Category Archives: Op-Ed

Never Judge A Reader By The Cover

We’re not supposed to like reading.
We’re not supposed to like writing.
We appear to be big, dumb jocks.
We look somewhat scary.
We act somewhat scary.
We get tagged as Neanderthals.
From our look, we are
supposed to like certain things,
do certain things,
and act a particular way.
Because of the way we look,
we are judged at first glance,
judged to a stereotype.

As a kid, I was a husky, could-not-sit-still introvert, slow-developing reader of a boy. Without a tremendous amount of help and patience from the adults in my young academic life, I may never have grown up a reader. I liked the library, though. I liked to graze the shelves looking at the book spines, book covers and flipping through the pictures. I am a more accomplished reader now, but
roaming and searching the book stacks is still a favorite activity of mine.

One of the earliest memories of being completely, totally PO’d in life was when I was about six or seven and my onerous older brother told the librarian I  lied and didn’t read all of the four or five books (a major accomplishment for me at the time) I’d listed on my summer reading program sheet. I remember the sheet vividly, it had a drawing of a genie riding a magic carpet on the top and blank lines for what seems like 50 books. I was so proud of the first several lines of that sheet being filled in. I was a reader.

I will never forget the look the librarian gave me when she thought I had cheated and handed me back my sheet. She jumped to the conclusion this big, little kid standing on the other side of her desk was a cheater, not a reader. I was so embarrassed and so mad as my first real reading success melted right before my eyes, I crumpled into a ball on the library floor and had to be dragged out wailing and screaming.

I would like to offer an invitation to everyone who has ever swum upstream against the current of stereotype. An invitation to celebrate a love of books and literature despite how we look or act, especially those of us “Neanderthals” who like to read middle-grade literature.

I fall into the category of dumb jock stereotype. I guess a big, football lineman-type, sport-crazy athlete, and coach, with a somewhat scary visage that often makes little kids cry, cannot also be an intellectually driven, reader and writer of literature. People look at people like me and naturally think, “He’s a Neanderthal.”

  • Maybe it’s the truck driver looks? (Which, by the way, was the Hollywood descriptor of my extras casting photo when I was given a part as an extra in a movie back in my college days.)
  • Maybe it’s the occasional ranting and raving?
  • Maybe it’s the Kansas twang of my dialect or the silent “g” in “-ing”?
  • Maybe it’s the smile or the scowl which split time on my face?

To celebrate the fight against this stereotype, I invite you to join me in a little Twitter fun and Tweet what you are currently reading. Inspired by one of my favorite comic book heroes, The Incredible Hulk, I celebrate reading and literature every Wednesday by tweeting the book(s) I am currently reading under the hashtag, #MeReadBook. If there is also an audio-book in the mix, that title is tweeted under the hashtag, #MeHearBook.

Celebrate reading and celebrate readers—whatever they look or sound like.

Above all else, pass the word.

Never judge a book (or a reader) by the cover.

Major Writers of America pic

Can You Judge a Book by Its Color?

color wheelWhen I was in high school, one of the electives offered was Fashion Design. I  never could fit that particular class into my schedule (I was a choir geek through and through), but I had many friends who took the course. And I noticed they spent a lot of time talking about the color wheel and its affect on fashion (and people, too).

I have always been fascinated by this idea that color affects our mood. As a gardener, I’m often surprised how much time I spend thinking about the colors I want in my flowerbeds and how each of the different plant colors make me feel. A few years ago, my chiropractor husband and I spent countless hours picking out just the right shade of green paint for the walls of his new clinic, since we needed something that made the place feel…well, healthy.

So, I began to wonder, if we talk about color in our clothing, and the color on our walls, and the color of the world outside our doorsteps, should we talk about color when it comes to our books, too?  I decided to take a look at some of the MG books sitting on my bookshelves at home. What do the colors on the covers say about the stories themselves?

YELLOW

Yellow is a happy color, but it’s also draining on the eyes, so frequently people surrounded by yellow can become agitated and angry.

On my shelf, the books in which yellow dominated the cover were in both of these camps. Many of the humorous titles were predominately yellow, such as Donna Gephart’s How to Survive Middle School.

I also had many titles which were stories where mystery or intrigue played a large part in the book. For example, in Jessica Day George’s Tuesdays at the Castle, the castle itself senses trouble. (As a side note, this book cover spirals from blue, a soothing color, to yellow, which mirrors the rise in tension as the story progresses.)

RED

Red is a color of power. It evokes strong emotions such as love, intensity, and excitement.  The books on my shelves do the same.

In Scumble, by Ingrid Law, the main character is given a extraordinary power which makes the things around him fall apart…literally. You can’t get much more intense than that! (As a side note, this book also has quite a bit of yellow, which I think adds to the agitation this cover evokes, but is grounded in green, a color of good luck and prosperity, which in my opinion hints at the awesome natural powers this boy has been given.)

In Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, the title itself tells you that this is going to be an adventure–that excitement awaits. (Not to mention that the red dragon on the cover looks terrifying–is the girl really going to let it loose? And that hint of yellow makes me slightly uneasy about this whole idea of releasing the dragon into the wild.  How exhilarating and alarming at the same time!)

School spiritsBLUE

Blue is a soothing, calming color, but it can also be associated with feelings of sadness, loneliness, or alienation.

In Michael O. Tunnell’s School Spirits, the main character is new at his school, so he feels isolated from the rest of the students. Oh, and there’s a ghost in the book, too, who just happens to be blue-green.  And lonely. And very much the sad being you would expect of a restless spirit.

Though there are many different covers for  the classic Mr. Popper’s Penguins, by Richard and Florence Atwater, most of them are predominately blue.  Mr. Popper (a dreamer and a painter by trade) spends his time caring for, and enjoying, the penguins he receives from Admiral Drake who is currently on an expedition in the Antarctic. Though the book is full of the antics of the penguins, and Mr. Popper and his family as well, the entire book exudes a soothing sort of safeness that all will be well if Mr. Popper is around.

GREEN

Green is the color of nature. It’s also associated with good luck, tranquility, and health.

In Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Treasures of Weatherby, a girl names Allegra literally flies. There is much in the book that is mysterious as well, but the front cover captures so vividly this character’s flying attributes, which mirrors what mother nature has given the birds.  (Side note: this image is not the one on the cover of my book, but I do like how the bit of yellow in this version  captures some of the anxiety and restlessness of these characters, plus the black invokes some lurking evil that is hidden just out of sight….)

In Kim Baker’s Pickle, the main characters want to use school funds to pull off their pranks, and they decide to start  a pickle club as a cover. They are going to need all the luck they can get!  (I’d also like to point out that this book cover uses a lot of blue, too, which helps make this group feel aloof and alienated, because, well, they are are SECRET group, after all. They do stand apart.)

gregorBLACK

Black is associated with evil and menace, as well as death and mourning.

In Suzanne Collins’ Gregor the Overlander, not only is the Underland devoid of sunlight, but it is full of menacing creatures who have captured Gregor’s father.  This cover, though full of lighter buildings, has much hidden in the shadows.

In The Search for WondLa, by Tony DiTerlizzi, the main character, Eva Nine, leaves in search of the long-lost (and possibly no longer existing) land of WondLa.  She uncovers a world full of dangers, both of the natural world and of men. (As a side note, note that Eva herself is light against the darkness of the rest of the cover, and as she begins her journey she is the only one innocent of the world around her. Interesting.)

WHITE

White denotes purity and innocence, but also can be cold, unfeeling, or bland.

In Breadcrumbs, by Anne Ursu, Hazel’s best friend, Jack, is captured by a woman made of ice, and Hazel sets off into the forest to rescue him. (Side note, notice the hint of red in the middle of the cover, which I think helps the readers feels the intensity of Hazel’s love for her friend as well as the power of the Snow Queen.)

In Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society, the four children who make up the society are chosen through a random set of challenges…it’s a very cerebral way of choosing some very resourceful children to take on a supervillain the likes of which the world as never seen.

There are more colors than my above-mentioned categories, obviously.  I’m sure there are many more books out there that might not fit into any one particular color category, either.  Or how about those that use lots of different colors?  Where would they fit?

Besides, colors can also be influenced by culture, so one culture may have a different perception of a particular color than another would.  For example, in Western culture white symbolizes purity and innocence, but in some Eastern cultures it symbolizes death and mourning.

Historical cultures attached slightly different meanings to colors than our modern sensibilities do, too: for example, black meant death in ancient Egypt, but it was also a symbol for rebirth and resurrection.

And, if I’m being honest,  color psychology is often met with skepticism in the psychological and scientific world.  I doubt any scientist would take my thoughts seriously, anyway.  So even though this is all in good fun, I hope the next time you pick up a book, pay attention to how the cover makes you feel.  I bet you’ll see that the colors on it might be helping to create the mood the book is trying to portray.

Soon enough you’ll be judging books by their colors, too.

 

Elissa Cruz likes colors.  If asked, she’d be hard-pressed to choose a favorite.  However, she’s not a big fan of avocado.  Or mustard.  Or beige.  She’s not a big fan of 1970s fashion, either, come to think of it.  And in her opinion turquoise is a little too garish in anything larger than a piece of jewelry.  She writes books for kids of all ages and is the ARA of the Utah/Southern Idaho region of SCBWI.

Boy Book? Or Girl Book?

“Is this a book for girls?” asks a young man, one day when I’m volunteering at the school library.  It’s Raina Telgemeier’s excellent graphic novel, Drama.  The party line, of course, is that there’s no such thing as boy books and girl books.  I have a feeling, though, if I say that, he’ll think I’m a fool.

Drama

The publishing industry has certain conventional wisdoms about what boys and girls will and will not read.  Boys will not read books by women, although girls will read books by men, and that’s why Harry Potter author Joanne Rowling became J.K. Rowling.  Similarly, conventional wisdom says boys will only read about boys, while girls will read about boys or girls.  Some series neatly split the audiences – think The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, or for non-fiction, The Dangerous Book for Boys and The Daring Book for Girls.  Kids can suss out these intentions in varying degrees, but instead of helping them find books they like, what if certain covers cause kids to feel as though some books are off-limits?  Or worse, cause adults like me to steer kids away from books we fear will cause alienation from peers.

dangerousdaring

My first instinct, I’m embarrassed to say, is to protect the boy from being teased.  The book has a purple cover and a girl with a heart drawn over her head.  But then I gin up enough presence of mind to put it back on him.  I tell him, “It’s about a girl who likes a boy.  What do you think?”  The boy shrugs and checks out the book.  I wonder if I’ve done right by him or not with my answer.

When I related this story to the class teacher, she fumed.  “I hate it when the kids say there are boy books and girl books,” she said.  “Last year, I saw the boys peeking at Dork Diaries, but refuse to check them out, so one day, I just started reading it to the class.  Then they started checking the books out.”

She then revealed that my own daughter had a similar reaction to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy, a book we were reading together as part of the series.  That this book might be considered a boy book never occurred to me, in spite of, duh, the title and the picture on the cover.   “I thought it was just going to be about boys and the stuff they do,” my daughter told me.  “But now I know that it’s a book for everybody.”  Indeed, it’s a favorite part of our day, to snuggle under the covers and discover Almanzo’s next adventure.

Farmer Boy

In the United Kingdom, a campaign called Let Books Be Books has sprung up, urging publishers to stop saying books are “for boys” or “for girls” on the cover.  That campaign argues that such labels restrict children and even make them targets for bullying.  It’s certainly a valid point, but children are certainly wise to even more subtle cues.

While some argue that the industry is/should bemoving toward more gender-neutral books – as seen in this Today show clip – it seems to me that part of our efforts to allow children to freely select any book they desire should include models for enjoying all books.  We can read books together as a group, showing that all are expected to enjoy.  We can introduce books of all stripes during book talks, trying to maintain an awareness of any unintentional bias we might have (Did I just bypass Ella Enchanted because it seems like a girl book?)  We can talk openly about what makes us think a book might be for a boy or a girl, and to think more deeply beyond first impressions.

By the end of library time, the young man had something to tell me.  “Everyone’s making such a big deal out of me checking out this book,.  I don’t see what the big deal is,” he said, with just a tiny bit of pride.

Indeed.

What is your answer to the question, “Is this a girl (or boy) book?”

Wendy Shang is the author of The Great Wall of Lucy Wu and the upcoming book, The Way Home Looks Now.  She reads books for all kinds of people.