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YA Trend: Dead Cover Girls

This was brought to my attention via seanan_mcguire.

Rachel Stark has made a disturbing observation about a recent trend with book covers for YA fiction: Cover Trends in YA Fiction: Why the Obsession With Elegant Death?

Go on, read that first.

Now, when I first heard about this, I had a "What's the big deal?" approach. I'm into horror as well as YA, so my interests tend towards the macabre anyway--which probably comes as no surprise, considering the name I chose for this blog. Images of (fake) dead things don't particularly bother me as long as they're artfully done, as most of these seem to be. In my head I likened it to that opening montage from the movie Ginger Snaps, in which the two girls pose themselves in various gruesome photographs for a school project--drawing both applause from their classmates and a loud, disgusted diatribe from their teacher in the process.

Furthermore, since dark YA is mostly what I write, I imagined that maybe the subgenre is opening up a bit, which for me would be a good thing. Because why would the folks who decide things like what to put on book covers be using images of dead girls if not to draw an audience that likes dark stories?

So I took a look at some of the other book covers in my collection. You know what I notice? All my adult horror doesn't seem to favor images of dead girls to draw that audience. It's all shadowy silhouettes, dark forests, and eerie still lifes of things like empty chairs or abandoned buildings.

Then I took a look at some YA horror covers--proper horror, not just paranormal with a hefty dose of romance.

Here's what I found:

Brenna Yovanoff's The Replacement, which I loved, has one of those eerie still life images--a pram with a ghastly mobile of sharp things above it. Totally creepy, and fits the story inside perfectly.

However, take a look at the cover for her new book, The Space Between. See anything odd there? Yep, that looks like an elegant dead girl to me. Maybe she's just wiped out, I don't know, but the aesthetic is the same.

Next, I checked out Lisa McMann's Cryer's Cross. I read the hardback edition, with one of best covers I've seen on a YA horror--another eerie still life, this time with an empty desk scrawled in a wild hand. Terrific cover. Look what they've done with the paperback edition. The girl on the cover doesn't appear to be dead, but that's definitely a submissive pose, and more importantly, WHAT is going on here? The creepy desk is actually relevent to the plot of this book--the romance is secondary. If I saw that cover in the store? I'd walk right by it and leave it on the shelf. The original cover was fantastic, and it's the reason I read it.

Lastly I'll just mention briefly the difference between the first, second and third books of Carrie Ryan's The Forest of Hands and Teeth series, because is where the growing trend towards dead girls is most obvious I think: the first book has two covers, one with a girl peeking between the branches of a dead tree, the other with a girl looking simply windblown against a foresty backdrop. The latter two? Dead girls, lying on the ground, one in the surf of the ocean, the other on what appears to be a set of a railroad tracks. Something has definitely changed, and not for the better.

It's all well and good to say don't judge a book by it's cover, but we all do. Covers make a difference. So the question on the table is, what kind message are these books with submissive, dead, or simply weakened girls on the covers sending to their readers? Is this some kind of throwback to the Victorian era, when women drank arsenic to make themselves pale, and squeezed themselves into corsets that crushed their ribs and made them faint (gracefully, of course) onto chaise longues? Or is something more insidious at work here?

Make no mistake--I am not making any judgments about the quality of writing of any of these books based on their covers. In fact, the ones I mentioned I have read, and enjoyed very much, especially Yovanoff's. Authors rarely have control over what kind of cover their books will get. That's someone else's job, usually. And may I also point out that some of these images, macabre though they may be, are really beautiful and enticing.

What confuses me most is that, judging by the few of these books I have read, the heroines inside their pages are NOT submissive. They're tough, resourceful, and intelligent. Sometimes selfish or a little naive, but for the most part, they aren't at all like the images in these covers would make them out to be. But the covers are what entice people to read books, or should be. They are taking strong young women and turning them into prettified zombies. And guess what else? It's working. They are drawing a crowd, and gaining readers and buyers.

Why do you suppose that is?


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 16th, 2011 06:33 am (UTC)
Passive chicks
I came here from Rachel Stark's post, interesting to see you examine some specific titles.

It's interesting that you mention the point that the girls on the covers are the epitome of passive whereas the female protagonists in the books are anything but. Because of course the thing about Twilight is Bella is SO passive she could only be less active if she was an overboiled noodle. And it makes me wonder if (on an unconscious level probably rather than suggesting any sort of dire scheming) publishers perceive Bella's passivity to be key to the success of the series.
Nov. 16th, 2011 06:15 pm (UTC)
Re: Passive chicks
I did wonder if Twilight is at least partially to blame for the trend--there have certainly been plenty of passive heroines in paranormal romance lately, especially in YA. The thing about that though is none of the book covers would lead you to think so. The more recent editions have the actors on them and all, but not once have I seen Kristen Stewart in that passive-or-dead pose. At least not on the book covers. That's what confuses me.
Nov. 16th, 2011 05:25 pm (UTC)
Another point about these covers is that a few of them don't even have a dead girl in them, or a dead girl that's relevant to the plot. I think sticking a dead girl--or anything that's haunting--on a cover instantly gives the book a ~mood. Somehow haunting is the new beautiful.

And let's be honest, books aren't the only guilty party. I'm sure you can pick out dozens upon dozens of movie posters and CD covers with dead girls all over them. Like the original poster said, the fascination with "beautifying" death goes all the way back to the Renaissance era when paintings were smeared with dead girls draped over beds or bridges, with flowing hair and white nightgowns. Hell, death has been unfairly romanticized in Freshman English class with Shakespeare and Romeo and Juliet.
Nov. 16th, 2011 06:20 pm (UTC)
It's definitely more than just books. I think the reason the original poster brought it up--and blogged in such fantastic detail--is the target demographic here, which is young girls. The "trend" is older than dirt, but the audience seems to be lapping up that image of helpless females as attractive. Or it's being fed to them, which is worse. You know what it reminds me of is that "heroin chic" thing that was so big in the 80s.
Nov. 16th, 2011 09:20 pm (UTC)
Wow. This really is horrifying. But we do need to be aware of it. Thanks for the link to the article!

I'm not sure I can answer your question as to why dead girls are suddenly in. It baffles me. Perhaps because a lot of girls are feeling fed up with life?

Oh, wait, that's just another question.
Nov. 17th, 2011 06:36 pm (UTC)
"I'm not sure I can answer your question as to why dead girls are suddenly in. It baffles me. Perhaps because a lot of girls are feeling fed up with life?"

Maybe... But the thing though is the girls don't design the book covers. They just buy and read the books. So why us the market going for this kind of imagery?

Maybe I'm over-thinking this. But it's definitely worth thinking about.
Dec. 8th, 2011 12:26 am (UTC)
I've been reading a bunch of these posts since Rachel made her original one, and since you're talking about specific changes to author's books from one to the next, I thought this would be a good place to say that my BLOOD MAGIC (which is definitely a Dead Girl Cover) is also getting a revamp for the paperback release, as well as a new cover for the companion novel - and it's going the opposite direction from The Replacement and Carrie Ryan's books. We're going from Dead Girl to a cover that has none of these kinds of images on them.

On one hand, it's not as though Blood Magic could have gotten much more perfectly Dead Girl Cover. But on the other, I was told that the main reason for the paperback revamp is to move AWAY from the images/tone/colors associated with paranormal romance.

I have the same publisher as Carrie Ryan, and Blood Magic is also horror with romance, so it's especially interesting that two years ago they revamped her books to be more Dead Girl, and now they are revamping mine to be less.

I wish I could share the new cover.
Dec. 31st, 2011 10:59 pm (UTC)
Thank you for commenting!

That is exciting news, that the publishers are making a conscious effort to move away from the Dead Girl covers. I will say that the hardcover for "Blood Magic" is beautiful, dead girls aside.

I'll look for the paperback version when it comes out--you've got me curious!
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )


jean gray

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