The Dangers of a Single Book Cover: The Acacia Tree Meme and “African literature”

“Like so many (wildly varying) writers on Africa, Chimamanda Adichie gets the acacia tree sunset treatment. Whether Wilbur Smith or Wole Soyinka, Rider Haggard or Bessie Head, apparently you get the same cover imagery.”

We’re obliged to Simon Stevens, a reader who put together the picture above and pointed out that whoever you are, wherever you’re from, whatever kind of writing you do, if you write a novel “about Africa,” chances are you’re going to get the acacia tree treatment. And the orange sky.

As Jeremy Weate tweeted icily: “Funny that. Nigeria is not known for its acacia trees.”

Edna Mohamed wrote on our Facebook page: “I hope one day we can finally upgrade to baobab trees or something.”

In short, the covers of most novels “about Africa” seem to have been designed by someone whose principal idea of the continent comes from The Lion King. All together now (h/t @meowmusiq):

Another reader, Alice Kewellhampton, added that when it comes to Chimamanda Adichie, she also gets a special meme for her UK editions, the “soulful-black-woman-with-colourful-smudges” look.

Three years ago, Tom Devriendt pointed out a similar issue. Here’s what he wrote back then:

I received my copy of this year’s Commonwealth Prize winner Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love in the mail the other day.

Not that I don’t like its cover (or the book), but this is just silly.

And here’s why:

Some of us (in Canada, Great Britain, South Africa and India) also know 2008 Commonwealth Prize winner Lawrence Hill’s novel as The Book of Negroes and sure, this is the Australian edition’s cover, but still…

And finally:

Fiction “about Africa” is not alone in getting this treatment. M. Lynx Qualey over at ArabLit pointed out the obsession with veils in a great post “Translating for Bigots.” She quotes Adam Talib, and we’ll give him the last word too:

“Publishers can sometimes package books for bigots.”




Elliot Ross

Elliot Ross is senior editor at Africa is a Country. He tweets at @africasacountry and @futbolsacountry

  1. Interestingly, if you look at literature set in Africa and produced by African publishers, they appear to have much more variety in their cover design. For some examples, there’s a wider range here at African Books Collective: The acacia tree and “African colours” (sunset reds and browns) still appear (for one book, Acacia, it actually makes sense) but those visuals are present much less than the books marketed directly to non-African countries.

  2. I’m writing a thesis on Adichie’s fiction and in an interview she gave in Sweden she said something about this that made me laugh.. incredible, really: ‘If you’re writing about Africa and you’re published in different countries, you have to be prepared for all kinds of covers. So for a novel that is really set in Nigeria – mostly urban – there’ll be countries where the covers had jungles, giraffes, lions.. This is true!’ Glad she’s spreading the awareness that the post above is concerned with as well.

    1. Oh yes! I remember listening to that interview and wondering what exactly she meant. I see it now! What a mess….

  3. COLONIAL DESIGN INFLUENCES: To say ‘Acacia’ trees is almost making it Urban. But ‘Thorn’ trees it was – dotting massive wild barren wastelands. Wind-swept dusty brown valley of Big Game Hunter’s lure… or flat lands dominated by raging rainstorm – those were colonial influences of the original hinterland writing of Africa. The early publishers did those covers for books written mostly by the Bazungu… I imagine a book cover has to canvas what is inside the book – it should be a brief capture of the tale.
    Actually if you remove the ‘colonial design concept’ then you have graphic designs like that of: ‘Wizard of the crow’, ‘Petals of Blood’, ‘Things Fall Apart’ – those designs don’t give you a clue on what to expect inside the book. And I think such designs are not so kind to Africa!!!

    Bulawayo’s prize winner has a horrific cover! I think that is bad for book sales – while they might be good for winning a prize… Chimamanda’s Hibiscus, Yellow Sun and Americanah are good Urban genre designs – depicts African inner city stories. So is Aminatta Forna’s Memory of Love or The Jambula Tree by Arach de Nyeko – or for that matter, any other typically authentic works of fiction and researched nonfiction by Africans. Actually a book’s cover-design can give it light or extinguish and keep a book in the dark. We Africans read books by the cover mostly.

    1. “We Africans read books by the cover mostly.” Are you sure? Then you are like everybody else, bummer.
      But hey, whatever sells,, right? Especially paperback at the food store. A world of clichés. But someday, someone will come up with a new idea, and everyone will follow. Get used to it.

  4. This is very common in America for African-American titles as well, perhaps books in general. Publishers often use the same stocks photos on book titles. I recently emailed two authors, of different books, whose galleys I received with essentially the same cover. One author said they would try to get it changed; I’m not sure that ever happened.

    Part of the reason, I’s imagine is following a trends believing this will appeals to reads and a lack of creativity.

    Would we be better off with book covers with simply the name of the book and the title?

    1. I believe that one author whose cover art was a bit better than average are the B&N most recent covers for Octavia E. Butler’s works. They’re artistic and actually related to the novels. Now, she is an American author and not African but some of her books are based in Africa and still weren’t given that trope-like cover.

  5. Why cant a book just have one cover, I love Amerikanah with the white cover and black comb. Its very minimalist and refreshing and nice!

  6. point well made but shame this article was written by someone whose princiPAL idea of spelling comes from the continent of make-believe. “In short, the covers of most novels “about Africa” seem to have been designed by someone whose principle idea of the continent comes from The Lion King.”

  7. I remember when any book about Africa had an animal on the cover. This seems to be a step forward.
    Hope things continue to improve in this regard.

  8. I laughed out loud at “All together now…”
    Sunny, un-bunch thine panties, it was one error out of a brilliant piece, see the lush tropical forest and stop focusing on the lone acacia tree.

  9. “Bulawayo’s prize winner has a horrific cover! I think that is bad for book sales – while they might be good for winning a prize”…@Sam. Bulawayo’s book is a best seller, the horrific cover didn’t stop it from selling like hot potatoes. Book covers don’t win prizes, the quality of your work does. “We need new names” has won a couple of prestigious awards because it is a stunning novel. Period

    1. Books do win prizes for their covers. The first prize for book design I’m aware of it the Bowater Prize, which was operated in the 1970s by the National Book League in the UK, which also organized the Booker Prize. I can’t find any continued evidence of the Bowater into the present, but there are still awards from the Alucin Society in Canada (, the Publishers Association of New Zealand (, the British Book Design and Production Awards (, the Australian Book Design Award (, and the e-Book Cover Design Award ( AIGA (formerly the American Institute of Graphic Arts) put together a digital collections called 50 Books/50 Covers in 2010 featuring the best-designed books in 2010. The prize is international but went overwhelmingly to US-published books with a handful from Canada and Europe. None were from Africa. The only African book in the collection was the American edition of Helon Habila’s Commonwealth Prize winner, Oil on Water.

  10. Very interesting but to discuss more deeply this question, we also have to look at the variety of covers for the same book depending of the country where it is published. this question in the end leads to the question of stereotypes. Indeed, how many times have I heard others depicts the French wearing a beret, riding a bicycle with a baguette under their arm. I have lived in Africa and Africa as the rest of the world is so diverse and indeed, books covers are so imprinted by stereotypes. On the other hand, the offer in books is so wide and people are known to choose books in (big) part because of their covers, this raises the question of producing a book cover that will attract the eyes of prospective readers and buyers. But in the end, it just comes back to one thing: educating people and living in a world without stereotypes…

  11. Luckily some publishers are willing to try something different. Granta Books Art Director Michael Salu commissioned me to create the book cover illustration for Looking for Transwonderland, Travels in Nigeria, Noo Saro-Wiwa’s tongue-in-cheek Nigerian travel guide. The idea was to communicate the vibrant, bustling energy of Nigeria and the traffic-clogged streets of Lagos, while framing things against the Transwonderland of the title, a decrepit & decaying amusement park. I think we managed to take a rather different approach.

    You can see the project here

  12. There is a huge baobab at the Victoria Falls. I suggest that it replace all acacia covers til they think a bit more about the way forward.

  13. Has anyone seen Nnedi Okorafor’s new book Lagoon, the cover is blue and white and relates to the plot it is amazing and great

  14. Another thing I notice about the collection of covers at the top of this post: There are very few people in them. When you see people, usually it’s just tiny shadowy figures that you can tell are meant to be people, but with no face or other distinguishing characteristics. On the few covers in which you see a clear face, it’s a white person. Where are the people of color? I suppose some of those tiny shadow figures are meant to be, but you can barely tell anything about them at all! Hello, erasure.

    1. Hey, just thought of something … maybe if I change the covers of all my books to acacias & sunsets I’ll finally break into the international market? Worth a shot, I’d say!

  15. Hi, I am glad you shared this compilation. I used it with my Intercultural Communication students in Colombia, and had them discuss what similar book covers might look in the Colombian and Latin American context, and what the associated problems were.

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