Sunday, December 13, 2009

Ruby Oliver, Faceless No More

As everyone on this blog is well aware, I am a *huge* E. Lockhart fan. I spent most of 2008 utterly obsessed with The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, and this year, I think I've come to appreciate her Ruby Oliver books (The Boyfriend List, The Boy Book and, The Treasure Map of Boys) just as much-- possibly even more. Their brilliance is quieter than The Disreputable History's (where Lockhart wears her PhD on her sleeve) but they are no less accomplished for it. All this is a long way of saying: I have a major interest in these books. So naturally, when I heard they were going to get new cover art this September, I was interested. And now, three months later, the covers are finally being shown to the public, and I (shockingly) have some opinions about them.1

Here's the new cover for The Boyfriend List, and links to the others can be found in the first footnote on this post.

Now, for my thoughts on these covers. First, to be fair, the small bits of good. These covers are very pretty. I can imagine them having serious shelf appeal.2 I don't totally hate the model, and the design aesthetic is definitely right on. The clothes they've picked out are cute, and somewhat Roo-appropriate. I'm not even going to complain that only one of the four covers features Ruby's glasses, and even in that cover she's not wearing them.3 Um. I like that they kept the font the same too? I guess? Also: they refrained from chopping off the top of Ruby's head or changing her race, so many worse things could have happened.

That stated, I still don't like these covers. It's not just because I thought the old covers were adorable, and perfectly suited to the books. It's not just because I already have a *matched set* of the first three books in hardcover-- a set that will now be RUINED because the fourth book won't match. It's that these are photo covers, and for the Ruby Oliver books photo covers are ALL WRONG.

In general, I dislike photo covers. Like every other literacy advocate I worry that they hamper readers' imaginations and generally limit the text in ways they don't need to. I especially dislike when books targeted at teenage girls feature models, as this one does, because honestly, don't girls have to see enough models already? And yet the publishing industry keeps putting them out, because apparently Photo Covers Sell.4 My dislike of these particular covers, however, goes deeper than my general dislike of photo covers. These ones are especially frustrating because they undermine one of the strongest choices E. Lockhart made when she wrote these books: the choice NOT to tell us what Ruby looks like. In The Boyfriend List, Ruby breaks the fourth wall and explicitly addresses the subject and, in the process, made one of my favorite observations about books written for girls:
I'm not telling you what I look like in any detail. I hate those endless descriptions of a heroine's physical attributes: "She had piercing blue eyes and a heaving milk-white bosom blah blah" or "She hated her frizzy hair and fat ankles blah blah, blah blah." First of all, it's boring. You should be able to imagine me without all the gory details of my hairstyle or the size of my thighs. And second, it really bothers me how in books it seems like the only two choices are perfection or self-hatred. As if readers will only like a character who's ideal-- or completely shattered.

Then, in a footnote on this statement, Ruby/Lockhart relents a tiny bit and satisfies her readers' curiosity by making a list of Ruby Oliver's "five perfect, ideal qualities" (ex. "long, dark eyelashes") and five which she justifiably hates (ex. "bad eyesight and an inability to wear contacts, so glasses always obscure eyelashes anyway, effectively negating them.") Throughout the books, other things about Ruby's looks are mentioned-- she likes her legs, for example-- but never once does Lockhart describe her in more detail than she does here. I think this love/hate method of description is just about perfect. This is exactly how I tend to think and speak of myself. I have certain aspects of my appearance I like, and other parts that I loathe in minute detail. I'll bet you anything that most of E. Lockhart's teen readers do as well.

And I'd also bet that, for those girls who managed to find Ruby, it was a relief to come across someone who they didn't have to compare themselves against physically. They don't have to think "Oh, Ruby may say such and such about her looks, but I know that *really* she's stunning, and nothing like me." Instead, they could pay attention to Lockhart's stellar writing, and feel like they were in the company of a girl who was as real as one of their friends. They could think of a 15 year-old girl who actually looked 15. While these photo covers can't change the words inside of the book, by choosing this model pretty girl to represent Ruby, the publisher is undermining Lockhart's artistic vision. They are changing Ruby from the normal-looking but intensely lovable girl of Lockhart's text into a girl who could sell you lip gloss-- and probably has. Lockhart has very deliberately written about a girl who is somewhere between perfectly ideal and completely shattered, and she stresses in no uncertain terms how important that choice is. So it's depressing that Delacorte decided that girls will only buy her books if they are marketed with yet another impossibly ideal face.5

Along with the publisher, I genuinely hope these new covers achieve their goal of roping in new readers. The more books E. Lockhart sells, the happier I'll be, no matter what their covers look like. But I do feel like these ones miss the point, thematically, and I'm sad that Delacorte thought this change was necessary. Come December 2010, don't be surprised if you find me sitting around with Photoshop, putting together a Real Live Boyfriends cover featuring a toy meerkat. After all, I'm going to need a matching set.

[1] Lockhart has been premiering the new covers during a week long blog tour, all five stops of which I highly recommend you check out. All the interviews/guest posts Lockhart has contributed are a lot of fun to read, and give some great insights into her books. Listed in sequential order-- with links-- the blog tour went as follows: Little Willow's Bildungsroman (where I got the image I used in this post), The Story Siren (where you can see the cover for The Boy Book), The Page Flipper (where you can see the cover for The Treasure Map of Boys-- my least favorite of the four), Cheryl Rainfield's blog (where you can see the cover for Real Live Boyfriends), Sharon Loves Cats and Books, and (eventually) over at Park Avenue Princess.

[2] Not that the original covers lacked shelf appeal. In fact, the high cute quotient of The Boyfriend List was one of the reasons I picked it up in the first place.

[3]Because mentioning it here obviously doesn't count as complaining about it at all.

[4] Although it's worth noting that the best selling YA books of recent memory, Stephenie Meyer's Twilight Saga, feature covers that could be the gothic siblings of the original Roo covers, what with their choice to focus on thematically important things rather than a picture of any one character

[5] My unverified rumors proved to be false, as unverified rumors frequently are. You should still shop independent when you can, but to keep money in your local economy, not because of my misinformation. See Amanda's comment for more information!


Todd said...


Get on the blogs and do it! I'm serious. Let's start a campaign for a fourth matching cover to the original designs. I'll do the photoshop if you don't want to.

At the very least, we can have something to send people to print out and place over their existing copies.

Your points here aren't, honestly, just opinions. Don't sell yourself short. You're dealing in facts here, and the contradiction between Ruby as written and Ruby on the cover is unthinkable.

Can you, by the way, point me to your source on the Barnes and Noble conspiracy?

Cassandra Mortmain said...

My source on the B&N information is an author I spoke to about the subject, and a) it's not easily verifiable and b) I don't want to get them in trouble by mentioning their name on the web in conjunction with an unverifiable rumor. I will, however, see if I can get any better information about it from my bookselling friends.

As for the covers: there's a passage up right now from Real Live Boyfriends with Ruby writing a note to a pygmy goat. I just found a pygmy goat figurine:

I think we have our substitute cover. I think a pair of them would be perfect-- now we just have to figure out the right color for the spine dot.

Cassandra Mortmain said...

Also, did you click the links I provided about the cover for Justine Larbalestier's Liar? Because they should demonstrate, amply, that when it comes to YA book covers, nothing is unthinkable. Unfortunately.

Amanda said...

i can report with nearly 100% certainty that b&n most certainly displays (face out) books that do not have faces/photos on the cover. i just asked matt, who says he's never heard anything about that, and that they have tons of YA books on display that don't feature photos (which i can attest to as i recently stood in front of the new YA shelves for a long time). that aside, margaret, you make a lot of great points. i've always thought the ruby oliver books were just perfect and really liked not having a picture showing me how she looks. also, it always makes me crazy when covers change mid-series and they no longer are all matchy-match. thanks for this post--i hadn't heard about or seen the new covers yet.

Cassandra Mortmain said...

Thanks for the information Amanda-- I've amended the post to reflect it. I'm glad to know that Barnes and Noble isn't the cause of these unfortunate changes.

Anonymous said...

Pssst. E. Lockhart has a PhD, not just a mere MA!

Cassandra Mortmain said...

Thanks for letting me know, anonymous. I've updated the post. I feel so embarrassed that I got that wrong, when of course she talked about her thesis at length at the reading I went to this fall.

alaska. said...



i can't stand it when i have a beautiful set going, and then the next book just looks wrong next to it. i realize i am a little obsessed with my books, but come on.

also: alyson noel's "immortals" series has been selling phenomenally, and there are no faces on those (gorgeous, imho) covers. but perhaps the thought in publishing is that more "realistic" fiction gets faces? though i suppose diana peterfreund's "rampant" disproves that thesis . . .

i am completely with you on the reasons why ruby should be faceless. i loved these books, and partly because of the covers.

to be honest, these new covers remind me so much more of the "private" and "clique" series of books . . . which isn't what ruby oliver is about! then again, if the same girls pick up these books, i'll be happy . . .

BookChic said...

Great, insightful post! I do like these covers though, not necessarily better than the current ones because those are pretty darn cute and original, but they're decent.

I've never heard of B&N not displaying faceless covers. In fact, I've seen Treasure Map of Boys on display when it was released for about a month or so. The only thing I've heard is that B&N does have the power to make publishers change how covers look though. If they don't like a cover, it can be sent back and asked to be changed. The Blonde of the Joke by Bennett Madison went through that and got delayed a whole year because of it.

Anyway, just my two cents. :)

Ami said...

I've only read The Boyfriend List, but the reason I ever picked it up was because of the adorable cover! I love them all.

I loved how Ruby wasn't a perfectly described character, and I hate it when throughout a book I end up imagining the main character as the person on the cover when that isn't how they're described in the first place. My image of her will, unfortunately, be tainted by seeing those perfect-model-images.

Plus, what's with changing it mid-series? That drives me insane! Alternate covers are fine but I love having the other option!

Anonymous said...

I'm obviously very late to this post, but I totally agree.

I also think the older covers stood out, I always noticed them and eventually picked them up. Kind of sucks that readers of the series from the beginning won't have the matched set.