Monday, July 27, 2009

Lying covers, and the importance of diversity

If you haven't heard yet, there's quite the controversy going on regarding the U.S. cover image of Justine Larbalestier's new YA book Liar, coming out in October. Basically, Justine's protagonist is described in the book as being black with short hair. The girl on the cover is fairly obviously white with long hair that covers her mouth. Publisher's Weekly has an excellent article about the debate here, and read Justine's very thoughtful response here.

In a past post about book design, I talked about how difficult a task it is to design novel covers. There are SO MANY people to try to make happy. Working for a publisher, I know how a cover can change and morph and get watered down and/or far away from the original vision. And I know that the author rarely gets approval, let alone official consultation. So, on the surface, I can understand how the Liar cover could come to be--and on it's own, I find it to be a striking cover. I would pick up a book with that cover.

However, I do think it's disappointing and disheartening that the cover girl does not match the descriptions of the heroine in the interior, especially because of what's been said about the reasoning behind it. And on a surface level, too--as a kid, it always drove me batty when the cover didn't match the interior. Then, it generally had to do with hair color, not race, but as a reader, I think the cover should match the interior. And it saddens me what this particular discrepancy potentially says about the book market.

I can't comment on what happened behind the closed doors of the publishing house. I don't want to point fingers. And I have no idea either what the ethnicity of all of the key players involved was, but I feel confident in saying that something like this would have never happened at our publishing house, because we have such a commitment to the diversity both of our staff, and the books that we publish. I can't imagine someone even suggesting to me that to we put a white person on the cover of a book with an Asian protagonist. However, I can see NOT putting a face on the cover at all.

I have no idea if books with non-white characters on the cover have lower sales than covers with white characters. I don't doubt it, but I'm sure there is a huge array of reasons why it would or would not be the case. But if it is the case, then it's something that we should all work towards changing. Author Sarah Ockler had a great blog post earlier this year about looking at how diverse your bookshelf is. It's something we should all think about. Do you buy books featuring characters of a race other than your own? A lot or a little? Why or why not?

I have been successful in acquiring books by authors of many different backgrounds, featuring characters of the same. Some of the covers feature the faces of the characters, others do not. For example, Justina Chen Headley's first novel, Nothing But the Truth (and a few white lies) features a hapa (half Asian, half white) protagonist in the book and on the cover. Her second book, Girl Overboard, features an Asian protagonist but the cover image shows the back of a snowboarder (a beautiful stock photo). Her third book, North of Beautiful features a blond heroine in the interior and on the cover. It's her third book that has "broken out. " And although I can also argue that it's the best book she's written so far, and we've been able to build on the success of her first two novels, who knows. Things to ponder.

My favorite picture book as a child was The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. I always use that as evidence that race doesn't matter, that if a little Asian girl could have a favorite book with a black boy on the cover, then it is possible that gender and race barriers in book choices could not exist. A friend once commented, however, that because I, too, am a "person of color," I am possibly more open to reading books about other people of color. I suppose that could be right, although I have to think that plenty of little white children called the book their favorite, too, right?

I believe in the importance of diversity. This post about bias from a while ago talks about a study that I feel proves that the more people see TV shows and movies and read books with positive depictions of people not like themselves, the more accepting we will be of all types of people. I laugh when someone says "but I have black friends" or "gay friends" or "Asian friends" to prove that they aren't racist or biased. That is no proof at all. But you know, at least it's a start. Because the more contact we have with people of other races, the less biased we'll all eventually become (I hope!).

Regardless of how all of this works out, I have to think that this is a "teachable moment"--just as President Obama referred to the incident where Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested in his own home. This article in the NYTimes was eye-opening as well. Let's learn from this, and all try to make sure that this type of thing doesn't happen in the future.


Weronika Janczuk said...

Alvina, this is a topic that has always been important and of great interest to me. Thank you for all of these great tidbits of information. :)

Cynthea Liu said...

It's wonderful to see someone from the children's book publishing industry commenting on this. Thanks, Alvina!

Also for your readers: I just saw this post on Asian American covers. Intersting stuff.

Anna Alter said...

This is a really interesting issue. I think ultimately race and gender matter little to the *kids* that read books, little kids especially don't even notice those kinds of things on the whole. Its really the adults that buy the books who do- the books we read and loved as children may say more about our parent's tastes and biases than our own.

Anna Alter said...

I should clarify to say that I don't mean kids wouldn't notice that the cover of Liar wasn't accurate, that would have bugged me when I was younger just as much as it does now. I mean that little kids reading picture books don't tend to notice race/gender as much as adults do...

Christine Tripp said...

I think the final vito is the book seller and we all, author, illustrator and publisher dance to their tune, which is a very sad state of affairs.

stacy said...

Thanks for this post. This is pretty much how I feel, and what I was trying to express in my own post last week, but you do it much more succinctly. :)

(I'm also glad that you crossposted this to your blog, because for some reason I just realized today that I don't have BRG on my RSS feeds, but I have your blog! I would have missed this post.)