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The Simon Teen Tastemakers Event at ALA: What the teens said and how you can use this idea as a program

At ALA 2013 this year, Heather and I took a group of teens to a Simon Teen event that was really quite genius.  In fact, it would make a fun programming idea.

TLT coblogger Heather Booth lives in the Chicago area, so she was on the local events committee.  One of the things that she was responsible for was finding groups of teens to attend a special Tastemakers event hosted by Simon and Schuster and when Heather asked if I wanted to go, I of course said yes.  It was a nobrainer.  That evening Heather hopped on a train with 3 local teens and we met up with a few other groups of teens.  Each group had one or two adult chaperones, but this event was FOR teens.

Find out more at www.pulseit.com

When we arrived each teen got a passport and there were several stations inside which they were to visit and get a stamp.  The stations were set up as follows:

Get a bag and stuff if full of ARCs
Vote on the September book for the Pulse It online book club
Get The Mortal Instruments movie swag
Vote between two book covers
Look, more free books!
A booktrailer station

And then they had an opportunity to talk with author Ellen Hopkins.  One of our teens provided the highlight of the night when she realized what Ellen Hopkins was talking about when she answered that Necrophilia is the one taboo thing she wouldn’t right about.  You can read Heather’s post about it here.

But what I want to talk to you about is the book covers.  First, this was an awesome idea and I think every single publishing house should do it – but they should do it correctly.  You see, Simon & Schuster simply had the teens vote on their favorite covers by putting marbles in a jar, which provided them with absolutely no actual feedback that they could use for future cover design.  But I am a curious one, so I stood there and asked the various teens that voted if they would mind telling me why they were voting the way they were voting.  And to be honest, some of their choices were surprising to me.

For example, for the book Perfect Ruin by Lauren DeStefano.  One cover had the girl on it and the other one was the same but had the girl removed.  I liked the cover with the girl because I felt your eye was drawn to the negative, empty space without her.  But the teens preferred the cover without the girl because they said it gave you too many preconceived ideas about who she was, what she looked like, etc.

There were also two covers presented for The Book of Broken Hearts by Sarah Ockler.  The cover you see above is the cover that won, much to my surprise.  It seemed very adult to me.  The cover that did not win had an open road and two teens kissing in a motorcycle rearview mirror.  I thought it had more movement and that the teens would be drawn to it because it looked both contemporary and featured others teens on the cover.  The teens I spoke to said they liked the deep, rich purple and that they liked that it had a book and the heart on the cover.

In the event one thing was obvious: Covers Matter.  This is not, of course, surprising to us, but when the teens had tables full of books to browse it was the cover that determined whether or not they would pick it up and read the back cover.

Like I said, this was a fun, fascinating event.  Genius really.  And we can do the same type of event at our libraries.  Take your ARCs and lay them out on a table and ask teens to give you feedback, vote on your next book club book, or just tell you whether you should buy it for your collection or not.

Have books with two different covers, like Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley, and ask teens which cover they prefer and why.  Or just put out two books and ask teens which one they are more interested in exploring based on the cover. I am a firm believer in asking the why, that is where you get the real insight.

You could set up a book speed dating event here as well, that would be fun.

Then, of course, you could also have a computer set up showing booktrailers.  Give out freebies.  And yes, there was awesome food.  They served deep fried Macaroni and Cheese and it was the best thing ever.

The post in which I rant about book covers, again

Time and time again, we read about the white washing of book covers.  And all those pretty book covers with model like beauties with long, flowing hair wearing long, flowing dresses – usually seen gracing the covers of paranormal romance. (See: Body Image and YA Book Covers)  But today THEY HAVE GONE TO FAR.

Book cover from Amazon.com, you can go buy the book there if you want.

“Red hair is my life long sorrow.”
L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables 

But I recommend getting this version instead, the cover is a better representation of the book
This version is still updated and sleek looking, but a more accurate representation of both the book and the character of Anne, and the time period represented in the books.

Gone is the fiery trademark red hair, often used as an explanation for her equally fiery personality.  Suddenly, she is sexy, model blonde, full of confidence and oozing raw sexuality – and apparently not in the right historical time period.  In fact, this cover immediately brought to mind a blonde version of Footloose, which is the 80s for the record.  It’s like the cover artist didn’t even read the book and had no intention of helping to connect reader to book, but wanted to sell books based on what it perceived would sell.

Why?  More importantly: what kind of a message does this send to readers?

Actually, if you look at all the covers, the message is very clear, what with all the make-up and pretty, pretty girls.  Why, I wonder, is this the message we want to keep sending to women everywhere?  You are more than just an outside shell.  In fact, it is what’s on the inside that matters.  Which, by the way, is one of the glorious messages found within every wonderful page of Anne of Green Gables, the story of a fiery RED HEADED orphan who comes into her own as she finds love with a family and confidence in herself.  That confidence comes not because she is beautiful on the outside, but because she comes to understand that she is beautiful on the inside and has so much positive to bring to this world.

“It’s not what the world holds for you. It’s what you bring to it.”
L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables 

Here are the real issues with the covers, in a nutshell:
They misrepresent what it inside the pages of the book and break trust with the reader
They reinforce cultural feminim stereotypes
They sexualize and objectify girls on covers of books, which, for example, in the case of Anne of Green Gables is really all about the exact opposite of its actual message
They do a disservice to readers of all ages and genders by doing all of the above

These covers are an outrage.  That is all.  Go to the Jezebel link to view them all.  I don’t actually mind The Breakfast at Tiffany’s one to be honest.  Please tell me what you think in the comments.  P.S.: This weekend I shall snuggle up with the Tween and watch the entire Anne of Green Gables series with Megan Follows because it is awesome.

The Cover Story: body image and ya lit book covers

So these past few weeks Christie G and I have been talking about body image and teen fiction. Which got me thinking: What about the book covers themselves?

We know from research that the images that teens see in the media affect the way they perceive their own bodies. 3 out of 4 girls feel worse about their bodies after reading fashion magazines (Love whose body? Spark, a movement thank you Cheryl Rainfield for the link). It has happened to us all (although apparently not to white men near as often): you’re flipping through the pages of a magazine and slowly, you come to a realization: your hips are too big, your stomach isn’t flat and those clothes they are wearing – I could never pull that off. Take a moment to watch this video on Cause and Effect: How the Media You Consume Can Change Your Life (Thank you RobinReads for the link):

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hv5Z2Xv8iJU]

Alliance for Women in Media

Now let’s talk about all of this in the context of teen fiction book covers. We already know that teen book covers are whitewashed (check out the Book Smugglers article on Cover Matters: On Whitewashing). But how is weight depicted on teen fiction book covers?

Without a doubt the current trend is to show pretty girls in flowing dresses on the cover (sometimes even when it has little to do with the inside content of the book):

FANTASTIC book, but the cover totally misrepresents the book.

Sometimes the big dress covers even make sense, but still send a message.

Look at that collar bone!

Big flowy dress emphasizes a teeny tiny waist!

But what about some of the other book covers? Thinking about book covers first started percolating in my brain when I was at the Sourcebooks booth at ALA in Anaheim. I was visiting the booth asking for a copy of the ARC of Entice, the sequel to Embrace, and learned an interesting fact. Here is the cover for Embrace (which is a good paranormal read).

As the rep handed me the ARC of Entice, I said I liked the cover and she told me an interesting story about how “they” (whoever they were) were unhappy with the Embrace cover because the model rear was “too big” so they shot the Entice cover from a different angle.

This is the Entice cover. I actually really like both covers. I think that the purple hues are beautiful. And the Embrace cover actually inspired a teen programming idea I had for making 3D paranormal themed book covers. And I like the Entice cover, the way the wings go from a smoky outline in Embrace to more of a more fully realized glowy wings on the Entice cover. Like the Hourglass books, these covers progressively tell a story. The only thing I don’t like about the cover of Entice is the way it highlights the models tiny waist and gives that peek a boo of flesh. And that bosom – it is magnificent in its cleavage baring ways. It looks like a magazine picture. The same type of magazine pictures that cause 3 out of 4 girls to walk away from our magazine collections feeling bad about themselves. (And let me pause here to reiterate, I really like this series.)

Like the Embrace series, the Hourglass covers represent the progression of the story inside the book through design elements. However, although these girls are wearing dresses, they don’t draw attention to the body and the emotion of being sucked into something pulls your attention away from the girl herself IMHO. This girl is still probably a little thin little, but she’s not sexualized or overly idealized.

So then I thought, what about the very books that we talked about when discussing the stories of overweight teens. In truth, none of them show a full bodied teen or really depict the size of the teen that the story is about. The one that comes closest is The Earth, My Butt and Other Round Things by Carolyn Mackler.

To be honest, this butt isn’t even as big as Beyonce’s or J-Lo’s – which by the way are both considered incredibly sexy – and is really small if you were to look at a good 70% of the butts walking down the street in front of you. This is not a big butt. It is, thankfully, a pretty average butt which is probably a step in the right direction given other ya covers. But the message is also that this pretty average butt is, in fact, a problem – it’s too big.

But seriously, go take a moment and look at our Top 10 list of books that deal with obesity and body image well:
Only one of them – Fat Kid Rules the World by K . L. Going seems to be even hinting at showing an overweight kid. And honestly, this is a very unattractive cover. But not because of the body being shown, but because of the color scheme.
You’ll also note that newer covers show no hint of an actual body:
It is also interesting to note that of all the books being turned into lucrative movie deals these days – and let’s face it, there are a lot! – Fat Kid Rules the World has been turned into a movie and is trying hard to find distribution through a Kickstarter campaign. Here you have a movie based on a book that librarian after librarian say is the best representation of weight issues in ya lit, and it already filmed and can’t find distribution. What does that say to our teens and our culture about what we value when these types of movies can’t get support?
What does it say to our teens and about our culture when we can’t put realistic looking teens on the covers of the very books that we say represent them? I am sure that publishers do research and have reams of research about what sells, but do they have reams of research about how it influences teens self-perception? Because me, I can’t help but think book covers would have the same type of influence as any other type of media that our teens see. Which is why I am a HUGE fan of stylized or graphically designed covers that don’t focus on people at all. Or at least the ones that only have brief or abstract images of people that relate to the story.
This book cover really just evokes an emotion in me. The book is good, too.
This is hands down one of my favorite book covers of the year. It represents a person, but vaguely, and it is very graphic and eye catching. The color scheme is amazing as well.
Now it’s your turn: What do you think about ya book covers – do you think they influence the way teen readers perceive themselves like other types of media do? Do you think they represent teens well and are realistic? Which ones are your least and most favorite? Do you prefer people on your covers or more abstract designs?
Edited to add: There are petitions out to Seventeen Magazine and Teen Vogue asking them to use images of real girls instead of models in their magazines.  The petition to Seventeen Magazine was successful and they have agreed to show “real girls” in their magazine.  The petition to Teen Vogue is still ongoing.
Read the rest of our discussion on body image and ya lit:
Body Image and Eating Disorders

Top 10 teen titles dealing with body image and eating disorders
The Girl in the Fiberglass Corset; a story about scoliosis and eating disorders

Teen Obesity and Body Image:
Every Day by David Levithan, a book review
Butter by Erin Jade Lange, a book review
The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, a book review
Skinny by Donna Conner, a review
A Second Opinion: Every Day by David Levithan
10 Titles that deal with Obesity and Body Image (with links to some good articles)