The Cover Story: What the Book Jacket of Adele Minchin’s Young Adult Novel, The Beat Goes On, Communicates about HIV/AIDS

By Annette Y. Goldsmith, Guest Faculty, University of Washington Information School;’  Melissa Gross, Professor, Florida State University School of Library and Information Studies; Debi Carruth, Doctoral Candidate, Florida State University School of Library and Information Studies

Teens can learn about social as well as medical ramifications of HIV/AIDS on their lives by reading young adult novels featuring a character who is HIV positive, but it is not always evident from its book jacket that a book discusses HIV/AIDS. This US-based study investigates how the jacket reflects the HIV/AIDS content of a novel in which the disease is central to the plot, and what picture of HIV/AIDS the jacket presents. Compositional analysis and semiotics are applied to the US cover of Adele Minchin’s 2004 young adult novel, The Beat Goes On, first published in the UK. The analysis concludes that the jacket presents the narrative accurately overall. However, the front and back of the jacket do not reveal the subject matter; one must first open the book to the inside flaps to discover manifest HIV/AIDS content. The jacket images signify intimacy, vulnerability, and danger, but also hope through education and activism. Gaining insight into the information teens get from jackets as an entrée to the novels themselves is important because though many teens may not see themselves as personally at risk, HIV/AIDS continues to be a major public health problem in the US.


Since the publication of M.E. Kerr’s Night Kites, the first US young adult novel featuring a character who is HIV positive, HIV/AIDS has been gradually finding a place in young adult literature.1 Two related content analyses of young adult novels with an HIV positive character describe this body of literature and the picture of the disease that it presents to readers. Gross analyzes the first wave of novels published from 1986—1995.2 Gross, Goldsmith, and Carruth update the earlier study by identifying and discussing novels published from 1996—2005.3 However, no researcher has yet considered what readers can glean about HIV/AIDS from the text and images on the book jackets of novels that focus on the disease. As advertising and as art, book jackets play a major role in communicating the content of the story, thereby potentially leading young adults to information about HIV/AIDS that is important to their lives. The current study examines the book jacket of Adele Minchin’s novel, The Beat Goes On, to see what the complementary visual methods of compositional analysis and semiotics–that is, looking at both formal composition and underlying meaning–can determine about the HIV/AIDS content therein.4

In the studies by Gross and Gross, Goldsmith, and Carruth, the units of analysis are novels available in English.5 All feature a protagonist in the 11-19 year age range and include a character who is HIV positive or who has AIDS. An annotated bibliography updates the project to include 2008 imprints, for a total of 93 books.6 In 40 of the 93 books, HIV/AIDS is central to the plot . In 29 books, it is a subplot, and in 24 books it is only mentioned in passing. The research questions of these studies deal exclusively with information derived from the story: who the HIV positive characters are and what relationship they have to the protagonist; how the disease is contracted; if the protagonist is afraid of HIV/AIDS; what eventually happens to the characters with HIV/AIDS; and if there is any indication that the disease can be controlled.

The two research questions at the heart of the current investigation focus on the book jacket copy and images as the reader’s first point of contact with the book:

  1. How does the book jacket reflect the HIV/AIDS content of a novel in which the disease is central to the plot?
  2. What picture of HIV/AIDS is presented by the book jacket?

The Beat Goes On

Several factors make the book jacket from the US edition of Minchin’s The Beat Goes On an appropriate choice for visual analysis. It is one of the 40 books in which HIV/AIDS is central to the story. Of those 40 books, it is one of only five that uses both text and images to depict HIV/AIDS content, suggesting there is sufficient content to make a detailed analysis worthwhile. The five books may be classified by artistic style: two have a photographic cover, two have a more painterly cover, and one uses collage. The Beat Goes On, with a photographic cover, is reasonably representative of this group.

It could be argued that the cultural content of a story set in the UK will not be sufficiently familiar for researchers in the US to understand, but it is the US edition of the book, repackaged for a North American audience, that is being interpreted. The elements of this particular novel–music, health, dating–are fully accessible to a North American sensibility.

The Beat Goes On was originally published in the UK by Livewire Books/The Women’s Press in 2001 and subsequently in the US in 2004 by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, with a paperback release from Simon Pulse in 2007. The jacket under consideration is from the US edition because this is the version that readers in the US will see. Both jackets feature photographic images of a teen girl’s face, but in most other respects are quite different.

The US book jacket from The Beat Goes On introduces a contemporary story told from the point of view of Leyla, an engaging 15-year-old narrator. Leyla is shocked but then supportive upon learning that her 16-year-old cousin, Emma, whom she has always admired, has contracted HIV through unprotected heterosexual sex during a one-night stand. Leyla not only accepts the situation but also becomes an advocate for her cousin, accompanying Emma to her support group and even teaching drums to young people living with HIV/AIDS. The Beat Goes On won the Branford Boase Award, a UK prize for the most outstanding book for young people by a first-time novelist.


Gaining insight into the information young adults get from book jackets as an entrée to the novels themselves is important because HIV/AIDS continues to be a major public health problem in spite of advances in treatment. Even though recent increases in diagnoses may be due in part to more people taking advantage of the opportunity to be tested, youth aged 13-24 years are still “at persistent risk for HIV infection.”7 Young adults in particular may no longer see contracting HIV/AIDS as the death sentence it most certainly was at the outset of the pandemic, thinking instead that it can easily be managed. Certainly they are less concerned about personally becoming infected. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation reports that while 30 percent of young adults aged 18-29 in 1997 said they were personally very concerned about becoming infected with HIV, that number has now declined to only 17 percent.8

Though increasingly HIV/AIDS education is available to students in most public schools, it does not necessarily follow that students fully comprehend the implications of HIV/AIDS or even that school administrators are aware of how much the students know. Taking the disease for granted is very risky. When asked, many college students in Washington, D.C. said that they did not realize that one in twenty people in the District was infected, a rate higher than in many African countries. It was assumed by university officials that students coming to orientations had already been educated about HIV/AIDS. Consequently, the information provided to students lacked a sense of urgency.9 In this case, several factors contributed to an overall public impression that HIV/AIDS is no longer an epidemic, whereas in reality at this time Washington desperately needed to be the focal point of a major HIV/AIDS information campaign. This societal attitude is still prevalent and young adults still need information. One place they can find it is in books that are marketed to them.

At first glance it may seem odd to focus on young adult fiction for HIV/AIDS information. After all, there is plenty of solid nonfiction on the subject. Yet readers can derive a great deal of information from fiction. In The Beat Goes On, there is useful information in the narrative, as well as in a list of teen HIV/AIDS resources appended at the end. For example, teens who contracted HIV/AIDS through vertical transmission (from infected mother to child during pregnancy or breastfeeding) and receive treatment are now surviving to become adolescents; there is one such character, Ellie, in The Beat Goes On.

Fiction invites readers into the story to experience situations vicariously. With so many young people affected directly or indirectly by HIV/AIDS, fiction can help them understand the disease as a social as well as a medical phenomenon. Certainly Leyla learns a great deal about the social implications of HIV/AIDS, and readers have the opportunity to learn along with her while enjoying the story for its own sake.

Unfortunately, subject access to fiction that presents HIV/AIDS information is not always provided in the cataloging data, book summaries, or in reviews of books.10 Although some bibliographic finding aids are now available, not all readers or adults interested in helping young people find HIV/AIDS fiction necessarily know about or have access to these works. This situation intensifies the importance of the book jacket content in helping readers identify stories that contain HIV/AIDS content.

Why Look at Book Jackets?

Book jackets (also known as dust jackets) and book covers (where there is no jacket) are designed to attract and engage the potential reader’s interest. The jacket often takes the place of the cover and can serve as both poster and protection.11 Editorial, sales, and marketing departments of book publishing firms consider the book jacket to be an important selling tool, and may even involve key retailers in the process.12 Publishers, booksellers, and reviewers commonly highlight cover art in their catalogs, websites, and reviews. Book jackets “help readers make sense of the kind of book they are about to read, giving an impression of its genre, its tone and the kind of audience it seeks.”13 Book jackets target a group of readers. It is therefore reasonable to assume that the reader will notice information about HIV/AIDS presented in such a prominent part of the book.

The book jacket has had an established role in publishing and advertising at least since the 1940s, when publishers pressured booksellers to display their books face out. Front cover images were first widely reproduced in the 1950s in the trade and popular press to accompany book reviews.14 The cover of a book jacket is often the first point of contact the potential reader has with the book, and it is an important factor that readers consider.15 According to Cat Yampbell, “If a teenager is not looking for a specific title, author, or genre, the cover is the factor that sells one book over another.”16 If the book is first published as a hardcover, the jacket is key; subsequent publication in paperback generally depends on hardcover sales. For a paperback edition of the hardcover or a paperback original, it is the front and back covers that matter. If the hardcover book has won an award and the medal can appear on the paperback, so much the better.

Artists and designers use basic design principles and sometimes even semiotics training to attract an audience’s attention; Stokes mentions an advertising company called Semiotic Solutions.17 However, the cover must reflect the content or the reader will be disappointed.18 As Yampbell points out, the cover artist may not have had time to read the book, and working from a summary can result in material that is “superficial, ineffective, incorrect, and/or misleading.”19 Some designs will become historically important, but the emphasis is on the present: the jacket has to distinguish itself from its shelf-mates in order to be noticed in the competitive, ever-shifting world of teen media.20 Certainly the need to stand out from the pack is an important tenet of advertising in general.21 Book jackets are frequently updated to shore up sagging sales, reflect changing mores, herald a film version, and sell the book to new audiences.22

Images of HIV/AIDS

There are a limited number of visual images associated with HIV/AIDS. The best known symbol is the red AIDS ribbon designed by artist Frank Moore, a member of the New York activist group Visual AIDS, in 1981 as a fundraising device for HIV/AIDS care and research.23 At first universally seen as an effective vehicle to raise consciousness and funds for research, a backlash against the AIDS ribbon began to gather strength in 1993.24 HIV positive photographer David Seidner criticized the symbol as having been reduced to a fashion statement, a mere sop to celebrity egos that usurped media attention from the increasing number of deaths and amount of human suffering attributable to the disease.25 In effect, the ribbon was being reified at the expense of political action to fight HIV/AIDS. Celebrities were divided about whether to wear the AIDS ribbon; soap opera star Deidre Hall reported being harassed because she would not.26 The AIDS ribbon may no longer be a ubiquitous symbol in Hollywood but a simple search in Google Images confirms that it is still incorporated into countless AIDS organization logos around the world.

Other symbols have emerged in HIV/AIDS prevention campaign brochures and posters, many of them quite graphic, as documented in various art exhibits.27 Much of the material targets the gay community since this community was identified early on as a large at-risk group. Several posters from Toronto AIDS groups promote safe sex through condom use, associating condoms with AIDS prevention.28 Condoms with the faces of, among others, Bart Simpson and Kermit the Frog, appear in a lighthearted but informational piece by Charles Cave.29 In a well-known 1986 poster, the pink triangle associated with the gay community accompanies the sign “SILENCE = DEATH” against a black background.30 Images of the AIDS Memorial Quilt organized by The NAMES Project immediately conjure up the social and political context of the disease; and in this case, art as community memorial and fundraiser.31 More recently, the high-profile (Red) campaign, with a red logo using the word “red” in parentheses in a variety of product names, has tried to persuade consumers to support HIV/AIDS research in Africa through concert tickets and other purchases.32 In France, there is a small round stylized version of the virus that was an instantly recognizable icon in the 1990s but has since been replaced by the AIDS ribbon.33

Early designers were influenced by the advertising industry and pop art; their intention was pragmatic.34 As activist Douglas Crimp explains, “…we will have to abandon the idealist conception of art. We don’t need a cultural renaissance; we need cultural practices actively participating in the struggle against AIDS.”35 Since many designers also worked in advertising, there was a natural symbiosis between the two fields.

One example of this overlap is the KNOW HIV/AIDS logo within a circle that plays with red and black type to accentuate the “no” in “know” so the text also reads, “NO HIV/AIDS.” Developed by Viacom Corporate Relations, this logo was a joint large-scale project of Viacom and the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation with a campaign that set aside $200 million in 2004 to raise public awareness about HIV testing through its website, (which redirects to the CDC site, Viacom companies including Simon & Schuster, publisher of The Beat Goes On, participated in the 2004 campaign by using the logo and incorporating HIV/AIDS content in their products.37 Publication of The Beat Goes On may well have been linked to the KNOW HIV/AIDS campaign since it displays the logo on the inside back flap of the jacket.38

For such a highly-publicized disease, however, surprisingly few images of HIV/AIDS have become established in the public imagination. Since the early 1980s, the AIDS ribbon has won out as the definitive symbol.


Of the various approaches to understanding art that were reviewed for this study, two methods were chosen, compositional analysis and semiotics, also called semiology, because together they can aid in both appreciation and meaning.39 Compositional interpretation is informed art appreciation; what Rogoff calls “the good eye” and also describes as “connoisseurship.”40 (Though “the good eye” sums up the standard art history approach to analysis, Rogoff prefers what she calls “the curious eye,” meaning considering questions associated with critical theory.)41 Examining artistic forms can be an end in itself or, as here, it can also act as the foundation for other methods.

Compositional analysis, following Rose, is concerned with provenance and production, but the primary emphasis is on describing the image itself in terms of content, color, spatial organization (perspective), light, and expressive content. This method also draws on relevant items in Gillian Dyer’s list of non-verbal means of communication, which take into consideration appearance (age, gender, national and racial characteristics, hair, body, size, and looks); manner (expression, eye contact, pose, and clothes); and activity (touch, body movement, and positional communication).42 Dyer also refers to props and settings but neither applies to the book jacket in question, which consists solely of a close-up image.

Art critic Erwin Panofsky’s iconographic analysis may be considered an extension of “the good eye,” though Rose largely situates his work in her chapter on discourse analysis and mentions that he is linked to semiotics.43 Panofsky posits three levels of meaning in works of art. He describes the levels separately but intends them as a single organic process:

  1. Primary or natural subject matter; also called pre-iconographical. Similar to compositional analysis, this level requires description and elementary interpretation. Dyer calls it “denotative.”
  2. Secondary or conventional subject matter; also called iconographic. Requires understanding of specific symbols. Dyer calls it “connotative.”
  3. Intrinsic meaning or content; also called symbolical and iconological. Requires understanding of the entire cultural background of the painter and the painting, including customs and mores, period, class, religion, etc. Dyer calls it “ideological.”44

Panofsky’s approach overlaps with semiotics in distinguishing between the denotative and connotative, and looking to the broader social context for meaning.

Semiotics belongs to critical theory and uses a complex but precise set of tools to analyze images, making it a popular method for media studies researchers. In particular, an analysis using semiotics is interested in the social meaning behind the text. The method encourages researchers to reflect on their biases. Studying the context of how images are received by the intended audience is an important part of the process. In this regard, it should be noted that this study does not address audience reception, but lays the groundwork for a future reader response study.

Ferdinand de Saussure’s work on signs is at the heart of semiotics: the sign is a unit of language and the building block of semiotics.45 The sign, according to Saussure, consists of two aspects, the signified and the signifier. In the real world, the object the sign represents is called the referent. The signified is a concept or material object; the signifier is the sound, image, or concept evoked by the signified. The relationship between the signified and its signifier can take on many different meanings. As both Rose and Dyer point out, interpreting signification must be done in the context of the larger world of advertising images and ideology.46

Charles Sanders Peirce refined Saussure’s work to suggest three different kinds of signs: icon, index, and symbol.47 Rose explains this system in terms of baby-related signs.48 In iconic signs, the signifier has a likeness to the signified. For example, a photo of a baby looks like a baby. Indexical signs have inherent meaning which is often culturally constructed. A diagram of a pacifier on a restroom door, for instance, will denote the availability of baby changing facilities. In symbolic signs, the relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary but still easily understood. In this case, a photo of the baby represents the future. Many other writers have adopted Peirce’s typology.

Several researchers, notably French critic Gérard Genette, have addressed the importance of the paratext in understanding the work as a whole. The paratext consists of everything that is in addition to the naked text that involves the public or private life of the published book: “…the paratext is what enables a text to become a book and to be offered as such to its readers and, more generally, to the public.”49 The peritext refers to those elements within the book, and the epitext to those outside of it. Genette situates the book jacket as part of the publisher’s peritext since creating the jacket is a task for the publishing firm.50 Sipe and Higonnet acknowledge the role of the peritext in picture books.51 The peritext is also significant for young adult novels.52

How to analyze photographic images is a topic of debate among semioticians. To a certain degree, photographs, even if manipulated, appear to record reality more closely than other visual media.53 Roland Barthes states that while a cultural appreciation (the studium level) of photos is certainly possible, he also proposes that parts of some photos are beyond signification. He calls this a response at the punctum level, in which a particular detail with intensely personal meaning can pull the viewer out of his or her critical self.54

The following analysis of a particular book jacket serves to demonstrate how the methods of compositional interpretation and semiotics may be combined for a richer investigation of text and images within the context of advertising.

Visual Analysis of The Beat Goes On Book Jacket

Compositional analysis begins with provenance. For a traditional work of art such as a painting, the provenance would trace ownership. Here it is the edition, not the unique copy, which is the unit of analysis. The US edition of the book published by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers features a jacket photograph by Christina Stanley and jacket design by Russell Gordon. The hardcover price in the US ($15.95) and Canada ($23.95) and age level (“Ages 12 up”) are stated on the front flap. The International Standard Book Number (ISBN) barcode appears on the back cover. From a semiotics standpoint, the book jacket itself is a sign consisting of the signified and the signifier. The signified (the material object) is part of a book published by a large, well-known US imprint that targets young readers. It is a commodity for sale and the book jacket is advertising designed to interest the potential buyer/reader. One signifier (the concept) is reading. The book jacket is a persuasive invitation to read the book within, to choose it from amongst the many other young adult novels on the shelf.

The jacket photograph is an extreme cropped close-up, a detail of a teen girl’s face, with the right side of her face on the front cover and the left side of her face on the back cover. One side is the mirror image of the other rather than a single image of both sides of the teen’s face, which implies that the photo has been manipulated. That her eyes appear larger than normal, with a shortened distance from eye to mouth, also suggests photographic manipulation. The close-up connotes intimacy. Dyer points out that close-ups are often used in advertising to show appealing detail or to make the image larger than life.55 Certainly this type of cover image draws the viewer in. Dyer also notes that women in particular tend to be represented in pieces, for example, focusing on the eye. 56 Though this particular image does not seem to denigrate women by reducing the teen to body parts, it must be considered within the broader gender context of how women are represented in advertising.

Figure 1 (Click for Full-Size)

Figure 1 (Click for Full-Size)


As a symbolic sign, the eye can represent “vigilance, moral conscience, and truth.”57 Leyla is watchful and very protective of Emma, even getting involved in Emma’s regimen to make sure that her cousin takes her medication, eats well, etc. Certainly Leyla is the moral center of the novel, quickly accepting Emma’s new situation without judging her. When she learns the degree to which society is affected by HIV/AIDS, she is outraged that others are not outraged.

The teen on the cover is wide-eyed and wearing makeup; her lip gloss and eye shadow shimmer in the matte photo. To some potential buyers, it might resemble an alluring fashion magazine ad for cosmetics. The eye makeup is quite heavy, or perhaps seems so because of the extreme close-up, but then teens are likely to experiment with cosmetics at an ever younger age and are certainly encouraged to do so by girls’ magazines.58 Since young readers generally prefer to read about characters a little older than themselves, this type of cover and flap copy is probably designed to attract readers younger than fifteen, Leyla’s age. (The printed age range of 12 and up is a standard designation for a young adult book.)

There are two aspects to spatial organization: the space within the image, called geometrical perspective; and the viewing position created between the image and the viewer, what Michael Ann Holly calls the “logic of figuration.”59 Here, the face is a tight close-up. The teen on the cover is literally in the viewer’s face; there is no personal space. Since the photo has been manipulated, the relative size and spacing of the eye, nose, and lips to one another is disconcerting. The eye is the largest and most arresting visual element. The viewer faces the image of the teen at approximately eye level. She appears to be looking up and out, perhaps over the shoulder of the viewer, at something surprising or dangerous. If the teen pictured represents the protagonist, as is often the case with young adult book covers, there might also be a reference to Leyla looking up to her cousin Emma which is described in the jacket copy (see Figure 2).

Real or implied light sources can influence the viewer’s reaction to the image. The photo appears to have been taken in daylight. There are no shadowy or obscured parts of the image. The teen’s face seems open and exposed, even to her pores. So too is Leyla open to both her cousin’s new situation and the importance of being honest about HIV/AIDS and not hiding it. This vulnerability is in keeping with the tone of the narrative, expressing Leyla’s initial fear and shock on hearing her cousin’s diagnosis but also her own uncertainty about negotiating a first sexual relationship.

The jacket hues (colors) are mostly on the red spectrum with some yellow and blue mixed in. Red is the color of danger (as in stop signs) and blood, as typified in the symbols of the AIDS ribbon and the (Red) campaign.60 Liungman talks about “the deep ambivalence of blood-red–when hidden, it is what conditions life: when exposed, it means death.” 61 The Caucasian face has a pinkish flesh tone. The iris, eyeliner, and mascara are all strong black, as are the nostrils. Symbolically, the nose, like the eyes, can refer to “clairvoyance, perspicacity and discernment” but with an intuitive rather than a rational focus.”62 The eyebrows are a light brown/blonde mix, suggesting that the teen has light hair, though it is not visible in the photo. The decision not to show her hair is intriguing because, as Dyer points out, female hair “is one of the most potent symbols in cultural communication.”63 This increases the feeling of vulnerability that the photo expresses.

The blue of the teen’s eyes, her silvery eye makeup, and the blue-gray of the author’s name on the front cover are cool colors, a contrast to the warm yellow, pink, purple, red, and orange of the title and the flesh-colored background. The title’s candy-colored hues are reminiscent of the cosmetics young teens use. The same effect of contrast occurs on the back cover, with the cool blue eye above the warm colors of the quote. The tension between the warm and cool colors emphasizes the eye to an even greater degree. Blue eyes can connote innocence and being in love, both of which are true of Leyla, who falls in love with heartthrob Darren and at the outset is quite naïve, though not enough to follow Emma’s example of having unprotected sex when she has the opportunity.64 Leyla learns from her cousin’s experience and from her own involvement playing drums with young people with HIV/AIDS. In accordance with the qualities that Liungman attributes to eyes, Leyla is insightful and generally shows good judgment.65

Apart from the colors themselves, saturation and value should be considered. Saturation refers to a color’s purity; high saturation is very vivid and low saturation almost neutral. Value refers to the degree of lightness or darkness of a color. If there is a lot of white in the color, it has a high value; if a lot of black, a low value. In this example, the jacket colors are not highly saturated and they have high value; the effect is light and bright. The black iris, eyeliner, mascara, and nostrils again provide an intense contrast, focusing primarily on the eye. The overriding message here is that there is something important that the teen sees and that the viewer should want to see, too. The enormity of what has happened to Emma at first frightens but does not overwhelm Leyla; rather, it spurs her to action, making her an advocate not just for her cousin but for all people with HIV/AIDS.

The jacket typography has an immediate impact. On the front cover, the title, in very large capitals and on an angle, and the author’s name, also in capital letters but much smaller, have an eye-catching glossy finish. The partly translucent letters of the title appear to bob up and down and overlap in some places, creating movement that echoes the title’s musical connotation. Even if the viewer is not familiar with the song lyrics written by Sonny Bono, the concept of popular music comes through. The narrative ends on an upbeat note with the eponymous lyrics from a song written by Ellie and played by Leyla’s band: You can’t run away, it’s here to stay. / The die is cast and you won’t be the last, / But the beat goes on….66

The back cover features a quote from the book in large caps taking up most of the space not occupied by the teen’s features:


At this point, it is still not clear that this book deals with HIV/AIDS.

Only once the reader has opened the book is there any mention of HIV/AIDS in the jacket copy. The front flap lists the price and age level, below which appears the teen’s eye within a circle–a clever reminder of the jacket’s most important design element. The circle is generally known as a symbol of perfection and completeness, but Liungman also notes that it refers to the turning wheel of time.67 Certainly the passage of time is relevant to a book about HIV/AIDS. There is some suspense as to how long it will take for Emma to become seriously ill (the answer, unfortunately, is “not long”) and, more generally, how long it will take to find a cure.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 3

The first sentence of the front flap jacket copy is in large capital letters: “AT FIFTEEN, SHY LEYLA LOOKS UP TO HER SIXTEEN-YEAR-OLD COUSIN, EMMA.” The copy continues in an Arial-like sans serif face and introduces the plot with overt mention of HIV/AIDS. The back flap begins at the top with the author’s name in large, glossy capital letters and continues with a brief biographical note. Below this copy the logo, KNOW HIV/AIDS, appears within a circle, balancing and echoing the eye detail at the top of the front flap. Liungman also notes that the circle is a symbol of protection, and indeed the message of the logo is that only through knowledge can HIV/AIDS be eradicated.68 In the context of HIV/AIDS protection, a circle may also refer to an unopened condom. The logo uses color and bolding to present two uncompromising messages in black and red: KNOW HIV/AIDS and NO HIV/AIDS. The back flap concludes with publisher and imprint information at the bottom. The jacket coyly hints at HIV/AIDS content on the back cover, but presents it in a more forthright fashion on the back flap.


The above analysis uses compositional analysis and a semiotics approach to respond to the two research questions:

  1. How does the book jacket reflect the HIV/AIDS content of a novel in which the disease is central to the plot?
  2. What picture of HIV/AIDS is presented by the book jacket?

As a whole, the book jacket of The Beat Goes On presents the narrative in an accurate way, but it is not until one physically opens the book to read the flaps that any hint of manifest HIV/AIDS content appears. Both copy and image (the logo) on the front and back flaps explain the role that HIV/AIDS plays in the story and promotes HIV/AIDS education and even activism. Leyla’s empathetic reaction to Emma’s HIV positive status and understanding that it must not be kept secret are clearly stated. As Yampbell explains, it is not unusual for young adult book covers to misrepresent the book with, for example, a sensationalized cover, but this is not the case with The Beat Goes On.69

The overall picture of HIV/AIDS depicted by the book jacket is represented by images that signify intimacy, vulnerability, and danger, but also hope through education and activism. The logo on the inside back flap may be the only graphical representation of HIV/AIDS, but it connotes connection to a broad community of people, including the publisher, who are involved in a public awareness campaign. The symbolic sign of the eye brings in the component of vigilance, moral conscience, and truth while the lighting emphasizes honesty and vulnerability. The sign of the circle adds the dimensions of time and protection. Even the title is hopeful. With the predominantly candy-colored palette and bouncy typography that brings to mind girls’ teen magazines, this jacket is designed to attract female young teens and so provides images that will be meaningful to them and draw them in.

Readers may expect book jackets to reflect the subject matter within, but even the jackets of the 40 books listed by Gross, Goldsmith, and Carruth in which HIV/AIDS is central to the plot do not necessarily meet this standard.70 Thirty-two of the books (80%) refer to HIV/AIDS in the jacket copy. This seems like a respectable number until the year of publication is also considered: 29 of the books (73%) that mention HIV/AIDS on the book jacket were published from 1986—1996. Of the 11 remaining books, five (23%) were published in a single year, 2004. The remaining six books (15%) with jacket copy that mention HIV/AIDS were published in 1999, 2001, 2002, 2005 (two titles), and 2007, suggesting that there is no trend towards better publicizing HIV/AIDS content in this manner.

In addition to jacket copy, the images and color of book jackets were considered. Only five books (13%) feature both text and images relevant to the disease. Eight of the 40 books (20%) display no HIV/AIDS content whatsoever on the jacket and none announce the HIV/AIDS subject matter purely through images. If indications of death and loss are counted, 19 books (48%) present this information in the jacket copy, four books (10%) in both text and images, and one (.3%) in images alone. As described above, the color red, though not a direct representation of HIV/AIDS, can symbolize blood and danger and has been associated with the AIDS ribbon and the (Red) Campaign. Thirteen of the books (33%) have text in red while twenty (50%) of the books feature red in the background or otherwise as part of the jacket.

One might speculate that book jackets do not consistently mention HIV/AIDS up front because it is a controversial subject, but contemporary young adult novels hardly shy away from controversy. Rather, controversy can fuel sales. However, there are many ways to sell a book, and the publisher can try to hook the reader by focusing on a different aspect of the story. Or perhaps the publisher surmises that teens would just not be interested in seeing HIV/AIDS, which is, after all, a school subject, emblazoned on the cover of their recreational reading. As reported above, many teens do not seem personally concerned about HIV/AIDS. It is surprising, though, that when HIV/AIDS is central to the plot, it is not necessarily referenced in the jacket cover art or copy.

Since The Beat Goes On is targeted to a female young teen audience, the issue of gender arises. The cover photo and typography cater to girls who are familiar with teen magazines and might be intrigued by the book jacket for that reason. The feelings of vulnerability and perceived danger that emanate from the photo fit the stereotypical construct of female weakness and passivity. If teenage boys were the intended readers, the cover would almost certainly be different. For a start, it would likely feature a male teen.71

Examining Book Covers with Teens

Teachers and librarians can invite teens to look critically at the jackets of books with HIV/AIDS content or any other issue that is important to them and might be controversial. Ideally, the analysis could take place before reading the book and revisited afterwards to see if, having read the book, the meaning of the jacket material has changed. The following questions are inspired by compositional analysis and semiotics as discussion prompts:

  • Consider the purpose of the book jacket. Is it advertising? Is it art? Is there any tension between the two?
  • Describe what is on the cover and flaps. What do the art and text tell you? How do they work together? What is obvious? Might there be underlying meanings as well?
  • What are the dominant colors? How do they make you feel?
  • Can you tell which medium the artist has used? Was this a good choice? How does the medium help communicate the message?
  • Do you recognize any symbols? Do you know what they mean? How do they affect the overall message of the book jacket?
  • Do you think the cover accurately represents the content? If it does not, is this a problem? Do you think the jacket should reflect the story? What, if anything, did you learn about the relevant issue (HIV/AIDS, etc.) from the jacket?

Analysis could be conducted by the whole class if the jacket is scanned and projected onto a large screen. Alternatively, small groups could work on jackets from different novels on a similar theme and present their analysis to the class. Teens may look with new appreciation and care at book jackets. Another follow-up activity could be for teens to design their own book jackets


Together, the text and images of The Beat Goes On book jacket convey a strong and accurate sense of the narrative, and demonstrate ways that HIV/AIDS content might be imparted to the potential reader. Yet even with a book that focuses on HIV/AIDS and its effect on the lives of Leyla, Emma, and their friends and family, this content is not immediately apparent. The front and back covers do not mention the disease, and it is not until the reader actually opens the book to the inside flaps that the subject matter becomes clear. It is difficult in general to identify fiction with HIV/AIDS content; an indication on the front or back of the book would help.

This study uses compositional analysis and semiotics to interpret the messages being communicated in book jackets. While such an analysis is largely qualitative and therefore subjective, it is nevertheless valuable in exposing relevant compositional and cultural messages embedded in visual content. With a little help from their teachers and librarians, teens too can use this approach to take a closer look at the material that is marketed to them. Follow-up research will continue this investigation by examining other young adult novel book jackets with HIV/AIDS content in which the disease is central to the story. A companion study of teens’ reader responses to these book jackets is also anticipated.

Many teens do not think that HIV/AIDS is of personal concern to them. Through reading fiction that explores the social and emotional as well as the purely medical aspects of the disease, they may decide otherwise. Quality young adult fiction that discusses HIV/AIDS provides educational as well as recreational reading in a non-didactic way. Encountering fictional characters with HIV/AIDS is an excellent way for teens to engage with the subject and learn vicariously (and safely) from their experiences. First, though, it is necessary to locate the books, which can be a difficult task when subject access is limited and finding aids are specialized. The more information about the HIV/AIDS content within that appears on the book jacket, the more easily young adults and the adults who work with them will be able to identify and recommend these important books.

References and Notes

  1. M.E. Kerr, Night Kites (New York: Harper, 1986).
  2. Melissa Gross, “What Do Young Adult Novels Say About HIV/AIDS?” Library Quarterly 68, no. 1 (1998): 1-32.
  3. Melissa Gross, Annette Goldsmith, and Debi Carruth, “What Do Young Adult Novels Say About HIV/AIDS? A Second Look.” Library Quarterly 78, no. 4 (2008): 397-418.
  4. Adele Minchin, The Beat Goes On (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004).
  5. Gross, “What Do Young Adult Novels”; Gross, Goldsmith, and Carruth, “What Do Young Adult Novels.”
  6. Melissa Gross, Annette Y. Goldsmith, and Debi Carruth, HIV/AIDS in Young Adult Novels: An Annotated Bibliography (Lanham, MD.: Scarecrow Press, 2010).
  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Questions and Answers: The 15% Increase in HIV Diagnoses from 2004—2007 in 34 States and General Surveillance Report Questions,” HIV/AIDS Statistics and Surveillance (February 26, 2009). (accessed Feb. 5, 2012); Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “HIV/AIDS Among Youth,” HIV/AIDS Fact Sheets (Aug. 3, 2008). (accessed Feb. 5, 2012).
  8. Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, “Less Than a Year After CDC Announced That U.S. HIV Epidemic is Much Larger Than Previously Thought, Public’s Sense of Urgency is Down, Even Among Some Higher Risk Groups,” news release, April 28, 2009. (accessed Feb. 5, 2012).
  9. Brenda Wilson, “HIV Education Lacking at Many College Orientations,” Weekend Edition Sunday (Oct. 7, 2007), National Public Radio, (accessed Feb. 5, 2012).
  10. Gross, Goldsmith, and Carruth, HIV/AIDS in Young Adult Novels, 8.
  11. Gérard Genette, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, trans. Jane E. Lewin (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997): 27.
  12. Angus Phillips, “How Books are Positioned in the Market: Reading the Cover,” in Judging a Book by its Cover: Fans, Publishers, Designers, and the Marketing of Fiction, eds. Nicole Matthews and Nickianne Moody (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007): 20-30.
  13. Nicole Matthews, “Introduction,” in Judging a Book by its Cover: Fans, Publishers, Designers, and the Marketing of Fiction, eds. Nicole Matthews and Nickianne Moody (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007): xi.
  14. Ibid., xi-xxi.
  15. Corinne A. Kratz, “On Telling/Selling a Book by its Cover,” Cultural Anthropology 9, no. 2 (1994): 179-200; Alain D’Astous, Francois Colbert, and Imene Mbarek, “Factors Influencing Readers’ Interest in New Book Releases: An Experimental Study,” Poetics 34 (2006): 134-47.
  16. Cat Yampbell, “Judging a Book by its Cover: Publishing Trends in Young Adult Literature,” The Lion and the Unicorn 29, no. 3 (2005): 356; Cat Yampbell’s last name is really Yampell; there was a misprint in the journal article.
  17. Jim Krause, Design Basics Index (Cincinnati: How Design Books, 2004); Jane Stokes, How To Do Media and Cultural Studies (London: Sage, 2003).
  18. ‘ John Morgan and Peter Welton, See What I Mean? An Introduction to Visual Communication, 3rd ed. (London: Edward Arnold, 1992); Phillips, “How Books are Positioned.”
  19. Yampbell, “Judging a Book,” 359.
  20. Harold Darling, From Mother Goose to Dr. Seuss: Children’s Book Covers, 18601960 (San Francisco: Chronicle, 1999); Alan Powers, Children’s Book Covers: Great Book Jacket and Cover Design (London: Mitchell Beazley, 2003); Nanette Stevenson, “Hipper, Brighter and Bolder: Publishers Struggle to Make Book Jackets Stand Out on Ever More Crowded Shelves,” Publishers Weekly (Feb. 17, 1997): 139-41; Yampbell, “Judging a Book.”
  21. Gillian Dyer, Advertising as Communication (London: Routledge, 1982).
  22. Phillips, “How Books are Positioned,”; Christine Jenkins, “Annie on Her Mind,” School Library Journal 49, no. 6 (2003): 48-50; Genette, Paratexts.
  23. Aaron Betsky, “An Emblem of Crisis Made the World See the Body Anew: AIDS has Pushed the Sensual, and Dangerous, Human Form Back into Art and Design,” New York Times (Nov. 30, 1997): AR1, 44.
  24. Betsky, “An Emblem of Crisis,”; Marc Peyser, “Tyranny of the Red Ribbon,” Newsweek (June 28, 1993): 61.
  25. David Seidner, “The Red Ribbon,” New Yorker (Feb. 15, 1993): 31.
  26. Peyser, “Tyranny.”
  27. Alice Thorson, “Visual AIDS II,” Afterimage 18 (1990): 24; Douglas Utter, “Creating in Crisis: Making Art in the Age of AIDS,” New Art Examiner 22 (1995): 41.
  28. Thorson, “Visual AIDS II.”
  29. ‘ Utter, “Creating in Crisis.”
  30. Betsky, “An Emblem of Crisis.”
  31. Gabriele Griffin, Representations of HIV and AIDS: Visibility Blue/s (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000).
  32. The Persuaders, (Red), (accessed Feb. 5, 2012).
  33. Mireille Rosello, “Pictures of a Virus: Ideological Choices and the Representation of HIV,” French Cultural Studies 9, pt. 3 (1998): 337-349.
  34. Betsky, “An Emblem of Crisis.”
  35. Douglas Crimp, ed. AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism (Cambridge: MIT, 1988): 7.
  36. Brands of the World, “Know HIV AIDS,” (accessed Feb. 5, 2012).
  37. Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, “Know HIV/AIDS Launches Four New PSAs and Premieres Short Film in Support of World AIDS Day,” news release, Dec.1, 2006. (accessed Feb. 5, 2012).
  38. The publisher checked but was not able to confirm that The Beat Goes On was intended as part of the KNOW AIDS campaign.
  39. Gillian Rose, Visual Methodologies: An introduction to the Interpretation of Visual Materials, 2nd ed. (London: Sage, 2001).
  40. Irit Rogoff, “Studying Visual Culture,” in The Visual Culture Reader, ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2002): 27-28.
  41. Rogoff, “Studying Visual Culture,” 28.
  42. Dyer, Advertising.
  43. Erwin Panofsky, Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance (New York: Harper & Row, 1972).
  44. Panofsky, Studies in Iconology, 5-17; Dyer, Advertising, 94.
  45. Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, eds. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye in collaboration with Albert Reidlinger, trans. Wade Baskin (London: Peter Owen, 1959).
  46. Rose, Visual Methodologies; Dyer, Advertising.
  47. Charles Sanders Peirce, Pierce on Signs: Writings on Semiotic by Charles Sanders Peirce, ed. James Hoopes (Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991): 251.
  48. Rose, Visual Methodologies, 83.
  49. Genette, Paratexts, 1.
  50. Ibid., 16.
  51. Lawrence R. Sipe, “Learning the Language of Picturebooks,” Journal of Children’s Literature 24, no. 2 (Fall 1998): 66-75; Margaret R. Higonnet, “The Playground of the Peritext,” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 15 (1990): 47-49.
  52. Yampbell, “Judging a Book.”
  53. Rose, Visual Methodologies.
  54. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981).
  55. Dyer, Advertising.
  56. Ibid.
  57. Dictionary of Symbolism, “Eyes,” University of Michigan Fantasy and Science Fiction website (accessed Feb. 5, 2012).
  58. Alex Clark, “Women: The Beauty Myth Gets Younger: New Research Shows That More Pre-teen Girls than Ever Before are Wearing Makeup. Is it Just Harmless Fun—or Too Much, Too Soon? Alex Clark Flicks Through the Teen Magazines,” The Guardian (Sept. 8, 2004): 8.
  59. Michael Ann Holly, Past Looking: Historical Imagination and the Rhetoric of the Image (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996): 24-25.
  60. The Persuaders, (Red).
  61. C. G. Liungman, Dictionary of Symbols (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1991): 793.
  62. Ibid., 706.
  63. Dyer, Advertising, 98.
  64. Dictionary of Symbolism, “Eyes.”
  65. Ibid.
  66. Minchin, The Beat Goes On, 208.
  67. C. G. Liungman, Dictionary of Symbols.
  68. Ibid.
  69. Yampbell, “Judging a Book.”
  70. Gross, Goldsmith, and Carruth, HIV/AIDS in Young Adult Novels.
  71. Yampbell, “Judging a Book.”
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