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Noteworthy Debut Cover Designs

By Beccy Fish, Amy Evans, Lucy Roberts and Juliette Tulloch


Waterstones recently unveiled Tess Gunty as the first winner of their new award, the Debut Fiction Prize, with her first published novel The Rabbit Hutch. In this article we’ll be delving into the covers of some popular debut novels across a range of genres in celebration of this new award.

Khaled Hosseini’s moving story The Kite Runner follows Amir’s reflection on his childhood with his best friend Hassan, from growing up in Kabul to the events that led to their separation. This cover is drenched in sepia tones reflecting the age of Amir’s memories, alongside the drier landscape of Afghanistan. After reading the book, the reader will understand that the image displayed is a pivotal point in the story which Amir tortures himself over decades after its occurrence. Slapping it directly on the cover emphasises its crucial importance to the plot.


Arguably one of the most famous books ever published, J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was novelised in 1951 and had its cover designed by Salinger’s close friend E. Mitchell. Holden Caulfield is expelled from his school after failing his classes so returns to New York. After several experiences with “phonies” and friends of the past, he finally reaches contentment when watching his younger sister on a carousel. The simplicity of this final scene is the emblem on the cover to demonstrate its significance to Holden’s growth and acceptance. The overwhelming red references his red hunting hat that becomes a symbol of his individuality, which is also represented in the hand-drawn imagery.


Published earlier this year, Daughter of the Moon Goddess is Sue Lynn Tan’s debut fantasy novel which draws on Chinese mythology – particularly the legend of the Chinese moon goddess Chang’e. The cover, illustrated by Kuri Huang, reflects the mythological and fantasy elements of the book, and contains echoes of traditional Chinese paintings. The dark blue background of the cover highlights the bright gold moon, and the figure dressed in white. The gold accents and stars also create a nice contrast with the pink flowers. The level of detail in this cover design is also a large part of what makes it stand out and look visually appealing.


The School for Good and Evil is the first book in the popular middle-grade fantasy series by Soman Chainani, which has a film adaptation coming out later this year. The cover, illustrated by Iacopo Bruno, highlights the two main characters and emphasises their contrasting styles. It also gives a lot of attention to the setting of the novel, with the two schools making up the background of the cover, and the school crest front and centre. This is a cover full of contrast – with the black and white swans and the stark differences been the “Good” school and “Evil” school, and the cover strongly hints at the main conflict within the book itself. The placement of the schools also hints at the twist in the story.


Conversations with Friends skyrocketed Sally Rooney into literary stardom before her second novel, Normal People, earned her even more acclaim. Following the lives of students Frances and Bobby, Rooney explores the difficulties of their friendships, romances and the work they create together. They engage in a messy, whirlwind friendship-group-turned-love-quadrangle which sees their health, livelihood, and relationships come into question. The cover’s bright yellow background contrasts some of the more difficult themes that the novel encounters. The depiction of Frances and Bobby highlights the differences between their personalities, with Frances more reserved while Bobby takes on the role of the life of the party. The decision to include “A Novel” on the front cover hints that the writing style inside may not be what the average reader expects from a modern novel.


Ocean Vuong’s debut On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous takes on the form of a letter written to a mother from her son, nicknamed Little Dog. The novel takes the reader through the Vietnamese War from the perspectives of Vietnamese and American soldiers, and also through the struggle of the American queer experience. Little Dog takes up work on a farm where he meets his lover, and this storyline is accompanied by flashbacks to the war. Vuong destroys and rewrites whatever perspective of colonialism, patriotism, gender and sexuality the reader may already have. The decision to use an intimate greyscale photo for the cover (designed by Darren Haggar) complements the story inside, representing the history and memory seeped within. The image of one man hugging another highlights the gentle intimacy found within the novel – while the dirt found upon their skin depicts the brutality of the work and the war depicted within.

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