“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” we’ve been taught as children. While this should be true about our perception of people, I don’t think it should apply to actual books.
A book cover is a beautiful, well-designed object capable of sparking joy at first sight. When done well, a book's cover not only “sells” the book but calls out to the reader it’s for. We look at illustrations and typography to set the tone for the story within and clue us in to the world the characters inhabit.
I took a quick glance at my bookshelf and the children’s (or young adult) book covers jumped out to me most. Call it nostalgia and sentimentality, or call it a marketing tactic—maybe books targeted to younger readers really capitalize on graphics. Either way, no complaints here!
Looking back at books we read as children always promises a good time. Let’s take a short stroll down the memory lane of book covers for typography inspiration:
The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince) by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince) by Antoine De Saint-Exupery is a classic adored by people of all ages. If you’ve never read it, it’s a fantastical adventure of a young boy who lived on an asteroid. The book follows his exploration of different planets and the interactions he has with the grown-ups who live there.
It’s lasting power comes from the nuggets of philosophical wisdom intertwined with the story. Every time you read it, you’ll always take away something new from the experience.
The novella features the author’s own illustrations which have become iconic in their own right. I think the book cover’s type deserves a bit of that love as well.
The Little Prince has been translated to (from left to right) English, Spanish, Swahili, Vietnamese,
and even Chavacano—the Spanish creole language spoken in the Philippines!
The Little Prince, in any form—from the original typography to the illustrated characters—has become recognizable around the world. A place called Petite France in South Korea is dotted with sculptures resembling the Little Prince. Every year, Moleskine releases planners featuring Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s original artwork.
Even when translated, publishers still try to use a similar (if not the same) type design for the title. The looping letters are whimsical and juvenile but have an elegance that appeals to adults. You could say it reflects the literary masterpiece itself.
Charlotte's Web by E.B. White
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White is another children’s book classic. It’s about a pig, named Wilbur, and his friendships with Charlotte (a barn spider), Fern (his human owner), and the other animals on the farm.
I think the book cover is an ingenious example of typography. It features Wilbur and Fern, two of the main characters of the story. But, most importantly, it introduces Charlotte who is spelling out the title of the book with her web. I think it’s brilliant how it foreshadows what happens later on in the plot and it’s a nice (and very obvious) easter egg for readers who’ve finished the book.
Geronimo Stilton Books by Elisabetta Dami
Geronimo Stilton is a book series centered on the entertaining life of “scaredy-mouse” Geronimo, a journalist and editor at The Rodent’s Gazette, who finds himself thrust into crazy adventures. The books are wholly immersive with many illustrations throughout the pages, including a Map of Mouse Island and tableau of The Rodent’s Gazette office. Perfect to engage young readers who’re starting to get comfortable with chapter books!
The book covers are fairly standardized throughout the franchise, but what’s special is how they play with type on the page. Different type designs visualize sound effects, environment, and important details.
It also helps identify a character and their personality. Geronimo Stilton refers to himself in a sophisticated, swirly font similar to Monotype Corsiva. In “Four Mice Deep In The Jungle”, the bootcamp instructor Penelope Poisonfur is introduced in a military typeface. In “I’m Too Fond Of My Fur”, the Yeti is referred to in a snow-capped block font. You get the idea.
Sometimes the actual lines of text are manipulated into a shape following the plot. Even as an adult looking at my old copies, it’s a lot of fun!
Sweet Valley High by Francine Pascal
Jumping to an older demographic, Sweet Valley High is a series of young adult novels. The series ran from 1983 to 2003 with several spinoff series and a total of 181 books! (How? A team of ghostwriters led by Francine Pascal.)
If you’re into vintage American aesthetics, you may enjoy these book covers. Sweet Valley High’s cover designs reference a mishmash of eras.
The Sweet Valley High logo reminds me of late 1950s aesthetics—think “Grease” the musical—with its high school varsity letters. The typography, layout, and design choices were also heavily influenced by the book design trends of its time: the 1980s. If you’ve ever seen a Harlequin Romance pocketbook from the same era… you’ll know. Google it.
I’ve only read the spin-offs to the original series since I got my copies free from a neighbor. Design-wise, I prefer the book covers of the main novels for their sherbet-inspired color palettes, round serif fonts, and “understated” look. Meaning, there wasn’t too much text; it didn’t look too busy; there was a hierarchy that directed your attention to each element. The spinoff covers have too much going on, IMHO.
Sweet Valley High occupies the same space in my mind as The Baby-Sitter’s Club, another series published around the same time. Both series focused on middle-class American teens, and their families, living in fictional towns as they navigated life’s many conflicts.
I wanted to briefly mention it for its series logo. Toddler’s alphabet blocks spell out “The Baby-Sitter’s Club”, it’s very cute and creative!
This list wouldn’t be complete without any mention of Harry Potter. It’s a beloved series that defined the childhood of so many… I just wasn’t one of them. My deep dark secret is that I didn’t read the Harry Potter books (only the first). That photo up there is my actual copy.
Nonetheless, the Harry Potter logo is so iconic and recognizable. What’s awesome about the cover of Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone is how the artist incorporated the title into the environment. Harry’s name is embossed in glossy gold, while the rest blends slightly into the background. It’s interesting to look at in relation to the overall composition.
My other honorable mentions are The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, It’s Kind Of A Funny Story by Ned Vizzini, and Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. All three are YA novels with protagonists who are creative in some way.
I think the book designers reflected the character’s creativity and even angst, through covers with a hand-drawn feel to them. This includes the type.
Book covers communicate so much to those who take a closer look. It shows how typography is an opportunity, not only to make words look pleasant, but to express character, tension, and voice.
I can’t think of anything more book-ish than treating words like art!
Written by Nicolette "Nikki" Bautista
Nicolette is a Manila-based creative freelancer and Cambio & Co's Community Storyteller. She's written on the digital space about mom-and-pop's, small businesses, and social enterprises. In the pursuit of her eclectic interests, Nicolette has a broad portfolio including short videos, album art, and storybook illustrations! Find her on Instagram @of_nicolette and ofnicolette.wordpress.com