Let's start with the kerfluffle that got my attention in the first place. It seems Justine Larbalestier's book Liar has a short-haired black protagonist, as is reflected in this cover.
But the original US edition of her book featured a long-haired white girl instead, thus:
See if you can spot the difference.
After an uproar from the author, agent, and community, the publishers changed the cover. Then a year later, the same publishing company came up with this cover for a book about, yes, a brown skinned character:
Um, not only am I not sure what the hell she's wearing, she's also white. And part of the premise of the story is that the protag is exotic in her darkness. (Which sounds problematic itself, but I haven't read the book, so I have no idea how it's handled.) Uproar ensued, the publisher apologized, and came up with this instead:
Bonus: it no longer looks like a smutty mid-80s Harlequin romance. No judgement if that's your thing, but I believe the book is YA fantasy, so it really wasn't quite the right vibe.
It's not just Australian and debut authors who deal with this blatant misrepresentation. Rick Riordan--maybe you've heard of him?--has dealt with this with editions all over Europe. One of his characters is described as African American and of Egyptian descent. This is how the Russian publishers pictured that:
Hey, look! The black character is actually black!
There are so many things wrong with this. First, the excuse that people won't buy books with people of color on the cover. Um, excuse me? How many times does this have to be proven false? Okay, maybe that's really the only thing wrong with it, but it reflects some different layers of racism throughout society, from the possibility that it's true, to the lack of diversity in publishing that would let an entire group of people implicitly assume this, to the bland, "Oh, we never meant to offend" responses. (Don't even get my started on the idiots who were upset that the black characters in The Hunger Games were played by black actors in the movie adaptation.)
It got me thinking about book covers and representation, that's for sure. One thing I noticed is how often covers of YA/MG books about kids of color either don't show people at all (see examples here and here), or show silhouettes instead of realistic art (examples here and here.) I am actually a total sucker for covers with silhouettes or unique art, so I mean no disrespect for these books or covers--just pointing out that a kid of color is not necessarily going to look at that and go, "Oh, people like me are in books too!" even though these books offer some terrific representation.
From there, I started pondering the difference between the covers on books that are "about" race (either they deal with slavery/Jim Crow/police brutality for black people or with immigration/migrant work for Latinos, or, possibly, with the country of origin for any of the above and Asians) and the books that feature POC just as...people. Of course, people of color have to navigate a world in which racism exists, so it would be foolishly color-blind to look for books that don't include that aspect. I'm trying to say something about books that reflect the most common "single story" versus books that offer additional stories, or stories that challenge that stereotype. That really narrows the list of books with covers that clearly feature non-white characters on the cover.
When Dimple Met Rishi
This Side of Home
Brave and Awkward
The Wrath and the Dawn
Rani Patel in Full Effect
Shadows of Sherwood
The Hate U Give
To All the Boys I've Loved Before
So what am I trying to say? If we start from the position that representation matters, it is clear that even as we push for more books that represent the full range of human experience, even those books are lagging behind on making it visible in the most obvious way that this is a book about "kids like me" or "kids like my friends" or even "kids not like me but that's not a big deal."
Is this something you've noticed? I have to admit, I'd never thought twice about it before I came across the first article. (White privilege in action.) But I'm paying attention to it now, to the extent that I may overcome my knee-jerk disdain of movie covers and get my classroom library a copy of the Everything, Everything cover that features the actress instead of the pretty art.
Here are the articles I read as I learned about this:
- The first article I read, about how empowering it is to see kids who look like you on a book cover.
- An article about the Larbalestier cover screw-up.
- An article about the Dolamore cover.
- An article about Rick Riordan's struggles to get his black protagonist on his foreign language covers.
- And if you haven't seen it or read about it yet, here is Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche talking about the danger of a single story.
That was a first--a bibliography for my blog.
Discuss! What are your observations and opinions about this? Have you ever mentally pictured a character as the wrong race due to cover art?