Inspirational thoughts and random writings from the alumni and friends of Quad-Cities Christian Writers Conference.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Birthmarks & Book Covers: Judging a Book By Its Cover

By Gail P. Smith

In the airport the other day I picked up a copy of a book by an author I really enjoy, Lisa Scottoline.  I read her non-fiction My Nest Isn’t Empty It Just Has More Closet Space last year and really loved it.  I was anxious to try out what she’s more well-known for, her fiction. 

One thing I must remember is that when a book says on the cover “You won’t be able to put this one down,” sometimes, it’s true.  This book grabs you right from the first chapter and doesn’t let go until the end.  I really enjoyed it and if you like a fast-paced, well written action/mystery, you will too.

 But that’s not what I want to talk about today. 

From the first page:
“Melly sat alone at the end of the table, sorting her fruit treats into a disjointed rainbow.  She kept her head down, and her wavy dark blond hair fell into her face, covering the port-wine birthmark on her cheek, a large round blotch like blusher gone haywire.  It’s medical term was nervus flammeus, an angry tangle of blood vessels under the skin, but it was Melly’s own personal bulls’-eye.” 

 I flipped back to the cover and took a closer look at the child in the cover photo.  Hmmm, no birthmark there that I could see.  Certainly not a large one, which is described in another spot in the book as “like a plum.”  This did not set well with me.

I have a tiny bit of experience with birthmarks.  Our first grandchild was born with a very large strawberry mark, hemangioma.  It was not like the character’s birthmark in the story.  Vallarie’s mark was mostly invisible by the time she was five years old.  But for the first few years of her life it was very visible.   I don’t know that she was ever teased but we frequently heard, “What happened to her face?”
That’s when I began to notice that you never see children with birthmarks portrayed in our country's media unless it’s a story about getting rid of the birthmark.

I kept reading Save Me; as I mentioned, it was hard to put down. But as I read, one thought kept nagging at me, “Why didn’t they use a photo of a child with a birthmark on the cover?”

Melly’s birthmark and the reaction of other kids to it is one of the main plot points that set the story in motion. Her family has already left one school to escape bullies. Now she is teased about her face at a new school and it is a pivotal motivation for what happens, plus introducing bullying into the story.  It is not an insignificant part of this intriguing mystery.

Why then, did the publisher choose to use a photo of a child with a perfect face on the cover?  After Lisa Scottoline worked so hard to convey in an entertaining and compassionate way a message against bullying and the value of accepting and appreciating people who may not look exactly like us, wouldn't the cover of such a book be an ideal place to make that point by using a kid who actually had a birthmark, like "Melly"?

Vallarie about 6 months
Maybe the “Mellys” of this world feel self-conscious because even when they are portrayed in a positive light in a book, they still aren’t good enough to grace the cover of that book.  Maybe the kids that bully them have never had a chance to see an imperfect image in a magazine or TV show in our culture that tells kids everywhere that all their value is in how they look.

 Miss Scottoline’s character, Melly, is a gifted, sweet, funny, and compassionate little girl that you can’t help but root for.  It’s as easy to forget she has a mark on her face as it was to forget the mark on our own granddaughter.  I feel it’s a little insulting to Melly and all the thousands of children like her to choose a perfect face for the cover over a realistic one.  After all, how many times have you heard, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.”

I would never want to judge a book by its cover, but in this case, I think the publisher, St. Martin's Griffin, missed a great opportunity to encourage and affirm all those imperfect "Mellys" out there by letting them know they are worthy of a book cover, too. 


  1. Yes. Yes. Yes. That is why they should never take cover power away from authors. After all, who is the expert here?
    Sorry to say, it is probably just another sample of our over-marketed world, where a child without a birthmark may "sell better" than one with. I disagree wholeheartedly. As you say, they missed their chance to say so much more.
    By the way, you've made the point well. The publisher should read it!

  2. Thanks for the words of encouragement. I plan to write the publisher, but this got done first.

  3. It really is a discredit to the story to hide the meaning on a cover.
    Glad you kept reading it anyway!
    But then I guess we sort of do that every day in one way or another.