Are Middle-Grade covers growing up?

Okay—this is my first post here at the Mixed-Up Files Blog, so I’m really hoping this won’t be like, “the post that kills the awesome.” (yes, I’m a trifle insecure. I also use words like trifle. You’ll get used to it—I hope) 🙂

Anyway, I thought I’d use my first post to explore a trend I’m starting to notice in middle-grade—a change in the winds so to speak. It seems like, for as long as I can remember anyway, middle-grade books have always had cartoon-ish style covers—usually an illustrator’s depiction of the characters in a key moment in the book. Think Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

But recently it seems like publishers are trying out cover designs with a more grown-up feel to them. For example, look at the redesigned cover for Ella Enchanted:

The Original Cover:

And…the updated redesign:

Now, obviously the new cover is still kid friendly, given the color scheme and the very obvious child on the cover. But to me…there’s just something more mature about it. As a kid, I would’ve felt more grown-up holding the second book than I would the first. Maybe because having the real child on the cover makes the book seem like less of a fairy tale. I’m not sure.

And here’s one that’s even more mature: Radiance, by Alyson Noel.

The design is clean and simple, the girl on the cover looks more like a teenager to me, and the whole cover just feels more…YA. Which was probably what they were going for. Alyson Noel’s other books are very much YA, so I’m sure a big part of the marketing strategy was to design a cover that would appeal to those YA fans, hopefully getting them to give this book a chance. (That elusive “crossover appeal” everyone is always buzzing about.) In fact, I’ve seen this book listed both ways, sometimes as MG, sometimes as YA. They’re definitely trying to shoot for both markets.

And it makes me wonder if we’ll be seeing a lot more covers like this in the future. After all, there’s a huge focus on getting children to “read up” (to read books for kids a little older than their age range). So perhaps publishers are hoping that if they make the cover look a little more ‘grown-up’ it will make the book, and the reader feel more mature. I definitely see that trend in YA covers, trying to have the books appeal to both teens and adults. Why wouldn’t middle-grade be affected?

But I can’t decide how I feel about it. On the one hand, I personally prefer the cover of Radiance to a lot of the MG covers I see. But when I try to picture my 10-year-old self—who pretty much had Disney princesses plastered all over everything—in a bookstore looking at the different covers…I’m not sure I would have been drawn to a cover like Radiance. I’m not sure it looks as fun or exciting as something with a bit more of a cartoon-ish cover. Then again, 12-year-old Shannon might have been too embarrassed to read a book with a cartoon-ish cover at school, and would’ve gladly picked up something more like Radiance. So I keep going round and round on it, and I really don’t know where I stand.

What do you guys think? Do you think making middle-grade covers more mature will help the category, keeping kids from ‘outgrowing’ them so fast?  Or do you think it will lose appeal for some of the younger readers in the category? Any covers you’ve found particularly successful?


Shannon Messenger refuses to grow up, so she picked a career where she could live vicariously through her 12-year-old characters. She currently writes middle-grade fantasy and is represented by Laura Rennert with Andrea Brown Literary.

  1. Well, I remember back when the limited YA market was all illustrated covers. Part of it also is economics– photoshopping some stock photography takes a lot less time and is less expensive than hiring an artist to do a cover.

    And when I was in 5th grade… oh, how fondly I loved my copy of Matilda, because while the cover was a Quentin Blake illustration, the title was in raised, shiny letters, just like all the adult mass market paperbacks, so it was totally a grown-up book.

  2. Tommy: Wow–a book being rejected because of the cover? WOWZA. And I actually like your cover a lot, and I think kids will LOVE it. Which is what really matters most.

    Elissa: Yeah, there’s a definite change coming. I guess it’s good that we don’t know how we feel about it, since we can’t do anything about it–le sigh. And aw, thanks. So glad to be a part of this awesome, awesome blog!

  3. Fascinating topic, Shannon. I’ve been watching the change in covers, both in MG and YA, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it.

    But, anyway, great job and welcome to the blog!