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Teens Do Judge a Book by the Cover

by Mitali Perkins

Confession: at times I want to ditch the label “multicultural.” I flinch when booksellers or librarians inform me regretfully that they can’t buy my books because their shops and libraries don’t serve “multicultural” kids. When I’m paraded or introduced at events as a “multicultural” writer, the qualifier can made me feel tokenized and sidelined in the blink of a well-meaning eye.

But my negative feelings about the label disappeared a couple of years ago during the Kennedy Center’s Annual Multicultural Literature Festival.

Several of us were waiting to sign books inside a large room stocked only with books about non-white protagonists. Someone cut a huge ribbon with oversized shears, music began to play, and in streamed a score of brown and black children. Eager faces lit up at the sight of hundreds of covers featuring kids like them. For once, they weren’t on the margins, and I remembered again why “multicultural” kids need “multicultural” books.

But I still don’t get it when adults tell me young readers won’t connect with heroes of other races. “You read books like Kite Runner and Unaccustomed Earth,” I say. “Why not expect kids and teens to cross borders in their reading?”

I point to other artifacts of youth culture. “Their generation celebrates the mixing and mingling of races in television, music, and movies. Why not in books?”

On my blog (mitaliblog.com), I’ve become a proverbial broken record with a “windows and mirrors” plea: “The best novels let young people gain insight into other lives as well as reflect realities in their own lives.”

More confession: I worry that such noble soundbytes are unrealistic in the marketplace. Once the gatekeepers step aside in young adult literature, will teens choose book covers featuring faces of other races? Now that Justine Larbalestier’s Liar no longer features a white girl, are fewer copies selling?

Nobody seems to want to answer uncomfortable questions like these, so I took an anonymous poll on my blog about book covers. 138 librarians and booksellers responded, and here are the results:

25% said, “A YA book with a brown, black, or Asian face on the cover is RARELY bought or borrowed by white teens unless I push it.”

37% said, “A YA book with a brown, black, or Asian face on the cover is SOMETIMES bought or borrowed by white teens unless I push it.”

38% said, “A YA book with a brown, black, or Asian face on the cover circulates or sells THE SAME as other books, depending on buzz and reviews.”

Based on my unscientific data, then, it seems the race of a face on a young adult book cover does make a difference to white teens, and presumably to all teens. Assuming that these results (and the cynics) are right, I present two proposals for book covers in the world of children’s and teen books.

Keep covers—and illustrations—richly diverse when it comes to books for babies, toddlers, pre-K, and elementary-school-aged kids.

Preschool and elementary school students are wide open to stories suggested by teachers, librarians, and parents. It’s a time in life when you’re on the hunt for connections.

Back then I didn’t notice that books I loved like Heidi, Little Women, and the Betsy-Tacy books were about white girls. They were about children, and I was definitely one of those. If I had discovered a book like my own Rickshaw Girl in elementary school, I probably wouldn’t have noticed that Naima was brown like me. I would have read (and hopefully enjoyed) it simply as another book about a girl.

That doesn’t mean, however, that I wasn’t subliminally picking up messages about race, culture, gender, and power from the books I was reading. Childhood is a time when attitudes about such things are formed for life—perhaps it’s no surprise that during my young adulthood I battled deep-seated emotions of marginalization and exclusion.

The good news is that today, more educators are aware of stereotypes in books and many seek to include a diversity of literature in the curriculum. Television and movies aimed at kids have made big strides in representation. There’s certainly work to be done, but let’s hope that in 2010 and beyond, North American young children will subconsciously register a rainbow of faces as they make connections in all kinds of stories.

Get most faces OFF the covers of young adult novels.

 

Everything changes when it comes to the teen years. It’s a time in life when you’re on the hunt for identity.

I was in my upper teens when I realized that the protagonists in the books I loved were all of European descent. It was embarrassing; I felt like I was denying my culture. Was I a white-girl wannabe? I hoped not, but I began reading contemporary fiction with white faces on the covers in secret and shifted my focus to fantasy. I could at least imagine that Tolkien’s Aragorn was brown—a depiction of his face wasn’t on the book covers before the New Line movies.

I didn’t have much choice back then when it came to dark-skinned heroes, but maybe that’s an excuse. In my mostly all-white schools, would I have had the courage to carry around a novel with a brown girl on the cover? Not in middle school, that’s for sure. Probably not until eleventh grade or so, when my identity was more secure. (Too bad the first YA novel I’d find featuring an Indian American face was the one I myself would write years later.)

I try to imagine the experience of readers like me in today’s world, when at least a few covers on the margins (typically not bestsellers, mind you) bear non-white faces. I’ve come to the conclusion that while the book cover world may have diversified a bit since my coming of age, the pressure on teenagers remains the same. It might even be worse.

During grades 6-10, only the rare teen these days has the chutzpah to be seen in public with any book that isn’t trendy. A black teen might be embarrassed to carry around a novel with a white girl on the cover, a white teen is teased with “wigga” if he reads a book with a black face on the cover, and an Asian American trying to blend in feels uncomfortable when her teacher hands her an “Asian” novel in front of the class. Despite their generation’s relative openness to other races and cultures, our young people seem to be stuck in narrow trenches when it comes to their own ethnic identities.

That’s why publishers are managing to lure readers across gender and race lines and even time periods with action-oriented, faceless covers for novels like Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld and Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

Australian publishers seem to understand this better than American houses. Take Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth, for example. I showed my brown teen son two covers (the first for the US edition and the second for the Australian) and told him they were about zombies. Guess which book he wanted to read?

I’ll give you three other reasons why a move toward the elimination of faces and models on young adult book covers makes sense.

First, it shifts the power to embody characters from the publishing house to the reader and writer. Readers can choose to flesh out the writer’s descriptions mentally (some tips for writers here and here), or hurry through a gripping story and ignore them altogether. The power of the imagination to cast the characters is an advantage a written or oral story has over a movie—why compromise that advantage by trying to imitate another medium?

Second, covers without faces don’t go out of date as quickly. Trends in teen hair and clothing change fast—anyone seen a bouffant or permed hairdo on a cover girl lately, for example?

Last but not least, the e-book revolution could eliminate traditional book covers altogether. Kindles, iPads, and other devices make covert reading more possible—we might see teens crossing more borders in fiction if they read privately. On the flip side, given that this is a generation which loves to personalize for public display, I can imagine teen readers mastering creative apps and designing their own e-book covers for beloved books.

Blogger Ari at Black Teens Read, Too represented her generation in an open letter to Bloomsbury during the cover fail controversy:

I’m sure you can’t imagine what it’s like to wander through the teen section of a bookstore and only see one or two books with people of color on them. Do you know how much that hurts? Are we so worthless that the few books that do feature people of color don’t have covers with people of color?

But what if teen shelves had no faces on any of the covers, while middle grade and picture book shelves were well-stocked with faces from many cultural backgrounds? If there weren’t a flood of white teen faces surrounding a reader like Ari as she browsed the aisles, maybe the sting of under-representation would lessen a bit.

Let’s empower teens to travel far and wide in their reading by keeping YA novels richly diverse—and by “defacing” book covers that might hinder such journeys. And let’s include them in the conversation as we seek to express race and culture in stories. Because in this discussion, as we saw during cover fail, it’s helpful when adults are willing to admit when we’re wrong. You can start by correcting or informing me; I’m listening, I promise.


To visit with Mitali Perkins, click here.

To read more YA and Children’s Literature, click here.

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Andy June 10, 2010 at 8:32 am

Is the problem with faces on the covers or in teaching kids that a book featuring a person of another color or nationality is not a bad thing? Is a teen who shuns a book because there’s a person of color on the cover any more likely to keep reading once they learn who the protagonist is?

A few years ago, the discussion was whether or not “girl parts” as seen on book covers (butts, legs, etc.) led to objectification and demeaning of women by suggesting they were little more than something to be ogled and didn’t deserve to have an identity, as would come through with a face. The fairly recent move to add faces seems to be a reply to those somewhat reasonable arguments.

I know for a fact that many chain buyers look for photographs and, most importantly, faces on covers because their data shows that they sell. Is that founded? Hard to say. You could argue that it’s the author’s brilliant writing that sells but the sales argument is going to be that it’s the package that drew them in to the writing in the first place.

I don’t totally disagree with what you’re saying. I’m tired of seeing faces on covers because I’m tired of seeing faces on covers. Gazing up and down the shelves at the local bookstore and seeing rows of eyes staring back can be unnerving. More importantly, they all begin to look alike. Some of my favorite covers have been more abstract and thought provoking, using imagery. I’d like to think that teens have the intelligence and emotional capacity to respond to an artist endeavor that doesn’t involve a pretty face. But I think the chain buyers would disagree.

Either way, I’m not convinced changing cover directions is a way to combat what is essentially passive racism. If anything, shouldn’t the covers celebrate diversity if only to force the issue?

A very interesting discussion. I’ll be interested to hear what others say.

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tehawesomersace June 10, 2010 at 8:46 am

Love, love, LOVE this! I feel the same way. I hate books with people on the cover, always have. I think it’s cheesy, no matter how well done. I enjoy books where I can imagine what the characters look like, whether they are people of color or not.

I have the same heartburn when an author describes a plain character but the girl on the cover is beautiful. It can really ruin the experience.

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Michelle Teacress June 10, 2010 at 9:15 am

I didn’t expect the topic of faces on YA book covers to take this angle. I prefer faceless covers because it makes a novel timeless and allows the reader to visualize the characters. When I choose a book, I like to think color doesn’t matter, but you’ve got me thinking. Although my work in progress contains characters that represent English, African, Indian, and Asian cultures, I cannot recall many books I’ve read with multicultural characters. I’ll pay more attention now, and branch out. Thanks.

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david e June 10, 2010 at 9:17 am

Getting faces off the cover is part of what pushed designers to move toward the decapitated bodies with bare midriffs!

There are so many images that come out of a story that it shouldn’t be a challenge for designers to find some other way to represent the story without using a human face. In some ways I think putting a face or representing a character on the cover is really nothing more than lazy design.

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Marie June 10, 2010 at 9:29 am

I totally agree, Mitali- Hard for kids in middle school, especially, to feel secure no matter what. Skin color and eye shape aside, very very few readers can identify with a photo of a very specific kind of person- that is way too narrow in terms of branding- having a marketing background and MBA I say that perhaps large retailers have driven a push for photos, but I believe this is a big mistake. As an artist I like more abstract-personally, I was disappointed when Shannon Hale’s Bayern books came out in paperback featuring photos of the characters- instead of the lovely illustrations on the initial hardcovers. My son loves books about kids very different from him- no matter where they come from- Christopher Paul Curtis a favorite author, and many more. Maybe through discussions like this the publishing river will flow to a wider sea – I do think that Disney and Nickelodeon are truly valuable in helping to broaden the world view- people are people. :) thanks for starting this discussion. But one last thing- if the trend is toward faces- make them varied- make them more painterly- give the public a broader representation- at least. And- lastly- I see many bestsellers out there- most of those have painted-illustrated covers- and many leave out faces altogether- that should tell the publishing world something!

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shelli June 10, 2010 at 10:21 am

I don’t like pictures of characters on the cover. I want to form my own vision of the character as I read and I want readers of my work to be able to do the same. The multicultural issue is a valid reason to not feature images of the characters on the cover. It could also influence a potential reader’s decision if the image of that character resembles someone they don’t like. Even adults are subject to instant dislike based on someone’s appearance. Why risk it on a book cover? Seems an odd marketing choice to me.

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Aths June 10, 2010 at 10:23 am

I kind of agree with what the above commenters have to say. I dislike book covers with faces. Period. I find they never express the story within the book, but just give a nice shiny package like Apple’s set of computers.

But I don’t think removing faces from book covers just to encourage teens to read, is the right way to go. The reason is, it doesn’t exactly combat the issue of teens not reading “multicultural” books. I would hate it if removing a colored face from a book’s cover made a “white” teen more inclined to read it. That’s not exactly the kind of thing we want to achieve, is it? That may make them open the book and in some cases read it, but I’m not sure exactly how much that will help either. Getting teens to read more is a good thing, but if it is colored by a prejudice to read books featuring only white characters is not a good thing, irrespective of the cover influence.

But the other suggestion you mentioned – to have kid- and elementary- books feature covers with brown, black, white, and Asian faces is more the way to go. What is essential is that teen readers not go into that realm of biased book selection based on the cover. Almost all of them get over that phase once they transcend into adulthood, because that’s probably when they realize… how wrong their method of choosing books were? So why not prevent that from happening at the first place?

Personally, like David said, I think putting faces on covers is just a lazy option. I have seen some good ones in that category, but not too many. It’s kind of annoying to see a stunning model stare at you from every other book on an aisle. That itself is one minus point for the book in my opinion because of the lack of originality.

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Dana Carey June 10, 2010 at 10:29 am

A few years ago before a long plane ride, I allowed my daughter to pick out any book she wanted for the trip. She chose “Le chemin d’exil” the French translation of “The Wheel of Surya” by Jamila Gavin. There are 2 dark brown girls on the cover. She loved this book & has asked me to read it too. She was so inspired that for a school assignment, she wrote a short story set in India. We live in France and my daughter is bicultural/bilingual (American/French). She would never ignore a book because it was about Africans, Asians, or any other ethnic group.

I think it is a question of the society we live in, the upbringing we have. I’m sorry to hear that this is still such a hot topic. Having said all that, I prefer book covers without faces. I think illustrators & designers can dig a little deeper & come up with a more inspiring image; an image that invites everyone in to discover its significance.

Thanks for an informative post.
@danaFR

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Andy June 10, 2010 at 10:36 am

Great responses. My next question: of the people who’ve responded to say that they hate faces on book covers, how many of you are teens?

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Meredith Davis June 10, 2010 at 4:51 pm

I definitely believe that teens select books based on the covers, they are obsessed at that time in life with appearances, and a book cover is just another manifestation of this obsession. I don’t think it’s because they are so much worried about what others might think of them if they’re seen holding the book, but because they make generalizations about the characters and perhaps even the story based on the people featured on the cover. Just as they make generalizations about a new kid in class based on that kid’s appearance.

When I was growing up, I avoided books with characters of different races because I assumed they would be “educational” in some way, and I was all about fiction. I didn’t want a folk tale, and I didn’t someone trying to cleverly disguise information about “what it’s like to live in a foreign country” or a history lesson in the guise of story. I wanted a ripping good story, and if the ripping good story had a black heroine, I was fine with that. I honestly think if Harry Potter were black, as a teen I would have liked the book just as much. But I assumed then, and I wonder if teens assume now, that a book with someone different from them on the cover isn’t really meant for them. Not because they are racist, but because it’s someone else’s story. And that’s a shame, because there’s a lot of great stories out there that kids of other races miss, because they never pick up the book.

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tanita June 11, 2010 at 2:55 am

Hey, Mitali, I appreciate your well-articulated and balanced thoughts. I do wonder, though if your sons would have liked The Forest of Hands and Teeth SANS GIRL MODEL. Maybe that wasn’t about representation of ethnicity as much as it was about Boy Reading Book With Girl On Cover.

I do wish that books which have a wider audience and can successfully be marketed to boys and girls would have neutral, artistic covers, and/or have more than one character on the cover. This clearly could have worked for Forest; there were the other kids, plus the old women who ran the zombie shelter who could have been depicted. Why are we shining a spotlight on a single, attractive person (who, in reality, could not have been that attractive. I mean, her hair is rippling. Whose hair ripples when they live in such rural circumstances, and they are running from zombies!?!?).

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Harold Underdown June 11, 2010 at 1:18 pm

Mitali, thanks for posting this–we’ve talked about this and related issues at Kindling Words and when I’ve run into at conferences. I want to comment briefly on this from the point of view of someone who has worked in-house at publishers, and had personal experience of the way that “multicultural” titles are handled. I agree that there’s an issue here, but I don’t think that in purely practical terms you’ll be able to get publishers to agree to a blanket solution. You’ll get different responses, I think. Some won’t agree, on principal, the principal being that they won’t restrict their options in the marketplace. Some will agree, on principal, because they agree with you. Others will argue that a case-by-case approach makes the most sense.

But even if you don’t get publishers agreeing, this is well worth talking about, to raise awareness of the issue, and gradually to change the standard practice….

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The1stdaughter June 11, 2010 at 1:20 pm

Honestly, I feel well out of my element commenting on something like this post. I’m a white girl who grew up in the suburbs. As a child I don’t feel like I was swayed either way by the cover, I just loved to read anything I could get my hands on. My teens were spent with books shoved down my throat by my teachers, which developed a distaste for most books until I was older and away from the situation.

Now, I tend to agree, I like the covers with no faces. Unfortunately, I think it does sway my choice. It’s a way to connect with a character on a personal level. And that’s not to say I will only pick up covers where the person is white, but the covers with faces that appeal to me almost always have something to do with my ancestry. Most of my ancestors were American Indians – Cherokee, and if I find one with that represented I will almost always give it a second look over.

The thing is though, I love to learn about other cultures and removing the “face” on the cover almost always will lead me to some new discovery. Because, though I enjoy learning about other people and places I don’t like feeling that it’s being shoved at me. For example, the cover I hated the most in high school was for The Scarlet Letter. I couldn’t stand the girl with the “A” on her dress, I felt like I was being told not to commit adultery, though I never would, it was just too much. It’s all about perception and I think removing the “person” from the cover could get a lot of books into the hands of kids who maybe wouldn’t have given them a second glance.

Great post!

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Sam June 11, 2010 at 4:24 pm

Huh. It’s interesting to me to see just how many people don’t like faces on covers. Honestly, I think it can be cool a lot of the time. I’m 16 and ‘white’ and live in a town without a ton of diversity. I’ve never had an issue with picking up a book with a different color face. While I do agree to a lot of what you are saying, I’d like to add my bit as well.
Quite honestly, I’m pretty disturbed by
how little credit is being given to teens. The novel you mentioned, Liar, has a cute and spunky cover. I would pick it up for that alone. Even in a small school, I can’t ever imagine being mocked for the books I carry–maybe that could be seen as whimsical or even naive, but I honestly don’t think it would happen. It’s just not that big a deal–and the people who create covers, agrees, often seem to make it into one
I do not care what the character looks like. Honestly? I would have been pretty ticked to pick up Liar with the original cover and find it not to match the character. It’s kind of an insult to the intelligence and depth of teens that the industry feels like need to white wash covers. This entire post, I was nodding along–but at the same time, I’m a tad offended that it is assumed I wouldn’t want to read a book purely because of the character’s skin.
YA is exploding. I love that people are different than me, and I don’t think that I’m the only 16 yr old who thinks so. I just wish that the covers would reflect the book, and not what someone assume I would want.
Ack. I hope that made sense. :/

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Suma June 12, 2010 at 9:53 pm

I’ve never paid attention to the image on the book covers until I reached college. But looking back, I’ve almost always picked up books that did not have faces. Very good article Mitali. Thanks for sharing.

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Ari June 12, 2010 at 11:25 pm

@Sam-That makes total sense, I think that’s what all readers want, someone on the cover who looks like the main character/reflects what’s inside the book, I think Mitali is just making the point that it might be better to have no cover at all so people can imagine main characters to look however they want and they won’t be disappointed (this is just my interpretation, I could be way off). Also, I do disagree a tiny bit with the thing about being mocked for book covers, at my school you would definitely be made fun of for carrying around books that aren’t assigned. But that’s just my school.

Thanks Mitali for using an excerpt from my letter :)

However, I like faces on covers. I don’t like half faces or just seeing necks, etc. But I love seeing books with brown skinned people on them. I also love covers with white people on them. I think we do need faces on covers, becuase the media plays a huge role in how kids view themselves and it would help to see more diversity on covers and attract more reluctant readers.

That being said, I also love the covers with cool symbols or words or funny pictures on them.

I’m so glad we are having this discussion!

Anyway

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Ari June 12, 2010 at 11:27 pm

I also agree with Tanita’s comment that we need more realistic covers. And if I see one more cover where the main character is fat but the girl on the cover is skinnny, I might scream!

So yes, we do need more gender-neutral covers and more diversity in covers not just in culture/race but in body image.

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Mitali Perkins June 14, 2010 at 7:13 am

Thanks, all, for your responses. I’m listening carefully, and appreciate the candor. I’d love it if more teen readers weighed in. Could you invite your friends to comment, Sam and Ari?

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Blythe June 14, 2010 at 9:47 am

“Windows and mirrors” is pure genius–not only about covers, but about what we should hope is on the pages inside.

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Paulette June 14, 2010 at 1:34 pm

I agree with you Mitali. As a high school librarian, I can confirm that most teens do judge a book by its cover. Also, a publisher is in the business of making money and the teens with money are usually not the ones with minority faces, therefore publishers know that more books will sell if it has the buyers face on it. What gets me riled up, is to read the book and find that the face on the cover does not match the character, as written by the author.

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Greg Neri June 15, 2010 at 9:01 pm

Interesting breakdown. I do like covers that leave more to the imagination. However in my own case, by spring of next year, 3 of my books will have featured closeups of black boys and one book, a white teen. Which will have sold the least? The one with the white teen. Go figure. But as a general approach, I think abstract is better. It also allows the reader to create their own version of the character, so even if the protagonist is white, they can be whatever color you dream up in your mind.

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Ari June 16, 2010 at 2:37 pm

My friends don’t read much so I’m not sure if they have an opinion on it either way… I’ll ask them.

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Ms. Yingling July 13, 2010 at 7:04 am

I find in my library that books with African Americans on the cover are checked out more when I display them cover out. I have many students who are comfortable asking me for books with African American characters, but they seem to enjoy finding the books on their own. The ethnicity of the reader doesn’t seem to matter. Pictures of people of color might affect the sales of books, but it doesn’t adversely affect whether or not the books are read in my library.

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Joe Cepeda August 15, 2010 at 5:29 pm

I’m an illustrator (and author). Illustrating a book cover is one of my absolute favorite things to do. I’ve illustrated picture books and chapter books. However, so many times the life of a provocative idea gets sucked away all too many times. Marketing issues run the show and they don’t always coincide with a great editorial willingness to take chance. It’s always refreshing when an art director is given the freedom to explore solutions with an illustrator that may prove to result in a timeless cover. That solution may be abstract, conceptual, representational… with a face or without.

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Nadine Mathu March 15, 2011 at 8:48 am

As I recommend books to high school students, it is impossible NOT to seriously consider the cover representations. They are more than art; they have politics, economics, and marketing in mind. And these things either overtly or subliminally enter the minds of the books’ readers as well. An added note, if you are a librarian and a great classic book is not being read, it’s worth it to buy a new printing with a new cover. It matters!

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