1. I don’t think you can look for a literal narrative image in the book for an effective cover. I mean, you could, but I think it’s a bad idea. I’ve said a million times, YA novels are generally more about character and voice than they are about plot or situation (obviously, there are exceptions, but the trend holds). But . . .
2. You really don’t want to use the cover to paint (literally or figuratively) a portrait of the main character. This is why when you do get a “face” cover these days, it’s often done with partially obscured faces, extreme close-ups, or any number of other tricks to keep the cover about character without intruding too much on the reader’s imagined vision of the character.
3. So you’re left with trying to convey some sort of emotional/metaphorical abstraction with design, photography (mostly stock), and type. All for an audience that can be incredibly discerning and picky about design. Fun stuff.
One book I’ve worked on provides a nice illustration of trends and challenges in YA fiction. It’s a novel called The Fat Girl by Marilyn Sachs, and it was first published by Dutton in the early 80s. It’s a first person, dark YA with an unreliable narrator (hint: it’s not about the fat girl). Here’s the jacket for the first edition:
I’d call this character focused, but too much in-focus—that is, too explicit. Even if the clothes and the hair weren’t dated, this cover would still be problematic in contemporary YA for the simple reason that it takes away too much from the imagination.
And here’s the cover for a later mass-market edition, still from the 80s. This is the cover that may have been on the book all the way into the early 90s when the book went out of print.
This cover is a scene from the book. I’d call it a narrative, plot-based cover, and it tells me absolutely nothing about the book’s voice and overall tone. Again, even if the look was up to date, it would fail as a cover now.
Fast forward to 2005. I heard about the novel on Roger Sutton’s blog* and was intrigued. I tried to find it, and discovered it wasn’t in print. I found a used copy, read it, and loved it. A lot. It’s a book that really rings true, even after 25 years. So, I bought the rights from Marilyn Sachs, and we republished it, with this cover in 2006:
I can’t say this is a perfect cover (this is one of those cases where an excellent designer basically created the cover I always wanted), but I think it’s heading in the right direction at a minimum. It’s an intriguing image, a little disturbing, and it gives a sense of the dark tone of the book without prejudicing the imagination at all.
The book has done very well for Flux and seems likely to remain part of its backlist for a long time.
Bottom line: over nearly thirty years, nothing about the text of this book has changed. Not one word. It’s held up for readers very well. Can’t really say the same of the covers, eh?
* Funny to look back at that blog post of Roger’s from 2005. I commented that I couldn’t find the book, and someone called “Sara Z” commented that she had loved Sachs’s books growing up but had missed The Fat Girl. Gee, I wonder what became of Sara Z.?