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By now, you’ve probably heard all about the dust-up surrounding Justine Larbalestier’s latest novel, Liar.

If you haven’t, you can start with Justine’s big post on the subject, and follow that up with this Publishers Weekly article, in which Bloomsbury has some very fascinating things to say.

The short version: Justine Larbalestier, a fairly well-known YA writer, wrote a novel featuring a bi-racial main character with short, kinky hair and fairly dark skin. These features and her bi-racial identity are crucial to her characterization and certain aspects of the book. This is particularly important because the character, Micah, is a pathological liar, which means that what the reader can discern as unequivocally true about her character becomes crucial to the reading experience.

Let me pause here to note that, unbelievable though it may seem, authors generally have very little input on the direction of the covers of their books. Often they have no input at all, and even when they do, publishers frequently strong-arm them into covers they are not happy with. Though it might seem strange for those who don’t have much experience in publishing, this is true of even relatively Big Name Authors, let alone one who is still building her career and reading base like Larbalestier. I just wanted to make this clear, because some people seem to think that authors have creative control or the final say over what appears on the covers of their books. Alas, this isn’t so (and, frankly– though certainly not in this case– one could make the argument that authors are perhaps not the best arbiters of what would work on their covers).

What happened is that Bloomsbury USA (her publisher) took this (truly excellent) book and designed a cover I suppose they felt would appeal the most to their base.

With a white girl. A white girl with long, straight, light-brown hair.

Here, take a look:

Liar cover

Now, pursuant to the discussion above (authors have not much/no say over their covers), plenty of photo realistic covers misrepresent characters in some way. Indeed, if you plow through the comments at Larbalestier’s blog or (if you dare) here at Boing Boing, you will see plenty of people happily Missing The Point and telling the sad tale of the time their red-haired protagonist was portrayed as auburn or something.

The publisher would like us to pretend that this is not a particularly egregious case of racist whitewashing (a problem endemic in publishing), but a matter of taste, perhaps even a bit of a literary game, a visual play on a admittedly secondary, but still valid interpretation of Larbalesteir’s text.

Don’t believe me? Let’s listen to Melanie Cecka, who worked on Liar, and defended the cover in Publishers Weekly:

“The entire premise of this book is about a compulsive liar,” said Melanie Cecka, publishing director of Bloomsbury Children’s Books USA and Walker Books for Young Readers, who worked on Liar. “Of all the things you’re going to choose to believe of her, you’re going to choose to believe she was telling the truth about race?”

Well, imagine that! Never mind that the author herself, and any reasonable interpretation of the text, would say otherwise. Never mind that Micah’s racial identity is crucial to the book. She’s a liar, so of course she would lie about her race. And of course the publisher only intended to make a clever play on this fact with the cover:

“Clearly, our striving for ambiguity with this cover, and for it to be interpreted as a ‘lie’ itself didn’t work for everyone. But again, if this jacket proves a catalyst for a bigger discussion about how the industry is dealing with its books on race, that’s a very large good to come of this current whirlwind.”

As someone noted in one of the comment threads (apologies– I can’t find the exact one at the moment), it’s a given that Cecka and Bloomsbury would have put a black girl on the cover of a book about a white pathological liar.

Wait, what’s that? You mean to tell me that there are criminally few YA books that prominently feature black faces? And those that are tend to be relegated to the “Urban” section of the bookstore? You mean that a YA novel with a black face on the cover has never had the full weight of a publishing house behind it (announced print run for Liar: 100,000 copies)?

I’d hope this would speak for itself, but if not, here’s the explicit version: Bloomsbury is in high ass-covering mode, and they are grasping at the only defense they have, despite the way it disrespects both the text and their audience, because they know on some level that what they did was wrong.

Not just wrong, but racist.

Frankly, I don’t think we should let them get away with it. Write about this on your blogs, your livejournals, your facebook updates and your tweets. If you like, contact Bloomsbury by phone or email and let them know that you find this behavior unacceptable.

And let me just say this, even if it were unequivocally true that Black Covers Don’t Sell (the thinking that pervades the industry), that would still make what Bloomsbury has done equally abhorrent. Money and marketing does not give you a free pass to be racist. “Practical” considerations don’t make it okay to pretend that a black character is white just to attract more readers. For the record, I doubt this is true, but you know what? I don’t fucking care. Morals for profits has never been an even trade.

I am very glad that this conversation is happening, but not in the way Cecka seems to think it is. I’m glad that we are finally getting a glimpse behind the curtain, an insight into the way racist thinking pervades the still almost-entirely-white publishing industry. I am also glad that we are seeing the vast disconnect between multi-cultural, engaged, and online YA readers and the apparently clueless people publishing books for them. It has been heartening to read the multiple posts by librarians and bookstore buyers who have expressed their desire for more black and non-white faces on book covers, because their readers are hungry for them. ***

In the spirit of that, here’s a great list of YA about POC, compiled by a YA reader of color as part of a guest post on Larbalestier’s blog. And if you know of other great YA that explicitly feature a person (or people!) of color on the cover, please link to it in the comments. Surely the best way to prove Bloomsbury wrong is to make sure that Black Books DO Sell.

*** It’s not really appropriate for this post, but I do want to get into the impression that some people seem to have that books about race are therefore about racism (scroll down a bit). I am baffled about the presence of most of those books on that list (Their Eyes Were Watching God?) Invisible Man is about racism. It’s also one of the finest books of the 20th century. The rest? They’re about the experiences of black people in regards to a whole host of issues, of which race is an integral part. Why do some feel it’s okay to dismiss books as being “about racism,” even if it were true? Is this just another example of the apparently pathological desire of some people to pretend/wish/pray that race doesn’t exist, such that any mention of race becomes, in their minds, automatically a depiction of racism? Does this say much, much more about them than the books they discuss? But yes, another post.

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3 Responses to Get back, get back, get back

  1. 1
    shah8 says:

    Virginia Hamilton, wrote plenty of books, but her novels of the Dustland Cycle were my favorite as a kid. Most of her book covers had black faces from the start.

    Jean Craighead George had genuine native american faces on her two NA stories.

    In fact, my distinct impression is that we’ve gotten *worse* about the white faces since my YA days in the late 80′s and early 90′s. I think it kinda got switched from not publishing many ethnicy sorta books to publishing more but wrapping around more white faces as well.

    /me whinges about Amazon…
    One of the most freaking amazing things about amazon reviews is just how often content with elements of race is downrated. There will never be talk about how “I couldn’t sympathize with the protagonist!”, but there will be talk about lots of “flaws” that don’t seem pertinent. Check out the reviews of Julie of the Wolves, for example and compare it with the reviews of My Side of the Mountain.

    It goes double and triple that for just about *any* well known nonfiction book with substantial race elements in it. Dittoheads drive by, deposit ignorant comments and 1-star ratings and leave in a huff.
    /ends whinging

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  3. 2
    julian says:

    Another reason to love the Kindle: I don’t have to pay attention to covers, or see them more than once (briefly, and in thumbnail size, and in black & white if I’m buying from the Kindle itself), so they don’t have to effect my feelings about the book before I’ve even read it.

    This, though, is infuriating. And I may not be the intended audience, but I personally felt the Australian (? maybe it was UK) cover to be far more appealing — with the red kinda blood-looking text. The US version looks like another “Uglies” book (which is weird, because Larbalestier’s husband is the author of that series).