One-Minute Book Reviews

October 25, 2007

Why Does This Picture-Book Cover Work? Elizabeth Matthews’s ‘Different Like Coco’

The latest in a series of occasional posts that rate the covers of books recently reviewed on this site

By Janice Harayda

The covers of children’s books often fail for the same reasons that the covers of adult books do: They’re dull, clichéd or too pallid to stand out at a bookstore or library. Or they tell you too little about a book or, worse, aggressively misrepresent the contents. And if they’re about people – instead of one of those riveting topics like Let’s Read and Find Out About Flypaper or My First Book About Dandruff – they may stereotype their subjects as nakedly as all those pink covers on novels marketed to women in their 20s and 30s.

Elizabeth Matthews avoids all those problems on the cover of Different Like Coco (Candlewick, $16.99, ages 4 and up), which combines a pen-and-ink drawing with the artful use of watercolors. This picture-book biography of the fashion designer Coco Chanel sports a witty illustration of its subject in a brown-black dress on a yellow background with the title in an interesting copper-colored script. And it works beautifully for several reasons:

1. It has real “pop.” Put Different Like Coco on any bookstore or library shelf and it will stand out among its shelf-mates because of its strong design. It doesn’t need the special effects that make so many books look more like toys – lots of glitter, metallic images and overengineering in the form of punched-out or see-through spaces.

2. The image of Coco Chanel points to the right, or to the pages instead of the spine. This is so basic that no critic should have to mention it. In most cases you want to focus children’s attention where it will encourage them to open a book (though there are some notable exceptions that succeed). But a striking number of picture books ignore such fundamental design principles.

3. The cover represents both the book and its subject accurately and nonstereotypically (without a sea of pink). Chanel designed simple, unfussy clothes with flair. This is a simple, unfussy cover with flair. Matthews’ art reflects the spirit of Chanel’s designs so well that you might guess the subject of her book before you read the title. But the cover isn’t so sophisticated that it will appeal to adults more than children. The comic exaggeration (and that dog) will take care of that.

Some people might argue that Chanel’s arms look anorexic. But in the context of the book, the pencil-slim arms are clearly intended as a stylistic exaggeration and also appear on women with bodies of operatic proportions.

The only other thing might strike you as odd about this cover is that Matthews’s name appears in a much smaller font than you usually see for authors of her caliber. That’s because this is her first book. The general rule in publishing is: The bigger the author, the larger the font for his or her name relative to the font for the title (though less so for children’s books than others). Stephen King’s name, for example, appears on his covers in a larger font than the title of the book. It’s a safe bet that as Matthews’s reputation increases, the size of her name on the cover will, too.

The original review of Different Like Coco appeared on Oct. 21, 2007, You may also want to read a comment in yesterday’s post (Oct. 23) by lisamm, who says perceptive things about this cover, including the Chanel has her head held high.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. The drawing style reminds me a little of an old English illustrator…if my memory isn’t failing me, I think his name was Ronald Searle (at least I think he was English) His illustrations were used to good comic effect on film titles. From that standpoint, I can see why the design appeals to children, but I have to confess I’m wondering why a book about Coco Chanel would appeal to 4-9 year olds. Am I missing something? Or is it because I’m a guy!

    Comment by kevmoore — October 25, 2007 @ 6:40 am | Reply

  2. Regardless of my opinion about this book cover, this is really an interesting entry, for me as a painter and as a book reader. And as a French woman, whose mother always dreamt of wearing Coco Chanel´s clothes!
    I don´t agree with the assumption “it will stand out among its shelf-mates”. I think this cover is very well done, and everything you are saying about it seems true to me, but not in this context. I think this is a cover which would appeal to adults, and not to children. I am not speaking about the content of the book (Like Kev Moore, I don´t understand how an old, long time dead French fashion designer could interest American children from 4 up….). I am really speaking only about the cover.
    The drawing is really nice, a kind of caricature I like, but doesn´t correspond to the style of drawings that appeal to children. It reminds me very much of the characters from the Painter Toulouse-Lautrec, which are internationally well-known now, but which certainly were not meant for children. Most of them were whores…
    The sales statistics will tell who is right!

    Comment by Miki — October 25, 2007 @ 8:33 am | Reply

  3. Kev: You’re right — the drawings ARE a bit Searle-ish, but I hadn’t thought of that until you mentioned it. Thanks for pointing out the similarity. About the appeal to 4-to-9 year olds, see the following comments for Miki …

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — October 25, 2007 @ 11:18 am | Reply

  4. Miki: My original plan with this series on covers was to include my comments at the end of the review, so that I’d be talking about the covers in a context, but it made the posts too long … I especially wish I could have done it with this book.

    Coco Chanel’s mother died when she was young, after which she was sent to a girls’ convent school, and the book devotes a lot of space to her childhood. So “Different Like Coco” reads like one of the “orphan stories” that children traditionally love (from “Heidi” to “Harry Potter”). But, I agree, the cover doesn’t suggest that, and you could be right that it will appeal more to adults. My sense is that the cover will appeal to children, because of the wit and the dog and the interest in fashion that children of both sexes seem to be developing at younger and younger ages.

    But I love both your and Kev’s comments, because I think that they’re exactly the kind of issues that book awards judges might raise. It will be so interesting to see what happens when these start being handed out in a few months, won’t it?’

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — October 25, 2007 @ 11:38 am | Reply

  5. The discussion of cover design reminds me a book that came out a little while back- Chip Kidd, Book 1: Work 1986-2006. Chip Kidd is a cover designer and this volume compiles some of his best and/or most striking work as well as speaking to the elements and psychology of cover design. It’s pretty interesting. And the book itself features a very effective cover.

    Comment by Laura — October 25, 2007 @ 5:09 pm | Reply

  6. If there were a Nobel Prize for book design, Chip Kidd is the first designer a lot of people would nominate. He is so good. I got many, many of his covers when I was the book editor of the Plain Dealer. And I’d love to do a post on one of his covers in this space. Keep your fingers crossed that one comes across my desk …

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — October 25, 2007 @ 7:28 pm | Reply

  7. I think this book will sell well to libraries. Speaking as someone who buys for the children’s collection, it can be hard to find good picture-book biographies for the younger set. I’m certainly going to consider purchasing this one.

    Comment by speedytexaslibrarian — October 25, 2007 @ 8:21 pm | Reply

  8. Amanda: My feelings, too. At the Plain Dealer, I saw virtually all the children’s books sent out by major publishers, and among books for 4-to-8-year-olds, I got far more good fiction and poetry than nonfiction. The ratio was maybe 100-to-1. And almost all the nonfiction was instructional or related to topics like nature and the environment. Biographies were almost nonexistent for children below the 9-to-12-year-old age range.

    Do you know any good picture-book biographies for younger children? If so, the parents and teachers who are following these comments might like to have some suggestions. Thanks so much for your comment.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — October 25, 2007 @ 8:45 pm | Reply

  9. A postscript on this book and libraries:
    My sense is that “Different Like Coco” been selling strongly to libraries, because when I asked mine to order it, the librarians were willing but said that their supplier had sold out and the book was on back order for about six week. This suggests to me that maybe library suppliers had underestimated the demand.

    I also just checked the coding on the copyright page of the copy of “Different Like Coco” that my library finally got and saw that it came from the second printing. So Candlewick has had go to back to press at least once on this one, which certainly doesn’t happen with every book by a first-time author (especially in its first year of publication).

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — October 25, 2007 @ 9:02 pm | Reply

  10. Janice, I was lead to this page after I wrote a post of my own about picture book covers. I have to agree with Miki in that I find this cover far more appealing than my own daughter does, and she’s within its target age range. The little dog captured her attention, but she thought Coco actually looked “mean” (her word, not mine). I don’t know if it’s the black suit or the thin arms, but she isn’t interested in reading it. I wonder if the publisher did intend to appeal to mothers instead of daughters, as it’s the parents who know Coco Chanel. I’m going to be checking it out of our library, but for me! My daughter’s taste in book covers leans towards the pinkilicious and the fancy like Nancy, not the refined like Coco.

    Comment by tara — September 24, 2008 @ 8:23 pm | Reply

  11. Tara: You’ve identified a very common problem with children’s books: Many of them are designed to appeal more to adults than children. One recent example was Steve Martin’s The Alphabet From A to Y … With Bonus Letter Z.

    But I wonder if the issue with Different Like Coco isn’t the art, which I still think is strong, but whether 4-year-olds will “get” it. You could argue that the issues of “art” and “audience” are inseparable, given that this is a book for 4-to-8-year-olds. As in your daughter’s case, covers do matter tremendously to children who read picture books. Yet I’ve so seen so many dumbed-down picture books that I admire authors try to avoid condescending to children.And Matthews seems to be one who tries to speak “across” to children rather than down to them.

    It will be interesting to see how this book fares over time, or whether it will still have a place in libraries in a couple of decades, because that’s the real test of whether children like it.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — September 24, 2008 @ 11:32 pm | Reply

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