When I was in high school, one of the electives offered was Fashion Design. I never could fit that particular class into my schedule (I was a choir geek through and through), but I had many friends who took the course. And I noticed they spent a lot of time talking about the color wheel and its affect on fashion (and people, too).
I have always been fascinated by this idea that color affects our mood. As a gardener, I’m often surprised how much time I spend thinking about the colors I want in my flowerbeds and how each of the different plant colors make me feel. A few years ago, my chiropractor husband and I spent countless hours picking out just the right shade of green paint for the walls of his new clinic, since we needed something that made the place feel…well, healthy.
So, I began to wonder, if we talk about color in our clothing, and the color on our walls, and the color of the world outside our doorsteps, should we talk about color when it comes to our books, too? I decided to take a look at some of the MG books sitting on my bookshelves at home. What do the colors on the covers say about the stories themselves?
Yellow is a happy color, but it’s also draining on the eyes, so frequently people surrounded by yellow can become agitated and angry.
On my shelf, the books in which yellow dominated the cover were in both of these camps. Many of the humorous titles were predominately yellow, such as Donna Gephart’s How to Survive Middle School.
I also had many titles which were stories where mystery or intrigue played a large part in the book. For example, in Jessica Day George’s Tuesdays at the Castle, the castle itself senses trouble. (As a side note, this book cover spirals from blue, a soothing color, to yellow, which mirrors the rise in tension as the story progresses.)
Red is a color of power. It evokes strong emotions such as love, intensity, and excitement. The books on my shelves do the same.
In Scumble, by Ingrid Law, the main character is given a extraordinary power which makes the things around him fall apart…literally. You can’t get much more intense than that! (As a side note, this book also has quite a bit of yellow, which I think adds to the agitation this cover evokes, but is grounded in green, a color of good luck and prosperity, which in my opinion hints at the awesome natural powers this boy has been given.)
In Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, the title itself tells you that this is going to be an adventure–that excitement awaits. (Not to mention that the red dragon on the cover looks terrifying–is the girl really going to let it loose? And that hint of yellow makes me slightly uneasy about this whole idea of releasing the dragon into the wild. How exhilarating and alarming at the same time!)
Blue is a soothing, calming color, but it can also be associated with feelings of sadness, loneliness, or alienation.
In Michael O. Tunnell’s School Spirits, the main character is new at his school, so he feels isolated from the rest of the students. Oh, and there’s a ghost in the book, too, who just happens to be blue-green. And lonely. And very much the sad being you would expect of a restless spirit.
Though there are many different covers for the classic Mr. Popper’s Penguins, by Richard and Florence Atwater, most of them are predominately blue. Mr. Popper (a dreamer and a painter by trade) spends his time caring for, and enjoying, the penguins he receives from Admiral Drake who is currently on an expedition in the Antarctic. Though the book is full of the antics of the penguins, and Mr. Popper and his family as well, the entire book exudes a soothing sort of safeness that all will be well if Mr. Popper is around.
Green is the color of nature. It’s also associated with good luck, tranquility, and health.
In Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Treasures of Weatherby, a girl names Allegra literally flies. There is much in the book that is mysterious as well, but the front cover captures so vividly this character’s flying attributes, which mirrors what mother nature has given the birds. (Side note: this image is not the one on the cover of my book, but I do like how the bit of yellow in this version captures some of the anxiety and restlessness of these characters, plus the black invokes some lurking evil that is hidden just out of sight….)
In Kim Baker’s Pickle, the main characters want to use school funds to pull off their pranks, and they decide to start a pickle club as a cover. They are going to need all the luck they can get! (I’d also like to point out that this book cover uses a lot of blue, too, which helps make this group feel aloof and alienated, because, well, they are are SECRET group, after all. They do stand apart.)
Black is associated with evil and menace, as well as death and mourning.
In Suzanne Collins’ Gregor the Overlander, not only is the Underland devoid of sunlight, but it is full of menacing creatures who have captured Gregor’s father. This cover, though full of lighter buildings, has much hidden in the shadows.
In The Search for WondLa, by Tony DiTerlizzi, the main character, Eva Nine, leaves in search of the long-lost (and possibly no longer existing) land of WondLa. She uncovers a world full of dangers, both of the natural world and of men. (As a side note, note that Eva herself is light against the darkness of the rest of the cover, and as she begins her journey she is the only one innocent of the world around her. Interesting.)
White denotes purity and innocence, but also can be cold, unfeeling, or bland.
In Breadcrumbs, by Anne Ursu, Hazel’s best friend, Jack, is captured by a woman made of ice, and Hazel sets off into the forest to rescue him. (Side note, notice the hint of red in the middle of the cover, which I think helps the readers feels the intensity of Hazel’s love for her friend as well as the power of the Snow Queen.)
In Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society, the four children who make up the society are chosen through a random set of challenges…it’s a very cerebral way of choosing some very resourceful children to take on a supervillain the likes of which the world as never seen.
There are more colors than my above-mentioned categories, obviously. I’m sure there are many more books out there that might not fit into any one particular color category, either. Or how about those that use lots of different colors? Where would they fit?
Besides, colors can also be influenced by culture, so one culture may have a different perception of a particular color than another would. For example, in Western culture white symbolizes purity and innocence, but in some Eastern cultures it symbolizes death and mourning.
Historical cultures attached slightly different meanings to colors than our modern sensibilities do, too: for example, black meant death in ancient Egypt, but it was also a symbol for rebirth and resurrection.
And, if I’m being honest, color psychology is often met with skepticism in the psychological and scientific world. I doubt any scientist would take my thoughts seriously, anyway. So even though this is all in good fun, I hope the next time you pick up a book, pay attention to how the cover makes you feel. I bet you’ll see that the colors on it might be helping to create the mood the book is trying to portray.
Soon enough you’ll be judging books by their colors, too.
Elissa Cruz likes colors. If asked, she’d be hard-pressed to choose a favorite. However, she’s not a big fan of avocado. Or mustard. Or beige. She’s not a big fan of 1970s fashion, either, come to think of it. And in her opinion turquoise is a little too garish in anything larger than a piece of jewelry. She writes books for kids of all ages and is the ARA of the Utah/Southern Idaho region of SCBWI.