The Significance of Faces on Fiction Book Covers

Illustration of three books with an African American person on each book cover

When I hear fellow readers say whether they prefer fiction book covers with or without people pictured on them, the answers are pretty evenly split between both styles.

A key advantage for people-less book cover designs is that they leave a reader more room to envision the characters how they wish. Some readers find it easier that way to put themselves in a character’s place. Those designs also avoid the not-so-uncommon issue of people on covers that don’t match the authors’ character descriptions in the stories.

Fan art book cover of Paper Snowflake Christmas, a historical Christian romance by Vanessa Riley, and The Movement of Rings, inspirational historical fantasy by Nadine C. Keels

(Before you say it: Yes, I realize that from a marketing standpoint, matching all the character details in the story isn’t the main job or priority for a book cover. The marketing priority for cover design is to give the book an eye-catching look that will sell well to a target audience; the audience usually won’t know exactly how an author describes a character until after the book is sold. Still, that technical reason doesn’t mean that mismatches between the cover and the story aren’t, well, an annoyance to a lot of readers. Sometimes it’s more than a mere annoyance—but a little more on that in a minute.)

A key advantage of book cover designs with people pictured is the advantage of human connection. Something instinctive happens in a person’s brain when they see another human being, especially a human face. Just by being pictured there, a person on a book cover makes an instant call to a reader’s humanity.

A woman with a serious stare on the cover of They Can’t Take Your Name, a crime novel by Robert Justice, and a boy with a winning grin on the cover of The Swag Is in the Socks, middle grade fiction by Kelly J. Baptist

On another note, forming mental images is harder for some people than for others. And for people with a condition called aphantasia, they don’t form mental images at all. So, when the cover of a book depicts a key person or two from the story, it can serve as a visual reference for readers who wouldn’t picture the character(s) otherwise or who wouldn’t do it easily.

As for my personal preferences, I don’t find one of the two styles better than the other. I’m drawn by great book covers of both peopled and people-less varieties. 😀

A peopled cover showing four sisters: So Many Beginnings: A Little Women Remix, historical fiction by Bethany C. Morrow, and a people-less cover with flowers representing six sisters: Petrified Flowers, a Christian YA novel-in-verse by Joiya Morrison-Efemini

With that said, there are times when I feel an extra special appreciation for human faces on fiction book covers. Those times are when I see human faces representing people of color in fiction. Why? Because people of color haven’t always had (and sometimes still don’t have) the privilege of being seen in the book world. And more than that, being seen in empowered roles.

Now, this issue isn’t limited to one fiction genre or to one race/ethnicity of people. But understand that much of my experience and perspective is that of the Black American woman that I am. A Black American woman who’s read a whole lot of fiction from kindergarten to now, including a whole lot of Christian Fiction from her preteens to now.

Illustration of three multicolored stacks of books

I remember what it was like through my years of going out to one bookstore and the next. I loved shopping for fiction, especially ChristFic. Yet, I remember how, except in rare cases, the people pictured on fiction book covers in Christian bookstores tended to be all one color. A color that wasn’t mine. I’d sometimes check the photos of the authors, and they were also all one color the large majority of the time. It was easy for me, and likely many other ChristFic shoppers, to assume, “These must pretty much be the only people out there who write Christian novels.” So, I chose books from the ChristFic selection that was offered.

Granted, the kinds of ChristFic books that were available weren’t exactly the same at every Christian bookstore across the US. Still, I’d see fellow ChristFic readers online, asking for help to find Christian novels with Black characters, and other readers’ recommendations for American Civil War novels would come up quickly—stories featuring Black people enslaved or in other subservient positions.

No, I’m not saying that the Civil War era isn’t important to read and write about. I myself read fiction involving that era. But I’m saying that if stories depicting Black characters in enslaved roles, or only one or two embattled steps beyond enslavement—if those were perceived as the top reads that Christian Fiction had to offer in terms of Black characters, that was a problem. There’s definitely much more to who Black people have been, who we are, and who we are becoming.

Sisters in Arms, historical fiction by Kaia Alderson: based on the true story of the only all-Black battalion of the Women’s Army Corps in World War II, and Passages of Hope, split-timeline ChristFic by Terri J. Haynes: featuring a Black American businesswoman in 1855 who’s also an Underground Railroad stationmaster, married to a Black American physician

I make it no secret that in the past, the lack of diversity on ChristFic bookshelves was one of the reasons I eventually stepped away from buying new ChristFic for several years. No, I don’t at all believe people are only supposed to read and enjoy books when they share the same ethnicity as the authors and lead characters. But as a reader, it can be hard to keep returning to bookshelves where, in terms of ethnic and cultural representation, you feel continually left out.


It was years before I found out there were more Black writers in the ChristFic genre than had first seemed to be the case. One day while browsing the general Fiction shelves in a secular bookstore, I stumbled on a contemporary Christian novel written by a Black author featuring Black lead characters. I later found other such novels mixed in with secular books, and I made a habit of checking the ChristFic section as well as the general Fiction shelves each time I visited the store. While in a broad sense, I have no problem with religious and inspirational fiction titles being shelved with secular fiction (it’s all still fiction), it struck me that all of the Christian novels with brown-skinned people on the covers, written by brown-skinned authors, were shelved across the store and away from the Christian Fiction section.

Two of the African American ChristFic novels I once found by searching through secular fiction: What a Sista Should Do by Tiffany L. Warren, and Soul Matters by Yolonda Tonette Sanders

It wasn’t hard for me to imagine that those novels were likely to go unseen by many, maybe most, of the Christian shoppers who’d head straight for the designated Christian Fiction shelves in that store.

It’d be a few more years until I’d learn that racially segregated ChristFic shelving wasn’t a practice only local to me. Granted, at least at my favorite local bookstore, they did eventually begin shelving more African American ChristFic in the Christian Fiction section, but that change came rather late. Sales in the traditional Christian Fiction market had already begun seeing a downturn. Christian bookstores across the country started going out of business, and as the demand for Christian novels declined in secular bookstores, ChristFic in those stores started earning less shelf space. At the same time that the ChristFic sections started shrinking, they again became less diverse.

Illustration of a closed Christian bookstore

Again, as I refer to African American ChristFic, I in no way mean to imply that “Black books” are the only diverse books to consider, or that any other people of color or people as a whole aren’t important. I’m simply speaking from my experience and perspective as a Black American woman, the perspective I know best.

It wasn’t until I got into publishing for myself that I began to hear more about the extra roadblocks that Black authors had been facing for years in Christian publishing. Perhaps needless to say, those same difficulties were present in the broader publishing world. I wasn’t nearly the first or only reader of color who’d felt left out while browsing for fiction on bookstore shelves. Too many authors of color have faced literary agents and acquisitions editors reluctant or unwilling to take on their work, publishers fearing that “our readers won’t be able to relate to books…like yours.”

There have also been a lot of cases when publishers have released historical or biblical fiction novels featuring characters in their native lands in Middle Eastern/Asian and African areas of the globe, but the people pictured on the book covers often wouldn’t look like people of Middle Eastern/Asian or African origin.

Two biblical fiction book covers that I love, representing characters of color: Jewel of the Nile by Tessa Afshar, and Seal of the Sand Dweller by R. Rushing

That issue concerning people pictured on book covers hasn’t only been limited to diverse historical fiction. Even for some diverse fiction set in contemporary times, publishers have opted for cover designs where the people don’t look “too ethnic.” And for some books featuring Black characters, the publishers would blatantly use images of Caucasian people on the book covers.

Indeed, in cases like that, when brown-skinned characters are misrepresented with cover images of people who aren’t brown-skinned, the mismatch between the characters in the books and the designs on the covers are more than mere annoyances. It’s a problem that authors still deal with sometimes in publishing, right here in the 21st century.

Has publishing made any positive progress in terms of diversity? Yes! There’s significant room for improvement as well. Also, on account of what many readers have and have not been accustomed to seeing for years when they shop for fiction, it’ll take more intentional effort to shift a particular conscious and/or subconscious notion that still lingers in too much of the reading world. The notion that ethnically diverse fiction is basically secondary fiction, mostly suitable for different or “other” people but not too essential beyond that, while fiction from Caucasian authors is standard, universal fiction. That way of thinking goes along with viewing the matter of diversity in fiction as merely one of the current “trends” in publishing.

Two sci-fi novels featuring Black characters: Futureland: Battle for the Park, a middle grade novel by H.D. Hunter, and Remote Control, an Africanfuturism novella by Nnedi Okorafor

Human beings of color aren’t a trend but are a vital reality integral to the human story from its beginning. And we certainly shouldn’t only be represented in fiction while publishers see it as “trendy” to do so. It’s a layered issue, too much to unpack fully in one blog post, but I’ve said all of this to reiterate…

Although I love all kinds of great cover designs, I feel an extra special appreciation when I see human faces rightfully representing people of color on fiction book covers. I appreciate it when a diversity of people have those valid and necessary chances to be seen.

Take My Hand, historical literary fiction by Dolen Perkins-Valdez, and Class Act, a middle grade graphic novel by Jerry Craft

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Why Spoilers in Book Reviews Are Often a Good Thing

Illustration of a woman and man pointing up at an open book with a metallic red exclamation point in it

First off, don’t get me wrong. I know how it feels to be a book lover getting burned by a book review. Reading or skimming through someone’s opinions about a book you haven’t tried yet, only to be whammed in the face by one telling line or another that ruins a surprise or mystery in the story. “Gah! Good grief.”

I know how spoiler-burn feels as an author too. I mean, hey—authors write with strategy and care to gradually reveal the various parts of a story in an intentional fashion and order. If reviewers just spill the beans, ruining the carefully planned progression of the journey for readers who haven’t been on it yet, it can be quite a bummer for the authors who put the work into crafting those stories.

Illustration of a woman gasping beside an open book with a metallic red exclamation point in it

Even so, I think that when authors or readers assert that book reviews should always and definitely be spoiler-free, their assertions are based on an earnest but incomplete view of reviewing. Why incomplete? Because spoilers are appropriate in plenty of cases.

For instance, I’ve seen professional reviews that can be more spoilery, like reviews meant for people who purchase books to stock the bookstores they own, or the people who order books to fill their local libraries and schools. Those book buyers may not be able to read every book before they buy, but they still want to have a pretty thorough idea of the content and situations in the books they’ll be offering to customers, patrons, students, or what have you.

Illustration of a metallic red exclamation point over a large stack of books, sitting beside a man in a chair, staring thoughtfully at a laptop in his lap

As for reviews meant for everyday readers—well, there are some readers who aren’t bothered or deterred at all by spoilers. They’re possibly the same folks (the same daredevils? rebels? 😀 ) who like to skip to the end of books to see how they turn out, then they go back and read the rest.

Also, there are readers like me who don’t want spoilers before reading a book, but we may go looking for reviews with spoilers later.

• We do much or most of our review-reading after we’ve read a book, not before. We want to see if other readers out there feel the same way about a book as we do, and why.
• Or we’re partway through a book, not sure if we’ll continue. We want to see if we’re the only ones having a hard time with that certain…thing that just happened in the story, or if we maybe got the wrong idea and might want to keep reading the book.
• Or we’re reading books in a series as they gradually release. Going back to check spoiler reviews as refreshers can save us the time of having to read the whole previous book again before we grab the next one in the series and dive in.
• Or we’re thinking of reading a book by a new-to-us author. But first we want to go check reviews of one or two of the author’s other books that we’re not going to read. The kind of critical info we’re looking for may give away critical parts of the plot.

Although they aren’t for everyone, spoilers have quite a place in the active fan worlds of books, movies, and TV.

Illustration of three speech bubbles each with metallic red exclamation points in them, hovering over a TV, a book, and a movie clapper

For that reason, I appreciate it when book reviewers, bloggers, vloggers, and also casual readers use good spoiler etiquette, adding spoiler alerts to their reviews. (*Includes Spoilers!*) It helps when reviewers make the alerts conspicuous, putting them in the titles of their book review videos or right at the top of their written reviews. Why? Because readers may still wind up accidentally seeing or hearing something they don’t want to if a reviewer just sticks in a quick “oh, spoiler alert” somewhere in the middle while the review is already rolling.

It also helps that on sites like Goodreads and LibraryThing, readers who post reviews don’t necessarily have to begin with spoiler alerts. They can instead use the “hide” feature for spoiler reviews, hiding the contents of a whole review or at least hiding the few lines or paragraphs discussing the spoilers. That way, readers like me can easily avoid spoilers beforehand and then go back and click to view them after we’ve read the book.

Illustration of a screen button that says "View Spoilers," and a little white arrow clicking on the button

Spoilers in book reviews can indeed be a real help to readers who purposely make use of them. So, rather than a “zero tolerance” view of spoilers, the use of good spoiler etiquette is better for readers and authors alike. Those who post book reviews should use the “hide spoiler” feature in their reviews on book sites that have the feature. Otherwise, if your reviews include spoilers, add a conspicuous alert right at the top/beginning of those reviews.

Now, about you, fellow reader. Do you ever purposely look for and read spoiler reviews?

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Not a Spiritual Reason for Reading Christian Fiction?

Illustration of a metallic blue question mark inside of an open book

In one of my social media groups full of fellow Christian Fiction fans, someone recently asked what our reasons are for reading ChristFic.

I looked through the many replies from group members, seeing among them what I commonly see when someone asks that question. To paraphrase the common reasons I saw:

• “I read Christian Fiction for hope and to help bring me closer to God/to encourage me in my faith in Jesus,” and
• “I read Christian Fiction because it’s free of content like profanity and explicit sex scenes.”

Legitimate reasons that I understand.

Illustration of a blue check mark inside of an open book

Still, I’m not sure if I’d ever expressed my own answer to someone asking that question about reading ChristFic. And even though I’ve been reading the genre for most of my life, I had to think about the question for a day or two before I could put my personal answer into words.

Do I turn to ChristFic in particular because I want the genre to present things about God to me and to help me grow in my faith? Well…no. Not specifically, anyway. I mean, even the very heavens declare the glory of God, though the sky doesn’t literally say anything by spoken or written word, and it isn’t a Christian sky, produced by God for mainly a Christian audience.

Illustration of the sun shining from partly behind a cloud

Moreover, God’s Spirit is present wherever I go; I couldn’t get away from Him or His leading if I tried. If I were to go to heaven, He’s there. If I were to go to hell (Sheol), He’s there. (And so on and so forth, as the well-known psalm illustrates.)

Hence, for my book-loving self, a story doesn’t have to be ChristFic, or any other single genre on the book market, in order for me to get something significant out of it, including in regard to my faith. God is expansive: ever near, reachable, and declarable in countless places and situations simultaneously. Accordingly, I believe it’s impossible for such an expansive God to be confined to one category of story in the book world.

Illustration of 3 separate stacks of books: purple, blue, and teal

Besides, like a lot of other readers out there, I don’t read fiction because I want it to tell me what to think. Rather, reading thought-provoking fiction helps me to process and to think for myself. I may or may not agree with something I’ve encountered or gleaned from a story, but either way, taking the chance to think about it is what helps me grow. And yes, that includes the times when I disagree with something in a ChristFic book, since of course, not even Christians agree about everything.

Illustration of a thought bubble inside of an open book

So. Why do I read Christian Fiction? Though I felt my answer probably wouldn’t seem like a very spiritual response in the group of ChristFic fans, a main reason of mine is…

Nostalgia. A tie to my Adult Reads Roots, so to speak.

See, as a child, I found that kids’ books with rather dark or unhopeful tones (sometimes with a little swearing and such added in) weren’t the kinds of books I preferred. I liked positive and wholesome children’s fiction best.

Three books I really enjoyed as a child: The Little Gymnast by Sheila Haigh; Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Beverly Cleary; The Borrowers by Mary Norton

So when I started getting into adult reads in my preteens, novels from authors like Janette Oke, Grace Livingston Hill, and her daughter Ruth Livingston Hill were good transition novels for me. Some of Oke’s books from the ’80s and ’90s are still top “comfort reads” of mine that I like to revisit time and again.

The Bluebird and the Sparrow by Janette Oke, Matched Pearls by Grace Livingston Hill, The Homecoming by Ruth Livingston Hill

Granted, there was a space of years when I stopped shopping for ChristFic, due to the lack of diversity and variety on bookstores’ ChristFic shelves. But as ChristFic began to offer more kinds of books, including from independently published authors, I was drawn back to the genre where my Adult Reads Roots are.

Pretty nostalgic, in my view.

No, I don’t find all fiction outside of the Christian category to be hopeless and/or R-rated. I find that much as it is with general market books for children, the measure of light, wholesomeness, positive depth, constructive substance, etc. of general market books for adults depends on the particular author, whether they’re traditionally or independently published. It can also depend on the publisher brand, as there are certain secular publishing imprints that only publish books that are free of content like profanity and sex scenes.

Some general market fiction I’ve enjoyed: Ace Carroway and the Great War by Guy Worthey, Dark Sons by Nikki Grimes, They Can’t Take Your Name by Robert Justice, Every Time We Say Goodbye by Liz Flaherty

Even so, from my vantage point in the book world, Christian Fiction is the only broad, multi-publisher, multi-genre/subgenre fiction category of its size or reach where, for the most part, the books are free of spelled-out profanity, explicit sexual content, and gratuitous or gory-for-the-sake-of-gore violence. And I don’t think it’s any small or insignificant matter for ChristFic to have that overall distinction, as it’s something that plenty of readers specifically want. Something the market needs.

Just four of many ChristFic books I’ve enjoyed in recent years: Heiress by Susan May Warren, The Legend of Sheba by Tosca Lee, Clean Hands by Richard B. Knight, The String by Caleb Breakey

So, yeah. I read Christian Fiction because I find the content is usually fitting for someone who prefers “PG to PG-13” kinds of books, and from a nostalgic standpoint, the genre helps keep me connected to the roots I have as a book lover. Connected to an integral, positive part of who I’ve been since my childhood, and who I hope to continue to be.

Illustration of a dove inside of an open book

Are you also a ChristFic reader with a little different reason for reading the genre—a reason you may not hear expressed that much?

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Winners: Annual Book Awards 2022 Giveaways (And More Books!)

Giveaway Winners

I’d like to thank everyone who entered 2022’s Annual Book Award giveaways on my blog. Congrats to the winners!

Christmas Book Picks 2022
Sherall won the hardback copy of A Quilt for Christmas by Melody Carlson.

Favorite Covers 2022
Jen won the paperback copy of In Search of a Prince by Toni Shiloh.

Noteworthy Reads 2022
Jen also won the paperback copy of Carved in Ebony by Jasmine L. Holmes.

Free Reads

Have you picked up copies of the free reads from this year’s Annual Book Awards posts? (Be sure to double-check the prices before downloading!)

Go to Bespoke: A Tiny Christmas Tale on Amazon Go to Red Boots on Amazon Go to Star of Wonder on Amazon
Go to Clean Hands on Amazon Go to The Great Lab Escape on Amazon Get a copy of The Movement of Crowns ebook

Author and Book Lover Nadine C. Keels

Go to Nadine's Holiday Books