Posted by: biblioglobal | May 14, 2014

Stereotyped book covers

After praising the remarkable cover of One Day I Will Write About This Place last week, I came across a post at the blog Africa is a Country which called out some less creative cover designs for African books:


Africa: Acacia trees and sunsets/rises

I’ve come across a couple other examples like this previously.

Book covers about Muslim women courtesy of Arabic Literature in English:

From a slide in the presentation "Translating for Bigots."

Muslim women: veiled faces

And South Asian women publishing in the U.S. courtesy of South Asian Women Writers:

South Asian Women: Elaborate clothes and no eyes

I encourage you to check out the links to these blogs, each one of them has interesting commentary.

Looking at my own reading for this blog, out of the 12 African books I’ve posted about I found two more African acacia trees:

The Boy who Harnessed the WindFar and Beyon' by Unity Dow











(That doesn’t include Half of a Yellow Sun, which is included in the example above. My copy had a different cover, without the tree)

I’m not sure what to make of all this. Obviously these are cherry-picked examples and lots of books don’t follow these patterns. I think that’s important to remember. We’re not talking about all books. But the patterns in those images are pretty striking.

Book covers function as advertisements and as such, they need to send you signals as to what they are about. Book covers from Africa and the Middle East and South Asia aren’t unique in having repeated identifying traits. There are stereotyped cover design elements that might indicate a mystery novel or a romance or a book set in Paris. So what’s the problem?

The thing that strikes me the most is that I was completely unaware of some of the signals I was reacting to. Since I’m actively seeking out books from many parts of the world, these covers are successful in drawing my attention as something I might be interested in. I could probably have told you that books from South Asia are likely to have women in dressy saris on the cover, but I never noticed the fact that those women’s faces are consistently obscured in favor of their bodies and clothes. I have looked at those books with acacia trees and recognized that the books were set in Africa, but I never realized that it was that tree on the horizon giving me that signal.

In the case of the acacia tree, I don’t see a problem with the use of the tree itself when it is appropriate to particular books, rather it seems like problem is overuse of a single symbol and how broadly it is applied. At least for a book set in Paris, I can name any number of stereotyped images that might evoke the locale- the Eiffel Tower, a sidewalk cafe, a baguette, a beret, an outline of a map showing the river. Not very innovative, but a lot of variety just for a single city. The acacia tree is used to indicate Africa quite generally (though probably not North Africa). Embarrassingly, I can’t think of a single image (other than perhaps photos of Nelson Mandela for South Africa) that would signal to me that a book was set in any specific African country.

Beyond that, there’s also the question of focusing on location in the book cover in the first place. Are books from ‘exotic’ locales like Africa or Asia more likely to be marketed with a focus on their setting? Probably. (That feels like a weird question for me to be asking, considering that this whole blog is about reading books based on their location. Hmm.)



  1. What’s interesting is the idea of a lone tree on a book cover is really old. I know the original Wuthering Heights, or at least the American release had just the lone tree on it.

    • Interesting. Sounds like someone should do a historical literary analysis of lone trees on book covers!

  2. I never thought about it for books, but a similar thing is true for audio cues in movies. Whenever a movie shifts to Japan, there is a very specific trill played on a very specific instrument, usually accompanied by a visual of a Shinto gateway. There are similar “shorthand notations” for China, India, Arabia and other “exotic” places. (

    On the one hand, cliche’s serve a useful purpose in communicating information. They convey information descriptively without disrupting the comfort of the recipient. If the cover of the book isn’t obviously “African” to me, then my attention to the image on the cover may distract me from the immersion into the book.

    On the other hand, excess repetition of cliches (even if they are based in reality) leads to reinforced caricatures rather than depth and complexity. Disrupting the comfort of the recipient is usually a good thing, but it should be done carefully.

    I am most amused by the “Voices behind the Veil” and “Daughter of Iraq” using the exact same photo with different Instagram filters. Talk about repetition.

    • Interesting point about the music. I just played the clip from the website and BiblioBoyfriend turned and said “What’s that music? It makes me think of pagodas.”

      I’ve come across other examples of books reusing the same cover. It’s confusing and surprising that publishers would do that.

  3. That’s a scary-sad pattern that has developed for all those books! It’s one thing to have the Eiffel Tower on the cover of a book set in Paris, we know that is only part of Paris, that there is much more to the city than that. But these other covers, I wonder how many people think that all of Africa is covered only in acacia trees? Or that all Indian women wear colorful saris and all Arabic women wear veils? Those book cover patterns cut us off from being able to see the people or countries as any thing other than what they picture which is a shame because there is so much more beyond those stereotypes.

    • Very well put, thank-you. One especially funny thing about the acacia trees as an African stereotype is that (at least according to Wikipedia) 3/4 of the species of acacia are native to Australia! I haven’t read enough Australian books to know whether they get acacia trees on their covers too.

  4. This is a very interesting post about an important topic! Book marketing is based on stereotypes that it perpetuates by reinforcing consumer associations between the stereotype and the content of the book. These countries and the people who live in them are much more than acacia trees or saris. I just hope the content of the book is better at showing us that than the stereotyped cover is.

    • I’m glad you found it interesting. I can certainly vouch that some of these books give a much more nuanced view. Half of a Yellow Sun is possibly the best book I’ve read from anywhere at showing the complexity of human beings. But then, the picture of African covers also includes the infamous Heart of Darkness. And The Hindi Bindi Club is about as silly as it sounds…

  5. […] my recent post about stereotyped book covers, I couldn’t bring myself to use the American cover of The Story of Zahra as the lead image […]

  6. […] my copy falls into the African-Book-Covers-With-Acacia-Trees […]

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