Thursday Thoughts: An extremely nerdy exploration of Rebecca Stead's book covers

This is so nerdy, I'm not sure if anyone else will even want to read it, but it's one of those things I have to put out into the world, because I've been having so many thoughts about it recently!

(And FYI, Thursday Thoughts are not making a permanent return—just a temporary one, for this post!)

The facts:

Rebecca Stead is an author of middle grade fiction. Besides two novels cowritten with Wendy Mass (one coming this summer!), she's written five novels solo: First Light, When You Reach Me (winner of the Newbery Medal), Liar & Spy, Goodbye Stranger, and The List of Things That Will Not Change.

Importantly, Rebecca Stead is also my favorite author of all time (which isn't news if you've been reading this blog for a while). I believe I've read Goodbye Stranger 8.5 times (and reviewed it 3 times), and I've read When You Reach Me somewhere around 5 times. I was actually re-reading When You Reach Me during the middle/end of this college semester, which is how this whole topic entered my brain!

Now, I've always been solidly intrigued by book covers (proof), and there are so many things about Rebecca Stead's book covers that are interesting to think about. Besides being beautiful, the original covers of When You Reach Me and Liar & Spy have Stead's name in matching font, establishing a kind of coherent "brand identity" for Stead that her website used to match as well. Then, the original cover of Goodbye Stranger was actually redesigned between cover reveal (here) and publication (here and here), and the font on the When You Reach Me and Liar & Spy covers was revamped to match the Goodbye Stranger covers. I also learned here that Stead generally prefers (or preferred) to leave characters off of her covers, which is a fact I'll return to in this treatise.

(Can you tell by now I'm the eminent expert in Rebecca Stead book covers?)

Anyway, the point of this post is that, somewhere around 2017, all four of Rebecca Stead's then-published books (First Light, When You Reach Me, Liar & Spy, and Goodbye Stranger) received totally new covers. Not just font changes—completely new art, font, layout, everything. And intriguingly, all four covers—which now aesthetically match—were designed by the same artist, Mary Kate McDevitt. (I've been mentally thinking of these covers as the "Mary Kate McDevitt covers," or also as the "silhouette covers," for reasons I'll explain soon.)

Now, here's the thing. I'm one of those pretentious traditionalist weirdos who thinks and says things like, "The original cover of the book is better than the new cover" (again, proof that I said this—and I do apologize to McDevitt for this half-baked opinion). I guess I can see where my old brain was coming from—I love Rebecca Stead's books with my whole heart and soul, and I care about her books being accurately represented and captured by the covers that contain them. (Which is now an actual sentence I've digitally uttered. πŸ‘€)

And even beyond that, I'm starting to wonder if the cover of a book actually shapes one's mental image of the book, or if the cover of an album of music shapes one's mental image of the music, etc. I feel like my brain incorporates the colors and vibes of a cover into my imaginations of each scene within the book. Perhaps we could call this half-baked theory "cover determinism."

(We've veered into the philosophy of book covers now, y'all. I told you this was nerdy.)

So basically, covers have great power over our perceptions of a book, and with great power comes great responsibility and all that. And really, can you imagine being a graphic designer, being handed four books that (a) are really different, (b) don't fit into established genre categories, and (c) already have existing covers, and being asked to give these books new covers that are unique but all match and just might change readers' perceptions of the books entirely? It's enough to make one's head spin. And imagine being given that request and having to worry what all those crazed Rebecca Stead fans will think of the new covers for their beloved books.

(Well, maybe not crazed fans, plural. Maybe crazed fan, singular. I think you know which one.)

So someone at Penguin Random House showed up at Mary Kate McDevitt's desk with quite the job for her. And I have to say, she did not just show up to the table with some half-baked, towel-thrown-in designs. She created four covers that are so layered I wrote this entire blog post about them, with each cover being an individual labor of love dedicated to the book it aims to represent. How freaking cool is that???

So really, the moral of this story is that Mary Kate McDevitt is the true greatest fan of Rebecca Stead, and I will abdicate my throne on her behalf. And I'm grateful to her for creating these four works of art to represent books I adore.

OK, so those are the facts, and they are dense and lengthy. But now you, my dear friend and reader, are armed with the information you need to see—for yourself, with your own eyes—the four covers that Mary Kate McDevitt designed, followed by my individualized and similarly blither-y thoughts on each one.

Are you ready?

Then let's go.

The covers (made large for ultimate basking):

Observations on all covers:

So the most obvious observation is that all these covers have relatively monochromatic color schemes, and they each have a different color scheme, helping to, well, differentiate them—I'm sure you could figure that out, though.

I do want to call your attention to the extremely prominent placement of the book titles—if you go back and look at the old covers, all (except for Goodbye Stranger) have the book title playing second fiddle to the artwork, unlike here. What's interesting to note is that I went to Mary Kate McDevitt's online portfolio (because of course I did), and her general style as an artist seems to be custom handwritten typography paired with minimalist, colorful art. So even if you think these books would be better served with less dramatic titles on the cover, that wasn't really a decision she made—whoever chose her for this job probably knew that was what the covers would look like.

I'll also call your attention to the matching fonts for Rebecca Stead's name (like before on the older covers), which is always in a contrasting color to the rest of the cover. Her name is in a whimsical, childlike font that is also the primary font on the back covers. I'm not sure if such a lighthearted font is a good fit for the feel of Stead's books (except maybe The List of Things That Will Not Change, even though this project happened before that book came out). On the other hand, maybe it gets kids' attention and sells these books. Or maybe literally no one else has noticed, even subconsciously, except me. Who can say?

And then the MOST IMPORTANT observation across all four covers is that they all have the book characters on the cover—but as silhouettes, not actual illustrations. (Hence my use of the term "silhouette covers.") I think this is actually a great choice, and for literally so many reasons. First, it at least partially satisfies Stead's wish to not have characters on the cover. I feel like Stead's characters are never as self-aware as the typical MG protagonist—they're not trying to sell you on how delightful they are (I'm reminded of When You Reach Me describing "spunky girl" books). So I feel like the silhouettes emphasize that the characters aren't trying to market their cuteness, or moodiness, or whatever—they're just moving through daily life, relatively unaware of themselves.

Also, the silhouettes accomplish something really practical. For most book covers, the character can be drawn however, and then the readers imagine the character to look that way. But these are covers for books that already exist. In the case of First Light and Goodbye Stranger, some characters were already illustrated on the cover, so McDevitt would at least have to adhere precisely to that same image that readers likely envisioned. And even for the other books, readers who had already read these books would have some mental image of their own, and they'd probably get pretty irritated if McDevitt messed with it. So she doesn't—she includes the movement and emotion of the characters without (well, mostly without) including their appearance. Which is fascinating.

First Light:

This might be my favorite cover of the four. The color scheme is so beautiful and soothing, yet the layout is so energetic and exciting (especially with the characters running)—it's a great fit for a story that I recall being part adventure, part mysterious and careful world-building.

If you head to my review of this book, you can see that the original cover of the book had a similar mirroring of the two universes in this book (Earth above ground and Gracehope below ground), where Peter and Thea stand in the same place, as if they are reflections of the same person—except they aren't. I love that McDevitt took this visual brilliance and, rather than throwing it out, actually leaned into it for her own cover. Peter and Thea are still reflections of one another, but now so are the skyline, and the dogs. And the words "FIRST" and "LIGHT" are aligned as if each letter reflects a letter in the other word—or as if each letter on top is made of ice that was carefully cut out of the ground and pulled up, leaving white space where the bottom letters are. (And I love how both words have different textures, with the top having an icy shimmer and the bottom having a snowy roughness.)

The book also briefly mentions global warming, and in that context, I love how Stead's name is in orange—not only does it contrast, but it also brings to mind a flame or fire that is slowly burning and threatening this icy world. (Alternatively, one can imagine the orange as representing the sun, something Thea has never seen, living underground.)

When You Reach Me:

And I think this is a close second-favorite of the covers too! In a general sense, I love how retro this cover feels—it seems like the cover on the 1970s edition of When You Reach Me that does not actually exist. Which is perfect because (a) this book is a modern classic, and this cover actually graces the 10th anniversary edition of the book (so it's not ancient, but it's older!), (b) the story is actually set in the 1970s and deserves a classic-feeling cover, and (c) older books actually play a part in the story as well.

(It is funny that I can't entirely describe why the cover feels retro—I think it's a combo of the surprisingly neutral blue background, the classic-looking lettering for the book title, and the detailed yet faded illustrations of the city. Also, not having a blurb directly above Stead's name, unlike on the other covers, makes the book feel a little more mysterious and a little less marketed.)

On the note of Stead's name, I love that it's in red, just for contrast—it's so visually satisfying.

And then actually looking at the detailing of the cover, this cover doesn't stray too far from the original in the inclusion of city streets (where much of the story takes place anyway). And the objects from the story that make up a prominent part of the original cover are not gone, even though they might seem to be—you just have to look closely.

Where I get a little bit tripped up is the character silhouettes. I'm assuming the one on the top is the laughing man, and the one on the bottom is Miranda. The startling things in the world of When You Reach Me feel almost like a tangible, unnerving force. And obviously, they're scary to Miranda, which I think is why she's shown as running from something on the cover. But the thing is, there's a strange discrepancy in When You Reach Me between the fear Miranda says she is feeling, and the fear we as readers actually feel, which is less. And so, the idea of Miranda being this anxious, scared, running girl seems to conflict with the relatively stoic, just-going-with-it narrator that I think of her as.

Also, I don't necessarily get the laughing man's pose—it looks just like a man walking, which makes me wonder if it even is the laughing man. But then, who would it be? I don't know that the pose is adding much to the cover right now.

Liar & Spy:

So, full disclosure, I envisioned myself re-reading this book before writing this post, and then that didn't happen. So I've read this book exactly once, like 10 years ago, and I'm going from memory. My critiques won't be very thoughtful here, as you can imagine.

The acidic yellow feels a little out of place for a story that, like most of Stead's stories, has a calm feel to it. The big red text is a little different, though—it feels theatrical, and while Georges's narration in the story isn't theatrical, the spying-related chaos that Safer tries to drag him into definitely has a theatrical tinge to it.

And I just love the poses of Georges (at the top) and Safer (at the bottom)—you can read it as Safer being totally engrossed in the spying, while Georges is being more cautious (and afraid of the outcome). But also, Safer is directing his binoculars (pulled from the original book cover) almost toward Georges, just like his demands of Georges in the story are pointed and strong. And Georges is hiding, almost from Safer's gaze. There's a tension, and also maybe a love in the way that the whole scene itself is kind of mischievous—I feel like it captures what I remember of the story quite well.

Goodbye Stranger:

Hmmm. This is my favorite Rebecca Stead book, and unfortunately, I think it's my least favorite of the covers. But I don't hate it—my feelings are definitely more positive than they once were.

So let's start with the positive. At its core, Goodbye Stranger is an exploration of different kinds of love, and love is sometimes explicitly referenced (an entire plot line is set on Valentine's Day, Bridge and her friends are asked in school to handwrite definitions of love, etc.). With all that in mind, the vivid red color and loopy cursive font definitely give the impression of love, and showing Bridge, Em, and Tab together on the cover is a powerful ode to a friendship (a kind of love) that literally sustains these girls through thick and thin.

I also love the balance between the cursive, cutesy font for "Goodbye" and the slightly unnerving, all-caps font for "STRANGER." It brings to mind the uneasiness of this stranger, which the book explains is really one's past self. But also, there's something about the Valentine's Day plot line, in which a girl has run away from home for one day and is trying to hide out in New York City, that feels reminiscent of this font. Maybe it's the element of "stranger danger" paired with a girl literally scaring the crap out of the people she knows, while also facing potential hazards in the city as part of her quest to deal with her emotions.

That all said...I feel like the cover on its own does not give the right impression of this book. The girls standing together makes me think of a book about popular, confident girls who no one can relate to, when in fact, these girls couldn't be more relatable. They definitely try to put a confident facade up at points in the story (posing for photos, applying makeup), but it's just that—a facade. So advertising with that vibe of confidence seems strange.

And this book has three core plot lines—Bridge, Em, and Tab; Bridge and Sherm; and the girl on Valentine's Day. And yet, we only get one of those on the cover. That was true for the old cover too, but the old cover showed Bridge and Sherm instead. (Ha—instead!) And the thing is, Bridge and Sherm are a less established pair than Bridge, Em, and Tab, but Bridge and Sherm have such a deep connection from the get-go that it sustains Bridge as she essentially rebuilds her connection with Em and Tab into something stronger. So I feel like the Bridge-and-Sherm energy becomes the core of the Bridge-Em-and-Tab energy, which is why it made more sense on the cover. Also, the original cover generally has a calmer, more thoughtful vibe that is more true to the story. And I kind of wish this cover went all-out, like with the First Light cover, and tried to represent the multiple plot lines, even though that would be slightly duplicative of the First Light cover.

(Did I just turn the word "instead" into a Rebecca Stead pun a few sentences ago? Clearly, I'm up too late at night—that makes everything sound funny.)

Also, I do wish I could figure out which girl is Em, and which is Tab—the only one I can tell for sure is Bridge on the far left, with her cat ears. (I'll have to pay more attention on my next re-read to the hairstyles of Em and Tab, to see if I can figure this out.)

In closing:

I was going to talk about even more things, but I'm tired, and this post is SO LONG! So we'll stop here.

The gist is, even though these covers aren't flawless (and what is?), they are incredibly strong, thoughtful, and artistic representations of books that are hard to capture, and that already had covers to begin with—so re-covering them is quite the task.

And as I said, I'm grateful to Mary Kate McDevitt for putting in the labor and care to give these beloved books by this beloved author a fresh, meaningful new coat of paint, so to speak. I mean, seriously, who else is out here making covers so interesting that I'm writing entire blog posts analyzing them?? 😁

I'm also grateful to you for sticking with me through this truly endless ode to my nerd-dom—it brought me great joy to write this!

Take care! ✨✨


  1. Those are not the covers I am used to though the one for When You Reach Me really fits (like you, I often like the originals best, or the one that the book had when I read it.)

  2. I still like the original covers better, with the possible exception of First Light. I mean no disrespect to Mary Kate McDevitt, whose art I really like. The When You Reach Me cover reminds me a bit of Harriet The Spy, one of my all-time favourite books. I like the cover but I can't let go of the original. It's so playfully creepy.

    McDevitt obviously put a lot of thought into these covers, trying to distill the essence of each story in a single image. She probably does deserve the Rebecca Stead True Fan crown and throne but I reserve the right to remain a proud, traditionalist weirdo!

    Great post and congrats on your graduation! Now you can read what you want to all summer!


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