post by The Educator Collaborator Associate Bedashruti Mitra Basu
Dust jackets on picture books have come a long way from just being a protective covering to a major design element. In the 1820s, their only functional purpose was to protect the cloth binding of the book (Puglisi, 2015). With time, the dust jacket became an integral part of the peritextual feature of the book with publishers using it to entice the reader. In classrooms today, it is common to see teachers and students remove the dust jacket and explore the world underneath, though books borrowed from the library deny us this pleasure (as the jacket is often manually attached to the case cover).
When the dust jackets and case covers are identical, kids often wonder if the author and illustrator made a conscious choice. As one student observed, perhaps the intention was not to reveal too much too soon. For example, in “Ralph Tells A Story” written and illustrated by Abby Hanlon, there is no difference in the dust jacket and case cover. One advantage of such a format is that this unique peritextual feature does not get diluted when the book is eventually made available in paperback.
It is a completely different ball game though when the two elements are dissimilar. Sometimes the case cover reveals the central character of a book. “Norman Didn’t Do It!: (Yes he did)” written and illustrated by Ryan T. Higgins is a story about Norman the porcupine who, overcome by jealousy, uproots a tree in the dead of the night. While the dust jacket shows a seemingly innocent Norman during day, the case cover shows Norman with a wheelbarrow at night, prompting children to predict the story, infer Norman’s motive and question his actions. In “We Don’t Eat Our Classmates” by the same author-illustrator, Penelope, the T-Rex is seen on the dust jacket. But the case cover does not reveal a character. Instead, it shows a tetra pack of apple juice with the straw in it. It is only on the other side of the case cover that we see a fish drinking the apple juice! The fish is not the protagonist, but has an important part in the story. At the beginning of reading this book aloud, children may first wonder about the apple juice tetra pack (since the other half would be away from their view). But as they turn it around, they will question the fish’s role in the story – a great way of promoting comprehension and wonder. It is only upon reading the story, would they understand the significance of Walter, the goldfish!
Other examples of books with dissimilar dust jacket and case covers but with central characters depicted are, “Saturday” by Oge Mora where the mother-daughter duo are seen in two separate images on both. Gaia Cornwall’s “Jabari Jumps” has Jabari on the dive board on the dust jacket and Jabari midair on the case cover whereas “Jabari Tries” by the same author shows Jabari standing and observing a small machine/toy on the dust jacket and an aerial view of Jabari designing his machine on the case cover. “Thao: A Picture Book” by Thao Lam has the title on the dust jacket and a photograph of Thao on a red dust cover for a beautiful visual appeal.
The dust jacket and the case cover are sometimes dissimilar in that their color combination gets flipped, though the other design elements remain unchanged. This again, is a “middle path” – the hard cover owner gets wowed by the visual contrast but the paper back owner does not lose anything substantial. One example is “Are You Scared Darth Vader” by Adam Rex. While the dust jacket has the title written in yellow on a dark background, the case cover changes the sombre background to bright yellow!
Contrasting images are also seen through changes in time. In “Fatima’s Great Outdoors” written by Ambreen Tariq and illustrated by Stevie Lewis, we see Fatima and her family outdoors in daylight on the dust jacket with an almost similar setting at night on the case cover. Change in seasons can be seen in Eliza Wheeler’s “Home in the Woods” with summer on the just jacket and winter on the case cover. Contrast can be depicted through change in size. “Bear is a Bear” by written by Jonathan Stutzman and illustrated by Dan Santat shows a huge bear and a little girl on the dust jacket sitting under a tree and the same illustration with a smaller stuffed bear instead of the humongous bear, on the case cover. What made the bear shrink, a child might wonder at first look!
Another type of combination is one where the case cover has no words but fills up the entire canvas with the key element of the book. “Lala’s Words” by Gracey Zhang, is about the power of kindness where Lala’s kind words make a difference to the plants. The case cover has leaves through its expanse. But this doesn’t mean that such combinations cannot have surprises – Andrea Wang’s “Watercress” understandably has the case cover full of watercress, but the lone dragonfly raises questions in minds young and old alike.
Perhaps the most intriguing and one that puts children’s comprehension skills at test are those with very different ‘dust jacket – case cover’ combinations. Múón Thį Vān’s “Wishes” (illustrated by Victo Ngai) is a story of a Vietnamese family’s search for a new home, told in just 75 words. The dust jacket shows an overcrowded boat on a starry night. The case cover shows a line-up of the faces of four girls. The profound image isn’t just a discussion starter for kids but leads to deeper conversations on human rights and peace. “Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story” by Kevin Noble Maillard shows an old woman holding a bowl of fry bread with a young child eating a piece (the back dust jacket shows several children savoring fry bread). But remove the dust jacket and the reader is greeted by a number of hands, of varying age groups, all reaching out for a piece of fry bread – profound depiction of culture!
While a deeper look at the dust jacket and case cover is fascinating, these elements should be studied together with other peritextual features such as the endpapers, the author’s (or the illustrator’s) note and the backmatter. As teachers, if we make it a habit to model curiosity by thinking aloud as we remove the dust jacket, wonder about what we see, talk about the author and illustrator’s intentional decision making in arriving at a particular format, we would, in the process, throw open the gates to deeper comprehension skills, ones that go beyond the text and pictures of the book. The uniqueness of the jacket and the case cover is that the reader’s comprehension strategy does not come to a fruition once the book is read from cover to cover, but to understand the intentional decision making that went into these design elements, the reader must come back again to these two features after completing the read-aloud to check if the understanding of these elements was indeed correct. Perhaps the reader, at the second look at these elements, would discover new meaning, new inference that were missed out at the outset. Let us ingrain the habit of taking a closer look at the two pages that we sometimes take for granted, let us take comprehension to newer heights!
Puglisi, P. (2015). “The Day Has Not Yet Come…”: Book-Jackets in Library Catalogs. Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 53(3-4), 368–381. https://doi.org/10.1080/01639374.2015.1017783
Cornwall, G. (2017). Jabari jumps. Candlewick.
Cornwall, G. (2020). Jabari tries. Candlewick.
Hanlon, A. (2012). Ralph tells a story. Two Lions.
Higgins, R. T. (2021). Norman didn’t do it!: (Yes, he did). Disney-Hyperion.
Higgins, R. T. (2018). We don’t eat our classmates. Disney-Hyperion.
Lam, T. (2021). Thao: A picture book. Owlkids.
Maillard, K. N. (2010). Fry bread: A Native American family story. (J. Martinez-Neal, Illus.) Roaring Book Press.
Mora, O. (2019). Saturday. Little Brown.
Rex, A. (2018). Are you scared, Darth Vader? Disney Lucasfilm Press.
Stutzman, J. (2021). Bear is a bear. (D. Santat, Illus.) Balzer + Bray.
Tariq, A. (2021). Fatima’s great outdoors. (S. Lewis, Illus.) Kokila.
Van, M. T. (2021). Wishes. (V. Ngai, Illus.) Orchard Books.
Wang, A. (2021). Watercress. (J. Chin, Illus.) Neal Porter Books.
Wheeler, E. (2019). Home in the woods. Nancy Paulsen Books.
Zhang, G. (2021). Lala’s words. Scholastic Inc.