Writers Life
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Cover Controversies

The story about the controversy over Justine Larbalestier's new book, Liar. In PW. 

I'll add my two cents and say that when I started reading Liar (I've only just started it -- maybe 20 pages in), I was immediately struck by the disjunction between the character's appearance in the book and the appearance of the model on the cover. 

There is a lot of pressure from the big chain bookshops right now to put characters' faces on the cover of YA books. I have heard it over and over, and experienced it in the redesign of Disreputable History.

For Fly on the Wall, which also had a redesign recently, a number of covers were tried with a Chinese American girl on the cover. My publisher did not seem to have any fear of Gretchen's race putting off potential buyers (she is mixed race: caucasian/Jewish on one side, Chinese American on the other) -- but in the end, a face shot didn't convey the spirit of the book well, and they went another direction. The girl on the new cover could be Gretchen, but she's really more a fantasy imagination of Gretchen as a superhero, rather than Gretchen herself.  

I love this new cover for FLY, but I do think it's possible to imagine the girl is completely caucasian if that's your default imagination setting. And that's a pity, because Asian American kids looking to find themselves in fiction won't easily find themselves here. They'll have to pick up the book and read the flap copy and infer G's race and cultural background from her name: Gretchen Kaufman Yee.  

Same goes for Dramarama, which is about a friendship between a white girl and a black boy.  White girl is on the cover. Boy is absent. The cover is gorgeous, I think, and conveys the feeling of the book and the appearance of the narrator beautifully.  (By the way, I asked that they cover the model's nose, because Sadye's nose in the book is BIG -- like Streisand big -- and this model had the bittiest nose ever. If you can't see her nose, she could indeed by Sadye.)

Still -- African American teens looking for books in which they can find themselves will never pick up Dramarama  unless a smart librarian puts it in their hands, or unless they look past the cover long enough to read the book's description. And that makes me sad, because representation is so important to teenagers reading stories. Finding people like myself in fiction (as well as people UNLIKE myself), was very, very important to me as a young person.

Some of you know I write picture books under another name. It is in this realm of my writing life that I've come across the most disturbing ingrained and invisible censorship of faces other than white ones. I have requested or suggested artists who draw primarily African American  or Asian American characters for certain books of mine, because the stories were about multi-ethnic neighborhoods, or because the stories were universal and I think that readers proved with The Snowy Day in 1962 that if a story is good enough, and touches people's hearts, the whole world can embrace a child protagonist of any race.

And yet -- there are still not very many protagonists of color in American picture books, especially not in books where the kid is supposed to be "everykid."  The way Peter is in The Snowy Day. 

I loved these artists and wanted to see what they'd bring to these stories.And when I talked with editors about these artists who drew mainly people of color, I was told that those artists were probably "too urban" for my stories. Or thatusing  those artists would limit sales. And in other words, No. (One of these artists went on to win multiple awards from the ALA, by the way.)  

The editors could have just told me: that artist is too expensive. Or, that artist isn't to our taste. Or, that artist only works for another publishing house. But the editors actually felt comfy saying to me: too urban. Fewer sales in the middle of the country. As if that wasn't a deeply horrible thing to say, when if publishers are not going to be BRAVE, how are we going to have literature that changes people's lives and touches them deeply?

So I think the difficult time the picture book market is having is causing editors and publishing houses to shy away from a bravery and inclusiveness that existed forty years ago.  Yes, they publish books with characters of color, but usually in stories that are about famous people in history, or specifically about a foreign culture, or specifically about a particular  culture within America. I know this from serving three years on the Ezra Jack Keats Award committee, which looks at picture books by relatively new picture book creators, with an eye to books that celebrate and appreciate the multicultural nature of our world. I have read a large percentage of the picture books featuring protagonists of color that were published in the past three years. 

Publishers need to be braver. The Snowy Day is still selling. As Justine points out, Americans will buy albums with people of color on the cover, no problem. They will buy books, too. If we stop being so scared. 

All right. Enough soap box. 
I will emphasize that I love my publishers and this is a tough time to be a publisher and the pressure in these situations is enormous and more than I can probably comprehend. But I am grateful to Justine for speaking out about this issue, so I wanted to as well, in the small way that I can.