We’ve all heard the old expression “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Normally, I’d say that’s pretty good advice, but this year one of the categories on the 2017 Reading Challenge is “A Book you Bought Based Only on the Cover.” I chose Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones, knowing nothing about the book, its subject, or its author. I’ve written before about reading outside your comfort zone, but for some reason this category on the challenge was surprisingly difficult for me.
I think this is because even though I love to look at all of the books on the shelves at Barnes and Noble, I’m sort of picky when it comes to choosing something to read. I looked at The Boys in the Boat for almost a year before deciding to buy it and read it, and it turned out to be one of my favorites! Often, I’ve found that the books I do spontaneously purchase don’t turn out to be the ones I love most. In fact, most of the books I never finish reading are the ones I just picked up one day without really doing my research. This isn’t to say that I never have success with spontaneous purchases, it just doesn’t seem to happen that often for me.
Now to the book review! I wish I could say that Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones was the spontaneous book choice that changed my mind, but, sadly, it wasn’t. I found this little novel at Half Price Books, saw that it had something to do with a teacher who taught Great Expectations, read the back synopsis, and took it to the register.
The book is about a young girl named Matilda who lives on Bougainville Island, which is an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea. Apparently this area was involved in a pretty intense civil war during the early 90s. I spent some of my reading time trying to research the conflict to find out more. I’m still not entirely sure I understand it. This brings me to problem number one of choosing a book based on the cover: the “blurb” on the back of the book did not tell me the name of the island, or even that this book was based on a real historical conflict. Even the opening chapters of the novel did not explain this, which led to me being confused for the first third of the book.
The story is about Matilda’s experiences during the civil war. As war grows closer and closer to her village, the only white man in the town takes over as the local schoolteacher. To help the students learn and escape, he reads them Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. The story helps them grow and learn about the world outside of their little island, but it also causes tension between the parents and the children and ultimately leads to some upsetting events. This book reminded me a little of Little Bee by Chris Cleave, in that it has some of the same themes and some of the same difficult conflicts and topics. Some of the subject matter in this book is a little unsettling.
One of the reasons I chose the book is because I taught Great Expectations to my ninth graders this year. I thought it would be interesting to read about how that book could help others–how all books, really, can help us escape and learn about the world. That was my favorite part of this novel, and in my opinion, one of the only good parts. The story line was interesting, sad, and sometimes hard to follow. I didn’t really form a personal connection with the narrator, and I wasn’t that invested in the lives of the other characters, either.
I can usually make up my mind to enjoy a book, but I just couldn’t really connect to this one. I’m not sure if that proves the old saying that you shouldn’t judge books by their covers alone, but it definitely confirmed for me that the books I research before buying typically turn out to be the best bet. I think my opinion might have been different about this book if I had known more about the crisis at the center or if I had a better connection with the main character. On the whole, this was a rather disappointing read.
Have you had success buying books based only on the cover? Let me know in the comments!