Bad Picture Book Covers

by Steve B. (webmaster)
(Tucson, AZ)

sappy, happy picture book covers

sappy, happy picture book covers

sappy, happy picture book covers
The Cat in the Hat... looks back at you!

Your picture book cover should help sell your book. Here's why having your characters smiling out at the reader is a bad idea.

Don't look at the "camera." Don't say, "Cheese." Don't pose with your friends.

(I'm talking to your picture book characters - the ones you wrote or drew.)

And if, for some reason, you do have to look at the camera, could you please be doing something? Or at least have some expression on your face that suggests you're up to something???

Bad picture book covers

Running this site, I come across a lot of self-published picture books. And guess what? Often, I know what's going to be wrong with them before I even open them.

The picture book's misconceived cover tells me...the cover image, to be specific.

There's the main character - or characters - just smiling benignly at me.
  • Apparently he/she/they are just so happy they can't help it.

  • Apparently they have nothing else to do.

  • And apparently, even though they're in a story, they can somehow manage to see me, the reader.

Go figure!

What a bad picture book cover suggests about the book inside

Authors and illustrators, please take note: a story is supposed to be about a character with a problem, a character who is trying to fix that problem. A story is about doing, not about beginning-to-end bliss.

The word for that isn't "story." The word is "boring." If your cover displays nothing but simple-minded happiness, you probably have a bad picture book cover. Your characters should be too busy to be posing for your illustrator's "camera."

Sidebar: a leading dating website reports that women much prefer pictures of men who aren't looking at the camera, that is men who are actually doing something.

When I get one of these self-published books with the smiling characters on the cover, I can usually be confident that the book I'm about to open will bore a five year old to tears.

Let me assure you: the "main-character-much-too-happy" picture book cover is way more common to self-published works than published ones. That should tell you everything you need to know. The people who know how to sell books don't create covers like that!

But Steve, what about The Cat in the Hat? There's a smiling cat on the cover, looking right back at you, and it may be the most famous picture book (and picture book character) of all time. Doesn't that mean you're totally wrong?

Excellent question, but no, it doesn't. For one thing, the Cat is twiddling his thumbs, which a) is doing something, and b) suggests that he might be up to mischief. But more importantly...

That mischievious cat is not the viewpoint character! The unnamed boy narrator is. So Seuss's iconic picture book cover actually puts us in the body of the book's protagonist, confronted with a bizarre, behatted (look it up!), smiling feline who is about to make his life a living hell!

That's a good picture book cover.

When your viewpoint characters start smiling out at the reader from your picture book's bad cover, that's when you've got problems.

And it's not just that it suggests that not enough happens in your story...

You're also "breaking the fourth wall."

In case you don't know what the "fourth wall" is, it's a theater term for the space between the actors and the audience. As with any form of fiction, suspension of disbelief requires that the audience accept that

a) they've somehow been allowed to view the characters, and

b) that the characters are unaware of being viewed.

A breaking of the fourth wall occurs when a character actually engages the audience in some fashion, when a character stops pretending the audience isn't there. When this occurs, it's almost impossible to take the action seriously.

That's why broken 4th walls are rare, and they tend to occur nearly always in comedies. So if you want your readers to engage with your story emotionally rather than to take it as tongue-in-cheek, you have another reason not to have your viewpoint character staring out of your picture book cover.

(If you want to see some famous movie instances of breaking the fourth wall, check out an Austin Powers movie, or Ferris Bueller's Day Off.)

But Steve, in TV and movies, characters look at the camera all the time.

You're right! But remember, filmed entertainment - as opposed to staged - is built from a series of "cuts."

In film, when a character looks at the camera, it's because the director has established that for story purposes that character is to be perceived as looking at someone else. This is accomplished by having the previous shot showing us the person being looked at. Ergo, we receive this visual information as the character talking to someone else in the movie or show, not the audience!

In other words, when a character in a movie looks at the camera, we're seeing the talking character as the listening character sees him/her.

Got it? The act of looking at the viewer is perceived differently in film than it is in a picture book.

Another type of bad picture book cover

There's another variation on the looking-at-the-camera picture book cover that sends the same message: the "good friends posing together" cover. "Look at us," they seem to be saying, "we're so darn happy! Read our book, so you can be happy with us."

Yuck. And usually, of course, all these good buddies are smiling at the "camera"...together.

Characters are supposed to have problems, remember? And that actually means that they're supposed to be in conflict, not posing for posterity like members of a wedding party.

We read fiction for drama, for the vicarious thrill of inhabiting the skin of a character confronting something challenging and then overcoming it. And guess what? That's what even our three year olds like about fiction too.

When you think about your picture book cover, think about featuring
  • the most dramatic and difficult moment of your story, or

  • a moment that captures the viewpoint character's central dilemma, or

  • the thing about your story's setting or premise that makes it most unique.

Don't feature the blissful ending. Yes, the overwhelming majority of picture books do feature a happy ending, but why the heck would you create a cover that says to a potential buyer, "This book is exactly like 99% of other picture books"?

Someone's more likely to open a book whose cover makes them curious. Wouldn't you?

To my mind, much of what I've said here applies to the pages of a picture book too, not just the cover. Do you really want to break the fourth wall? Do you really want to try to engage children with a "story" that features neither problems nor conflict?

Triumphing over tough times is what makes for a true happy ending. Make sure your story contains such drama, and make sure that your illustrations convey it!

Hey, check out our picture book artist listings.

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