Fair warning: This contains spoilers for Summer of the Gypsy Moths
One of the best things about being a book reviewer a decade ago was that the books came to you with generic covers. The title would be on there, with the author’s name, and I suppose the publisher too. But when you opened that bland cover, it was the words on the inside that made the difference—you didn’t pre-judge the book by its cover because there was nothing there to judge.
These days, the advanced reader’s editions have alluring, shiny covers with full artwork. The back might have a plot summary, so you already know (unless you avoid looking) something about the book. There may be some author blurbs on the cover, too, so if you love John Green and he says something wonderful about the book you’re about to read, you already have a predisposition to like it…and of course the reverse is also true.
Recently at conference I picked up an ARC of the new book by Sara Pennypacker, Summer of the Gypsy Moths. I picked it up for two reasons—I have loved many of Pennypacker’s previous books, and the cover made sure to remind me that she is the author of Clementine, and also I picked it up because the cover is delicately lovely—the ARC doesn’t say who the artist is, but it resembles the work of Marc Simont. The ocean is in the background, and one girl has her arms outstretched and her eyes closed, seemingly feeling the sea breeze. The other’s hair is blowing around in a swirl as she stands with her back to the ocean. It’s a lovely cover, and once you’ve read the book you find that it refers to a particular moment.
It’s a lovely cover and it’s a lovely book….but it’s not the book that the cover promises. What I like about Pennypacker’s Clementine books and some others too is the way she can pair the mundane details of daily life with the rich emotional life of a child, often talking about the highs and lows of relationship with friends and with family. This book does that too, but where in Clementine she might be distressed over losing a cat, in this book, AND HERE COMES THE SPOILER, the heroine Stella must cope with the fact that her new guardian has just died in her chair watching television. That would be gritty enough, but she and the other new foster child Angel agree to keep the guardian’s death a secret, which leaves them with a pesky problem—what do they do with the body?
Most children’s books have to come up with some way to leave a child character alone to cope with their problems themselves, without adults to facilitate difficult situations. But I’m not sure I’ve encountered one before where they got rid of the adult by killing her off and leaving the characters to bury the body and carry on. Jack Gantos might do that…but when you pick up a Jack Gantos book, you know that it’s going to be a wild ride. Not so with Sara Pennypacker novel with a lovely cover.
The reviewer part of me thinks, Fine. The cover does evoke the feel of a good deal of the book, and it captures the two main characters and a little of their relationship. But the librarian side of me that focuses on matching the right book to the right child doesn’t like the idea that the child who is drawn to that cover is quite likely not the same child who will sit well with a book where children are hauling a dead body out and burying it. The audience who the publisher is encouraging to pick it up—third graders who loved Clementine—is probably not the right audience for this one. Likewise, the right audience for this one may turn away from the misty girliness of this cover, and that’s too bad, too.
We all do judge a book by its cover, whether we want to or not.