Classic novels get makeover for teenage readers

Julie Bosman / New York Times News Service /

Teenagers are still reading the classics. They just don’t want them to look so, well, classic.

That is the theory of publishers who are wrapping books like “Emma” and “Jane Eyre” in new covers: provocative, modern jackets in bold shades of scarlet and lime green that are explicitly aimed at teenagers raised on “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games.”

The new versions are edgy replacements for the traditional (read: stuffy, boring) covers that have been a trademark of the classics for decades, those familiar, dour depictions of women wearing frilly clothing.

In their place are images like the one of Romeo in stubble and a tight white tank top on a new Penguin edition of Romeo and Juliet.

The covers are intended to tap into the soaring popularity of the young-adult genre, the most robustly growing category in publishing. In the last decade, publishers have poured energy and resources into books for teenagers, releasing more titles each year.

Bookstores have followed suit, creating and expanding special sections devoted to them.

After the “Twilight” books by Stephenie Meyer became a sensation, paranormal romances boomed. In the last several years, the “Hunger Games” trilogy has inspired dozens of dystopian novels.

Some of the redesigned jackets are clearly inspired by the “Twilight” series. HarperCollins released a cover for “Wuthering Heights” with a stark black background, a close-up of a red rose and an inscription that reads, “Bella & Edward’s favorite book.”

In a new series published by Puffin Books, an imprint of Penguin Group USA, a cover of the Gothic vampire novel “Dracula” by Bram Stoker features a ghostly woman floating in the center, her platinum hair flying in the air. The title and author are scrawled in cursive over a large pool of blood, rivulets of red dripping down the page.

“We didn’t want to go with a muted approach,” said Eileen Kreit, the president and publisher of Puffin. “We had that Urban Outfitters customer in mind. We wanted to appeal to that teenager and give a fresh look to these stories that have been around a very long time.”

Sales of some young-adult versions have been strong. The HarperCollins edition of “Wuthering Heights” has sold 125,000 copies since it was released in 2009, an extraordinary number that sent the book back to the best-seller lists.

Because titles like “Pride and Prejudice” and “Persuasion” are in the public domain, any publisher can release a version, leaving the text inside the books untouched while redesigning the cover. And for the young-adult reader, publishers are scooping up all the material they can find.

Now the new versions of the classics are fighting for space on the young-adult shelves of bookstores. In a Barnes & Noble in Manhattan last week, a display featured four new editions of novels by Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters alongside more contemporary offerings of werewolf and other paranormal romances.

In March, Splinter, an imprint of Sterling Publishing, began releasing its Classic Lines series, paperback editions of classic novels with French flaps and delicate illustrations on the jackets that have the appearance of watercolors. For the artwork, the publisher hired Sara Singh, a Manhattan-based fashion illustrator.

“My challenge was to make something that’s classic look appealing to tweens,” Singh said. Referring to the covers, she added, “We wanted to make them fashionable and beautiful, with bright colors and handwritten text.”

Alli Brydon, the editor of the series, dismissed more traditional covers as too “Victorian” and “old-fashioned” for teenagers. On the jacket of a classic edition of “Jane Eyre” in Barnes & Noble, for instance, a woman is staring mournfully into the distance, her skin nearly the same yellowish hue as the wall behind her, a black coat hiding her neck.

“It doesn’t show her brazen qualities, and it doesn’t show her bravery,” said Brydon, who oversaw a Classic Lines cover for the novel featuring a bright purple sketch of the book’s heroine with her chin held up jauntily. “A lot of the old covers don’t convey some of the feminist ideas that the books hold.”

The traditional covers also make young protagonists look much older than their true age, while the newer ones portray characters like Elizabeth Bennet in “Pride and Prejudice” as the teenagers they actually are, making them more appealing to young readers.

Nevertheless, some teenagers have rejected the new editions. At Book Passage, a store with two outlets in the San Francisco Bay Area, a display of repackaged classics did not sell well, said the store’s owner, Elaine Petrocelli.

“If kids want to read ‘Emma,’ they want to buy it in the adult section, not the teen section,” she said. “Kids don’t want to feel like they’re being manipulated.”