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Cover practice: Charlotte Sometimes

Updated: Apr 26

It's been a while since I've had a chance to do this sort of thing, but a thought for a cover of a particular books has coincided with some time off.

I've mentioned before my love of timeslip fiction and the particular home it finds in adolescent fiction. In fact one of my previous practice cover projects was for another timeslip novel, The Root Cellar by Janet Lunn.

If that is a book which has slipped out of popularity and even print (at least in the UK), Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer is an example of a book that took the same trajectory but rallied. Originally published in 1969, it was well-read enough for long enough to turn up in my childhood reading in the early 90s. Some extra attention came from, of all sources, the admiration for the book by Robert Smith. The Cure recorded three songs directly inspired by the novel including a single which shared its title and whose lyrics concern the book's content directly. Nevertheless the book didn't quite claim its place as part of the children's classics pantheon alongside its fellow timeslip novels Tom's Midnight Gardern and A Traveller in Time and may even have passed briefly out of print in the 90s, before new editions came out in the late 2000s/early 2010s and finally placed it pretty consistently within bookshop stock.

To summarise the story,

When Charlotte goes to bed at the end of her first day at boarding school Charlotte, the new faces of the day are a whirl of confusion in her head. When she wakes up, things seem even more confusing. Everyone is now calling her Clare and a younger girl, Emily, seems to think that she's her sister. Somehow Charlotte has swapped places with Clare - the girl who slept in her bed fifty years before in 1918. Every night Charlotte and Clare exchange their places, spending alternating days in their own times and each other's.

Charlotte and Clare realise that they can write to each other via Clare's diary, concealed within the frame of the bed, and Emily becomes an ally in managaing their odd predicament

But then on a day when Charlotte is supposed to wake up in her own time she finds herself still in 1918 - and it's the day that she and Emily are due to be evacuated from the school because of the rising flu epidemic. Trapped in the past, in another girl's life, Charlotte struggles to hold onto her real identity.

In my post about The Root Cellar, I talked about the challenge of covering timeslip novels. I don't think it's a vein of children's literature that's had many great results.

An exception is the original paperback cover for Charlotte Sometimes. In fact I think the strength of this old cover was what helped resurrect it, in a roundabout way. You might remember the popularity in the 2000s for boxed sets of postcards, and how ubiquitous in particular the 'Postcards from Penguin' and 'Postcards from Puffin' sets were. These selected 100 covers from the archives of the adults and children's wing of the famous publishing house respectively. As well as representing particularly well-known an important books, attention was also paid to which covers simply had tthe strongest designs, especially if they really embodied a certain design era. The Charotte Sometimes paperback certainly embodied late 60s/very early 70s aesthetics and found its way into the set, no doubt helping revive interest in the novel.

It's fantastic, but as I say this cover is a real outlier in terms of good covers for this or any timeslip novel. It's the more abstract and less formed elements of the above style which convey some of the ideas and feelings of the book. In eras with less room for this kind of abstraction, the delicate, slippery, non-visual nature of timeslip as a topic has eluded designers on the whole.

Charlotte Sometimes might present an especial challenge amongst timeslip books in not offering a very visual moment of time travel or discovery. Tom's Midnight Gardern has the image of a little boy, incongruously in pyjamas, exploring a beautiful daylit garden. The Root Cellar and A Traveller in Time have clear 'portal' moments, where the young protagonist steps through a door into a different time. But in Charlotte Sometimes the timeslip happens during sleep. Charlotte simply wakes up in another era.

So we've seen a lot of beds and reclining girls on covers of the book:

It's not a bad choice. The first example there has the advantage of being by the great Edward Ardizzone and is brimming with strange and intriguing atmosphere. But it's neighbour in the above set - the current Puffin edition - uses the same subject to convey nothing at all. This cover looks more suitable for a book like Autumn Term, a fantasy-free tale of school life.

The best current cover for my money is the bottom right-hand one from The New York Review, which uses Edwardian art to convey mood.

It's one of the surprisingly few covers which play on what that first paperback cover did, which is the doubling of Charlotte/Clare.

So I've been idly considering that, and how the image of two girls with the same face might be used more effectively even in modern approaches which leave less room for ambiguity and ambivalence in their styling, to get more of the actual interestes of the book across.

It occurred to me that a playing card composition might work.

I've spent a few hours playing with that idea. I'm going to put it away for now because though I feel like I've got something, I can't seem to move it on to ta version that really works at the moment.

Here's a screencap of the working file because I think it's quite fun to see all the edges of the reference material:

And here's two rough versions of the idea:

Update 26/04/24: I've tried a third version but I'm still not sure if it's anything. It;s lost the 'paying card' look which isn't necessarilly a problem , but there it something nice about the above left-hand option too.


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