You cannot have a conversation about the best YA/MG covers of the year without starting with Andrew Smith’s Winger. I saw it long before publication and knew right away it was going to be iconic. Yes, it’s a big giant face, something the literati tends to look down upon. But instead of over-styling it to make it stand out, they went the other way — it’s an eff-you of upfrontness. 1) The model is overlit and staring directly into the camera. 2) It ain’t pretty, what with that bloody nose. 3) That font, so clean and centered, brutally focuses the eyes: Look right here, you.
(A worthwhile aside here is to mention gender. A lot of those aforementioned faces-on-cover books feature girls, in stories about girls, written by women. Too often male writers/designers/performers/etc/etc/etc get props for doing something that women have been doing for ages. Is there a cover out there that is the female equivalent of Winger? I bet there is, and I’d like to see it.)
Winger was a popular book, showing up in a number of previews and lists and roundups throughout the year. And here’s where covers matter. In a majority of those lists, Winger was used as the click-through image to take you to the full list. Did that mean Winger was every single writer’s favorite book? Of course not. It meant it had the most arresting image, and the result? Frequent face-time for Winger, which, I’d argue, significantly upped the awareness and conversation about the book. So, you know, designers and marketers take note.
(By the way, even the spine is fabulous, shouting past any book it’s stacked alongside. I have it in my bookshelves at home and when people enter, they gravitate right to it.)
The rest of my favorites follow.
The 39 Deaths of Adam Strand by Gregory Galloway. Looks like an adult literary/crime book, maybe something written by Richard Price. A great balance of text upon photo, and it makes you dwell upon which kinds of death we’re talking about here.
The Ballad of Jessie Pearl by Shannon Hitchcock. There’s nothing here you wouldn’t find in an illustration from Little House on the Prairie, and that’s the brilliance — it merely provides an angle those illustrations would never dare, bringing a new intimacy to a familiar concept.
The Mermaid of Chelsea Creek by Michelle Tea. The exceptional use of a muted color palette looks awesome on the physical book, which features no jacket — the art is printed directly upon the cover like an old textbook. The unusual-looking character and puzzling lack of mermaids makes this a big winner in my book.
The Twelve-Fingered Boy by John Hornor Jacobs. For a superhero book (of sorts), it makes sense that the design would have all the stark iconography of a superhero logo. This one is nicely ominous, partially because of how those hands rise from so dark a forest.
The Sin-Eater’s Confession by Ilsa J. Bick. This is a second entry from Carolrhoda Lab, which is no surprise to me, as they put out some of the best book jackets in the biz. This one is crime-scene-evidence-as-art: a yellowed letter, spattered with blood, and blissfully absent of any extra text or blurbs.
The Winter of the Robots by Kurtis Scaletta. This gleefully embraces all things kid. Though it’s a long way from garish, there’s no trying to be subtle or evocative either. It’s a danged dinosaur! Made out of metal! In the snow! Hell yeah! There’s more fun in this than in fifty other covers combined.
HONORABLE MENTION: The Symptoms of My Insanity by Mindy Raf. This one comes with a caveat. The cover on the left is the published one — nothing wrong with it. But, in my opinion, it backtracks from the Advance Reader’s Copies, which featured a colorful and thematically apt collage that I thought did an admirable job of being most things to most people. Oh, well, I’ll always have my memories.