What Is It With YA Book Covers?

By Posted in - On Reading on June 1st, 2010 35 Comments

I went into Borders with my 21-year old son yesterday. He stood beside me, shoulders hunched, hands in pockets, as I perused the YA shelves to see who’s getting the prime shelf space and why—a game I like to play from time to time. Dom’s weight shifted from his left foot to his right, then back again, his eyes swivelling over the books like a man trapped in a lingerie store, unsure where to put himself. I could understand why. There was row upon row of book covers geared towards girls—a plethora of pink, an orgy of covers gussied up to appeal to an overwhelmingly female teenage audience.

Where were the boy books? Hardly any of them had a boy on the cover, and if they did they were clearly intended to be eye candy. A couple of them could be for boys, but downplayed the fact (Leviathan, Cherub—CHERUB?!!!—what guy wants to be seen buying a book called Cherub?)

We went into the Middle Grade section and tons of gorgeous boy covers glowed from the shelves—all the Percy Jackson covers, the Kane Chronicles (The Red Pyramid), the Ranger’s Apprentice series…

I recently asked an agent panel why this is, and they predictably said that teenage boys don’t read, or don’t read teen fiction, anyway. If that’s true, I don’t blame them. If I was a teenage boy I probably wouldn’t read either. I’d have to bypass all that girly stuff to find one measly boy cover, and browsing girls might think I was looking at the girly stuff, like a spy trying to infiltrate some secret society.

But there’s hope on the horizon. Publishing house Feiwel and Friends is nurturing the career of one writer for teenage boys in particular who is steadily winning awards for his honest portrayal of male characters. His name is Andrew Smith, and his upcoming novel, THE MARBURY LENS, has a cover that’s going to knock your socks off.

Not a moment before time.

Out of 107 titles nominated for Goodreads’ Best YA Book Covers for 2010, there are only 11 male authors represented. I’m delighted to report that THE MARBURY LENS is the highest-rated title written by a guy and is currently at number 40 in the list, but it should be number one. Honestly. Go take a look at the list and I think you’ll agree it’s the most striking cover there by far. So many of the other book covers look alike, but illustrator Rich Deas’ cover for THE MARBURY LENS doesn’t look like any other YA book on the list.

There are almost no covers on the list that show male characters on them at all, and if there are any guys on the covers they are either not human, in the process of kissing a girl, or have their shirt off. Only LIES by Michael Grant and THE MARBURY LENS are exceptions to this rule.

Two. Out of 107 covers. What’s wrong with this picture?

Further Reading:

Follow the link (below) to the list and see for yourself. And vote!

Goodreads’ Best YA Book Covers for 2010


Read what Andrew has to say about book covers for the Young Adult market here


(35) awesome folk have had something to say...

  • terzap - Reply

    June 1, 2010 at 4:46 pm

    Great article, and cool cover… but why does the kid on the cover have lipstick on if it’s supposed to be a guy?

  • Lia Keyes - Reply

    June 1, 2010 at 4:51 pm

    I don’t think any guy would be embarrassed to be seen with this cover. I did wonder why they made the lips so dark, but it’s at least they’re not red…

    The cover of The Demon’s Lexicon, however, makes me laugh every time I see it! Check this out: http://reneesbookaddiction.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/demons-lexicon.jpg

  • HWPetty - Reply

    June 1, 2010 at 4:59 pm

    Why do we raise our boys with such a fragile hold on their masculinity that the color pink on the cover or a femme protagonist would make them feel embarrassed to publicly read a quality book?

    And why do we as members of the publishing community perpetuate this societal gender failing by labeling books as “girl books” and “boy books”?

    Not to be contrary, but those are the questions that bug me far more than the fact that publishing house marketing departments create covers to appeal to the people who buy the most books.

    I just don’t understand why girls read supposed “boy books” with no issue, but boys are somehow repulsed by so-called “girl books” and we’re all okay with that.

    Well, I guess I’m not okay with that. 😉 ahahaha!
    .-= HWPetty´s last blog ..Days Like These =-.

  • Lia Keyes - Reply

    June 1, 2010 at 5:06 pm

    Heather, you raise what sounds like a reasonable point, except that it misses something. It’s not just that the covers shout “female” but that the covers reflect the focus of the storytelling within. Guys wouldn’t buy those books because they’re irrelevant to them. Their preoccupations and interests lie elsewhere. Consequently, they don’t want to sigh over a hot guy. Most of the time.

    What’s more, the books that are for boys have toned down covers, as though the publishers are afraid to make them too testosterone-heavy for fear of putting off female readers.

    I’m beginning to wonder if the reasons cited for creating a YA section (to make teenagers more comfortable than they did wandering the aisles of the children’s department) might not be a good reason for creating a Books for Boys section in bookstores and libraries.

  • Tabitha - Reply

    June 1, 2010 at 5:44 pm

    I voted for Andrew’s book cover. It’s awesome. And I can’t wait to read it. 🙂

    I posted a bit of research on my blog about book covers for teen boys, and how they are just plain ignored. There are even some boy books out there that have pictures of girls on the cover. For example, Paper Towns, I Know It’s Over, and 13 Reasons Why. I just don’t understand that one. Why would you put a girl on the cover of a book when the main character is a boy?

    I’ve got two boys who love to read (they are still young), and I don’t want them to be turned off from reading because the marketing focus is on girls.
    .-= Tabitha´s last blog ..Character Worksheet Templates =-.

  • Lia Keyes - Reply

    June 1, 2010 at 5:51 pm

    Feel free to add a link to that blog post here, if you’d like, Tabitha!
    .-= Lia Keyes´s last blog ..What Is It With YA Book Covers? =-.

  • HWPetty - Reply

    June 1, 2010 at 6:09 pm

    Well, I disagree that the content of books geared toward a female audience is “irrelevant” to boys. I think some boys believe that because we’ve allowed our expectations of them to slip due to a patriarchal and often misogynistic society that still has skewed ideals on the masculine.

    But it’s cool. We can disagree on that.

    Its just that I grew up reading books that didn’t cater directly to my preoccupations and interests. (Nor did they cater to my gender.) But that didn’t stop me from reading and enjoying and even learning from those books.

    After generations of a publishing industry focused on “dead white guy” books and a male readership, I have no problem with a bit of a pendulum swing the other way. I only wish boys didn’t see reading female-centered books as demeaning to them somehow. Even the thought of that kind of depresses me.
    .-= HWPetty´s last blog ..Days Like These =-.

  • Lia Keyes - Reply

    June 1, 2010 at 6:26 pm

    Heather, just because a wrong was done, letting the pendulum swing too far the other way doesn’t right it. It’s only another wrong.

    Can you suggest any books geared toward a female audience that boys could read with pleasure, interest or benefit? I’d love to compile a list.
    .-= Lia Keyes´s last blog ..What Is It With YA Book Covers? =-.

  • Jo T. - Reply

    June 1, 2010 at 6:27 pm

    I write YA and love it and I’m a girl but I have to say that when I go into B& N or Borders and check out the YA section with the similar girl-geared covers I am underwhelmed. They all look the same, and nothing really stands out. It’s worrying as an author and annoying as a fan.

  • Jo T. - Reply

    June 1, 2010 at 6:30 pm

    Recs- I think boys would enjoy Cassandra Clare’s City of Ashes and the other two books in the series. Libba Bray’s Going Bovine can go ‘both ways’ and Holly Black’s White Cat.
    Also Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games, and her previous series for slightly younger readers Gregor the Overlander.

  • Lia Keyes - Reply

    June 1, 2010 at 6:33 pm

    Thanks for the recs, Jo T! I’ll use them to start a list. I’m reading White Cat right now and agree that boys would probably enjoy it. It has an unreliable narrator (male protagonist), and a first person present tense POV, which seems to be the current fashion for YA.

    I’m looking forward to Cassandra Clare’s prequel to City of Ashes, Infernal Devices, and think the cover for the first in that new series is beautiful. It’s also on the list of Best Book Covers of 2010.

    I know a lot of boys have enjoyed reading Hunger Games, which surprises me slightly as the POV is so focused on which boy Katniss should be with, but perhaps the violence and world-building helps there.

    Going Bovine is a book I’ve promised myself to read next. Has anyone else read it? What did you think?

  • terzap - Reply

    June 1, 2010 at 6:34 pm

    That Demon’s Lexicon is a LOL. Holy Hannah. Thanks for the link. 🙂

  • Tabitha - Reply

    June 1, 2010 at 6:59 pm

    Okay, here’s the link:

    As for ‘girl’ books that boys might like, here’s a few (part of this is taken from a list compiled in the above blog post):
    The Hunger Games/Catching Fire
    Dust of 100 Dogs
    Uglies trilogy
    The Adoration of Jenna Fox
    I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone
    Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy
    The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
    The Forest of Hands and Teeth
    Wicked Lovely
    Dairy Queen trilogy

    I’m sure there are many more. 🙂
    .-= Tabitha´s last blog ..Character Worksheet Templates =-.

  • HWPetty - Reply

    June 1, 2010 at 7:02 pm

    There are too many to list here, but here are a few:

    The Mortal Instruments series by Cassie Clare
    The Tithe books by Holly Black
    The Blue Girl by Charles de Lint
    Ash by Malinda Lo
    Demon’s Lexicon/Covenant by SRB
    The Strange Angels series by Lili Saintcrow
    Beautiful Creatures/Darkness by Garcia/Stohl
    Eyes Like Stars/Perchance to Dream by Lisa Mantchev
    Wicked Lovely books by Melissa Marr
    The Forest of Hands & Teeth by Carrie Ryan
    13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson
    I Kissed a Zombie… by Adam Selzer
    Ellen Hopkins’ books

    I’m sure there are a ton I’m missing that I’ll think of later, but the main point is that any book geared toward a female audience could and should interest and benefit boys. There are plenty of “girl books” that don’t interest me as a woman. But it’s not because of their gender association.

    There are brilliant and amazing books that are marginalized because somehow having a pink cover or a girl on the cover makes them “less.” I’m outraged by that.

    And I really don’t mean to turn your blog into my personal debate forum. It’s just that this issue comes up all the time in YA circles, and I always feel like the core of the matter is overlooked.

    I know I’m the one who used the pendulum metaphor, but really it hasn’t swung near far enough to create another wrong. Boys are still reading. They just move on to adult books, comics, manga, etc. instead of reading YA. And there’s nothing wrong with that. They just miss out on a lot of brilliant books.

    IMO, though… the smart boys are reading all the “girl” books they can get their hands on, so they can figure out what the girlies want. 😉
    .-= HWPetty´s last blog ..Days Like These =-.

  • Lia Keyes - Reply

    June 1, 2010 at 7:11 pm

    Great list, Heather, thanks so much! I’ll read the ones I haven’t read yet and compile a list from the ones I can get behind, but don’t let that stop you from posting a list on your own blog, too. Let’s get this thing out in the open in a balanced, rational way.

    You can use my blog to debate any issue I bring into it, by the way. That’s what blogs are for. I adore it when a post inspires a discussion.

    I do worry that by moving on to adult books (which I’m not sure happens nearly as much as people might like to think because a lot of adult books are boring, to be honest), boys are encouraged to mature and girls are left behind.

    I love the idea of young adult literature, I just don’t like how limited it has become. There’s little experimentation and few intellectual boundaries being pushed. Many of these stories are disposable. And the genre is too dominated by unrealistic romances geared to idealistic young girls.

    If adult literature was dominated by romance for women in this way there’d be an uproar.

  • Tabitha - Reply

    June 1, 2010 at 7:20 pm

    re: Going Bovine.
    I thought it was okay. It’s a surreal book, which normally I love. But in order for me to believe the fantastical elements that creep up along the way, I need to wholeheartedly believe in the story from page one. And I didn’t with this one, which kept me from connecting with anything. Then again, it could be that I don’t like Bray’s style.

    Heather, I don’t know of any teen boy who would feel comfortable carrying around a book with a picture of a girl on the cover. Sure, they might read these books in secret, but so much of a book’s success comes from word of mouth. And no teen boy is going to admit to reading a ‘girl’ book, because their friends will humiliate them. That’s just how boys are. So why is it so bad to market to them a bit more? I’m not saying that the pink covers are bad. They’re not. They have their places. But teen boys don’t really have a place, and that concerns me (as a mother of two avidly reading boys). Personally, I don’t think it’s fair to say they can just go read manga and/or adult books. Why can’t YA books be marketed toward them, too?
    .-= Tabitha´s last blog ..Character Worksheet Templates =-.

  • Tabitha - Reply

    June 1, 2010 at 7:22 pm

    “And the genre is too dominated by unrealistic romances geared to idealistic young girls.

    If adult literature was dominated by romance for women in this way there’d be an uproar.”

    Well said.
    .-= Tabitha´s last blog ..Character Worksheet Templates =-.

  • HWPetty - Reply

    June 1, 2010 at 7:39 pm

    on Going Bovine…

    I love that book so much. But I’m a huge Libba Bray fangirl, so I knew I’d love it going in. The fact that it was better than I thought it would be just made me love it more.

    I in no way think that boys should just be sent off to adult books or comics. It’s just that those who study such trends indicate that that is the path most boys take. And if you talk to men who were big readers as boys, they say that they switched to where the uninhibited sex and violence were. AHAHA!

    I guess I just don’t like the “that’s just how boys are” argument–though, it’s what people say all the time. Maybe I’m an idealist, but I wish we lived in a society where girls weren’t marginalized and boys weren’t forced into a stereotype. And I wish we were at least working toward that, instead of catering to the status quo.
    .-= HWPetty´s last blog ..Days Like These =-.

  • Lia Keyes - Reply

    June 1, 2010 at 7:49 pm

    Heather: “I wish we lived in a society where girls weren’t marginalized and boys weren’t forced into a stereotype. And I wish we were at least working toward that, instead of catering to the status quo.”

    Hear, hear, Heather.

    The best we can do is write outside expections for boys and girls, take risks with our writing, and hope our books find a thirsty audience. It only takes one bestseller to change the tide.

  • Tabitha - Reply

    June 1, 2010 at 8:38 pm

    I don’t think anyone here is marginalizing girls or stereotyping boys. I’m certainly not. I’m simply making a statement based on observation. Like it or not, boys *are* that way. Some more so than others. I think we are working toward a more open-minded society (men today are very different than men thirty or forty years ago), but that change happens gradually. If we expect change to happen overnight, we are setting ourselves up for failure. Because this is what boys will see: “Some people in society don’t like the way you are, so you have to change right now. And you have to start doing things that you might find repulsive (such as, carry around a pink book), because we aren’t going to take your interests into account. So you better start conforming to ours.”

    If someone presented me with that situation, I’d run the other way, too.

    Just to be clear, again, I am not marginalizing girls or stereotyping boys. I’m just looking at things as they are and trying to make the best of things. While still working toward a more open society. Example, if boys could get past the covers of many girl books, they would love them. So why don’t we give them more moderate covers until we’ve had the chance to hook them with the content? Then maybe the covers won’t matter so much.
    .-= Tabitha´s last blog ..Character Worksheet Templates =-.

  • Birgitte Necessary - Reply

    June 2, 2010 at 10:35 am

    This is an interesting and somewhat worrying discussion. I’m fairly certain my novel will fall into the YA category as opposed to adult fiction, even though the themes are pretty serious. YA these days deal with some heavy stuff. But the two protags are both boys. So what does my market look like? And will girls read this book?

  • Lia Keyes - Reply

    June 2, 2010 at 3:48 pm

    Birgitte, from what I remember of your story there’s a girl that both brothers like, which will create enough interest for girl readers right off the bat. What I love about your premise is that’s not all there is to it.

    The story is also about the boys’ complex relationship with their flawed mother, which has universal interest.

    Finally, the book is about music, so any teenager, girl or boy, who is studying music will also relate to the boys’ desire to succeed in a difficult world, one that sensible people and careers advisors would advise against pursuing because it’s so hard to achieve financial security in. Readers will want to follow the boys to see how things turn out.

    The success of your book will come down to how well you write it, and where you focus the reader’s attention. If music is a metaphor for ‘following your bliss’ then everyone can relate to that.

    In the most successful stories and movies in this genre (Amadeus, Shine, etc) there is also the exploration of what price the musician pays for his gift.

    If you target those universal preoccupations and emotions then you have nothing to worry about. Your book will appeal to both girls and boys, and your market share will be as big as your talent.

    Here’s a list of Novels About Music from Amazon that you might want to use to further your research:

  • Nancy Laughlin - Reply

    June 2, 2010 at 3:54 pm

    I want to know why the publisher marketing people think boys won’t read. It hasn’t been that long since the Harry Potter series ended! Boys, girls and adults of both gender were lining up by the legion for those books. Key being that the boys were reading them.

    These marketing people sure have a short attention span.

  • Lia Keyes - Reply

    June 2, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    What a great comment, Nancy. That’s the last book I can remember boys (and girls) of all ages lining up to read.

    One thing that Harry Potter had in spades was humour. It’s a key element for boys, but it has to be pitch perfect. Shame is a big fear for boys, and rich fodder for both humour and pathos.

    Another element was thrills, spills and mystery. Those books (for the most part) cracked along at a terrific pace, with Rowling’s inventive imagination keeping readers on their toes for what she’d come up with next.

    The interest level is kept very high. There’s less sighing over impossible love. And there’s the universal experience of the daily challenge of school life.

  • Lia Keyes - Reply

    June 2, 2010 at 5:18 pm

    I should also put a word in for Ellen Hopkins’ books, which appeal to boys and girls alike.

  • Tabitha - Reply

    June 2, 2010 at 5:51 pm

    I thought of a few more books to add to my list above…

    how i live now by Meg Rosoff
    Soul Enchilada by David Macinnis Gill
    Nomansland by Lesley Hauge
    A Room on Lorelei Street by Mary Pearson
    How To Steal A Car by Pete Hautman
    All Unquiet Things by Anna Jarzab
    Heist Society by Ally Carter
    .-= Tabitha´s last blog ..Character Worksheet Templates =-.

  • Birgitte Necessary - Reply

    June 2, 2010 at 7:09 pm

    Hi Lia,
    Thanks for the great response! I printed it out so I can read it and remember what my book is about, LOL. Actually wasn’t going to have the boys go for the same girl, they are so different in personalities that wouldn’t really fly. But there is a girl…or is she a muse…that flits through the story and inspires the main protag even though he can never seem to win her over. Until the end. When he’s finally forced to do the right thing.

  • Lia Keyes - Reply

    June 2, 2010 at 9:10 pm

    Sounds like you have a really good grasp on your story, Birgitte!

  • Andrew Smith - Reply

    June 3, 2010 at 11:33 am

    Thanks for posting this, Lia. I actually have another piece I wrote about YA and YA covers that I was holding off on running, but now I probably will.

    There are some interesting comments here, too.

    Funny how ruffled some people seem to get on this topic, almost as though there is some object to “winning.”


    And here are the reasons why the kid — Jack — has black lips on the cover of the book: He talks about having something “black” inside of him — it is the artist’s interpretation of that idea, the blackness, this secret, guilt, abandonment, that eats this kid up.

    Also, he is a total bad ass.

  • Lia Keyes - Reply

    June 3, 2010 at 12:10 pm

    Ahhhhh, the mystery is solved! Thanks for letting us know the origin of the black lips, Andrew. I love the way your illustrator interpreted Jack’s story! In fact, I find cover art fascinating as a creative process in itself, and doubly fascinating when I think about how both creative forms (writing and illustrating) collaborate to extend the experience in the reader’s mind.

    I look forward to reading your post when it’s up. Let me know and I’ll link to it in this post.

  • Birgitte Necessary - Reply

    June 3, 2010 at 4:07 pm

    Andrew, I’ve always been a fan of your books! My novel features two strong male “leads” as it sounds like Marbury Lens does. Did you have an qualms about that? Is there a market for unknown authors to structure a similar style novel? I can’t wait until November now! Wah! I want to read it tomorrow. 🙂

  • Jemi Fraser - Reply

    June 5, 2010 at 6:34 pm

    Really good post. As a teacher (mg age kids) and an aspiring author, and a reader and a mom, I find the lack of covers appealing to males so frustrating! It’s a vicious circle: girls buy more books, so covers are made for girls.

    This cover is good – I hadn’t heard of it yet – thanks!
    .-= Jemi Fraser´s last blog ..Find the Fun! =-.

  • Lia Keyes - Reply

    June 6, 2010 at 1:18 am

    Thanks, Jemi! I’d love to know whether the books for boys disappeared before the boys stopped reading or the boys stopped reading because the books for boys disappeared… It’s impossible to tell. Even YA as a genre is fairly young, and I wonder if it was girl-centric from the start.

    Andrew’s cover is amazing. The story is so well-written, too, but not suitable for younger readers. Some gritty themes. Of course, that’s exactly why older teens will think it’s cool. 🙂

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