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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7 Responses to Rhapsody in Orange and Brown: 15 Favorite Classic YA Covers

  1. msyingling says:

    Hands down, the Joe and Beth Krush versions of Cleary’s work, especially The Luckiest Girl. There are a lot of bright, fun covers now, like Vance’s The Heartbreak Messenger or Korman’s Ungifted. I like to think they won’t date as badly as some things. That Jean and Johnny– wow. Have not seen that one!

  2. miss amy says:

    They’re midgrade rather than YA, but the original covers for The Westing Game and Figgs and Phantoms are incredible, IMO. Figgs and Phantoms especially–that shit is eerie.

  3. Jen says:

    I know this is an older post, but I had to comment on the Dawn of Love series–if you get a chance to read them, please don’t hesitate to give them a try. My favorite one is the one pictured above, and I would love to hear what you thought of it. I think this series–sadly there were only six books–was definitely a cut above most teen romance books at the time. Interesting historical details and likable characters with flaws drew me in again as I reread these an an adult.

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