Friday, July 24, 2009


So there's a big, roaring talk-thing happening right now across the inter-ma-net about book covers. I don't know when it began, but I fell into it yesterday morning when reading Justine Larbalestier's blog post about her latest book, LIAR.

I just borrowed this image from her website. The cover in front, which I think is gorgeous, is her US cover (done by Bloomsbury). The one behind is her Aussie cover (by Allen and Unwin), which has a cool, arsty, graphic rendering of the word LIAR all warpy and moved around. Very cool. She has said several times how much she loves her Aussie cover (I don't actually speak with her - I just lurk daily on her blog) and I was a little surprised that she didn't go gaga over the photo one, because I think it's brilliant.

Then I found out that her protagonist is black. Yep, her main character is a black girl with short, nappy hair, and apparently black doesn't sell books.

I am appalled, in my quiet way. I am ashamed, too, even though I'm not quite sure why. I haven't read LIAR yet, so I couldn't really know Micah was black. Seeing the photo on the cover, I assumed that the girl in the story was the girl on the cover.

And according to much discussion going on in the world of Kid Book Bloggery (see Sara Zarr, E. Lockhart, and Ally Carter for jumping off points) the practice of "whitewashing" covers (and picture books, and film renditions) is common. And, apparently, a self-fulfilling prophecy in publishing: black covers don't sell books, so we don't do black covers.

Clearly there are some exceptions. Christopher Paul Curtis's books are gorgeous and sell very well, even in very white communities (and yes, maybe most strongly during February - Black History Month, but that's someone else's rant). And ask anyone in their middle thirties to tell you their ten favorite children's books from their own kidhood, and I guarantee most of them will name "The Snowy Day" by Ezra Jack Keats.

But the issue is out there. And it's not a mistake, and it's not an accident. It's a choice, being made by publishers. So what do we do? How do we react? Is it proper to get angry? (Is it proper for me, a privileged white lady, to get angry?) Do we stop buying? Do we write letters? Do we (gulp) just continue to write our white characters and mind our own business?


  1. I love this post, Becca. So much food for thought. (And did you know that Ezra Jack Keats got attacked for The Snowy Day back in the day?)

    The main character in the Yearbook trilogy is Korean and she was never on the cover...and I really wanted her to be. She was the main character! But to be fair almost everyone else in the book was white so I can see why they used other characters...

    Still. I don't know what to do. But I think talking about it is a very, very good place to start.

    Also, along these lines...did you know Stacy Whitman is starting a publishing house for YA fantasy with multicultural heroes/heroines? Such a fantastic idea.

    Sorry for this long comment, but sometimes I just can't contain myself. Yet again I am reaffirmed in my assessment of your awesomeness: awesome.

  2. I completely agree with Allyson that talking about it is a great place to start! Very thought provoking post, Becca.

    I think having a white girl on the cover of a book with a black main character is appalling. That said, publishers go with what sells (and avoid what doesn't), and to a certain extent that's understandable. But to have something so completely inaccurate as the portrayal of that book is awful.

  3. I strongly disagree with this "whitewashing" method of selling a book. I understand that it's a business. I understand that publishers are out for the money, not for the morals (necessarily). But I am also a country formed from a hodgepodge of nationalities that chose to set aside their previous allegiances in order to form a singular nation under God--not ethnicity. I don't mean for this to become a rant so I won't say much more (not trusting myself to behave) but I do belive that it's long past time for diversification in fiction and honest representation of all people from all backgrounds.

    Very well done, Becca. Thank you for this excellent post.

  4. yeah,
    I've seen this argument around also, and I admit it really bugs me. This happens to authors all the time though, their covers never look like the people actually in the book. This author and book is being treated just like any other book out there.

    Yet, it does feel really wrong to misrepresent a book that way. It feel like a lie to me, a deception. It makes sense to me that people are upset over this. I'm also not quite sure what to do about it. It has made me think about what I read though, and why.

    I think I'm going to make an effort to read a bit more diversely. Support those books that have just plain good stories, characters, and writing in them and start telling other people about them. That seems like something small that I can do.

  5. I definitely don't think the answer is to not buy these books. That only punishes an author who's putting multi-cultural characters out there. But writing to the publishing companies to let them know that AS MOTHERS (because that's still pretty powerful) we don't like the whitewashing would probably help.

    To be honest, I see the business sense of it. I think this author's Australian cover is a great solution. It eliminates snap judgments narrow-minded people might make. But the white girl on the front? That's just wrong.

  6. Oh, that makes me sad. I'm in my own little world not realizing this is happening. Wouldn't you just be disapointed in your publisher? Sure, you want them to help you sell books. But you'd think this kind of behavior would possibly have the opposite effect and that is completely unfair to the author. Yes, we need to complain to the publisher. Is their marketing department out of ideas? Why use a real face at all if you can't represent the book accurately?


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