J.K. Rowling’s series of books for children, Harry Potter, has become the world’s most popular and lucrative publishing venture, but very few people talk about the book’s covers. Naturally, because these covers get so much visibility (for a very long time, before the publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the only clues we had about the book were the released Bloomsbury cover image, with its cryptic goblin hand holding the sword of Gryffindor) the covers are immediately recognizable, but people don’t often pause to study them, both individually and as a group. Because Harry Potter is a long series, it’s important that there be a certain amount of continuity between the covers, so that they be immediately recognizable as Harry Potter, while each having their own, vivid individuality. The covers for Harry Potter must have been all the more difficult because 1) the series is very long, so the cohesion must not stifle the individuality of each cover (something like the British edition of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials wouldn’t have applied, because the covers are too much alike) and 2) at each book in the series (except the last one), the next books weren’t written yet, so the sense of cohesion had to be projected in the possibilities of the following books.
Since I’m Canadian, I’m used to seeing the UK Harry Potter covers, because in Canada the series is published jointly between Bloomsbury and Raincoast books. The covers have a nice sense of cohesion, but, interestingly, are painted by different artists; the last three covers, however, were done by Jason Cockcroft. They usually show realistic paintings of particular moments in the book. What I’ve always really liked about the Bloomsbury covers is that they have little surprises on the spine, the back covers, and tucked away on the inside of the flaps. The back cover of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, for example shows a deserted staircase inside Hogwarts with a ghost floating near the top. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has several very important secondary images on it, like the drawings of a stag patronus and Nagini enclosed in a magical orb on the flaps, and the symbol of the deathly hallows at the top of the spine. The artist who painted the covers illustrations for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Cliff Wright posted so preparatory artwork on his website, as well as communications he had with the publisher and Jo Rowling.
Eventually, Bloomsbury also started publishing so-called adult editions of all the Harry Potter books alongside the normal editions, with darker covers usually portraying a magical item that appears in the book (the sorcerer’s stone, the Slytherin locket, the Half-Blood Prince’s copy of Advanced Potion-Making) presumably to make versions of the books more easily marketable with an older audience, or an initial audience that was growing older. For me, however, although these covers have a greater cohesion between each title, they don’t represent the true essence of Harry Potter. Moreover, I find the use of heavily digitized images in the last few covers a little unfortunate.
Several months ago, Bloomsbury also launched a third series of newly designed Harry Potter books, in an effort to introduce a repackaged version of the books to a new generation of readers. Bloomsbury redesigned the way Harry Potter was written on the covers, creating a golden wave of cursive writing underlined with a magical swish, and commissioned Scottish linocut (which is increasingly used in book design) artist Clare Melinksy to create the illustrations. Although these can be a little bit stiff, I quite like the designs, which have the added interest of illustrating different moments in the books from the ones on the original Bloomsbury covers (for example, the game of wizard’s chess in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone). The white backgrounds also show off the images beautifully and makes the covers a little more modern, which is a good thing. Magic doesn’t need to meed dark and musty.
Rowling’s American publisher, Scholastic, hired the same artist, Mary GrandPré, to draw the illustrations for the covers of all seven books. The result is one of great cohesion, although there’s a more marked similarity between the first three (which show action scenes and try to include many elements from the book) and last three covers (which are more monochrome and sparse, with a lot more emphasis on Harry himself). Harry is depicted on all the covers with the same pastel podginess. It’s also these covers, I think, which the gave the movie title screens the famous P leg shaped like a thunderbolt. Another interesting aspect of the Scholastic covers is that the title of the volumes are written differently and integrated in some way within the illustrations, instead of being blandly written at the top, as in the Bloomsbury covers.
Harry Potter, of course, has also been translated in 70 languages (including Greek and Latin), and, although many publishers recycle the American covers, lots of countries have their own distinct editions. I’ve always found the French ones, by Gallimard, particularly ugly, but I thought it would be interesting to take a look at what the books looked like in other languages. Pleasant surprises include the German and Swedish covers.