‘Don’t Judge A Book By Its Cover’. A phrase that is taught to kids all around the world, helping them to do away with preconceived notions and to push past instinct and instead engage at a deeper level with either a subject matter or another person. But to treat this phrase as gospel instead of a guiding principle would be a mistake as well as belying human nature. It would perhaps be more accurate to say “A Book Cover Doesn’t Tell The Whole Story, But It Can Provide An Indication Of What Is To Come”. Unsurprisingly, this does not make for such a pithy quote.
But, away from moral platitudes, we can take this latter viewpoint to help understand certain works of art, not least books themselves. The cover art for a book is the author’s first chance to make an impression on the reader and the choices made unquestionably have a serious impact upon them. Whether that is what genre of book they think the work is going to be, how creative or conformative they view the author or even at its most basic level whether or not the cover is sufficiently engaging to hold the prospective readers attention and open the door to the possibility that they make take the book from the shelf and decide to read it.
An entire thesis could be written on the evolution of book covers and how in today’s oversaturated market it often feels like the analysts and data models have narrowed down covers to a cookie cutter formula, forgoing innovation and risk for the safe and inoffensive play. With that in mind, for us to be able to glean anything from cover art, we must take a rather nostalgic trip down memory lane to a series of books that from the 90s onwards captured the hearts and minds of readers young and old, starting with the magical cover itself.
We are of course talking about the Harry Potter series written by J K Rowling and in this article we will take a look at each of the seven books and their covers, to analyze what design choices were made and what we as the reader can learn from them.
Harry Potter and the Socerer’s Stone
The debut book in the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was first released in the summer of 1997. The combination of the bold font saying ‘Harry Potter’ and the art of him flying through the air on his broomstick immediately clarifies who this is. But much like the introduction of a character in a TV series or film, it inspires multiple questions in the readers mind. Who is he? How does he have magic powers? Where is he? Why does he have a lightning bolt scar on his forehead? In full flight on his broomstick with hair blowing in the breeze and scarf waving in the wind behind him, there is a strong sense of movement which brings to life what could be an otherwise static portrayal of the main character.
Alongside this, one can see the hint of a castle in the background as well as a unicorn riding across the ground in front of a forest, to further hammer home the point that to open the pages of this book is to dive into a magical world far flung from the one that the reader inhabits.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
The second book, ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’ establishes a consistent format with the covers. The title name of ‘Harry Potter’ sits at the top of the page, with the name of the story ‘Chamber of Secrets’ cleverly written into the depicted scene as red lettering on the wall behind Harry. Once again, there is motion in the image with Harry clinging onto the tail of a large red phoenix. The cover art relies on how well known the story now is, so it does not have to go into as much detail in its design choices to demonstrate that this story takes place in a magical world.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
A theme emerges in the third book with the inclusion of a fantastical beast, alien to the human world but seemingly familiar to Harry, as the cover depicts him riding it as the beast is in mid-flight. This can also be seen as a maturing of Harry himself, as he has transitioned from a broomstick, to holding onto a phoenix’s tails to being in full control of this mythical animal. The title of the story ‘Prisoner of Azkaban’ is once again included in the scene, rather than simply layered on top of it, to immediately immerse the reader in the story.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
The fourth book sees a slight departure from the first three, as no creatures are center stage and only the peeking eyes of a mysterious animal can be seen in the background. Instead a focus is made on a number of secondary characters, which can be viewed as an attempt to progress the story away from juvenile wonder at the wizarding world and rather reflect on how the story has evolved to focus on the human drama and what is at stake for them. Harry’s appearance also follows this same pattern, with a clear aging having taken place from small child to that of a young teenager.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
The fifth book cover sees a continuation of this theme. Gone are the early days of bright colors and innocence, replaced instead with an ominous blue palette denoting the seriousness with which the story’s plot has reached. Harry’s facial expressions have transitioned from from joy to a determined steely glare as he looks over his shoulder just past the reader’s eyeline, cleverly involving the reader in the scene.
Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince
The penultimate book shows Dumbledore and Harry staring intently into a mysterious green light, with Harry’s wand at the ready. Even those without any prior knowledge of the Harry Potter series, would certainly be able to identify this as a magical tale due to both the wand and Dumbledore’s unambiguously wizard-like appearance. The color scheme is conventional, with complimentary colors green and purple opted for. Again, questions arise, the primary one being “What are they looking into?” and “Why?”, beckoning the reader in to find out more.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
The conclusion of the series depicts its darkest scene yet. Those familiar with the tale, will recognise Voldemort facing off against Harry in what is akin to a final showdown. There is no question as the good and evil narrative unfolds with the dark purple colors of Voldemort facing off against Harry wearing his red top and the light emitting from the fiery floor beneath him casting him in a warm glow. A small unnamed character crouches just behind Voldemort and is seen peeking out at the action, but facing away from the reader which allows us as the viewer to do the same, involving us in what is happening.
Harry Potter Book Covers – Final Thoughts
If one was to disregard the aforementioned advice at the top of the article and decide to judge these books by their covers, what would we learn?
Well, we’d first of all be able to jump into an evolving narrative and feel included in the story due to the clever design choices. Secondly, these covers serve as a lesson in color schemes and how what at first glance may seem like an arbitrary choice, can actually take on great significance.
Finally, we would learn the art of creating covers that inspire questions from the reader.
These book covers are as far from passive as is possible to create, and even those readers who place the book back on the shelf as opposed to taking them home to read, have a far greater chance of thinking about the snapshot of the Harry Potter world, long after they had seen them.