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The Eyes in the Gingerbread House

The author says:

A middle-grade to YA satire about government and digital security in the U.S. involving an evil Santa Claus. It’s mainly fantasy with a bit of sci-fi, set in a future Canada where Santa is real and runs a global Christmas operation. It is NOT dystopian by any means. It’s just normal Canada with some slight interference from Santa’s surveillance department. One line pitch: After a school trip to the North Pole goes awry, revealing some unpleasant truths, a twelve-year-old aspiring journalist and her friends must find a way to bring down Santa’s global surveillance operation. Just FYI, because I have a feeling somebody is going to jump to this conclusion: The red background is purely for aesthetics, as well as to invoke the imagery of candy canes (a fairly important part of the plot). It is in no way related to Russia, Communism, or any other western ideas of totalitarianism. The book is criticizing the U.S. Thanks!



Nathan says:

You lost me at “middle-grade.”

Seriously, there’s nothing here that indicates that the book is meant for a middle-grade-to-YA audience.  Even more than us adults (and that’s saying something), young readers pick up on the visual cues of covers to immediately understand that, of the books on display (either in a real bookstore or on an Amazon page), this one is aimed at them.  And what clues them in?:

  • A colorful, “fun” illustration of an interesting scene that portrays human figures, including the protagonists (so that the readers can identify the protagonists as someone in an age group they identify with)
  • Easily read type

By contrast, your cover includes type which cannot be read at anything less than full size, simplified icons instead of an illustration, a limited color scheme, and no human figures.  The red which you meant to evoke candy canes doesn’t, because (a) candy canes aren’t striped like that, and (b) at smaller sizes, it just becomes a solid red background.

If I saw your cover in thumbnail on an Amazon page — which is where most readers will first encounter your book — I would probably assume that it’s a nonfiction book with something to do with home surveillance systems.

As I’ve recommended before for books aimed at young readers, I say: Pony up for custom artwork, from someone who’s got experience in book covers for that audience.  Otherwise, your target audience will never know it exists.

Other thoughts?


  1. My only advice is: listen to Nathan. To say this design doesn’t work for the book it’s intended for is a gross understatement. Start from scratch if you’re a good artist. If not, have an experienced artist start from scratch. This design fails at all levels.

    Sorry to pile on, but it is what it is.

  2. First of all, there’s no such thing as “middle grade to YA.” Kids read up, so a book with a 12-year-old protagonist is straight MG–no teenager wants to read about a 12-year-old.

    I’m also rather amused by the assumption that red would immediately evoke Communist Russia to an audience born more than a decade after it stopped existing. That’s the least of your problems.

    So yes, go with a nice illustrated main image of some kids Nancy Drew-ing around in the snow at the North Pole, or whatever happens in your book, and some kind of bold, fun font that suggests that there’s a humor element. Put it all in a nice glossy, realistic candy-cane border.

  3. Sorry, I know this is about covers… but as someone who lives in Canada, I must ask… “Who goes on a school trip to the North Pole?”

    It is true that the closest landmass to the north Pole is in Canada, but even then, the closest city on Ellesmere Island to the North Pole is Alert, in Nunavut and that is 817km (507 miles) from the North Pole. besides that, its population is 5 (when they are all there, and none of them are children).

    I suppose they could be from Grise Fiord, about 100 people live there on a permanent basis, and it isn’t much further than Alert.

    Do you have any Inuit characters in this book? They would be the most likely school to visit the North Pole.

    Still, suspension of disbelief is a staple of fiction. I suppose I can get over this. It is the future, maybe they went in a flying bus.

    I am still getting vibes from something else though.

    An evil Santa organization with an evil Santa.
    Santa who spies on you with a global surveillance system.
    Set in the future, that is sci-fi.

    Sorry, but is this a Futurama Christmas episode?

  4. Alaska would make more sense for “school trip to the North Pole”, since there’s actually a town called North Pole there (although it’s relatively far south, just a little northward of Fairbanks).

    If you want a candy-cane evocative background, white with red stripes makes more sense than red with white stripes. And the stripes need to be much wider than you have.

  5. I’m simply getting Hipster Chic; when I saw the cover, my first thought was “Seth Godin,” not kid MG book. I agree with the rest–the candy-cane idea is not getting through at all; nor is the genre. (Although, why Middle-Graders are interested in a book criticizing the United States, I can’t say. For that matter, satire is a bit outre for MG’s, as well.)

    Anyway: assuming that this is an MG book, it needs a much, much younger cover as mentioned by others. Something that will grab their eyeballs the moment they see it. If, however, it’s a YA book, you can get away with something more like this–but you still need to vamp it up a bit.

    I dunno…maybe Santa sitting atop a satellite? (Yes, yes, a la Dr. Strangelove). Something. This is entirely too adult/literary.

  6. Seconding the others.

    It’s a striking design that would work graphically with just a few changes…but it doesn’t work at all for either the genre you are describing or the story you have outlined.

  7. Indeed, when I first saw this in thumbnail from the “Other Stuff” feed over at Lousy Book Covers, the stripes didn’t register at all and the two-dimensional house icon had me thinking this was some kind of cook book or instructional manual. There’s nothing on this cover that even comes close to being appealing to your target audience. There’s also nothing even remotely approaching your book’s genre and tone: Santa Claus made real through science fiction and then satirically deconstructed for being a corporate creep putting kids under surveillance for questionable purposes? I can get behind the concept, but your execution is killing it.

    As others have already noted, those white pinstripes on red aren’t much going to remind anyone of Communism at this point. In fact, I don’t think this would remind me of Communism even if I’d seen it back in the 1980s when the Soviet Union was still kind of a big deal; there’s no hammer and sickle, for one thing. They’re also not going to remind anyone much of candy canes; the closest this comes to reminding me of Santa Claus or anything the least bit Christmas themed is that it looks a bit like gift wrapping paper.

    You’re really zigging everywhere you’re supposed to be zagging here. Not only should those stripes be red on white instead of vice-versa, but they should be somewhat broader stripes filling about a third of the pattern and the angle at which they slant should be almost the exact opposite of what it is right now, as in flipped and then rotated 90 degrees; and that’s just for the background. In the foreground, instead of a meaningless flat house icon, we ought to be seeing something significant to the story with some depth and substance.

    Even leaving aside how well any given demographic identifies with 12-year-olds, just about anything involving Santa Claus (even a satirical deconstruction) automatically signals “kids’ stuff” to the audience, meaning that just about anyone 13 and up will likely ignore it from the start. Like it or not, your target audience (periphery demographics such as nostalgic adults aside) is preteens aged from about 10 to 12. Younger kids won’t appreciate Santa Claus being satirized, and teenagers won’t much go in for what they’ll deem to be rather juvenile humor.

    One thing you do have going in your favor is that the 10-to-12 audience needs neither sunshine-lollipops-and-rainbows kiddy cartoon nor ultra-realistic-grim-n’-gritty artwork to make the sale. All you really need is a single reasonably well-drawn shot of some character-establishing or plot-point-establishing event from the story with a Christmas-themed coloring scheme (that usually means red, white, and green), and you’re there. Well, that and a good font or two for the title and byline, but I’ll let others with more expertise in that area tell you what those should be; let’s deal with the picture first.

    Given that “Santa is an evil stalker” seems to be the central theme of your story, why not give us a shot of Santa being an evil stalker? Whenever I think of Santa doing some sinister surveillance, what comes to mind is a shot of the not-so-benevolent fellow on a stakeout with some binoculars. Did you know that there are loads of stock images showing the jolly fat guy spying on people with binoculars? Here’s just one example from Getty Images.

    Yeah, just looking at that image, I can already hear Ray Stevens singing “Santa Claus Is Watching You” in my head. On the other hand, maybe binoculars aren’t your style, and you’d prefer to do something a little less cliched. No problem: just show Santa staring at the feed from a security camera (in your house, kiddies!) or Santa with an NSA badge sitting at a computer keyboard hacking into some poor schmuck’s files, or Santa doing anything that looks like he might be violating someone’s privacy.

    Frame that shot with candy cane stripes and deck the frame with some fancy Christmas-style boughs of holly, and you’re good to go: now those cynical preteens will see you’re mocking Santa for being a stalker, and their cynical parents (who never really liked Christmas fantasy’s version of the NSA anyway) will want to buy them your book.

    1. Yeah. My inference is that this book–Gingerbread house–is aimed at a slightly older, more sophisticated reader, but yes, that’s sort of the direction this needs to go.

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