I knew I had to read it. Hilliard is a comedian and writer who has plenty of fans, but I hadn’t heard of her before this book. The perfect staging of this photo combined with Hilliard’s expression told me this was going to be one hilarious book. And it is! But it’s also much more than that. It’s a smart and inventive takedown of diet culture, a new look at how society teaches us to look at our own bodies, and a self-love manifesto. I expected to enjoy F*ck Your Diet, but I was surprised by just how much I adored this book by the time I finished it. And I’m so glad that the cover yelled at me to get my attention.

Susie Dumond

That Can Be Arranged: A Muslim Love Story by Huda Fahmy

I missed the boat on Fahmy’s first hit, Yes I’m Hot in This, so when I saw that her new graphic novel was out I immediately pounced on it. The cover is so relatable and hilarious at the same time, a poor Hijabi girl trying to find love while her mom and the rest of the community hover in the background. Matchmaking may not be as romantic as Western love, but it is admirable. The cover correctly shows how funny, yet informative this comic book is, and both Muslims and non-Muslims, single and married, will LOL.

Shireen Hakim

The Republic of Love by Carol Shields

In high school, I worked in a bookstore and used to wander around on my breaks, mentally spending most of my pay cheque. One book I picked up and could not bear to put back down was The Republic of Love. The edition we sold (and that I still have) has a gorgeous underwater cover featuring a mermaid, her face half-obscured. I was only vaguely aware of Carol Shields (a very famous Canadian writer!) and had no idea what the book was about, but I had to have it. And it became one of my favourite books. It’s a sweet, satisfying story about a folklorist and a radio DJ who meet by chance and fall in love in 1990s Winnipeg — a modern tribute to Jane Austen, one of Shields’s favourite writers. The folklorist character studies the cultural meaning of mermaids and her research is woven throughout the story. A book and cover practically engineered to appeal to a teen who’d grown up on The Little Mermaid.

Kathleen Keenan