Karen Cushman Re-Covered?

Kenny Brechner -- March 7th, 2019

When classic books with great covers get new cover designs, it is always a tricky businesses for their established reader base. Change can be good, of course. Visions of rejuvenated sales and bringing in a new generation of readers, of broadening a book’s appeal, are quality thoughts for any marketing department to be entertaining.

Lovers of the classic versions are prone to being unfair, just as they can be about films. I refused to believe that the 1984 version of The Scarlet Pimpernel could possibly have been necessary or worth seeing since nothing could top the 1934 version with Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon. When I finally climbed down and watched the 1984 version I discovered that it was a terrific film and brought an entirely new sense and sensibility to the story. Thus when I saw that HMH was coming out with new jackets for four Karen Cushman novels I called to mind such past personal failures of judgment and resolved to be fair. Here are the new covers.

My first reaction was that Disney had bought Houghton and I hadn’t heard about it yet. These cover seemed so at odds with the character of the books that I was numb with horror. My better self, such as it is, warned of those old lessons of skewed perspectives. “Get a grip on yourself,” said my better self, “fairness first.” The right thing to do was to compare the old with new in a direct manner. The two Newbery books set in the Middle Ages seemed most important to me and I set them together thus.

I talked to many people who know the books and all of them felt that the new covers failed to capture the dimension, grit, and character of these great stories. In fact, as I was writing this post, just a few minutes ago. one of my high school librarians came in and I asked for her opinion of the new covers. The look of dumbfounded anguish on her face was truly comical. “Oh my God,” she said. “It looks like the cover for a BabySitters Club book.” She went on to voice another concern I had heard from other readers I had polled earlier.The new covers might have kid appeal, but didn’t they promise a story that a young reader would not find in the book’s pages?

Were we being fair, though? Were all us old Karen Cushman lovers blinded by our attachment to what we all agreed were the exceptional covers we knew and loved? To answer that question I went to the source and asked two of the covers themselves.

The old cover makes her response.

Kenny: So tell me: I know your lead character was a young person of immense character and would be inclined toward fairness, even if it came to a matter of being replaced by a new cover. Are you of the same fine ilk?

Old Cover of Catherine, Called Birdy: I am Catherine brought to view. I am she. I have been she, and I shall ever be she. I am, it is true, not her only possible image. Many others could be made. My replacement is not one of them, however. There is such a thing as integrity. I should be happy to pass the torch to a new incarnation of Catherine, but I am deeply unsettled and feel cast aside now for the most dubious of causes.

Kenny: I see. And you, New Cover of Catherine Called Birdy. What say you?

New Cover of Catherine, Called Birdy: Look at the Birdy fly out the window. What a beautiful day it is. I’m so happy.

Kenny: Hmmn. What about your predecessor’s substantive issues?

New Cover of Catherine, Called Birdy: Oh, her. Bwahaha. She can just consider that I look more like Catherine’s parents wanted her to look. So there! That’s a happy ending for you. Ha!

Well then. What’s your opinion? Old, new, both or neither?

7 thoughts on “Karen Cushman Re-Covered?

  1. Suzanne

    I hate them. I hate them. I hate them. I work at a book store and these Disneyfied candy-ass nonsense covers came in today and now I hate everything. I realize that I may be overreacting, but these books were formative to me and part of the reason I became a Medieval studies major and love reading. These covers deeply offend me. There’s no other way to put it. Whoever designed these clearly didn’t read and/or understand the books and they are shitting on my childhood. The end.

  2. Janet Bibeau

    Just the title “Midwive’s Apprentice” conjures up a more serious picture for a mature role than is depicted in the new cover.

  3. Summer Dawn Laurie

    Kenny, your side-by-side comparison is brilliant. On first sight, I felt the new covers just silly, commercial fluff. But seeing them next to their predecessors, I have raised my feminist hackles. I can just hear someone in the background telling these girls to “Smile!” –as if they are not appealing in their natural state. A disservice to these outstanding characters and a huge backward step for girlhood in general.

  4. Monica

    It’s kind of like when Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark were re-released with new illustrations. Two years later I was given the opportunity to buy the original for my library for cheap. I bought three copies of all of the books.

  5. Leslie Roper

    Dear Kenny (& HM): As Jane Austen would say (sort of) there cannot be two opinions on this, the new covers are, without question, horrible. I would go so far to say they are even worse than Disneyesque. As a retired sales manager I remember circulating potential cover art to each department. Surely some department—hopefully design, if not marketing—would have expressed some educated doubt.

  6. Nina Lehman

    The new covers make me feel nauseated. I would never have picked them off the shelf for myself. or my daughters and I’ll make sure to keep the older versions for my granddaughter. Yuck!

  7. Sarah J

    I grew up with the Trophy Newbery versions and feel they were a much better representation of the characters and the content then these new covers. I agree they are missing the grit and true historical setting that the books actually capture. These new covers make the books appear like light-hearted fantasy novels. As a middle school librarian, I’m not going to be in any hurry to replace my current copies.

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