In which the latest instance of whitewashing book covers produces pondering.

in-which-the-latest-instance-of-whitewashing-book-covers-produces-pondering

Justine Larbalestier has written several books. I have seen all of them at my local B&N where I spend most of my free time. Considering the fact that until just a few weeks ago, books with any kind of POC on the cover in the YA section were rarer than 10 carat diamond chunks, I didn’t get around to picking her books up. After all according to the covers, they were just another set of stories featuring white teens getting to do fun things or experience life in many and diverse ways, right? Plenty of those books to choose from…Apparently not. You see, she writes books featuring POC. Which her publishers proceed to represent on their covers as…well white.

Seeking Avalon takes on the piece of rage inducing annoyance that is Bloomsbury’s response. I mean, really. Obvs that black girl would lie about her race. Its not like you can be fine with it or anything…

The problem with black faces and books

HUGE Summary of the controversy

I want to specifically draw attention here:Asian Americans on YA covers

IS the cover art true to the story?

Publishers have some very toxic assumptions:Lying on the Cover

When we were in the brainstorming stage for the cover of Shine, Coconut Moon, my editor said she wanted the image of a “modern-looking, young Indian woman’s face.” (We can debate what “modern-looking” means in another post, but yayy for my editor!). Her idea was poo-pooed because, apparently, another publisher had released a novel with a “young, Indian woman’s face” on the cover in the same year. Obviously, we couldn’t have TWO Indian women’s faces on the covers of books in ONE year.

In contrast, I urge you to take a stroll through your local bookstore—any one—and count how many books have covers with white faces on them. If you are too lazy to walk to your local bookstore, simply go onto any debut authors’ site and take a gander at the book covers. Here are few to start you off: Classof2k9.com, classof2k8.com, and feastofawesome.com. What you’ll see is a small slice of the books released in any given year—and *gasp!* there are more than one with a white face on the cover. I doubt anyone’s editor ever said, “No, no. We simply cannot have a young, white woman’s face on the cover of this book. Another publisher already did that this year.”

Of course, it doesn’t just happen with YA fiction.It also happens with scifi

And you know what? This whole thing brings up feelings based on experiences with reading. See, not too long ago, I squeeed loudly on my journal about the fact that I had walked into the YA section and saw black faces. Not one or two of them, either. A couple of dozen, at least. Yeah!!!

Then Seeking Avalon pointed me to these posts. She was a[apparently was looking for books to rec for a young relative of hers some months ago, and met with a nasty shock…:Harlequin’s Double Standards

Ghetto lit and Kimani Tru

My squee, of course, was harshed. And I decided to do a small case study at my local Barnes and Noble. I counted up all the YA titles for sale:1067 in all.

Then I counted up the stories that featured blacks on the cover:98, and the number of had blacks as part of a group or pair of multiracial young Adults:2. One of those was an account of the Civil War and the adventures of a freed slave and a white boy. The other was contemporary, featuring high school girls described as an I quote” cool coquette, shy punk, a ghetto glam egomaniac and a hippie goddess”. Indeed. I suppose that I should be glad that the black model made the cover? Because although there are four protags for the story, only 2 whites and the black model were deemed good enough to be represented on teh cover. The Asian American didn’t show up until the third book in the series. Then again, she did get a cover all by herself… Also, “The sisterhood of the traveling pants” series features Hispanic Americans. So…

There were 4 Asian Americans on the cover, Well, one was mixed African/Indian American, one boy was on Chris Crutcher’s Angry Management, one rural Pakistani girl was the subject of a white writer’s effort (arranged marriage to crush her independent spirit and she has to fight back against tradition!!!) and one Indian American navigating teenhood. Hooray.

There were three books about Native Americans including the ubiquitous “Dairy of a Part Time Indian”.

There was one Lebanese Australian Muslim.

2 Straight Hispanic characters, one of them a Puerto Rican in an end of the world situation, so that was cool.

4 gay Hispanic titles, all due to Alex Sanchez. (As an aside, his work has slowly gotten more accepted on the shelves. When I first started coming to Barnes and Noble 4 years ago, his books were on the back shelves of the YA section)
None of the Hispanics were anything other than light, light, light brown though. Black and Native South Americans and Puerto Ricans do not exist in YA land…

Add those all up and we have a total of 116 POC in the YA section. Yippee!

Add to that the 1 white lesbian and

3 white disabled characters… (In in all the cases (3) the plot of the story focused on how an able bodied person dealt with the aftermath of becoming disabled…1 guy decided to get assisted suicide, cause his quality of life really went to hell and the prognosis was grim. (that and Lurlene McDonald has never written a book in which her main characters survive, to the best of my knowledge. I did like the fact that it was tackled though). The other two learned life lessons and all that.);

and 3 white gay teen boy titles, minus all that from 1057

and we have 934 books full of straight white teens doing all sorts of things. (There were no transkids) Now, lets do a bit of breakdown on the white kids : 253 titles were sci fi and fantasy and 6 white historicals. The rest were contemporary things, in which our white kids did every thing under the sun. They went on road trips, ran away from home, died of incurable diseases (via Lurlene McDonald) battled anorexia, had boyfriends, ran around with the paparazzi, killed themselves, went Gossip Girl/A list/Privilege (basically wore cool clothes and backstabbed their friends and stole each other’s men) and grew up in myriads of different ways. And the overwhelming majority of these kids were middle class. There were 40 upper class titles (mostly gossip girl and its clone series)There were about about 10 titles dealing recognizably poor characters. And their locations where said growing up was conducted? In cities, the better parts thereof. In the countryside, on farms, in small towns, by the beach, anywhere and everywhere.

Meantime, as for the black kids, well. At least 80% of all of their stories took place in poor urban areas. I saw story that mentioned road trips. Two Mildred D Taylor historical novels served for blacks in the country side. None about black kids living on a contemporary farm. None about black kids living near the beach. Middle class kids? Maybe 15 books. And most of those were part of a damn series. And, of course, black kids drama ain’t white kids drama. The vast majority of the black kids’ books featured explicit sexual situations, babies, drug dealers, heavy race issues, rape, teen pregnancy, abuse, kids hustling on the street, being in gangs (and the consequences of coming out of said gangs…, or kids dealing with heavy race issues or slavery itself, stumbling over a book that featured black kids having a relatively normal childhood is something and a half. You have no idea how much I jumped up and down when I saw Beverly Jenkins historicals, which actually dealt with the communities of free blacks that existed at the time of slavery! Black girls in pretty dresses who weren’t suffering all the time! Squeeeee!!!!

Now, one of the things that you need to know about me is that I read at least 5 books a week. And If I don’t have the books, I will be reading on the computer somewhere. I have a small personal library of my own, of about 200 books, all bought by me within the past 4 years. And that’s not counting the books that I bought and gave away to the library that I no longer wanted them. Its not counting the books that my parents bought me. Its not counting the books they bought themselves that I have read. Not counting the books I have borrowed from friends and relatives. I was the one who belonged to at least 3 libraries at one time, that regularly had out at least 10 books from each library at any given time. I have read thousands of books in my lifetime, and that is really no exaggeration. I like television very much. I listen to music only when I am driving. I am not a radio fan. I. read. And I like to buy the books that I like. And I like a LOT of books. And internets? At least 85% of the books that I have read since I could read, were about white people. White cultures. White scifi. White philosophy. White fantasies. White mythology. White romance. White erotica. White Gay Romances. White histories. White adventures. White ways of looking at the world. White science and scientists. White ways of thinking about people, including myself. White point of views on my history. White point of views on my people. White ideas as to what is considered important and what is considered not.

That fucked my mind up. It stunted my imagination. And I never realized the extent of the damage until two years ago when I got a hold of an internet connection and located livejournal and the wonderful group of people that I am friends with now. And they made recommendations, and I went to Amazon and Barnes and Noble websites and I began to search and track down those recs.

I have been alienated from my culture’s own mythology, philosophy, history, science fiction, sexuality, history, point of view, how we see the world and deal with it. And when I finally found what I had been searching for my whole life? I couldn’t relate to it. I found it alien. Freakish. Strange. Why wasn’t it the way my European themed reading had led me to expect? I couldn’t relate to it. It was …wrong. Do you know how freaking devastating that is? To what to read about yourself, your culture, but you can’t. Because you don’t know about it and you don’t understand it. I thought I’d be coming home. But I was twisted. I couldn’t fit in.

Tell me about an elf and I can conjure him up, fast and perfect. I know of dwarves and chainmail. Heard of Superman and Batman. Know about the Greek gods. Am aware of Russian steppes and a bit of French history. Castles aren’t strange to me. Shakespeare and Anna Karena and the Pilgrim, Plato Aristotle Socrates. The Illaid. Pul Anderson, Leigh Brackett. Robert Heinlein. Terry Pratchett. Douglas Adams, Andre Norton. Did you know that I had no idea that the writer of “Babel 17″, one of my fav. books, was a POC until 2 years ago? That I had no idea that the main character was supposed to be a POC until 2 years ago? Do you know what its like to be searching, searching, searching, for women who look  like me on the cover of a book, only to find that when I  do see them, they are lightcoloured, straight-haired and cast for the most part rigid, narrow roles that don’t fit my experience? Do you know what its like to piece together heroes from scraps?  To put my tribe, my people into that that generic white European landscape that I daydream about because I have not been able imagine myself in a nonwhite dominated world as yet? Do you know what its like to have to unlearn, painfully, what 20 some years have taught  you, and learn the truth, painfully, slowly, stopping often to vomit, feel sick, outrage. To get my feet on the ground, to be able to relate to my culture’s fantasy and scifi, I have to learn my culture’s history. It is heavy. Its is mostly not very pretty. There are times that I would like to have some escape reading. Look at my choices in my nearest bookstore. Go buy online, you say. I do that. A lot. Shipping is annoying. So is the fact that buying online doesn’t compensate for sitting in a squashy chair, drinking something hot, lost in a book. (Especially if you want to escape a not so ideal homelife). And nothing replaces the instant gratification of walking up to a cashier and paying for your book right away when you like it. And its much easier to preview a book in a bookstore than online.

And then, of course, there is the special hell you find yourself in when you want to write stories, and find that you can’t even visualize nonwhite characters, have no idea of your own legends, and find yourself tripping unexpectedly over the razor sharp edges of something like nostalgia.

*sigh* I had a lot more patience and allowance for many things at the beginning of this year. Bloombury has given Liar a new cover, featuring a lightskinned African American, with ringlet curls. Because apparently African American girls, especially if they are mixed, still cannot have nappy hair on the cover, even if that thats how the author describes her.Seeking Avalon, appropriately,  wraps it up for me. It comes down to this. I am SICK TO DEATH of hearing and rationalizing that half a loaf is better than none. I demand the WHOLE LOAF, and I am not going to stop until I get a range of stories, dammit. And I won’t be satisfied until I see a protag who is a Chinese wheelchair using hijab wearing Muslim lesbian teen who is captaining a damn starship to explore the galaxy. And her picture on on the book cover.

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16 Responses to In which the latest instance of whitewashing book covers produces pondering.

  1. 1
    Katie says:

    To put my tribe, my people into that that generic white European landscape that I daydream about because I have not been able imagine myself in a nonwhite dominated world as yet? Do you know what its like to have to unlearn, painfully, what 20 some years have taught you, and learn the truth, painfully, slowly, stopping often to vomit, feel sick, outrage.

    THIS is why it matters.

  2. 2
    Clarence says:

    Well, you can mandate covers -heck, you could mandate content if you wanted , and that still wouldn’t make it sell.

    I find the use of whitewashed covers offensive (though I”m sure in a few cases it’s been because the artist never read the book) and would help you fight that. But it seems to me you worry too much about what is currently out there rather than trying to add to the canon. Make a good work and people will read it even if the main character is a dwarf with purple freckles and nappy curls. Make a crappy story and you can hit every “diversity” point you want, and I still will regret picking it up. Good luck.

  3. 3
    Nathan says:

    And I won’t be satisfied until I see a protag who is a Chinese wheelchair using hijab wearing Muslim lesbian teen who is captaining a damn starship to explore the galaxy. And her picture on on the book cover.

    I have to admit, if I saw that cover in a bookstore, I would probably buy it without hesitation.

  4. 4
    Ampersand says:

    Well, you can mandate covers -heck, you could mandate content if you wanted , and that still wouldn’t make it sell.

    Clarence, where do you come up with this nonsense? No one is talking about “mandating” covers or content. And no one has said showing people of color on the cover, regardless of content, would cause a book to have good sales. You’re arguing against straw men.

    But it seems to me you worry too much about what is currently out there rather than trying to add to the canon.

    This makes no sense, on three counts.

    First of all, you’re assuming — based on having read a post on a blog — that Unusualmusic doesn’t spend a lot of time writing original works of fiction, and worrying about making those works as high quality as she can. But how can you know that? (Especially on this blog — where a high portion of the bloggers are also fiction writers – that’s not a justified assumption.)

    Secondly, even if Unusualmusic isn’t a fiction writer, how is that logically relevant? There are lots of people who aren’t novelists who are nonetheless able to write serious and worthwhile critiques of novels and of the novel-publishing industry.

    Thirdly, and most importantly, there have always been people who responded to critiques of racism by saying “Black people should spend less time complaining about racism, and more time doing something else that I think is more productive,” which is essentially what you wrote here. In the real world, racism doesn’t magically go away if we just ignore it and concentrate on other things. Critiquing racism is essential, and comments like yours are not helpful.

  5. 5
    Clarence says:

    Insofar, Amp, as the poster is worried about why there aren’t a certain amount of books which feature so- and -so ethnicities or other people with bodies and/or issues that are outside the mainstream, understanding something about the fact that book publishers will publish whatever they think (or know from experience) will sell would be useful. I would bet that the reasons that the vast majority of books that are out there in various genres do not feature certain races or character types or story topics are threefold:

    A. Obviously the older stuff (with the exception of stuff like Greek Myths which are from classical antiquity and an entirely different culture which has little to do with our own and is hence, blameless) is the way it is due to racism and the fact that minorities (NOT including caucasian women) were not taught to read or write in very great numbers in this country.
    B. Demographics for sales purposes.
    C. Fewer writers /authors of those marginalized interests , traditions, and ethnicities. But even if the percentage of these types of people were exactly the same across all groups, the larger groups would still get disproportinate space.

    Racism to the extent it exists today is something to fight. But to the extent that demographics drives sells and fewer people of our posters identity write things, focusing solely on “A” and being angry about things will not cause a single change.

  6. 6
    Jake Squid says:

    Racism to the extent it exists today is something to fight. But to the extent that demographics drives sells and fewer people of our posters identity write things, focusing solely on “A” and being angry about things will not cause a single change.

    What is it, do you think, that would cause the White demographic of the reading public to prefer to purchase books depicting White people on the cover?

  7. 7
    Mandolin says:

    Clarence: I’m going to ask you to step out of this thread. Unusualmusic does not need to be informed of the way the publishing world works; as Amp says, this blog features a large number of people who are published authors.

    More than that, though, your comments have been addressed and responded to by people who are linked to in this post. If you’d like to read all the external links from this post, and also the earlier Alas post on the matter — which is here — then maybe we can actually all conduct a conversation that’s on the same level. Until then, I’m asking you to step away.

  8. 8
    Ampersand says:

    Clarence, because you’re new here, I’m going to point out that Mandolin is a moderator. So you do have to step away from the thread once she asks you to.

    (The other moderators are myself and Myca. Well, there are others, but Mandolin, Myca and I are the most frequent.)

  9. FWIW, they’ve backed down and will be producing the book with a cover featuring a POC appropriate to depicting the protag. But their “reasoning” is more weaselly crap about how they thought it was about a person who lies all the time, and is therefore lying about her race too…sounds like “cover my ass and don’t let ‘em call me racist” language to me.

  10. 10
    Adrian says:

    I don’t mean to contradict the general argument about cover art showing white faces for books with protagonists of color–I think that’s often true, and especially important for YA. But in the specific case of Justine Larbalestier’s novels, the ones on the shelves don’t show white faces. That whitewashed picture for Liar that provoked so much controversy? Bloomsbury was planning to bring it out Sept 29. They’ve used the cover art for advance publicity, and sent the text out for review, but the book isn’t on store shelves. The Australian edition has cover art that everybody thinks is much better…it doesn’t show a person at all.
    http://justinelarbalestier.com/blog/2009/04/08/the-australian-cover-of-liar/
    And if you look at the sidebar on the left, you can see the covers for Larbalestier’s previous novels. Magic or Madness, Magic Lessons and Magic’s Child are a trilogy, with similar cover designs–showing a human figure in a way that obscures race. (The hair is clearly not African, but the characters of color are hispanic and Australian aboriginal, so that’s not whitewashing, of itself.)

    It’s an example of something subtler than whitewashing. The problem of direct whitewashing is easier to notice, and more likely to involve a deliberate decision by the publisher. But the pattern of making protagonists of color invisible in cover art starts with the decision to not picture them on the cover. Putting a white face on the cover makes it actively dishonest, and putting a picture of the scenery doesn’t, but both contribute to a sense of invisibility, and build the myth that “it won’t sell with minorities on the cover.”

  11. 11
    Dianne says:

    And I won’t be satisfied until I see a protag who is a Chinese wheelchair using hijab wearing Muslim lesbian teen who is captaining a damn starship to explore the galaxy. And her picture on on the book cover.

    I would absolutely buy this if the blurb sounded even slightly interesting. Would one of the writers here PLEASE start to work on this story?

  12. 12
    RonF says:

    If I’m comprehending what I’m reading correctly, the publishers state that one reason they do this is that books with covers depicting obviously non-Caucasian main characters tend not to sell as well. I’m curious to know if there’s data to back that up? Or is this an “urban myth”?

  13. 13
    Mandolin says:

    Ron, I addressed that on my last post on the subject here, which I linked Clarence to earlier in the thread.

  14. 14
    Scifiheroine says:

    I remember reading an earlier post – I’m afraid I forget by whom – that lamented the complete absence of POC main characters in both film and literature. Once that should-have-been-completely-obvious lack was pointed out to me, I (a wanna-be fantasy/science fiction author) decided that my next book would have a POC protagonist. And now you, obligingly, have given me a fantastic heroine…unless you call dibs, unusualmusic. :)

  15. 15
    Rosa says:

    Nothing substantive to say, just that I agree, on every count.

    And I’m a white girl who has bought about 2x as much SF in the last year purely on the recommendations from the LJ writers of color group. It’s not universally more to my taste, but the chances are WAY better than picking up something random at the SF bookstore and finding it’s just the same old thing again, maybe with added capitalism and rape.

  16. 16
    Genevieve says:

    and we have 934 books full of straight white teens doing all sorts of things. (There were no transkids)

    This is somewhat off-topic and slightly irrelevant since even if you overlooked this, it’s still just one book about transkids, but was Julie Ann Peters’ novel Luna on the shelves? It’s about a girl whose sister is a transwoman and whose parents are in deep denial about the fact. The book focuses as much on the cisgendered narrator as on her sister (which is why I’m thinking you may have discounted it if it was there), but there is at least one book featuring a transgendered teen character out there. Of course, there should be more.