Rhapsody in Orange and Brown: 15 Favorite Classic YA Covers

A few weeks back there was a something of a kerfuffle over Penguin’s 50th Anniversary cover of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I was a holder of the minority opinion that the new cover was kind of  great… at least it was memorable!  

What was the last really memorable cover art you saw on a YA title? A glance at Amazon’s bestsellers in the “Teen & Young Adult” category reveals plain graphics, boring stock photos, and movie tie-in reissues.

It wasn’t always this way! Illustrated covers of decades past were constantly compelling, evocative and terrifying. Mostly terrifying.

Some of the best covers (regardless of literary merit) of books reviewed in this space include…


…with additional special mention to artists, designers and photographers behind Fridays, Green Eyes, Holly in Love, Just Dial a Number, and Since That Party.

As far as books that have not been reviewed in this space, I’d like to to bring your attention to 15 of my all-time favorite covers:


Cherry Ames, Student Nurse

The Helen Wells/Julie Campbell Tatham series had two sets of good covers: the originals which emphasized Lt. Ames military service; and the reissues which presented a cheerful view of hospital life (and Department Store, Summer Camp, Dude Ranch and Mountaineer life. Among others.)


Dana Girls

The Dana Girls mystery series, written under the pseudonym of “author” Carolyn Keene, never achieved the success of the Nancy Drew series, but nonetheless has retained a cult following. Originally published beginning in 1934, the series got a makeover in 1972, including contemporary cover illustrations. A rare occasion where the reissue art is better (in my opinion) than the original, due in large part to Jean Dana’s luxuriant, constantly swirling hair.



The first four volumes of the Donna Parker series have insanely detailed cover illustrations of the most mundane scenes: check out Donna and Popular Richard‘s cone-shape paper cups of Coke in metal holders and twin pack of paper straws! Sadly, it was not to last- the remaining volumes and subsequent reissues featured much-simplified cover art.


Jean and Johnny

Beverly Cleary has been blessed with great illustrators over the course of her century-spanning career, and even with numerous editions since 1959, Jean and Johnny has proven fairly durable in terms of reissue art, even if recently it did get the lame-o clip art treatment. Another case where I liked the reissue art as much as the original: Scholastic’s contour drawing tries to drag the story into the American Graffiti era.



Just as Scholastic’s Sunfire YA historical romance series used a number of different authors of varying quality, they also used a number of illustrators for their covers. Manuel Sanjulian’s Kathleen and Joel Iskowitz’s Megan are two fan-favorites.


the new jessica

Sweet Valley High just isn’t Sweet Valley High without the sherbet-y pastels of James W. Mathewuse’s original art. How can I pick just one? Easy: it’s the one where disgruntled twin Jessica Wakefield dyes her hair black and transforms herself into the glamorous, European-accented “Jessa Fields”.



As best I can recall, I have never actually read any of the Alfred Hitchcock-branded Three Investigators series, but the the cover art depicts the craziest mysteries any teen sleuth could ever hope to solve!


tiger eyes

Sometimes the cover doesn’t do justice to the contents; sometimes the best part of the book is the cover art. In the case of the Modigliani-inspired first edition cover of the Judy Blume classic, it is a rare convergence of cover exactly capturing the tone of the story within.


Trixie Belden Cameo

Originally published between 1948 and 1986 (and then reissued in 2004), Whitman’s Trixie Belden series went through a half-century’s worth of illustration aesthetic styles, including Baffling 1950s, Murky and Orange 1970s and Unfortunate Mullets of the 1980s.

Like many fans, my favorite artwork is on the 50s-60s “Cameo” editions of  series, although Trixie and Jim are looking uncharacteristically aggravated with one another here.



This distaff take on The Amboy Dukes and other early 50s JD pulps was updated for republication over the years, but always featured that iconic leanin’ wall.



What kind of Steampunk Gothic Sci-Fi Horror is this?!?! This is a cover that walks the line between fascinating and off-putting. LOOK HOW THE WRINKLES IN HER HAND BLEND INTO THE TREE BRANCHES! How can three colors be so creepy??? A case where the cover doesn’t really represent the contents (it is a straightforward suspense/thriller, and a good one) but gets a pass for being so memorable.


watcher in the woods

Was I just railing against movie tie-in covers? Well then this is the exception that proves the rule, because Disney substantially improved on the somewhat dull cover of the hardcover version (note also the slight title change).


Wild Prairie Sky

Archway’s Dawn of Love series tried to capitalize on the popularity of Sunfire’s YA historicals; I haven’t read any of them, but the covers all feature heroines dragging their spectacular gowns into the most inconvenient places.


witch of blackbird

The 1971 cover art for Speare’s 1958 classic is a classic in its own right, all moody maroons. I have a friend who designed her wedding gown to be a exact replica of the dress Kit is wearing on this cover.


Summer of Fear

I turned up a dozen different reissue covers for Lois Duncan’s 1976 classic, but the hardcover edition takes the cake. Incidentally, this is not the version I own. Frankly, this cover is so terrifying, I don’t want it anywhere in my house.

And honorable mention to  After the Bomb (a minimalist cover done right!); Are You in the House Alone?; Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret; C is for Cupcake (or basically any original Carolyn Haywood cover); the Tempo reissues of the Connie Blair series; The CreepCry HavocGoodbye, Chicken Little; Honey; The Majorettes; Mrs. Fish, Ape, and Me, The Dump Queenthis paperback edition of The Pigmanthe only one that captures how good-looking John is supposed to be; The Pink Lemonade Charadefor really taking a theme and running with it; the original hardcover of Ramona the BraveSave Queen of ShebaSteffie Can’t Come Out To Play; A Summer to Die; Walk Through Cold Fire.

So, constant readers, I now pose the question to you: what are your favorite vintage YA covers? Is there anything currently on the shelves that has good cover art? Personally, the only ones that come to mind for me are the ginormous ball gowns featured in The Selection  and The Luxe series.  Post yours in the comments!

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Barbara Nichols: Fifth-Grade Teacher By Bernard & Marjorie Palmer

It had seemed to Barbara that she had always wanted to be a teacher…

Barbara Nichols 5th Grade Teacher

Back to school! Time to start the year with a good attitude cautionary tale wacky scheme inspirational message!

The Plot: I have been pleasantly surprised by the Palmers’ “Career Books” for the Moody Bible Institute, in that they present fairly progressive tales of young women pursuing their career dreams, even when their parents or society may not entirely approve. Continue reading

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Mirrors Never Lie By Isaacsen-Bright

Caught in the nightmare of anorexia nervosa, Bonnie could lose more than just weight. She could lose her life.

Mirrors Never Lie

I have not been able to uncover any information on this book’s author, the mononomenclature’d Isaacsen-Bright, so I have no idea if he or she is a professional in the field of social problems (other books published under this name include YA novels dealing with homelessness, Lupus, and giving up a normal life in order to become a professional figure skater) or just a meddler pushing an agenda (I am looking at you, Anonymous!)

Either way, this book ends up with a message that has to be the exact opposite of what the author intended: anorexia will make you popular at school, win you the boy of your dreams and even reunite your divorced parents!


The Plot: Teenaged Bonnie Isherwood is short and fat, which we know because the author tells us that she is exactly 5-feet, 3-inches [Editor’s note: LOL] and weighs 109 pounds [Editor’s note: LOLOLOLOLOLOLOL] Is this supposed to be an early indication of Bonnie’s body dysmorphia? No, because her mother is constantly nagging her about her weight and she is taunted by the senior cheerleaders during her try-out for being “pretty hippy” and looking “like a young buffalo”. Continue reading

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Checking In With The Imaginary Summer Book Club: Jaws By Peter Benchley

(Click here for information on the 2014 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature. As all of the four five selected titles have filmed adaptations, we will be looking at the movie versions as we go along. Today, the July alternate/bonus selection, Peter Benchley’s Jaws.)


When I announced Jaws as the bonus selection for this year’s edition of Imaginary Summer Book Club, I hadn’t read it in about 25 years, and I dimly recalled it as being “Peyton Place with a shark” (this being one of those books I read long before I was allowed to see the movie). The sum total of my memory of the book was:  “grass and gazpacho”, “AC/DC”, how unscrupulous restaurateurs make fake scallops, and an extremely awkward sex scene.

While Steven Spielberg’s 1975 movie has completely overshadowed its source material, Benchley’s novel was a blockbuster in its own right, spending 44 weeks on the bestseller lists and eventually selling 20 million copies. The fact that it now qualifies as a Lost Classic is testimony to both young Spielberg’s skill as a filmmaker, as well as the frustrating un-likeability of Benchley’s characters (supposedly upon reading the book Spielberg announced that he was rooting for the shark).

While the book opens with the familiar attack on poor, hippy-dippy Chrissie Watkins during some ill-advised late-night skinny dipping, the novel’s focus quickly shifts to Police Chief Martin Brody and the various intricacies of small-time policin’ in the resort town of Amity Island. Continue reading

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Ransom By Lois Duncan

Five students kidnapped, four families torn apart.


Lois Duncan is best known for her YA thrillers that involve a supernatural twist, such as telepathy or psychic intuition or witchcraft. However, her earliest YA works are straightforward suspense and mystery titles most notable for the depiction of the psychological group dynamics of high school students.

The Plot: It may have the simplest plot of Duncan’s suspense titles, but the tension as the story unfolds is absolutely relentless. Continue reading

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The Changeover By Margaret Mahy

He offers her life, death or the supernatural- but the choice she makes must be her own.

The Changeover

Regular readers know that I love the dissonance between a book’s cover art and the actual content. Clearly, Point (Scholastic) is trying to repackage New Zealander Mahy’s coming-of-age-story as a high school romance- however, the actual story is more A Wrinkle in Time than Twilight. Continue reading

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Checking In With The Imaginary Summer Book Club: No Bed of Her Own By Val Lewton

Click here for information on the 2014 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature. As all of the four selected titles have filmed adaptations, we will be looking at the movie versions as we go along. This month, the July selection, Val Lewton’s No Bed of Her Own.)

No Bed of Her Own

Val Lewton is best known as the producer of a dozen low-budget horror and suspense films for RKO Pictures in the 1940s: titles such as Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man, and Curse of the Cat People promised more lurid tales than the stylish, eerie films Lewton actually delivered.

Lewton had started work in Hollywood as an assistant and story editor for independent producer David O. Selznick (he is responsible for the Atlanta depot scene in Gone With the Wind, as well as work on A Star is Born, A Tale of Two Cities and Rebecca); however, the work that first brought him notice in Hollywood was this scandalous pulp novel about a young woman’s slow slide into prostitution during the brutal New York City winter of 1931. Continue reading

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