February 13, 2013


A couple of weeks ago my friend Karen noticed an advance notice of my new book, Walking Portland, Oregon, was posted on Amazon; I had no idea it was there. I was thrilled with the attractive green and gold photograph the editors picked for the cover. I had nothing to do with the choice of photo: my contribution was the two years I spent walking and writing to create the contents. So why was I so excited over someone else’s vision?

I could hear my grandmother reminding me over and over that “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” She usually was referring to my making snap judgments, often unkind, about other people I really didn’t know. Now I seemed to be judging my own book by the same shallow standard.

We certainly couldn’t judge books by the covers in my junior high school library. Most of the books on the library shelves had been rebound at the state prison in red, black, green, or buff buckram. There was no way any book could be judged by the cover. We couldn’t judge by the insides, either. Miss Johnson had a rule: if you took the book off the shelf you had to check it out. Most of us didn’t bother unless it was an assignment--we  used the public library instead. The covers were mostly the same prison bindings, but we could delve into the book to see if we wanted to read it. What Grandma said made perfect sense.

Later on, when I became a librarian myself, we had plastic covers we could put over the publisher’s book jackets. Now the children could choose books by the cover instead of the insides. And they did. We also had older books sitting on the shelves because their jackets had long disappeared. It seemed a shame that a really good story was passed over because of its unattractiveness. Occasional contests for students to draw new covers helped, but the hand-drawn covers were no matches for the modern ones. “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” I quoted, whenever I did quick book chats to get the golden oldie into a child’s hands.

Now the problem became the mismatch between covers and the insides. They promised one thing but delivered another. A paperback cover for Doyle’s Lost World about dinosaurs in the Amazon featured a young woman—non-existent in the book. Recently a Facebook friend posted the new cover for Anne of Green Gables. Anne is a young girl in the original story, but the new cover portrays Anne as a busty young woman with that ideal teen-age body no one has in real life. Publishers are following the marketers with their view of what the public will buy. I suppose the cover may entice children to pick up the set, but the story won’t be what they expect.

However, I guess we always judge by first sight. It was our ancestors’ way of deciding quickly about possible threats. We know that inwardly, whether artistic or in business: most of us choose our outside “covers” to create a certain impression. A recently published Portland author, Roger Hobbs, says he started wearing three-piece suits in college so he’d be taken seriously.

So I was and am excited about the cover. The leaf-strewn path leads you out of the park and into the city, promising adventure ahead. It matches what I tried to do in the book. The walk descriptions inside are my contribution, and I hope they are useful and fun, but the cover is the most important selling point. It will decide whether or not people will take the book off the shelf. And I know more people will pick up the book because of the outside, before they pay any attention to what’s inside.

Grandmother was right. We need to look behind the facades before judging anything.

I also remember Grandma saying, “the proof is in the pudding.” We’ll see.

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