September 2007

Heather Smith


Judging a Book by Its Cover: The Chronicles of Narnia

I know, gentle reader, last month was wizards, and there’s only so much robes and staffs and orphans that a person can stand and yes, this month I intended to get all critical on something like, oh, poetry, or kittens, or Foucault. But then, gentle reader, while peacefully eating my breakfast of toast and chamomile tea (it’s good for the bile) and minding my own business this came to my attention. And, of course, I choked on my toast, and here we are.

Yes, David Weisner has won many medals. I hear they are shiny medals. As a matter of fact, Mr. Weisner is the illustrator of my favorite book ever about giant vegetables from space as well as my favorite book about flying amphibians that invade people’s homes. But just because someone has won a medal for illustrating children’s books does not mean that they are universally qualified for illustrating all children’s books. Would you want Ernest H. Shepherd illustrating the survivalist children’s classic My Side of the Mountain? Hilary Knight illustrating spooky bunny noir Watership Down?

Weisner’s a superb illustrator, but the Narnia books, with their weird pagan/Christian allegories, pocketknife-carrying children, and genuine moments of terror, are a poor match for him. It appears that a whole new generation of children will be traumatized by bad cover art -- much as I was, as a tender youth, by the disembodied lion’s head on the cover of the '70s paperback edition of Wardrobe sequel The Horse and His Boy. Beloved book, regrettable cover. These are the tragic intersections that beget design critics.

Witness the doe-eyed, cuddly wuddly Keane painting that is Weisner’s interpretation ofThe Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Awwww… look… those children are burying their tiny heads in the shaggy hippie carpet that is Aslan the Lion. Maybe I should read this book to my hypothetical four-year-old, who never takes off his kitty ears and is the socialite of the preschool fursuiter set? Said child will now be traumatized for life when it is revealed that shaggy kitty is tied up and shaved in the preceding chapter to the heartwarming, fur-burying portion of the novel. I’m not saying that every novel should have to wear its scariest scene on its cover like The Scarlet Letter, but I do believe in covers that make a stab at accurately describing the tone and feel of a book. A book that contains such story motifs as children separated from their parents by the London blitz, Mithraic rituals (which Adam Gopnik does an excellent job of describing in The New Yorker), and adorable scarf-wearing goat-men captured by a witch’s Gestapo, should have just a tinge of that reflected in the cover art. Despite its now-incredibly-dated, “Let’s all open the doors of perception, shall we” design, the '70s version of Wardrobe does a much better job at hinting at the eeriness of the book ahead.

It gets worse. Under Weisner, The Last Battle (the weakest, dodgiest and all-around creepiest book of the series) is now disguised as a sparkly unicorn novel. Given the sheer lack of visual appeal in most of the storyline of The Last Battle, it’s been hard for designers to resist the unicorn in the past, but when Chris Van Allsburg, the author/illustrator of The Polar Express did a cover for Battle in the '90s he at least had the decency to soak the unicorn’s horn in blood, and include an ominously darkening sky, as a warning of sorts to the kind of wistful child that is drawn to shiny unicorns like the children of hippies are to processed sugar.

Part of the trouble in coming up for covers for the books is that the Chronicles of Narnia are read by both children and adults now, as opposed to the '70s, when they were mostly read by the same teenagers and college students who had recently discovered the largely moribund and unpopular Lord of the Rings series. Because the Chronicles were decidedly easier for children to read by themselves, and contained absolutely no long ballads written by elves, the covers for the Narnia books have regressed quite a bit more than the Tolkien novels in terms of age targets, to the point where there is now a separate series of Narnia covers intended to render the books more palatable to adults. The “adult edition” of The Last Battle, for example, bears the ubiquitous unicorn, but said unicorn is more Photoshoppy and fantasy role-playing game appropriate, with an ominous black and red background.

In truth, the Chronicles of Narnia are, at least for the moment, available in a remarkable variety of cover options. There’s the movie tie-in edition of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (not great, but certainly not dreadful either, as well as the thoughtful Chris Van Allsburg covers. Van Allsburg seems to have actually read the books in question, and has a remarkable instinct for illustrating the most dramatic and indelible scene from each novel. He’s at his best with the cover for Prince Caspian -- a rough and tumble, suspenseful book that is usually illustrated by sword fight, more sword fight, just plain sword or (most terrifyingly) sword-plus-disembodied-lion-head. Weisner has opted for generic “sword in front of flames” motif. Van Allsburg instead illustrates a powerful scene, early in the book, when Prince Caspian realizes that he has been lied to by most of the adults in his life, and that the world that he is living in is much larger and more interesting than he suspected.

Overall, Van Allsburg’s covers are the most successful interpretations of C.S. Lewis to date. (I’ll respectfully dis-include Pauline Baynes because, to the best of my knowledge, her interior illustrations for the books haven’t changed since the books were first printed, and because while her illustrations are fine, her covers are a bit too twee and House on Pooh Corner, and seem targeted primarily to the indulgent grandparent demographic.) Lewis is an enthusiastic, messy, and eccentric (if altogether engaging) writer, and while the minimalist (often faceless) starkness of Van Allsburg’s work can seem a bit dull and cold elsewhere, here it leaves a rare bit of room for the reader to form their own notions of what fauns, enchanted forests, and ships that sail to the end of the world look like out of a frequently hectic, symbology-laden narrative. Given how much Allsburg’s work can resemble Tolkien’s own illustrations for Lord of the Rings, he’d probably do a bang-up job of that as well. Especially -- oh especially -- if he had the opportunity to remove Elijah Wood’s poor little doleful, digitally squashed face.