Cover Art that’s Less than Honest?

by julie swanson

Recently I reviewed several books with tomboy or athletic girl main characters, the Dairy Queen series by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, and Our Only May Amelia and its sequel, The Trouble with May Amelia, by Jennifer Holm. I love those stories, but I have a bone to pick with the cover art of the Dairy Queen series and The Trouble with May Amelia (not with Our Only May Amelia; that one is fine and true to the story, I feel). And it’s not just these books, but many others as well, books whose cover art, in an attempt to appeal to the masses, betrays the truth of what you read in the stories.

Now don’t get me wrong, their covers are visually appealing. They’re brightly colored, and the photos or artwork of the characters show healthy, wholesome, good-looking kids. But the cover art does not match what you learn about the characters in the story.

I understand that these books are about tomboys or female athletes, and that there are certain negative stereotypes out there about tomboys and girls who are really into sports. I get that publishers don’t want to turn anybody off, that they want to try to entice kids to read books, even girls who might not be tomboys or athletes. Totally reasonable, especially since extreme tomboys and elite athletes such as the characters of May Amelia Jackson and D.J. Schwenk represent a minority of the female population. But when you, the reader, are, or were, yourself an extreme tomboy or athlete, and you’re looking for a book or are finally reading one where you can actually relate to the character, and you see a girl on the cover who’s been ‘prettied up’ so as to be presentable to the masses, it makes you mad!

All of the Dairy Queen covers in some way suggest much more girly-ness than you find in the actual stories. Why did they have to lie and make D.J. have long hair when it clearly states in the book, a couple times, that she has short hair, that she’s even gone to get her hair cut short again? And D.J. wouldn’t be caught dead wearing the cow-print clothes–a miniskirt and rainboots at that–shown on the paperback versions of her stories (unless it were her Halloween costume maybe!). The cow on the cover of the Dairy Queen hardback version is wearing a tiara!

Why did they have to take 12-year-old May Amelia–who’s mistaken for a boy several times in the story and actually has to insist, even argue, that she’s a girl and not one of her brothers (and she’s not believed); she’s dirty, she stinks, she wears overalls and her brothers’ hand-me-down shoes; she only wore a dress once in the whole story, she works out in the cow pasture, ankle deep in manure!–and make her look like a clean and well-groomed 16-year-old girl who might even be wearing lipstick? I held up the book to Steve to show him the cover and asked him, “How old would you say this girl is?” He said, “I don’t know, she could be twenty?” Yes, kids like to read up, but come on. Talk about girls wanting to grow up too fast. I wonder why? They’re 12 (or younger) and reading about a 12-year-old and they look at the cover of the book and think, Wow, I look like a baby compared to her and we’re supposed to be the same age?

For me, the effect of doing this is to say that there’s something wrong or unappealing about being a tomboy (or looking your age). I’m not sure what the answer is because I understand publishers want a kid to pick up a book and realize that it’s a story about a girl and not a boy, but there has to be some way to indicate ‘tomboy’ without the cover art betraying the character in the story. I think about my stories, and how even though I might’ve written one about a tomboy who has short hair and is often mistaken for a boy herself, if I want this book to be for tomboys who are like I was as a kid–starved for books about characters they can relate to, not able to find many, if any–then, yes, I too would want a kid/parent picking the book up to realize that this is about a tomboy, a girl, not a boy. It’s tricky. I think the hardback cover of Our Only May Amelia does a pretty good job of it. May Amelia has long hair and is cute in a plain sort of way. She looks like she could be anywhere from 10 to 12 and she’s wearing overalls and is barefoot. She looks like a tomboy but is undeniably a girl. If you’re going to show a tomboy wearing something she would hate, at least you’ve got to show her looking unhappy in it, no?

I’m not trying to pick on these books I love, or these particular publishers. This same problem happens with other books published by other publishers as well. It just smacks of false advertising. And it makes tomboys, and non-foofy girl athletes, and girls who aren’t necessarily anxious to grow up feel like they must be embarrassing or something if a publisher can’t even put a girl who looks like them on the front cover of book that’s about a girl who looks like them!

If these are stories celebrating tomboys and serious girl athletes (and the ARE!), what’s wrong with featuring a girl who’s sweaty or has short hair or is wearing clothes that show their functionality or evidence of how hard she plays?

Kids want to see kids who look like them on book covers; it makes them feel like they belong and are accepted in their world.