Ironically, after I rhapsodized about my Christmastime search for the perfect book, my younger son wasn’t as wild about Ribsy as I had hoped. At first.
When I’d found it at the bookstore, I was dismayed that the cover had been updated, but had no idea that it would impact my son. The dynamic black and white image of Ribsy on a yellow ground was replaced at some point by a generic short hair, and had I been wandering the bookstore aimlessly, I would not even have picked it up. Why, I wondered, would they replace the original Ribsy: large, lanky, and shedding exactly the sort of personality that would end up riding away in the wrong car?
Ribsy is not the only victim. Most of Beverly Cleary’s book covers have been updated, as have Elizabeth Enright’s, Edward Eager’s, Madeleine L’Engle’s and many others. Sometimes, the illustrators don’t even seem acquainted with the characters they’re trying to portray. It is easy to imagine an art director saying, “Hey, we need a scruffy dog on the cover. Go with red or blue — yellow’s been done.”
Even when the new covers aren’t bad, it would be a stretch to say they are an improvement. Consider All of a Kind Family, by Sydney Taylor,
I am a firm believer in, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If the original cover attracted readers in the first place, why mess with success?
Interestingly, even when covers are changed, inside illustrations frequently remain the same, such as Jean Merrill’s The Toothpaste Millionaire,
and Elizabeth Enright’s The Saturdays.
One wonders about the point of having an updated cover, especially when it is labeled, “With pictures by the original illustrator.”
Thankfully, not all old titles have lost their looks. The recently reprinted Happy Hollisters
books have maintained their original covers and illustrations, and the classic Nancy Drew series (although updated from the 1940s) has remained unchanged for decades.
On some level, even the publishers must think that newer doesn’t necessarily mean better. For the 100th anniversary edition of Anne of Green Gables, Putnam went with the original cover,
Yearling seems to have realized that The Wolves of Willoughby Chase got it right the first time,
and Goodnight Moon‘s original cover (1947) is still going strong.
The whole concept of updating could ultimately prove to be a slippery slope. Until the recent Twain tom-foolery, no one had considered changing the text, but now, who knows?
Perhaps soon, other old favorites will have not only language, but plot points updated to jibe with the newest generation of readers. Meg Murray might start to “disrespect” Mrs. Whatsit, whilst Charles Wallace sits staring at his gaming system instead of a giant pulsing brain.
After several attempts to get my son to read Ribsy, it occurred to me that perhaps he was trying to tell a book by its cover. “Let me show you what Ribsy really looks like,” I said as I went online to show him the original. “Do you want to read it now?”
“Yes! He looks like a fun pup.” He ran to his room to get it, then shouted down the stairs, “Why didn’t you buy me THAT book?”