Re-Covery

They tell you not to judge a book by its cover, but a book cover can make or break a book’s success. While browsing a used bookstore decades ago, I fell utterly in love with the covers of a book series I’d never heard of before – DragonLance, by Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman. I had to buy them, even just to look at the covers. The cover paintings were done by Larry Elmore, one of the premiere fantasy artists of the time. I’d never gotten too much into sword and sorcery books, but I devoured these. The second trilogy was still being written, and it was agony waiting for the next book in the series. I love those books to this day; they influence my own writing and imagination, and all because I had to have that book cover.

And nothing, of course, is more infuriating than when they change that book cover you know and love, and not usually for the better. Have you read this book? The title looks familiar, but not the cover … and then you start to read and find out yes, you’ve read it before, they changed the cover on you. Why?

There are many reasons a book gets a new cover. It may have changed publishers. It may be the paperback edition of a hardcover, or a school edition, or an audiobook – and audiobook companies, who often have a middleman, don’t always get permission to use the same cover. It may be a new printing – if a book contract agrees to a run of 5,000 copies, and 6,000 are ordered, the book may get a new distribution run, resulting in a new cover. The book may have been sold to a new publisher – such as Bantam Books being sold to Random House. Random House will then reissue a strong seller with their own brand of cover. If a movie or TV series is made from the book, a new edition will be released with a cover that reflects the new media, as happened with Lord of the Rings and Ready Player One. Sometimes the publisher gets flack because the cover has absolutely nothing to do with the story, and they rework it.

Sometimes, it’s hard to keep up, and sometimes, the cover art makes you scratch your head. Take, for example, the book Alas, Babylon, a 1959 novel of nuclear apocalypse that, if it’s not still my absolute favorite novel, it’s in my top three. First below is the cover I read it with – sensible, with the red/orange color of disaster and warning and nuclear fire, and people walking out of it. Compare that with the many covers it’s had since 1959:

The current one, number two above, a fourth edition by Harper Collins, to me, is puzzling – small font, an empty boardwalk, and a hand? This is not a cover that invites me to read, tells me a single thing about the story. Perhaps, after so many editions, they run out of ideas. Another fact: it’s very rare an author gets to choose the cover of their book – or have any input at all. You may submit your perfect dream cover along with your manuscript, and the publisher will toss it and give the work to one of their contracted artists. This is how you wind up with a blonde, blue-eyed heroine on the cover when the main character has short black hair.

Book covers also reflect what seems to be popular – a few years ago it seemed every book had a girl rolling around on the ground. If one sells, then everyone wants to copy that success. The bottom half of a face? Those are popular. Romance novel covers were almost interchangeable – how many were based on the model Fabio?  This year, pink is supposed to be “in” for covers again, as well as layered graphics and bold lettering.

Don’t like a book cover? Let the publisher know! Editors read the books, not the artists, or the publisher. If they’ve missed the mark, tell them. Authors depend on good covers to grab readers; if the cover isn’t intriguing, it’s wasting money.

What book covers have hit the mark, reached out and grabbed you so you had to read it?

What types of covers make you walk away?

Has a book cover ever made you angry?

Let us know!

The Nobel Dylan

If you’re under thirty, you might ask, “Who’s Bob Dylan?”

If you’re over thirty, you might ask, “Bob Dylan’s still alive?”

Yes, Dylan’s still alive, though he’s 80 now, and a lot wealthier for having sold his entire recorded catalog to Sony music, a deal worth between $150 and $200 million

That’s a lot of social security.

Dylan, most widely known for folk and folk-rock music, has a career spanning more than 60 years. With more than 500 songs under his belt – many of them covers sung by other artists and movie soundtracks – he ranks in the top 30 most successful musicians of all time (The Beatles being number one, and Michael Jackson being number two). You may recognize not only Blowin’ in the Wind (a top hit for Peter, Paul, and Mary as well), but Quinn the Eskimo (made a hit by Manfred Mann), Too Much of Nothing (another Peter, Paul, and Mary hit), and Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, which became a major hit for Eric Clapton – all written by Dylan.  In addition, he was a founding member of the Traveling Wilburys, a short-lived group (1988-91) composed of the royal powerhouse of Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne. 

Dylan with Rubin Carter, a free man

Dylan, following in the social justice footsteps of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, wrote the ballad Hurricane in 1975, based on the arrest of boxer Rubin Carter for a 1966 murder he didn’t commit and who was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences. Dylan played several concerts to raise money for his defense. Carter was found to have been unfairly tried in 1985, and released. In 1999, a movie version of his story was released, with Denzel Washington playing Carter.

If that’s not enough of a resume, Dylan is the only American songwriter to be awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016 – yeah, that Nobel Prize – for “creating new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”  He’s only the second songwriter to ever be awarded the prize, the first going to the prolific Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote more than 2000 songs – back in 1913.

Dylan on his own can be hard on the uninitiated. His voice is nasally and sometimes whiny, and the socially conscious ballad style of the 1930’s and 40’s isn’t in a resurgence as it was in the 60’s, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen. Dylan has a wide variety of songs and styles, and if you don’t like him singing it, look for someone else performing the song (Joan Baez does several, but she can also be nasally and whiny. Her song Diamonds and Rust is allegedly about Dylan.). With a resume like that, there’s a lot to like.

Try these biographies on Dylan, too!

The Double Life of Bob Dylan
Chronicles
Down the Highway
Bob Dylan in America

Teen Book Reviews: Anger is a Gift and The Hate U Give

Teens: did you know that you can earn community service credit for writing a book review and submitting it to us? Today, we’ll hear from a teen who did just that. Find out more about how to earn community service hours from home at cheshirelibrary.org/teens/.

Anger is a Gift by Mark Oshiro, reviewed by Ali A.

Anger Is a Gift is about the life of Moss Jeffries, a black teen living in Oakland. When Moss was 10, his father was shot down by police officers because the police told him to put his hands up but he had earbuds in and couldn’t hear them. Since then, Moss and his mother have been quiet and haven’t attended protests for other black people dying due to police brutality. However in Moss’s sophmore year his school turns into a prison. Police officers roam the hallways and make random locker inspections for no reason. Although Moss and his classmates don’t like it, they still tolerate it.

One day the police order one of Moss’s friends, Shawna Meyers to come for a locker inspection. The officer ravenously searches through her locker until he finds a large bag of white pills in the back. The officer violently assaulted her so bad that she couldn’t explain why she had the pills in her locker. Finally after she could speak she said the bag was for her prescription medicine. The officer who assaulted her didn’t get in trouble though. Soon after that incident, the school added in metal detectors. Moss’s friend Reg is in crutches and says it’s too dangerous for him to go through the machine. He said he’d rather have a pat-down but when Reg told the officer this the officer picked up Reg and threw him through the detectors. The damage on Reg’s leg was so bad that he was told by doctors he might never be able to walk normally again.

After all this, Moss and his classmates feel like this is enough. They decide to make a peaceful walk-out protest where all students walk out of the school at a specific time. However the school is notified about this mini-protest so they order officers in full riot gear to prevent the students from walking out of the school. The officers used tear gas, portable grenades, and batons. One of the officers, James Daley, pulled out a gun and shoots at Moss’s best friend Javier. James Daley then runs off and hides from society. Moss is depressed and decides to chain himself to a pole until James Daley is persecuted. What happens next is beyond Moss’s imagination. Anger Is a Gift shows the cruel reality and harshness that black people have to face in their daily lives. If you enjoy this book, you should also check out The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (reviewed below).

4 Stars.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, reviewed by Ali A.

The Hate U Give is perhaps the best book regarding racism for teenagers. The story revolves around the life of Starr Carter, a sixteen-year-old who witnesses the death of her childhood best friend. Starr attends a predominantly white school to escape the threats of her black neighborhood. Because of this, Starr is always switching between her two worlds, the white world and the black world. In the white world, everything is peaceful and Starr can be happy and safe. However in the black world, Starr is constantly facing violence, gangbangers, and drugs.

Starr never gets high but finally attends her first party in her black neighborhood. At the party, Starr spots Khalil, her childhood best friend. Starr hadn’t seen him in six months but Khalil and Starr start chatting. However the party is cut short when a shootout occurs outside the party site. Khalil drives Starr home to be safe but as Khalil is driving home a racist white cop pulls them over. Starr is silent and looks down as the officer demands to see Khalil’s license, registration, and insurance just because Khalil is black. Instead of Khalil showing the officer his papers right away, he asks the officer why he pulled them over. The officer didn’t respond as the officer became more frustrated he shot Khalil for not listening. Khalil’s death becomes news across the country and the officer who shot Khalil is put under trial. Starr wants to get justice for her friend, but doesn’t know if she should raise her voice because of the danger and threats she may receive.

Angie Thomas did a marvelous job crafting this book because The Hate U Give shows readers how many black people get mistreated throughout America and why it is important to speak up for racial justice.

5 Stars

New Trends in Science Fiction

Say Science Fiction, and most readers will make a face as images of bad 50’s movies, computers and technobabble, and Star Wars arguments come to mind. “I don’t read Science Fiction,” but chances are, you do. Science Fiction simply means a story that more or less follows the laws of science as we know them, as opposed to fantasy, which drags in magic and elves and things that don’t normally exist on Earth. The material is as broad as anything else in fiction.

Science Fiction has come a long way since 1977, and is almost unrecognizable to the campy 50’s tin-can imagery. Like rock music, science fiction has a hundred sub-categories, and chances are you’ve read – and liked – at least one. Here are some of the newest trends you may not know about.

Soft Science Fiction:  “Soft SF” isn’t new, but the definition is newer. Soft SF doesn’t deal with “hard” techno stuff, but concentrates on people, societies, psychology, and intrigue.  Cloud Atlas, The Handmaid’s Tale, Flowers for Algernon, Yiddish Policemen’s Union, The Time Traveler’s Wife, and Alas, Babylon all fall under “Soft” SF. Half of Stephen King can be categorized here. You could make an argument for Jason Bourne, too.

Gender-Focused: These stories explore cultures and people who may have a single gender, multiple genders, or are genderless entirely. Check out Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller, or the Grandmama of them all, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin.

Afrofuturism: Representation of minorities is growing in SF, and with it new ways of seeing inclusion in the future. Check out top authors like N. K. Jemisin, Colson Whitehead, Nnedi Okorafor, P. Djeli Clark, and Octavia Butler.

International: There’s a huge influx of stories being translated from other countries. While America may be stuck on space opera and predictable heroes, other countries aren’t, and offer a refreshing break from the Same Old Thing. Try The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, Master and the Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, The Witcher Series (yeah, the TV one) by Andrzej Sapkowski, The Lost Village by Camilla Sten, or Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruis Zafon.

Generation Ship fiction: No faster than light ships here, but pressure-cooker stories onboard ships making a long haul. Dangers take on a whole new meaning when you’re dependent on your ship for years on end. Check out Across the Universe by Beth Rivis, Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke, Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson, or Ship of Fools by Richard Russo.

New Space Opera: Space opera traditionally involves weapons, danger, heroes, and rescued damsels (Star Wars being a perfect example, among many), but newer stories are throwing in more gritty realism. They’re a higher quality of writing, more scientifically plausible, and tend to address more social issues under the guise of “fiction.” Grown-up SF. Try the Leviathan Falls series by James Corey, Hail Mary by Andy Weir, the Thrawn series by Timothy Zahn, The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey, or Winter’s Orbit, by Everina Maxwell.

Climate SF:  With the doomsday clock ticking down the moments to an expected 6th mass extinction, climate SF may be the most relevant wave of stories to hit shelves, and can fully include apocalyptic virus stories. Read them!  State of Fear by Michael Crichton, New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson, The Overstory by Richard Powers, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver.

Science Fiction isn’t the same old trope you’re used to, but a growing, evolving body of literature with numerous authors, styles, and focus – and guaranteed there’s one right for you!

The Maus Trap

As long as there have been books, there has been controversy about books. There have been six major book-burnings in the US (yes, America) over Harry Potter, because some people believe a little too much in witches, though, personally, if I believed that strongly in witches, I might just not want to anger them.

But logic doesn’t exist in book burnings, or bannings.

In 1948, in Binghamton, New York , people went door to door gathering and burning comic books, to save youth from their moral depravity. It sparked a nationwide comic-book burning spree, including here in Connecticut.

This year’s book fiasco (and this happened on January 10), has been the McMinn County (Tennessee) School Board voting 10-0 to remove the graphic novel Maus from their curriculum, over the use of 8 curse words (the most objectioned being – forgive me if you will, God damn), and the depiction of a naked mouse in a bathtub, with a breast showing. A mouse-breast. 

Maus is not drawn as graphic realism; with its heavy line style, it could be cut and printed in woodblocks and look the same.

Maus, by Art Spiegelman, is the winner of a 1992 Pulitzer Prize, the only graphic novel ever to do so. In it (sometimes found in two volumes, sometimes as one combined), Spielman interviews his father, a Polish Jew, as to what it was like to survive the Concentration Camps – his father spent time in both Auschwitz and Dachau, and his mother in Auschwitz. Nazis are portrayed by cats, Jews by mice, Americans by dogs, French by frogs, British as fish, and Swedes as deer.  

Spiegelman has a lot of anger toward his father that comes out now and then in the story. His father was, understandably, damaged by the war and not necessarily an empathetic father. Spiegelman’s mother couldn’t rid herself of the experience, and committed suicide when he was 20 (the unfortunate mouse in the bathtub). It’s a true story, an honest story, and Spiegelman’s struggle to make sense of it and his place in the narrative is the struggle we all face trying to understand the Nazi rise to power and the unimaginable atrocities they carried out – atrocities so horrific, the experiences threw open the study of epigenetics on the belief that the DNA of survivors’ children had been altered by the experiences of the parents, though some studies are undecided.

Tennessee withdrew the book from the curriculum just three days before Holocaust remembrance day, citing moral issues that included violence and showing dead mouse children, language, and that naked mouse breast in one panel. 

Maus is now the top-selling book in America, thanks to Tennessee’s decision that thirteen year olds learning about the Holocaust in graphic form and seeing mild curse words in print might damage them. Good thing they never saw the photo novel my father, a historian, has of World War II, which is nothing but photographs of the war, including too many horrific images from the various camps, a book which has haunted me since childhood.

The internet, while not reliable for many things, had the best quote: If it was okay for 13 year old Anne Frank to live through it, why is it too disturbing for 13 year old Tennessee children to learn about it? 

There are many reasons some books may be objectionable, outside of really bad prose, and yes, it is not unreasonable that some books should have an age limit – after all, movies and video games do. I would not recommend reading “The Exorcist” to a ten year old, even a literate one. The thing to remember is that not everyone can agree on what or why something should be limited, or worse, banned. Always, always, read the banned book, find out what information someone is trying to suppress, why, and then talk about it. If you still find the material objectionable, that’s fine, but you don’t have the right to control its availability to others.

Decide for yourself. Maus is currently sold out on Amazon, but you can join the wait list for the library’s copy here. Meanwhile, check out these commonly banned books – most of which the rest of America considers classics (1984 by Orwell is the #1 banned book in America).