Tag Archives: critique

Book Covers sample answer

NOTE: This article was originally published in the Irish Independent Written Word Supplement, March 2014.

Publishing houses often create more than one cover for the same book, particularly if they feel the book will appeal to ‘multiple target demographics‘. In simple English, this means they think people of different ages, life stages, genders, hobbies and education levels will all like this book so they can’t just target one specific group (young adult readers, romantic fiction fans, sci-fi nerds) with their advertising efforts.

One way they get around this is by creating different book covers aimed at different groups. For example, you can probably remember that there were children and adult book cover versions of all of the Harry Potter books so that adults didn’t have to feel embarrassed sitting on the train reading them!

As with the photographs, you may be presented with more than one cover and asked which one you prefer, or which one best captures the theme of the written text. In this case an extract from the novel itself will most likely accompany the book covers so that you get a flavour for the book even if you haven’t read it. You might also be asked to say whether or not the book cover would entice you to buy and read the novel.

When assessing the effectiveness of a book cover or for that matter of any product or advertisement ask yourself three questions:

  1. Does it grab my attention?

  2. Does it make an impression?

  3. Does it convince me to buy the book / product / service?

Have a look at this book cover for the wonderful novel Skippy Dies by Irish author Paul Murray.

skippy dies b

Sample Question:

Does this book cover for “Skippy Dies” make you want to read the novel? Give reasons for your answer, based on a close reading of the various visual and textual elements. (20 marks)

Sample Answer:

This book cover instantly grabs my attention. I really like the design and colour scheme: the geometric pattern of semi-circles in alternating shades of green and red against a warm cream background is quite hypnotic. It also looks like the cover had water spilt onto it in places as the paint has smudged and I feel this prevents the design from being too clinical in appearance. This slightly bohemian edge is again evident in the vertical lines drawn by hand around the edges of the rough red and cream semi-circles which reveal the title of the novel and the author. I like the handwriting font too which adds to the informal vibe. All of these features add a warmth to the book cover; a willingness not to be too perfect, which I really like.

In much smaller font at the top and bottom are quotes from reviews, sourced from reputable newspapers The Times and The Guardian. Including these snippets tells us this is literature, not pulp fiction, and yet the promise of fun and entertainment ensures we’re not scared off – if reading this book is “hilarious” and “outrageously enjoyable” then I can cope with the “tragic” content!

At the very bottom of the page we’re told this book was “SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2012 COSTA NOVEL AWARD” and fellow author David Nicholls describes Murray as “A brilliant comic writer” At this point it’s difficult to resist this book, it’s being so highly praised!

The title also instantly intrigues, with the stark warning that in this book “Skippy Dies”. It’s a daring concept to tell the reader what’s going to happen and yet still ask them to invest their time and emotions in the characters, three of whom are represented in little uneven edged coloured blobs, each with their own rough line drawing. The presence of two boys and one girl at first brought a love triangle to my mind, but the fact that the girl is on the right rather than in the centre made me question this assumption. Their youth suggests that this might be a coming of age story, but my awareness that a central character dies gives this book an edge. It makes me think this is not going to be some twee little teen romance, but rather a book which challenges and provokes.

To conclude, this book cover most certainly made an impression on me and I am now tempted to leave the exam hall to go buy it!


Celebrity ‘News’?

The time has come for me to confess.

I normally hide behind my ability to quote random chunks of Shakespeare at will but that doesn’t change the fact that – here it comes – I find it hard to resist celebrity magazines. I stand in the supermarket queue and get sucked in by the gossipy headlines strategically placed to tempt me into wasting my money. I’ll find myself secretly pleased that the person ahead of me is taking forever – you know the type, the woman who waits until every single grocery is packed and stashed before rooting around endlessly in her bottomless handbag groping for her purse.

Why? Because this gives me a chance to flick to the contents page and then quickly scan the article relating to the most scandalous cover story, just to prove to myself what I already know internally – it’ all fluff. Hyped up, OTT, manipulative nonsense that’s not worth my time or energy.

So why do I still get sucked in? And why am I so determined to resist?

I got some clarity on the issue this week as my Leaving Certs and I revisited a comprehension from the 2005 exam paper – it was a mock celebrity interview with Irish Rock Diva Eva Maguire written by a former leaving cert student. One of the comprehension questions asked “Do you find the style of writing in this magazine article appealing?” – and discussed how this question requires a much more subtle answer than your bog standard “Identify and comment on four features of the writer’s style“. And before you freak out, you don’t need to go into anything like this detail in the exam – I’m just the kind of person who doesn’t know when to shut up!

So what is my answer? Well, yes and no.

First off the article is extremely well written but crucially the language nonetheless remains accessible, meaning it will appeal to a large target audience. The writer creates a vivid picture of Eva who “is extraordinarily beautiful and astonishingly tough, steely and ambitious. Her golden hair frames features dominated by huge blue eyes. She wears a diamond and sapphire-studded ring on her left hand…” This article offers us a clear picture of the woman and her lifestyle but it requires little cerebral exertion on our part to gain this insight into her life.And let’s face it this style appeals to most people when they pick up a magazine in a train station or a doctor’s surgery – at that moment they probably don’t want to have to grapple with complex vocabulary they may or may not understand (in fact this can be an issue for more highbrow publications like Time Magazine, The Economist and Vanity Fair who attract a very educated and literate readership but don’t sell in the large numbers that celebirty magazines do).

Secondly, sensationalist show and tell stories appeal to the gossip in all of us – like it or not it’s perfectly natural to feel curious about the lives these people lead and perhaps to even fantasise that one day it could be us flying in a private jet to our holiday home in the Bahamas! So when we read that “she has achieved head- spinning, global success, winning international music awards, packing concert venues and seeing her albums topping charts all over the world” we get a powerful reminder of why it is that so many people show up to X-factor auditions and why they are so devastated when they fail to make it past bootcamp or judges houses.

Thirdly the use of hyperbole, and the overuse of emphatic and superlative words adds to our sense that these people are somehow bigger, better and brighter than ordinary plebians like ourselves. Here “in a rare, exclusive and candid interview, the 24 year -old rock superstar reveals where she sees her destiny and for the first time shares with “Celebrity” readers some of the secrets of her forthcoming wedding plans“. If we can’t see through the manipulation inherent in the language itself we can end up falling for the excitement and drama of the writing. Perhaps this goes some way towards explaining the modern obsession with being famous – not talented or successful or exceptional – but famous for the sake of being famous. Because there is after all only one thing worse than being talked about and that’s NOT being talked about!

There was one other element of the writing style which appealed to me. Personally, I don’t think this student was paying homage to celebrity magazines by copying their OTT hyped-up style; I think he or she was completely taking the piss, but in a very low key and subtle way. For me this article isn’t a homage it’s a parody! Look at the way it mocks vacuous female celebrities who buy rare breeds of dog (that surely should never have existed) and carry them around in their handbag – in this article the photo shoot “shows her posing with one of her pet miniature greyhounds“. Too ridiculous to be true but we’re almost convinced because this is after all the way many of celebrities carry on! The notion that money doesn’t buy class is again hinted at when we learn more about their wedding plans and are told to “expect six hundred doves to flock the Italian sky at the moment when the wedding vows are made“. I mean ‘puh-lease’! Give me a break!

And that, my friends, is why I haven’t bought a single celebrity magazine in the past four years. Yes, I’ll flick through them at the checkout, but only to remind myself of how empty, vacuous and pathetic they really are. They promise so much yet so rarely deliver. Like this article they promise exclusive access to the inner sanctuary of the celebrity’s home; they hype up the tell-all secrets only they have managed to goad the interviewee into revealing but when all is said and done you learn little you didn’t already know. Maybe that’s why celebrity reality TV shows like the Kardashians are so popular; because they do actually give you no-holds-barred access to the most intimate details of these people’s lives (like one of them seriously gave birth on camera? Just the thought of it makes me feel queasy. That poor baba did not sign up for that!!!).

Finally although it sounds self-righteous and judgemental, there is no denying that this style of journalism promotes superficiality and excessive materialism. It elevates celebrities to a ridiculous status, pretending that their every move qualifies as ‘news’. Spend an evening in our house and you’ll find both my husband and myself regularly shouting at the telly or the radio (or both) saying that’s not news when yet another story about Brad and Angelina’s latest adoption gets higher billing that a mudslide that’s killed hundreds of people. Perhaps this is the greatest crime of all that the oxymoran ‘celebrity news’ commits.  It tells us that we should view the minute details of their daily lives as somehow more significant and important than wars, murders, natural disasters, fraud and world hunger.

Like ‘clean coal’ ‘military intelligence’ and ‘truthful tabloids’ ‘celebrity news’ doesn’t exist! And ultimately, just because it happens to a ‘celebrity’ shouldn’t mean it qualifies as news!

What’s wrong with the Leaving Cert?

Unless you’ve been hibernating under a rock you’ll be aware that the Leaving Cert results came out this week. As usual, the media focused almost exclusively on the two or three geniuses who managed to achieve near superhuman results, in some cases 9 A1s! These individuals are undoubtedly exceptional on so many levels and celebrating exceptional human beings in every field of human endeavour is a truly wonderful thing. I for one would hate to live in a world where individual achievement was ignored instead of exhalted.


What about the exceptional individuals whose talents aren’t recognised or rewarded by the Leaving Cert? Are they to conclude that the things they are good at simply don’t matter or have no value in an educational context? Talents like leadership, teamwork, creativity and innovation – are these things  really irrelevant when assessing their time at school and awarding college places?

I’ve been thinking about the Leaving Cert a lot over the last few months. What kicked it all off was an #edchatie discussion back in April on the possibility of achieving “A Better, Fairer Leaving Cert”. A few short weeks later I was delighted to hear the articulate and intelligent Fionnghuala King lambast the Leaving Cert at our school’s Graduation Mass  (you can read excerpts of what she had to say here in the Mayo News). Then the day of the results thejournal.ie rang me for reaction to the results and to the exams system itself and 24hours later I was in the middle of a heated row with George Hook on Newstalk about the relative merits of the current system. Only four short days after the results and after a summer of exhausting media interviews The Irish Times finally acknowledged that I might have something of value to say and yet I find myself still grasping for a coherent alternative method of assessing students achievements at the end of five or sometimes six years of secondary education.

For what it’s worth here are my thoughts. I’m aware they are often contradictory but this is a complex issue!So let’s embrace the paradoxes and tease them out…

  • Embracing change for the sake of change is a pointless and potentially damaging exercise.
  • Nonetheless we MUST find a way to reduce the pressure on students without compromising the integrity of the current system which is viewed by most as relatively transparent.
  • Transparency and objectivity are vital in a small country like Ireland which has always struggled with nepotism and corruption (exams which are externally marked & anonymous thankfully negate these negative societal traits).
  • There is no simple or obvious utopian alternative but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep looking for a lesser evil.
  • We need a terminal exam which assesses academic ability & aptitudes??? (I’m not sure about this one…)
  • Should a terminal exam be combined with some continuous assessment? Can we prevent plagiarism and maintain trasparency if we go down this route? Is there a danger of more grade inflation? Will parents/neighbours/teaching colleagues put pressure on teachers to give their son/daughter a higher grade than they deserve? Does this mean that those who shout the loudest will get the most? and how would this play out for students whose parents play fair? or don’t care? Aren’t teachers supposed to be advocates for their students not judge and jury? Will students just beg borrow or steal projects that they know will get them a good grade? And if this happens what are we willing to do about it? (Not very much, if this case is anything to go by).
  • The Leaving Cert as it exists is an incredibly blunt instrument which assesses a very narrow range of aptitudes and abilities and all too often leads to rote learning and regurgitation. However, is a certain amount of knowledge (stored in your memory rather than in a computer) a prerequisite for analysis and synthesis and deep understanding? This might be a chicken and egg debate – which comes first? Certainly you cannot rote learn your way to 600 points in your Leaving Cert. But if you repeat and select only the subjects which require and reward rote learning you can certainly get 500 points.
  • Exam technique and the ability to remain calm under pressure are the aptitudes which are rewarded most highly under the current system – if you fall down in either of these areas you fall down in your Leaving Cert. So God help you if you don’t (or can’t) nurture and develop these ‘talents’.
  • It is unforgiveable that there is no repeat procedure for students who are hit by illness or bereavement, through no fault of their own, immediately prior to and/or during exams.
  • It’s good that we offer a rounded education – I don’t think we should follow the British system where you could study English language, English literature, Drama and General Studies and then say you had studied 4 subjects for your A levels – let’s face it this is mostly different branches of the same subject and you’d have received a very narrow education indeed in your final two years of secondary school education.
  • However, we currently offer a very narrow range of subjects, with a ridiculous bias in favour of students who are good at languages – most schools have their subject choices arranged in such a way that you must study three languages. So almost 50% of your leaving cert subjects are languages irrespective of what your interests, aptitudes and abilities are. How fair must that feel if you love Maths, Accounting, Business, Art, Tech Graphics and Woodwork??? I know I certainly resented being told that I ‘had‘ to do a science subject when I wanted to do a combination of History, Geography, Art and Music. I was lucky in many ways – English and French were also on that list whether I liked it or not – but in my case I loved languages.
  • The range of subjects being offered is getting narrower all the time thanks to cutbacks. Physics, Chemistry, Accounting, Economics, History and Applied Maths are now all considered minority subjects. I mean seriously, WTF???
  • The bell curve sets students up for failure. It’s not about your achievements, it’s about how crap your achievements are compared to Mary down the road. Vomit.
  • We need to reform the system of college entry – the points system is so crude and so cruel we should be ashamed of ourselves. Fix this and a lot of the pressure, stress, worry and one-up-man-ship of the current system will dissappear.

That’s all I’ve got for now. Lots to grapple with.