Book By its Cover

So, the vacation was great, with an excellent time had by all. We camped, we swam, we played music, and I read up a storm; though I didn’t make it through all the books I brought by a long shot.

 Meanwhile, back in the real world, things were happening, as they tend to do. I returned to discover that the kid/teen literature universe had been embroiled in outrage—and rightfully so—over the cover of the U.S. edition of Justine Larbalestier’s newest YA novel, Liar. Liar is, as you might guess from the title, the story of a teen who is a compulsive liar. Its protagonist and first-person narrator is African-American, with hair that she herself characterizes as “nappy,” and the problem arose when the design for the United States cover was released (the book itself won’t be released until October): it depicted a close-up, dramatic view of a straight-haired girl who was, to all appearances, Caucasian.

From what I gather based on Larbalestier’s eloquent and classy blog post on the topic, and the hundreds of comments it garnered, there was then a huge outcry among advance-copy readers. As Larbalestier explains, cover design is the decision of the publisher, not the author; she had opposed the cover from the beginning, but didn’t feel it was professional to speak out publicly about it until others had done so. When they did, she outlined her objections, which were, basically:

1)      The cover misled readers as to the book’s content (don’t you hate when that happens?), even leading some to question whether the narrator, who is after all a compulsive liar, is actually Black.

2)      Even more troublingly, the cover was racist: the thinking behind it appears to have been that people are less likely to read or buy books about Black people, so the solution was to try to cover up the fact that this book was about a Black person. That this still goes on is not shocking to me—this kind of “whitewashing” of covers is endemic in all areas of book publishing—but it is infuriating.

Many of the commenters on Justine’s post noted that they themselves were Black and/or were the parent or teacher or librarian of Black kids and teens who are desperate to find reading material the reflects their ethnic background. Others pointed out that they and/or their kids and/or their students were white and read and enjoyed books about African-American characters all the time, and that this assumption on the part of publishers was insulting to them.

One positive thing that came out of all this was that the publisher decided to scrap the old cover, even though it’s only a couple of months to publication, and create a new one featuring an African-American face. Another is that Justine, who is white, used the controversy to turn attention to several recent teen novels both by and about African-Americans, such as Coe Booth’s amazing Kendra (which does feature a recognizably African-American model on the cover) and to link to some blogs focusing on kids’ and teen books about people of color, blogs like The Happy Nappy Bookseller, Reading in Color, and Color Online. (I’d also recommend The Brown Bookshelf as an excellent source of recommendations of  books about African-American kids.) As several commenters on Justine’s post and elsewhere pointed out, there’s a general dearth of coverage of this area in the kidlitosphere (this blog not excepted, I’m afraid), maybe such a high-profile incident will lead some change.

Meanwhile, I’ve been taking a look at the covers of some other recent kids’ novels that feature kids of color, and will post a list next time. Anyone want to suggest any such books whose covers did them (or didn’t do them) proud?

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