A book cover analysis: a fun back-to-school reading task

When it’s too soon to ask questions about plot and character

On Tuesdays in my independent reading class, I prepare a text-based question for students to answer in a paragraph or two on paper. I ask them to do their reading, keeping in mind the question, and then at the end of the house, they can craft their paragraphs and turn them in for credit for that day’s reading.

But what do you ask when they’re just starting a book? They haven’t turned enough pages to know much about the conflict, the characters, or the plot.

For our first question, I decided to have students analyze their book’s cover. Here’s the question I wrote at the start of class on the whiteboard (and posted on Google Classroom for my students learning at home):

Analyze the cover of your book and write half a page. Look at the illustrations(s), fonts used, photos, the overall design. What does the cover tell you about the book?

I also grabbed these three books off my shelves to show and discuss as mentor texts: When The Astors Owned New York by Justin Kaplan, Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, and The Catcher in The Rye by J. S. Salinger.

We noticed these details about When The Astors Owned New York:

  • a very traditional design
  • the use of serif typeface (I explained briefly the difference between serif and sans serif typefaces)
  • a center axis for everything on the cover (lines of type, a photo)
  • a symmetrical layout that hints at the stately presentation of the story within

Then we looked at Angela’s Ashes and noticed:

  • a poignant vintage photo of a barefooted little boy
  • a stone building that appears modest and hints at the poverty of the owners
  • a charming, wry little smile on the boy that indicates an author’s tone that is downtrodden, yet optimistic, and possibly even humorous

And what does the cover of The Catcher in the Rye imply?

It says, “I don’t care about having a catchy cover. I don’t play the game everyone else does. I do things my own way and I keep things simple, if you wanna know the lousy truth.” Catcher’s cover –while plain and boring — rebels against the norm, hinting at the story inside.

This was a fun way to start our habit of answering text-based questions in my independent reading class this year. After all, it was pointless to ask students about the action of their books four short days into the year.

Analyzing book covers also helps students interpret the visual elements of a text and then draw conclusions* from the choices made by the publisher and design team.

In addition, the activity took only about ten minutes of class time. This allowed students plenty of opportunities to delve further into their personal book selections.

*Missouri Learning Standards RL-1Cand RI-1C (Text Features)

Ever analyze book covers? Despite being the first thing students see when they pick up a book, its design is often overlooked. Share your experiences by leaving a comment on this post.

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Published by Marilyn Yung

Writes | Teaches | Not sure where one ends and the other begins.

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