My 50 Favorite Book Covers of 2021

2021 Favorite Book Covers

This post is late, because I had trouble narrowing my long list down . . . and then, when even the short list was too long, said, “heck, 21 is too few for a year with such superlative design.” So, instead of 21 for ’21, y’all get 50. Grab a delicious beverage, settle in, and enjoy.

My selections stem from books I’ve seen; the “best of” lists from NPR, The New Yorker, Kottke, and the BBC; and the best book cover lists from Spine, the Casual Optimist, Kottke, AIGA Eye on Design, Creative Review, LitHub, and PRINT magazine. When you’re done here, see how my list compares with theirs — a great many more outstanding covers await.

Please remember that these are my favorites — others might say “best,” but I’ve been in this business long enough to know that there’s always another great title you haven’t seen or read about, and I don’t want to disrespect any of the great book designers not on this list. I’ve tried to include design credit where I could (thank you to the folks who answered emails with that information), and I wish to stress that any mistakes (incorrect attribution, link not working, etc.) in the list below are mine.

My cover of the year is one of those combinations of photography and printed word that works on multiple levels. Okay, sure, it’s called Liar’s Dictionary, so I may totally be pulling your leg here, but:

2021 Cover of the Year: Liar's Dictionary

“We all peacock with our words,” one reviewer said: exactly right. I’m wondering about the direction of the shadow — some Monday morning quarterbacking, for certain — but otherwise, I’d be incredibly pleased to have this cover in my portfolio. It speaks to what I aspire to, which is the best photography and best graphics working in beautiful concert. Design by Emily Mahon. (Bonus: See a Spine write-up on Emily from 2017.)

With Teeth book cover

My runner-up for favorite cover of the year, this novel of a queer mother is immeasurably strengthened by this extraordinary cover. Great color, great type . . . just great. Design by Lauren Peters-Collaer.

The rest, in alphabetical order:

Abundance

The ability of this cover to catch your eye on a crowded bookshelf is undeniable, but it’s the amount communicated with seeming simplicity that makes it a winner. Design by Kapo Ng.

An Honest Living book cover

The progression of graphics here win on several levels, but the icing on this “exquisite ransom note” (thanks, Lithub) is the shadow from the silhouette in the middle. The use of so few colors is a huge bonus. Design by David Pearson. (He doesn’t seem to have a website, but here’s a It’s Nice That article.)

Awake book design

The combination of background image — the eyebrows are perfect — with the elements making up the overlays is wonderful. The wraparound text adds to the whimsy. Brilliant results. Design by Joan Wong.

Beautiful Country book design

This is just great: “struggle to survive” so prominently displayed, the fence and wall, what looks like a cop in the upper left, the guy staring straight at camera in the lower left, the “hurry up” notion of the mother and child, the colors of the collage, everything. Wow. Design by Linda Huang.

Brothers and Keepers book cover

This is another from the “simple is better” category. Great colors, yes, but little details, like the type and the subtle overlay of the graphs over some of that type take it over the finish line with style.

Concepcion book cover

Collage and type, yellow and green, all done beautifully well. Bonus points for the hints — just hints — at faces. Design by Lauren Peters-Collaer.

Curb book cover

Another with simple colors, but the strengths here are not only in the eye-catching type, but the repeating line drawings with their own curb . . . and that single lit window for the win.

Dear Senthuran book cover

Leopard! Wonderful pencil sketch! From the simple-at-first-glance category we have anything but.

Edge Case book cover

At the risk of repeating myself, this one seems simple. Until you realize that the tomatoes age . . . and spoil. (The vine’s awesome, too.) Edgy design by Na Kim. (Bonus AIGA Eye on Design article on her.)

Foucault in Warsaw book cover

“Memorable” doesn’t begin to describe this one; the upside-down painting is only the beginning. Design by Daniel Benneworth-Gray.

God of Mercy book cover

I’m going to go with chalk rather than brush to describe the type and especially flames, but either way, when combined with this extreme close-up, its perfectly-chosen duotone, and fantastic skin texture of this beautiful model, we get something close to amazing. Design by Sara Wood.

Gold Diggers book cover

In contrast to some, this one is not simple at all: deeply detailed and strikingly colored, this cover says “all-American” in a way only an immigrant can. Design by Stephanie Ross.

Great Circle book cover

Mentioned earlier this year, this title circles back because the artwork demands it. Cool white-type title, too. Design by Kelly Blair.

Hard Like Water book cover

The smile — and the shoes! — speak more loudly than the revolutionary themes so typical of Maoist-era settings. The perfect parody cover. Brilliant. Cover design by Matthew Broughton, based on art by Biao Zhong.

Harlem Shuffle book cover

Color, type, objects, the arrow, “a novel,” circled, the people and places . . . all add up to so much more than just the sum of the parts. Awesome.

Harsh Times book cover

Nobel prize, blah, blah. It’s the cover, darn it! Design by Alex Merto.

Hex book cover

The first of two skulls on this year’s list, this one made up of perhaps the least-hexed thing imaginable.

House of Sticks book cover

This one’s on this list for its subtle brilliance: the watercolor lines, the great typography choice, and integration of the photograph. Nicely done.

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House book cover

One the one hand, a simple photograph-and-title book cover. On the other, it’s beautifully cropped, the reader/viewer catches the “look,” and it’s complimented with great color choices. Long title served oh-so-well.

In book cover

You don’t see almost-blank covers every day, and this one, especially, makes you want in. (Sorry.) Brilliant.

Intimations book cover

I. Want. To. Have. Taken. This. Photograph. (And then done this cover.)

Kennedy's Avenger book cover

This type of cover is actually very difficult to accomplish well, and here, it’s . . . well, accomplished.

Look For Me and I'll Be Gone book cover

Brilliant on so many levels. Design by David Litman.

Morningside Heights book cover

Color and type compliment the awesome choice of suit and hat here. One of those covers that demands the reader/viewer pick it up off the shelf and explore. Design by Kelly Blair.

My Monticello book cover

The painterly elements here lead the reader/viewer to the correct question: “what is this about?” and, guaranteed: it’s not what you think.

Nectarine book cover

This made a bunch of best-of lists this year, and I gotta say: it’s one accomplished scribble. Brilliant. Design by Dave Drummond. (Bonus: Dave Drummond has a write-up from PRINT.)

Nobody Somebody Anybody book cover

The best riff on “upstairs, downstairs” seen in a long, long time.

O Beautiful book cover

Watercolor, in every sense of the word. (Cloudy drips, too.) O-so-beautiful. Design by Young Jin Lim.

O book cover

Oh — wait a minute. Stick-on that isn’t, quite, combined with peeling and what seems like staring add up to a favorite. Design by Gray318.

Pessoa book cover

From the simple-but-not dept., we have another brilliant entry, with great color choices, type placement, and the best — some might say, “Iconic” — “a biography” stamp ever. Love that the smallest photo is peeling, too. I’m actually envious of the talent displayed here! Design by Yang Kim.

Reparations Now book cover

I hope it comes out in the relatively small photograph, but this is actually paper cut. Great choices, great colors.

Silent Winds Dry Seas book cover

Like a dreamily lace curtain, the overlay on this painted shore brings what could be nice to the level of sublime. Having a cool title helps, too. Winner.

Skinship book cover

Wow. This cover violates so many supposed rules, yet succeeds on so many levels — absolutely brilliant. Design by Janet Hansen.

Stranger to the Moon book cover

The simple-yet-not cup floweth over with this one; its scant 96 pages encompass dystopian political fiction that wins national awards and deserves something this strong. Design by Janet Hansen.

Summer Water book cover

Illustration rules, in a foreboding style that suggests anything other than a Scottish summer. Lovely slim type is complimented perfectly by the script at the bottom. The title is actually Summerwater, by the way — I missed the hyphen at first — but ultimately I’m not sure it matters. Design by June Park.

Tastes Like War book cover

The ingredients on this cover, together with splattered red, suggest more than food, racism, and a parent’s problems, yet this is a title I’d definitely pick and and spend time examining — all thanks to great design.

That Old Country Music book cover

An absolutely perfect photograph highlights a stack of great choices.

The Copenhagen Trilogy book cover

The old-time portrait it taken to the next three levels. Fantastic. Bonus points for an unusual type choice (type name, according to site name). Great, great design by Na Kim. (See also the PRINT write-up on this title.)

The Divines book cover

The photograph cropping alone brings this title to the table, but when combined with the aged background, the white dots perhaps suggesting a past shot through with problems, and the desiccated flower suggest something so much more. Design by Mumtaz Mustafa.

Open and Nev book cover

Sure, impressing Ta-Nehisi Coates and Barak Obama means impressive fiction — but it deserves a cover with star power, and this design by — absolutely delivers. Great stuff.

The Ghost Sequences book cover

The second skull on the list, this “house built by memory in-between your skin and bones” requires a second look, then a third. Deal me in. Design by Vince Haigh.

The Haunting of Alma Fielding book cover

Great type complimenting great illustration choices, sure, but those feet . . . .

This Thing Between Us book cover

Surreal smart speaker — no kidding. How does one design a cover for that, exactly? This way. Design by Sara Wood.

This Wound is a World book cover

“[C]ut a hole in the sky / to world inside,” this volume of Native American poetry suggests. The cover does just that.

Three Novels book cover

“Another few cuts of paper,” he said with such casualness. Ha! Design by Tom Etherington.

Warmth book cover

“Beautifully rendered and bracingly honest,” one of the reviews says. The cover, as well. (Plus, lines.)

We Run the Tides book cover

The color choices here, combined with the illustration, suggest something soothing, yet catch the eye in a way that demands attention. The mystery within does, too, from practically the first sentence. Here because I know I wouldn’t have done it so well.

Zorrie book cover

Climbing that ladder’s going to take a minute. But then, that’s what it’s all about . . . .

On to 2022, everyone! Thanks for surviving 2020, 2021, and continuing to read — here, and behind your favorite book cover.

Beautifully Briefed, July/August 2021

It’s been a busy summer here in Middle Georgia; after regular updates to Foreword for several months, things have slowed down a little. Thus, some good items have piled up.

Starting with a book design I really like:

NPR describes it as, “A Monk And A Robot Meet In A Forest … And Talk Philosophy.” Interesting description, interesting design. I’d pick it up off a shelf.

Speaking of bookshelves, a notable quote from Andy Hunter, of Bookshop.org:

Take a look at this graph. The blue is Amazon’s share of book sales in the past six years. The orange is where we are headed if their average growth rate (8%) continues. If nothing slows their momentum, Amazon will control nearly 80% of the consumer book market by the end of 2025. Every single book lover should worry. After we’re done worrying, we must change the way we buy books.

The graph:

I’m not a fan of Medium — Andy, please choose a better place to post your very valid point — but it’s worth reading. Then change your book-buying habits if possible!

Also from the book category, check out Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill’s latest book of built work 2009-2019. Tons of great work here, but one example might tower over the others:

Great photography, too. designboom has more, in their famous all-lower-case style.

While we’re talking about great photographs of New York City, check this out — complete with 1WTC in the background:

A winner from the recent 2021 iPhone Photography Awards, which I enjoyed … until I found out it’s just another contest, complete with entry fee. (Hey, at least they don’t reassign copyright.)

While we’re at the intersection of photography and architecture, these shots of modern churches across Europe are stunningly beautiful:

From the nearby intersection of photography and illustration:

The whole series is great, great stuff, and has very deservingly been used by the likes of Apple, The New Yorker, and more. Read on.

Last and almost certainly least, I’ve updated the Musella gallery:

Check that gallery out, look at the Middle Georgia collection, or peruse all my Georgia photographs on the road to purchasing a print or getting in touch to let me know you’d like to use something in a book or design project. Thank you.

On to September!