Let’s not kid ourselves here: a good book cover can make all the difference in the world. (Just ask the 25-cent fantasy and sci-fi paperbacks at Goodwill.)
Here to show you how it’s done are eighteen of the best book covers in Western writing .
1 ) The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Artwork by Francis Cugat
Huge eyes surveying a nighttime cityscape are the kind of thing you’d expect to find on the cover of a dystopian sci-fi novel, not a Jazz Age fiction.
We’ll admit that a huge pair of eyes on a billboard features prominently in the story, but Fitzgerald most likely added that only after falling in love with Francis Cugat’s artwork.
Seriously though, pairing up the defining novel of the twentieth century with the most iconic book cover in all of Western lit? Some publishers have all the luck.
2 ) The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss
Artwork by Dr. Seuss
Pretend for a second that you’ve never heard of Dr. Seuss, then imagine a cat in a hat. Pop quiz: how many of you pictured a fluffy kitten curled up inside a beret, and how many of you pictured a beer-gutted cartoon weasel with opposable thumbs and Pippi’s longstocking for headwear?
THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is why the man goes by Doctor.
3 ) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
Artwork by Ralph Steadman
Steadman definitely sees people in an interesting light, his illustrations often seem like grotesque caricatures.
However, no two works of art seem more perfectly mated to one another than Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing and Ralph Steadman’s face-melting scene of a bad trip through the Mojave desert.
We don’t know what these two were smoking but— er, scratch that.
4 ) The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Artwork by Michael Mitchell
What’s the first image that comes to mind when you think of an angsty, seventeen-year-old male whose response to getting kicked out of school is to try to pick up a hooker?
Our best guess: prawwwwbably not a billowy, red carousel horse decked out in ribbons. And yet, this manages to be such a seriously kickbutt illustration that we wouldn’t be surprised if it helped inspire Terry Gilliam’s design for the Red Knight in The Fisher King.
5 ) The Giver by Lois Lowry
Portrait (of Carl Nelson) taken by Lois Lowry
When it comes to icons for young adults, one of these things is not like the other.
Is it: A) Hannah Montana, B) Mikey, the Life Cereal kid, C) Bratz dolls, or D) the grizzliest old man of all time?
Kudos for thinking outside the box on that one, Lowry.
6 ) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Artwork by Shirley Smith
As a Southern Gothic coming-of-age tale about racial injustice and a potentially murderous boogeyman, To Kill a Mockingbird tackles enough themes for fifty different book covers – each of which is cheesier than the last.
Fortunately, the publishers sidestepped this potential pitfall by opting for a beautiful, stylized tree instead. You stay classy, Shirley Smith.
7 ) A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Artwork by David Pelham
Consisting of smooth lines, primary colors, and an unassuming sans serif font, the book cover for A Clockwork Orange could easily pass for a pamphlet on hygiene circa 1972 – unless you happen to notice that horrific eyeball floating on an otherwise expressionless face.The cog-like shape reveals a cold, calculating nature while the fixed, unblinking stare suggests that it’s also picturing you naked .
Make sure to turn this one facedown when you have company over.
8 ) Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Artwork by Maurice Sendak
Most children’s stories don’t depict monsters as potential friends; of those that do, very few resist the urge to make them fluffy and adorable. Maurice Sendak clears both of these hurdles, making him one of very few children’s authors to actually give kids a little credit.
Sure, the illustrations might still freak us out a little… even as adults… but it’s good to confront your demons every now and again.
9 ) Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney
Design by Seth Rubin and Cynthia Krupat
How do you depict a man whose sheer awesomeness is literally the stuff of legend? One possibility: you don’t.
The armored figure on the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf pulls a young-Jim-Morrison by turning his back to the audience, letting us fill in the blanks with our imagination and/or permanent markers. (For what it’s worth, our money’s on Joker make-up and an eye patch.)
10) Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Artwork by Gregg Kulick
It’s pretty cliché for books about futuristic dystopias to feature man-machine villains on their covers, so what makes this design especially interesting?
For starters, the guy on Kulick’s cover isn’t a villain but a victim. (Think Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times.) See how he’s throwing up his arms and running? We’re no body language experts, but we’re pretty sure it means that if he still had a face, it’d be screaming.
11) The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Artwork by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
The Little Prince is a book with a cover as difficult to pin down as its genre: between the fairytale title, outer-space setting, baby pastel coloring, and total disregard of physics, it seems confused as to whether it’s sci-fi, fantasy, Mother Goose, or Ziggy Stardust. (No, really – just look at the guy’s wardrobe.)
Covering all your bases has its advantages, though, as The Little Prince also happens to be high in the running for best selling book of all time.
12) Jaws by Peter Benchley
Artwork by Roger Kastel
This is a book cover that changed book covers – not to mention movie posters – forever. Simple and effective, it conveys the full force of the book at a glance with the added bonus of making our skin totally crawl.
If you’re interested in a more elegant (and arguably creepier) version, check out the original hardback cover on which Kastel’s iconic image is based.
13) Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Artwork by Joseph Mugnaini
Constructing a man out of newspaper, setting him atop a pile of books, and lighting him on fire is a good start to an interesting book cover, but where Mugnaini really stands out is in theatrically placing the man’s hand to his forehead.
What’s this supposed to mean, especially now that we can’t see the guy’s face? Only opening the book will determine whether he’s sad, frustrated, ashamed, or simply checking out his new kicks.
14) The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
Artwork by Eric Carle
The cover of The Very Hungry Caterpillar is one of the most recognizable in the world. Simple and stylish without being generic, the caterpillar is just expressive enough to make it seem like you’ve startled him in the middle of some very important business.
Let’s not even get started on the ever-widening caterpillar crunch-holes inside the book – which, if you’re two, pretty much makes this a Nintendo DS.
15) Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Artwork by Edward McKnight Kauffer
Widely recognized as one of the most stylish and ahead-of-its-time book covers of the twentieth century, Kauffer’s design expertly plays with light, dark, balance, and composition.
Moreover, the implicit crosshairs “surveyor’s marks” over the invisible man’s head force the viewer into the role of a hunter; considering that the story’s about the persecution of African Americans, the metaphor is as frightening as it is potent.
16) Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz
Artwork by Stephen Gammell
Stephen Gammell has illustrated a host of children’s books, but you probably know him best from the Scary Stories series – not to mention every nightmare you’ve ever had.
These wispy, hellish illustrations are the kind of thing you’d get if Ralph Steadman mated with a cobweb while dementors watched. Suffice it to say that they can’t be unseen.
17) The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
Artwork by Michael Ian Kaye
This book cover appeals to the sense of order in all of us: clean lines, symmetry, few colors, and uniformly lowercase font – all of which makes the upside-down dog that much more infuriating to look at.
Considering that the story’s protagonist, who has Autism , spends the entire story trying to impose order on a disorderly world, the frustrating cover sure takes a step toward putting us in the guy’s shoes.
18) Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
Design by Gail Doobinin, photo by Roger Hagadone
Say what you will about the series itself, but there’s no denying that Doobinin and Hagadone nailed the cover art for the entire Twilight saga. It’s no wonder that everything from Pride and Prejudice to Romeo and Juliet is undergoing the Twilight makeover. (Sorry, Shakespeare, but that whole greatest-English-writer-ever thing just doesn’t cut it nowadays.)