The Best of the Worst

It’s easy to view the period from the 1950s to the mid 1970s as a golden age of book illustration and graphic design. Think of all those wonderful Penguin covers, or children’s classics like The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Tiger Who Came To Tea. It’s an embarrassment of riches.

But it was also an age that saw some truly awful examples of cover art – far worse than anything today.

Here are a few of the shockers I found last week:

01This is a relatively minor offender. Some people might even like it as an example of early 1960s design, but I’m not a fan. First, I think it’s a mistake to have three different typefaces. Second, I don’t understand why the tree is far more abstract than the rest of the picture. Third, the boy looks as if he’s suffering from a rather debilitating case of jaundice.

Here’s another gem from the ‘Early Bird’ series:


This looks as if it’s been produced in a particularly backward Warsaw Pact country during the 1950s. Perhaps it was. I can only imagine how disappointing it must have been as a present.

Peter and the Picture Thief might be a cracking story, but the cover is as exciting as a school trip to a brass rubbing centre.


This follows a similar, penny-piching approach by only employing three colours. As an illustration, it’s more accomplished, but the once again, the overall effect of the cover has that grim, Eastern Bloc feel about it, as if colour was somehow too decadent and bourgeois.


This cover has the virtue of being in full colour, but features three children vomitting and writhing in agony while a giant rabbit looks on, passively. As a child, I would have preferred this cover to the other three, although I wasn’t keen on animal stories.

Moving on to books for adults:


I suppose it’s unreasonable to expect too much from a publisher called Budget Books, but this is a particularly cheap and nasty cover. Even the title length appears to have been subject to budgetry constraints. And what sort of a name is Rice Cordell?


This is the tenth novel in Vardis Fisher’s ‘Testament of Man’ series and the cover features a man in a loincloth running away from a brazen hussy. At least, that’s what it looks like. It’s better than many covers of the time, but the illustration is a bit slapdash.


This almost works, but the addition of a giant woman’s head looks rather odd. I can see that the artist is trying to convey David’s struggle to come to terms with his sexuality, but a more subtle illustration and a decent blurb on the back would have sufficed.


This cover features a strange blend of colour and monochrome people, for no discernible reason. At first, I thought the woman was standing in front of a screen showing a black and white film, but no, they’re all in the same room. It’s very odd.

Hank Janson is also a strange case. A celebrated author of American pulp fiction, he was actually a work of fiction himself, created by an unassuming Englishman called Stephen Daniel Frances.

Several people wrote as Hank Janson and the titles include the following gems:

  • Baby, Don’t Squeal
  • A Nympho Named Silvia
  • Skirts Bring Me Sorrow
  • Jazz Jungle
  • Hotsy, You’ll Be Chilled
  • Wild Girl
  • Vagabond Vamp
  • Beauty and the Beat
  • Visit From a Broad
  • This Dame Dies Soon

Finally, my favourite:


I have no idea what the groom is keeping in his pyjama pocket, but he has the countenance of a man walking to the scaffold. Perhaps he’s learned that the bride’s breasts are the product of gender reassignment surgery and that she used to be called Kenneth. She certainly has a knowing expression.

That concludes this selection. I’m sure there will be more to come.


  1. lucymelford3

    I love the humour in your post, Steerforth! Especially in the final example of the supposedly post-op trans girl with implants. Actually, if she were trans, she’d have confessed it well before marriage, in order to find out how he might take it. Some men would be merely hurt and angry. But some might be macho enough to kill her. She’d need to know. Trans women’s breasts are usually home-grown, by the way, although sometimes – if the feminising oestragen hasn’t had a great effect – they go for implants. Most can’t afford such fripperies, especially as ten years down the line they need to be replaced at similar cost (let’s say £5,000, ballpark).

    Perhaps the size of his brand-new mortgage is getting him down. And quite possibly the news that she’s pregnant, and won’t be pulling in much of an income for a while…



    • Steerforth

      It seems rather unfair that those on low incomes can’t get the full monty, if the hormones haven’t worked. I suppose it would outrage Daily Mail readers if it was available on the NHS.


  2. Frances Passmore

    The illustration on the cover of The Smallest Doll looks very like the work of Shirley Hughes, for whom I have the highest admiration. If it is hers she was horribly let down by the publisher.


  3. B Smith

    Actually, the artwork isn’t really so bad on any of these – it’s the layout and typography that let them all down.

    As for the giant woman’a head spoiling things – have you see any movie posters from the last twenty five years?


    • Steerforth

      I can’t remember any from the last 25 years. I’m tempted to think it’s because they’re blander compared to classics like Alien, but it’s probably a sign that I’m more out of touch.


  4. Dale

    I wonder what the returns were like, writing as Hank Janson? These are the sort of titles I might have enjoyed coming up with, as a younger writer. “Susie the Boozy Floozy” and “She Put the Harlot in Charlotte” are a couple I’d kick off with, as I like female protagonists and this seems just the series for them!
    In Short-Term Wife, the advance into the room of that grey man has alarmed not only the waitron, who drops her tray, but the woman nearest the viewer, who has abandoned her afternoon tea and is attempting to hide under a sponge flan base.


    • Steerforth

      I think you’d be in your element. You clearly demonstrated your skills in the comment you posted the other week, which left me wanting to read more!

      There certainly is an art to it – I used to think that it was easy to rattle off a pulp fiction novel, but when I met a sales rep from Mills and Boon, he said that their writers had to follow a very precise formula that stated exactly how long the books should be, when X invited Y out and what X was and wasn’t allowed to do. Apparently, the vast majority of sales took place within the first week, quickly diminishing to a trickle by the middle of the following week. I expect Hank Janson had to follow the same formula.

      Apparently, some of the Janson books were banned in Ireland, as they were a bit on the racy side.


      • Dale

        Why, thank you. I’ll accordingly update you on what happened to the Peabrights and the Beltons.

        Clara and Cyril endured a financially successful but increasingly frosty relationship which eventually dwindled into a crisp weekly exchange comparing their respective social diary appointments.
        Ada married well, and took to lecturing women’s clubs about ikebana. She collected buttons.
        Reginald obtained a scholarship to study law with the aim of specialising in patents, but became theatrically sidetracked by his outstanding success in student reviews, and went on the Halls as a comedian.
        Bertie Belton got his cherished Model T, much to Maude’s frustration, and spent the rest of his life with his nose buried under its bonnet.
        Freda never married, but parlayed her shorthand typing skills into a reporter’s job and became one of the earliest female photojournalists.
        Charlie joined the RAF, and was shot down over France in 1943. The electric oven he had bought for his mother with a lottery prize was thereafter used to cook all Charlie’s favourite dishes, and for the rest of her life Maude never cooked her husband a single meal that he enjoyed.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Frances

    I thought Shirley Hughes right away too – the face of the little girl is so like her illustrations for the children in “The Painted Garden” by Noel Streatfeild – one of my favourite books as a child. It seemed so exotic – the English family transported to Hollywood, complete with drugstores, film studio execs, pancakes for breakfast etc. so different from England in the 70s and thus very fascinating. Steerforth – this post made me laugh so much – I look forward to more.


    • Steerforth

      Yes, from the perspective of 70s England, the USA did seem like a land of wonders. When I visited in the 90s, there wasn’t that same sense of travelling to the future. I’m very glad the post amused you.


  6. David Gouldstone

    There was a blog, run by an American librarian, called Judge a Book by its Cover, which alas no longer runs but its archive seems to be intact:
    It collects (or collected) hilariously bad cover designs that the author came across in the course of her job.


  7. Michael Simmons

    The covers of the children’s books sure take me back. I’m an American but I lived on Angelsey in 1969 and 1970 when I was 9 and 10 years old and those titles like look like every new book I got as a gift for those years. There was something about the semi-abstract artwork that annoyed me at the time and although I was a voracious reader, I almost never read those books. I think it was because the artwork resembled the look of the various government issued posters promoting safety and whatnot that were all over my school. Instead, I was fascinated by the realistic drawing style of the Ladybird books, which I was a little too old for, but I still loved. Also, being a morbid little boy, I was ecstatic to discover the Penguin Famous Trials series with the classic green covers. I was defintely too young for those. And for some reason, people kept giving me copies of Ring of Bright Water. One year, I got five copies of it, three for my birthday and two at Christmas. Stupid otter. I really wanted all of the Captain Scarlet Dinky toys.


    • Steerforth

      I saved a shilling/5p a week for the several months so that I could buy a Dinky Captain Scarlet SPV and was very proud of it. It fired missiles and Captain Scarlet popped out if I pressed a button. Sadly, another boy broke it – he was spoiled and had so many toys, he just threw them around. I’m still cross about it!

      I agree about the abstract artwork. As a child I just wanted realism and valued Ladybird above all others. From a very early age, I could tell when something had been done on the cheap and was quite annoyed when the faces on my Star Trek pyjamas looked nothing like Kirk, Spock and McCoy.

      I’m amused by the idea of you reading the Famous Trials series at such a young age. I hope they didn’t give you bad dreams.

      Still, better than Ring of Bright Water. I used to loathe animal stories like The Incredible Journey, but grown-ups kept giving them to me.


  8. Allen

    I’m rather interested in The White Rabbit – has the rabbit taken revenge for myxamatosis by inventing a disease that kills humans painfully and horribly or did their wicked guardian poison the children?


  9. Kathryn Quinton

    The style of Cousin Charlie cover reminded me of the Charlie Says ads. May be this is what happened when Charlie grew up and no-one did what he said?


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