Continuing to Judge Books by Their Covers

by - 13:25

Caroline Davis' 'Creating Postcolonial Literature'

It wasn’t too long ago, African book covers were called out for their “acacia tree sunset treatment”, leading to a debate on the look of books by writers of African origin. It started with a series of images Simon Stevens shared on Twitter, which led to a post on Africa is a Country on the dangers of a single book cover. As useful as it was to bring to light the number of orange sunsets and acacia trees, around that time I went beyond that to share images that didn't stick to the cliched African book cover.

The truth is African Book Covers come in all shapes and sizes – depending on the region. While, I’ve spent the last 7 years documenting them: first on this blog, and a few months later on my tumblr, ABC,  I have to say my love for the design of book covers started much earlier – from around the age of ten when I first started copying the images I saw on the cover of the books and comics I was reading. As I got older, I got even more obsessed with design, and today I can stare at book cover designs for hours. I am a frequent visitor of certain book cover design websites, and I constantly marvel at the wonder and art of putting them together. This is why it's been a treat (especially in recent years) to look at the design of covers of books by African writers or writers of African origin (and to a lesser extent, books not written by Africans, but centred on the African continent.

Last year I took a look at the covers of the books being launched at Africa Writes - the Royal African Society's annual literature festival - as I am always curious about the look and design of books by writers of African origin. This year is no different - I'm still super curious. So, ahead of Africa Writes 2019 which takes place Friday 5 July to Sunday 7 July, I am giving some cover love, but with a bit of a twist this year.

Book covers are a thing of beauty. Okay. Not all of them! They can honestly go wrong in many cases, and some times African book covers are lazy AF. Still, when a book cover is done right, it has the ability to convey a lot about the identity and content of the book. I am not a designer, but I love the various elements that go into designing a cover - the text, the images/illustrations/graphics, the layout, the colour, the spine, the font of the titles, the texture. Take Cassava Republic Press, and it's distinct cover design. So distinct that you know a CRP book without even without looking at the logo. This to me speaks of the power of effective cover design - to be able to know the brand (in this case the publisher) from looking at their cover design. 

The distinctness of CRPs covers in a way reminds me of Heinemann's African Writers Series covers. Yes, I know their designs have mixed reviews (I'm one of those ones that like them), but the covers are classic, and you know an AWS (be they fiction, nonfiction, poetry or drama) once you see it. A great article on the design of the AWS by Josh MacPhee notes that the African Writers Series’ aesthetic remains eye-catching, an artifact of an important moment in literary history." Of the book covers, MacPhee writes of “highly developed illustrations, interesting use of montage and patterns, and expansion of what was possible with printing budgets limited to two or three colours”.

AWS Covers. Source: Lapham's Quarterly

There are other notable African book series, which may not have had the longevity of Heinemann's AWS, but they nonetheless had distinct covers. Take, for instance, the covers of Oxford University Press' short-lived Three Crown Books, which published worked by writers including Wole Soyinka, J P Clark and Ola Rotimi. 

Of course there are more, including from Fontana Books (which focused more on photos of people on the covers - some more questionable than others) and Longmans. Check out Justseeds for more on the cover designs of Fontana series. 

I could go on and on and on about the range of covers out there, including ones from the Mbari Club founded in Ibadan in the 1970s and South Africa's Staffriders Series, and if you're curious check out some others that have been featured here on the blog

Mbari (Left) and Staffrider (Right) book covers via Justseeds

Whatever thoughts of African book covers (both old and new) may be, it becomes clearer that there have been a range of designs of covers over the decades, and this continues to be the case. There really isn't one type of (African) book cover, and this is apparent even with the books being launched at Africa Writes 2019.  Being a photographer (Pitts) and art critic (Iduma), covers like Johny Pitts Afropean and Emmanuel Iduma's A Stranger's Pose, use strong and striking imagery of people, but not in the same way as Fontana Book Covers (Amin to that). 

Manchester Happened by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi designed by Hayley Warnham and The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell designed by Kai & Sunny are more focused on bold graphics to convey the content of the books. The maps of Kampala and Manchester on the corner of the Manchester Happened cover indicates the setting of the stories in these two cities. While the small dots on the cover of The Old Drift are the mosquitoes. As Kai & Sunny write on the design

We wanted the cover to be bold, graphic and colourful. We’ve focused on reeds intertwining as the foreground and giving the image its pattern and movement. The reeds are swaying (drifting) along the river (swamps) with the small dots representing the mosquitoes and the insect-like drones. We feel the cover has a calmness and uplifting feeling to it but also has tension due to the colour making it feel intense and hot.

The cover of German Calendar No December by Sylvia Ofili with illustrations by award-winning illustrator Birgit Weyhe has a charming mix of images conveying the German and Nigerian aspects of the graphic novel. In it, Olivia Evezi's childhood in Warri, Nigeria was one of listening to highlife records and enjoying colourful postcards from Germany (where her mum is from) before eventually moving to Germany. 

Finally, Not My Time to Die by Yolande Mukagasana and Everything You Have Told Me is True by Mary Harper give a strong feeling of what that the books are about. It's been 25 years since Rwanda's 1994 genocide, and 12 years since Mukagansa published what was said to be the first survivor testimony. Not My Time to Die is the Engish translation of Mukagansa's memoir. While, Everything You Have Told Me is "an intimate look at everyday life [in Somalia] under, within and alongside a notorious terrorist group [Al Shabaab].” 

For me, a great book cover design makes me think and also provides an insight into the story that I am about to read. This isn's always the case though. Moreover, as can be seen from this post - book cover design is continually changing and is also influenced by design trends. There probably are still acacia trees and sunsets out there, but I can also honestly say those are not on my radar. 

You May Also Like