Thursday, February 11, 2010

Pink

First, just let me say that Pink (as in this incredible performer) is not what I'm talking about. But that Pink is wonderful (if you can ignore the ad at the beginning!) 

This pink is not as wonderful:

 

Even with a starred review from School Library Journal, even with reviewers saying, "Ignore the pink cover, it has nothing to do with anything"  - is the book doomed to be read only by girls? Is there a boy in America who would touch this book with a ten-foot pole?  Doesn't the cover say, "I'm chick lit, I'm about girls who spend too much time on the phone, I'm about gossip...." ?

But here is SLJ's synopisis: "Because of her father's academic career, Beatrice Szabo's family has moved multiple times, most recently from Ithaca, NY, to Baltimore. In order to protect herself from the emotional fallout caused by the constant moves and her parents' troubled relationship, she has invented a cold, emotionless persona for herself called Robot Girl. When she begins her senior year at a small private school, she enters a class where the students have known one another since kindergarten. She finds herself drawn to outcast Jonas Tate, aka Ghost Boy, who introduces her to the Night Light show, a local late-night radio show. They form an intense friendship, complicated by Jonas's obsession with his mentally disabled twin brother, whom his father had told him died in an automobile accident years before. When Jonas discovers that Matthew is actually alive and in a local institution, events gradually spiral out of control as Jonas plots to liberate him. Beatrice begins to realize that her deep love and friendship for Jonas cannot help him overcome all of his emotional difficulties. This is an honest and complex depiction of a meaningful platonic friendship and doesn't gloss over troubling issues. The minor characters, particularly the talk-show regulars, are quirky and depicted with sly humor." 

Can someone tell me how that description dovetails with that cover, and why the people at Scholastic, who published this fine book, don't think boys should read it? Because that will be the result of the cover they went with. Once again, I wish I'd been  a fly on the wall during the meeting of the art director and the marketing department people.  "Let's eliminate a huge bunch of readers by making the cover pink," suggests someone. "Great idea," says someone else. 

{ADDED NOTE AFTER COMMENTS: I want to make sure that future readers of this series of comments understand that Mr. Falco created two of my favorite covers ever - he was responsible for the jacket direction and design of Shaun Tan's wonderful TALES OF OUTER SUBURBIA, and for the concept, direction, design and actual illustration of CLICK, written by ten authors in collaboration. So my trouble with HOW TO SAY GOODBYE IN ROBOT was limited to just that cover color. Mr. Falco is a talented book designer.]

30 comments:

  1. Maybe they're hoping to attract chicklit readers by disguising the book?

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  2. I respect your opinion and I see your point, but the current YA reader generation is beginning to break the barriers of the traditional colours we associate with gender.
    Pink doesn't necessarily carry the same stigma as it used to in the eyes of many young males. I think if the story itself appeals to some boys they will read it despite the cover...some may even be attracted to the bright colour. Who knows?
    Thanks for your great blog.

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  3. Theory: The cover designer was trying to solve the (perceived) problem of the word "Robot" in the title. "This is a book about a teenaged girl falling in love, but the biggest part of our likely audience—teenaged girls interested in love—will see the word 'Robot' and think, 'That's just some stupid science fiction!' But what if we...made it pink? And girls, they like talking on the phone, right? What if we...put in a phone? No, not a type of phone most teenagers would have used in the last decade, but what looks like real phone to us!"

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  4. Good theories from everyone. Still...hmmmm...well, okay, I'm going to run this cover by two or three younger bloggers/writers who are male and who are more knowledgeable about reluctant male readers. They're younger than I am - I respect their ability to judge this cover. I'll get back to the comments when I've heard from them and will let people know what they say. I still think that a cover that says "chick lit" isn't going to be picked up by boys. Maybe when I see boys wearing pink Nikes or buying pink nail tattoos, I'll change my mind....meanwhile, all pink, edge to edge, feels unassailably chick-lit-ish.

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  5. I pretty much agree with you, Julie. Though there was a brief flash (over now?) of guys wearing I'm So Cool With My Feminine Side pink polo shirts, that was *very* different than the chance of their ever picking up this book without at least a sense of irony. I had boy students reading "What My Mother Doesn't Know," (fairly girly cover and title), but they all made it clear it was about the slightly explicit passage on page 42.

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  6. I am a die-hard admirer of this book and think Scholastic Press actually did a WONDERFUL job with the design, both the cover and the thoughtful, beautiful inside. I'm a big fan of SP designs in general, for all their books.

    As for the gender issue and the word "robot," this book really is for a very specific audience and has been building a lot of traction as a word of mouth cult hit. I don't think the "people will think it's sci-fi" issue entered into it at the design meeting. The vintage phone is clearly disconnected, hinting at the sad story at the core of this book, all about missed connections and the phone calls that echo throughout. I think instead of a pink and plastic aesthetic, it has a retro one, which fits the tone and the main character perfectly.

    Mary

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  7. Totally true, but I still love this cover. On the bright side at least it isn't as egregious as the Paper Towns covers. Even dedicated nerdfighters might have a hard time reading read a book about a boy with a huge picture of a girl on the cover in public.

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  8. It's interesting to read all of these differing opinions. On this blog, we're sometimes posting our reactions to covers--even, on occasion, for books we haven't read yet. I think this is fine and fun, but as for whether or not we can predict that the cover will/won't attract its intended readers, then perhaps we're wading into murky waters. Who knows what attracts a reader today? Is cover design a major factor? I suspect that with blogs, ebooks and social media today, we rely less and less on gut reactions to book design on store shelves out in the brick-and-mortar real world and more on word of mouth (frequently online) and reviews. Maybe it's a matter of impulse buying vs. going into the store knowing which titles you're looking for. OK, I think I'm rambling. Anyway, glad to have so many opinions expressed here. I'm learning new ways of thinking about book design, which was one of my intentions (and I think Julie's too) when we began this blog. Cheers! :-)

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  9. I have to agree with Mary on this one. Because of the particular shade of pink, the style of the illustration, the fact it's a vintage phone, and the title font, this doesn't say chick-lit to me at all. It says quirky, retro, off-beat -- all of which are perfectly suited to the novel. (And it's an amazing book -- easily one of my favorites from 2009.) Chick-lit almost always has a photo of a girl on the cover, and at the very least, would have a cell -- not a vintage phone.

    I think SP was pretty bold in the choice of this design -- it's not at all in line with other YA covers out there, yet is perfect for the tone of the book.

    As for the boy/girl thing -- well, if what I hear about boy YA readers is true, not many of them are going to be reading this book anyway. It's a quiet story about a complex relationship. But I do agree that it's regrettable if the boys who would read it aren't because of the pink thing. Don't know if that's the case.

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  10. so let's tally up these elements on this cover and see what they add up to. first, obviously, is the pink. even as jess mentioned when there was a time when guys were okay with wearing pink - i had two oxfords i wore with suits - there are shades of pink that "work" for boys and shades that don't. this is clearly in the "not working" camp, and in fact borders on the pepto bismol side of things, which just transmits the word "sickly."

    next, the eye is drawn to a phone receiver, the style of which is rarely seen anymore. a coiled handset phone eliminates the possibility of a pay phone even, which means that we're talking about an ancient (by teen standards) house phone. who would own and use such a phone? a grandmother? someone out in the boonies? boy or girl, is the message here something old fashioned?

    next, the largest highlighted word in the title is the word GOODBYE. is that really the word you want to underscore? and the use of a thin-bodied sans serif typeface that is used a LOT in chick lit (c.f. the GOSSIP GIRLS and A LIST series) coupled with the word goodbye and a phone telegraphs the idea that a boy is about to be dumped.

    so what boys wants to read THAT book?

    oh, and the word robot. there are no real robots in the story as far as i can tell, which probably why the word is downplayed in the title. so if they were trying to avoid a misleading sci-fi reference then the only conclusion from all evidence is that a girl is about to dump some boy who she thinks is so stiff that she has to speak to him as if he were a robot of limited (or no) emotional capabilities.

    while i can appreciate that scholastic is trying to avoid photos of faces (or body parts) which teens don't respond well to these days, they've somehow managed to create a cover that works so hard to not only alienate boys but says absolutely nothing about the story that i really would LOVE to hear the designer's justifications here.

    and if i were the author i would cry.

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  11. An excerpt from an interview with the author. Apparently she did cry, David, but for a different reason!


    NS: Isn't it beautiful? The more you look at the book, the more little surprises you find. I'm thrilled with it and feel so lucky. I had very little to do with it. My editor, David Levithan, and the designer, Phil Falco, were inspired by the spare, handmade look of some indie rock album covers. Phil drew the phone on the cover himself. David sent a sketch to me and I immediately loved it. When the first finished book came in, David walked over to my apartment from his office to show it to me personally. As I looked through it and came upon beautiful detail after beautiful detail --- the little pink phone under the jacket! the blue endpapers! the pink type in the radio scenes! --- I got so excited I jumped up and down and cried. Poor David. I hope it wasn't too embarrassing for him.

    Weirdly, when I was in 10th grade I drew a similar (if very inferior) cover for a class project. We had to collect poems on a theme and draw a cover illustrating the theme, and I drew a red phone dangling off the hook (the theme I chose was "Communication (or the Lack of It)"). I forgot all about that project until I saw Phil's drawing. Coincidence…or freakish mind meld?

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  12. David, thanks so much for jumping in and giving us a guy's point of view. This is probably going to be one of those love-it-or-hate-it covers. Or, better said, a love-it-or-scratch-your-head-and-wonder-what-they-were-thinking cover. It's hard for me to believe that Scholastic couldn't have come up with something more inclusive -- I mean, there are a lot of talented illustrators out there with a lot of great ideas that DON'T leave anyone out. The choice wasn't pink-or-nothing. So if there are boys who might have read it, why push them away? That was what puzzled me in the first place - that a whole slew of readers were being jettisoned by the cover.

    The argument that "not many [boys] are going to be reading this book anyway" worries me. From the description of the book, the male character is intriguing and is essential, not secondary to the female character, and my bet is that the editor who acquired it (and the author who wrote it?) thought it was a story that deserved a wide boy/girl readership. Isn't it time for publishers to be thinking about how to draw boys in, when the story merits it? This cover doesn't do that.

    I asked another young man - a successful writer of kids books and a high school teacher - what he thought of the cover and he said this:

    "...that cover will keep (almost) all young male readers away. When I was doing research for my Critical Thesis on graphic novels and the reading styles of young boys, many people said that boys who choose to read are already overcoming one social stigma of the adolescent scene: boys don't read. So a boy who willingly picks up a book (any book) in front of his friends (both male and female) is already committing a small act of courage. But to ask him to add to that stigma by picking up a book with a bright pink cover? I don't think that's going to help...."

    One other quick note: I'm not sure the author's delight with this cover means she understands what effect it will have out there in the real world. The author of Magic Under Glass, Jaclyn Dolamore, was equally thrilled by the cover Bloomsbury put on her book, and look what happened there. Did she not see the train wreck headed her way (for the second time via the Bloomsbury track) when the designer came up with a white girl in a Victorian corset for the cover of a story about a girl she had clearly described as "dark-skinned"? That cover has now been pulled (as was Bloomsbury's other train wreck, LIAR) and will have to be re-issued with a re-designed cover. Authors are justifiably in love with their novels - writing them is a long, painful process. Once the thing is published, authors can get starry-eyed or just plain blind about the rest of the process. They can love it without restraint. They don't have to say, as booksellers and librarians do, "Ignore the pink cover, it's a great story."

    And I hate to say it, because it's cynical and I prefer to think cynicism doesn't drive capitalism, but the pink cover might do what some people hoped it would do: increase sales. It might pull more girls in. Meanwhile, though, the boys are left in the dust. For me, that kind of reasoning is a self-fulfilling prophecy - the boys don't read it because someone left them out to begin with. As Jane Austen says in Emma, "Badly done."

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  13. Interesting points, Julie, but I'm going to stand by my comment that this isn't really a "boy book," and I think the author and editor would have known that. I'm not saying there aren't any boys out there who would like it -- of course there are. But the story has very few of the H.E.A.V.E.S. that David discussed in his lecture about the elements of stories that appeal to boy readers. And while Jonas is an important character, he is definitely secondary to Beatrice. This is her story -- no question.

    That said, it's unfortunate that the boys who would like this book won't read it because of the cover. Yes, I totally agree with that.

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  14. You're right, Marianna. I'd forgotten about the H.E.A.V.E.S!! And I'm driving blind here, which is foolish - I haven't even read the book. Time to do so (and I think it sounds fascinating, which was what prompted my concern about the cover appeal in the first place.)

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  15. Yes! At the very least, all this talk about ROBOT has made me really hot to read the book. It actually sounds like something I'll love, but I might not have picked it up if we hadn't discussed it.
    That's it! A book cover should be surprising or curious enough that it gets blogged about, which gets the word out about the book. ;-)

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  16. If you'd like to know what some commenters are talking about with H.E.A.V.E.S., please visit David's blog:
    http://fomagrams.wordpress.com/2010/02/04/building-better-boy-books-part-1/

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  17. I have to admit that after reading it, I get how the retro cover vibe fits the book. But before reading it? I thought it was going to be much girlier than it was.

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  18. Great discussion. If I had seen this book in a store and relied only on my 5-second scan of the cover, I would not take this book off the shelf to even see what it was about because the pink was such a turn off. But after reading this post, I think I may buy it despite the pink.

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  19. David,

    I'd be inclined to share my motivations when creating this cover if your tone were less snarky.

    I did find it amusing that you want me to "justify" my decisions when you obviously haven't bothered to read the book.

    (Hint: The ancient phone receiver ties directly to the story)

    Regarding the whole of the cover/interior design: nothing was done without a purpose.

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  20. Thanks, Philip, for jumping in. As you can see, we're often guessing as to what the designer's intention was (and how the intended audience will react to the art and design) and since neither Julie nor I are experts our conversation often ends there. We would love to have your comments here whenever you feel so inclined!
    While I can't speak for our other commenters, I will say this: Sometimes we pick up books in the store because we're drawn to their covers. It's a gut reaction, and one that often comes before we've read the book, or even before we've read the flap copy. Because of this, I think it's interesting to talk about a cover separate from the book's content.
    That said, I think way MORE readers will hear/read about a book beforehand and will buy the book based on content, and the cover art is secondary. Maybe? Yes? No? Once again, this is speculation on my part.
    Whether or not I've read the books I mention on our blog has actually been a worry for me. I'd like to read them all first, of course. But in my case, it isn't always practical, for a number of logistical and personal reasons. Does this bother people? Should I read everything first?
    I do plan to read HOW TO SAY GOODBYE IN ROBOT, and in fact I've already scoured my local shops for it here in Ottawa. Unfortunately for me, it apparently hasn't made its way to Canada yet, but I will likely order it online.

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  21. Philip - The tonal register of blog posts is hard to handle sometimes, I agree. I'm sorry if you were offended by anyone's comments here; it's a place where opinions can be posted freely and so is bound to be a little free-wheeling.

    Part of David's point was that the cover itself will be as far as many boys get, so he is responding only to the cover, not to the contents. I'm not sure reading the book would have changed his mind, and I'm wondering if KNOWING the story might actually have been a hindrance in deciding whether to go with the cover as it stands. The people who have known the book through the editorial process support the design because they understand more about the story, but that's not going to be the majority of the people who look at it. Sadly, judging a book by its cover still comes in to play. The pink cover will probably mean a boost in the likely number of girls who read it, and a drop in the number of boys. And someone in marketing probably took that into account when lobbying for the pink.

    Your comment that nothing was done (about the cover of HOW TO SAY GOODBYE IN ROBOT) without a purpose confirms my feeling that the decision to go with pink was a conscious one, not accidental. Whether or not the result of that decision (leaving boys out of the reader pool) is good for boys is another matter.

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  22. Hi Julie,

    I'm glad that this cover has sparked a debate. It shows that it served its purpose and caught attention in a crowded market.

    The main talking point here is focusing on whether boys will pick this title up, since the story prominently features a male character, Jonah. Despite your feelings to the contrary, this was not our intended audience, which is in fact teenage girls.

    Its implied in your post that the color palette was a directive from marketing. It wasn't and the palette is not as typical to the genre as one would think.

    This is a fun discussion but, in the end, moot. You could as easily be having a conversation on why a middle grade/YA "boy" novel doesn't have more "girl" appeal as there are female leads in those titles as well.

    The assertion that our knowing the story was somehow detrimental in creating the cover is something I strongly disagree with.

    A cover is not successful if it tries to be all things to all people. Its function is to capture the essence of the story successfully in a unique way so the book reaches the audience its meant to speak to.

    In the end, we would have less successful jackets if it was decided to limit ourselves to literal conventions of how a cover will be perceived. The result would be a sea of jackets that are muddled derivations of what has come before. An obvious title to point to is Twilight. That novel's cover didn't fall into the typical vampire clichés and, in effect, changed the market to where its "look" is now widely imitated.

    Since you've spent so much time discussing the cover, I do hope that you decide to read the actual book. (Its fantastic)

    On a side note, the image you have shown here of the cover is incorrect. The color shades are off. Here is a link that more accurately shows the jacket: http://tinyurl.com/yjye8xz

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  23. Hi, Philip - Yes, I thought the version I found was a little too neon! Thanks for the color correction.

    You're so right about books/covers not needing to be all things to all people - that's something I tell my writing students all the time. Authors can (and often do) shoot for a certain kind of reader. M.T. Anderson didn't think every kid in the world would be drawn to THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING, and he wrote it for a particular kind of reader, someone with high reading skills and a love of language and a lot of patience. The limitations on the readership of that book, though, have everything to do with the writing style and little to do with a decision to exclude male or female readers. If Natalie Standiford intended her audience to be only teenage girls (when you say "our intended audience, which is in fact teenage girls" I think you must mean the author's intentions, too? Not just those of the editors/designers?) then I guess that's her call.

    My impression that the book was for a wider readership was based on the Kirkus review (describing the story as one of "an intense platonic relationship between two misfits") and the many teacher/librarian/bloggers who were saying that they hoped boys would read the book despite the cover color.

    I'm not sure every designer working to appeal to both genders is going for a flattened palette, muddied and uninspired and derivative. The cover of WHEN YOU REACH ME was not any of those. The story has a female main character but important male characters, and it has a cover which worked to pull both genders in. It didn't spark debate nor did it stand out in a crowded market, and it wasn't cutting edge, but the book did pretty well anyway! Ditto GOING BOVINE - no one gets left out there - not boys, not girls - not if they have a sense of humor. Appealing to both genders can be done without the design nightmare which would be caused by blending the extremes of cars/weapons/blue and lips/bows/pink.

    I disagree about the discussion being moot. Covers which mislead or confuse(whether by intention or by accident)are significant and deserve examination. Just look at the response to the Bloomsbury gaffes for LIAR and MAGIC UNDER GLASS. I don't believe it's beside the point to look at gender issues regarding covers, any more than at issues of ethnicity, and I have my fingers crossed that JACKET KNACK readers agree.

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  24. Hi Julie,

    You're misunderstanding what I said. I was not stating a book needs to be one thing or another, in this case: boy or girl. I was pointing out that if a direction defines the feel of a story, it shouldn't be cast aside because a portion of the audience may find it off-putting.

    I have not read When You Reach Me, but I was immediately struck with how reminiscent its jacket illustration was of New Yorker covers from the 1970/80s. Here is the specific cover (I assume) it drew its inspiration from:

    http://tinyurl.com/o8aler

    It didn't surprise me when I read that the story is in fact set in Manhattan, 1979. The feeling of the book was captured, in succinct way, through a blend of parody and nostalgia.

    I am confused by the comparison you are trying to draw between How to Say Goodbye in Robot and Liar/Magic Under Glass. You seem to be implying that Robot's cover is discriminating, specifically the pink palette. If this is the case, it could also be (more) accurate to say that the exclusion of a color is discriminatory. Personally, I feel this is a false comparison because the covers from Bloomsbury misrepresented the ethnicity of the characters. This is not the same as claims of a gender bias on the cover of Robot. Its cover reflects the story, as other members here who read the book have repeatedly stated.

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  25. I'm familiar with Steinberg's New Yorker cover - it's been around a long time, and even hicks like me out here on the West Coast know it as iconic. It's been the inspiration for many artists, though I wouldn't say all hand-drawn maps of neighborhoods in NYC owe their existence to it.

    I can hear the irritation when you say that you and others have "repeatedly stated" that the cover reflects the story. What I'm saying seems so clear to me: The cover of WHEN YOU REACH ME is effective because it doesn't put male readers off who might actually like the story inside the wraps. It doesn't exlude any readers a priori, and it isn't a muddled mess. If Steinberg was the inspiration, then it's derivative, but the derivation is not exactly what anyone would call trendy. Homage to a master, maybe, but not a hot marketing tool.

    The cover of HOW TO SAY GOODBYE IN ROBOT limits the books' readership to girls, though that doesn't mean fewer readers - it just means not boys. You clearly state that you determined that teenage girls would be the intended audience - so I think my point was well made, even by you.

    I'm still left wondering who "the direction of the story" was defined by. I'm hoping it was the author. Ms. Standiford was quoted by one of our comment-makers as having said that she was thrilled with the cover, and you have every right to be proud of that. As I said before (even repeatedly) if she decided that the direction would be only teenage girls, that's her perogative.

    Reviewers are saying she has written a book for a wider audience, and I heard more than one reviewer complain about the cover color. My intention in posting what I thought would be a question for Jacket Knack readers to decide was not very complicated: I wanted to hear from readers whether the cover design (which is what Jacket Knack is concerned with) dovetailed with the SLJ review that was quoted. I still say it does not, and most of the comment-makers indicate that they agree.

    I think your comment earlier that the cover was intended to cause a stir and make it stand out in a crowded market shows a certain practical mind-set, and publishers need to be practical. My point about it being a decision made with marketing in mind can stand. The LIAR and MAGIC UNDER GLASS connection is made because of what to me seems a pre-determined attitude about boys not being readers, even if a good story merits the extra effort it would take to draw them in with a more complex (not muddled) cover. The connecting tissue between all three covers, I believe, is not about bias, but about the disenfranchisement of a certain group of readers. We can't be all things to all people, as you say, but that doesn't mean we should say, "You would like this story but we don't particularly care about you." And that's what the pink cover seems to say. I'm a small fish in a big pond on this, but I have an opinion. I'm so sorry if you found it confusing.

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  26. For a more precise and less confusing opinion, see this article:

    http://tinyurl.com/32afxx

    to which I say yes, exactly, all of the above, that's what I meant to say.

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  27. The article pinpoints the difficulty in reaching a compromise between the two camps. They are coming at book cover design from completely different angles. What's really unfortunate is that boys apparently won't touch what they perceive as a girly-colored book. That at a very young age they've been conditioned to identify with so-called masculine colors.

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  28. Hi Julie,

    Unfortunately, you are putting words in my mouth. To clarify:

    When You Reach Me - I did not call this cover derivative. I merely pointed out that it's use of nostalgia/parody effectively represented the story as I understand it. Its a sophisticated and well thought out jacket, neither of which are common to the YA market.

    You're Bloomsbury comparison is, as you say, your opinion and you're entitled to it. Its my opinion that the comparison is insulting and unfounded. Those two covers were created out of ignorance and misrepresented each novel's story.

    I will be sure to check out the article you've posted, however, I will be taking a bow from this discussion. Throughout, you have not addressed the points I've made and have gone as far as to take my words out of context to further your own argument.

    I wish you the best of luck with your blog.

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  29. You're right, Philip, we're talking in circles and it's best to finish up. The problem with the Bloomsbury titles is NOT equivalent to the problem with HOW TO SAY GOODBYE IN ROBOT; they are much more egregious, but there is connective tissue having to do with preconceptions about the audience, which is all I said. I praised you for the way you served Ms. Standiford and the other decision-makers at Scholastic.

    Sometimes when you want to create a stir and stand out from the crowd, you do just that - not everything which comes back is praise. Sometimes there are questions. But the tone of my questions wasn't meant to be insulting.

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  30. I want to make sure that future readers of this series of comments understand that Mr. Falco created two of my favorite covers ever - he was responsible for the jacket direction and design of Shaun Tan's wonderful TALES OF OUTER SUBURBIA, and for the concept, direction, design and actual illustration of CLICK, written by ten authors in collaboration. So my trouble with HOW TO SAY GOODBYE IN ROBOT was limited to just that cover color. Mr. Falco is a talented book designer.

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