Judging Books by Their Covers: A Reflection on Peritext in Children’s Books

An old adage learned at a young age: “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, and yet unavoidable cover-judging happens each time the SELCIE team attends to the archives.  Some covers hint at the year in which the book was published, some are hand drawn, and others are beautifully illustrated, and we categorize the book in our minds even before flipping to the title page.  As we have been often surprised by the secrets these books hold, we need to ask ourselves a series of questions each time we catalogue a new book.  Thus, a great deal of conversation on this project has been dedicated to how children would have interacted with a certain book found in our archives, just in the way that we too interact with the books.  Would some of the images of animals have frightened or amazed them? Would they have moved the parts of the few mechanical books as they read them?  Would the weight of the book itself have made them place it on the floor or in their laps as they read?  As we ask ourselves these types of questions, it all comes down to our interpretation of a child’s interpretation of peritext.

Hand-made book cover

An example of an interesting hand-made book cover the team found recently

Peritext is defined as all elements of text, layout, and image that surround the main body of a work.  At a conference I recently attended in Kalamazoo, Michigan, U.S.A., I had the opportunity to attend a panel in which Adele Cook from the University of Bedfordshire gave a compelling paper on the ways in which Arthurian stories are presented to young children, focusing especially on the publications of Penguin Books.  She presented two very different copies of Roger Lancelyn Green’s translation and version of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table in an attempt to illustrate the importance of peritext and how a child chooses, interacts with, and ultimately creates a relationship with a book.  One of the copies presented by Adele Cook from 1993 is beautifully illustrated, heavy, and has an embossed hard cover and good paper quality.  The other book, from 2015, is a paperback with a digitized-looking cover, in the style of video game imagery, of a pixilated King Arthur pulling the sword from the stone, and the pages within are of poorer quality than the first book.  The first book is seemingly gender-neutral, aimed at any child with a penchant for imagination and a desire to understand the magical allure of the past, whereas the second, as Adele Cook pointed out in her paper, is aimed at a more masculine audience, meant to catch the eye of a child accustomed to playing video games, picking it off the shelf of a library based solely on the assumption that it will be about the types of video games that he or she plays.  Adele suggested that this would ultimately leave the child disappointed, as the peritext does not match with the context of the story within the book.

In the catalogue of books we at SELCIE discover week to week, picking them up, handling them, reading excerpts and looking for any clue as to how these books were used and loved by children of the past, we too rely on peritext to tell us whether or not this book is of value to our project.  A cover that is falling apart, battered and worn, tells us that this book would have been well-used, and we can then conjecture that it was possibly well-loved.  The font and the illustrations of the cover and of the pages within give us an idea of what age the child would have been who enjoyed it or used it.  Everything from the stitching of the binding to the margins on the pages tell us something about the book before we even begin to read the context of the story, be it a book about animals, the story of a young girl’s talent show, or a grammar book.  We can recognize the differences from book to book, even when they are of the same subject matter or even contain the exact same story.  We can make conjectures about which one was better used or which would have been better received by a child.  For example, in a box full of Hans Christian Andersen fairytale books, they vary in size, weight, decoration, and font; though all contain the very same stories, all show different levels of use and interaction with either the adult that purchased and gifted the book or the child that received it.

Hand-painted book

This hand-painted book has been so well-loved that it has fallen apart, and has been re-bound

While we cannot definitely say how one child would have interacted with a book based solely on the peritext intended by the publisher, we can see immediate differences in books published by Scottish and English publishers, books aimed at a specific gender or age range simply by picking the book up and flicking quickly through it.  Further examination of the book in question can cause us to find a child’s hand practicing to write their name and address in cursive on the inside and back covers, a child’s train ticket from the early 1900s in Edinburgh used as a bookmark, or the answers to riddles penciled in by a childish hand.  We can glean a sense of the history of the book and attempt to place ourselves in a childlike state of mind with the intention of understanding how the feel of the book, the illustrations or lack thereof, and even the very cover of a book would have been viewed by a child.  The further we explore and the more we discover about a particular book causes us to question why the child chose that particular book, why did he or she color in the black and white illustrations, why did his or her relative gift it to them for Christmas?  In the end, the peritext of the book itself allows us to reexamine the ways in which we continually judge books by their covers, and, moreover, how book covers were judged by the children of the past.

This blog post written by Morgan

3 thoughts on “Judging Books by Their Covers: A Reflection on Peritext in Children’s Books

    • Hi Jacqueline, thank you for your interest! We love the homemade books as well! We have found quite a few of them, and there are a couple that look to be in the same hand as this one – including one titled “The Orange Man” and one called “The Story of the Little Boy Who Wished to Play All Day”. Unfortunately we don’t have much information about them, but some of the handmade books we have found will certainly feature in our exhibition next year!

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