written by Anti-Racist Parent editor Tami Winfrey-Harris; originally published at What Tami Said
[Editor's note: Sorry for the late post today!]
Why would a young adult (YA) book about a black girl with features that reflect her African ancestry and hair that is short and natural have a young, white girl with keen features and flowing tresses on the cover? Folks around the Web (Read this great summary at Chasing Ray) are asking that question about the US release of Australian author Justine Larbalestier’s latest book, Liar, a thriller about a teenage pathological liar.
Every year at every publishing house, intentionally and unintentionally, there are white-washed covers. Since I’ve told publishing friends how upset I am with my Liar cover, I have been hearing anecdotes from every single house about how hard it is to push through covers with people of colour on them. Editors have told me that their sales departments say black covers don’t sell. Sales reps have told me that many of their accounts won’t take books with black covers. Booksellers have told me that they can’t give away YAs with black covers. Authors have told me that their books with black covers are frequently not shelved in the same part of the library as other YA—they’re exiled to the Urban Fiction section—and many bookshops simply don’t stock them at all. How welcome is a black teen going to feel in the YA section when all the covers are white? Why would she pick up Liar when it has a cover that so explicitly excludes her?
The notion that “black books” don’t sell is pervasive at every level of publishing. Yet I have found few examples of books with a person of colour on the cover that have had the full weight of a publishing house behind them4 Until that happens more often we can’t know if it’s true that white people won’t buy books about people of colour. All we can say is that poorly publicised books with “black covers” don’t sell. The same is usually true of poorly publicised books with “white covers.” Read more…
My first reaction to the Liar cover controversy: That’s shameful. An eye-catching cover, to be sure, but to use the picture of a white girl who blatantly does not match the narrator’s description at all? So. Wrong. Even more so now that I’ve had a chance to read the book.
My second reaction to the Liar cover controversy: Well, hell, it’s not as if it’s unusual for Asian-American characters to have their race obscured on book covers. Granted, not whitewashed like this, but hidden nevertheless. This might sound really callous and I sincerely don’t mean to diminish the importance of the original discussion or of Bloomsbury’s deplorable actions, but there you go. Read more…
But never forget that publishers are in the business of making money. Consumers need to do what they can. When was the last time you bought a book with a person of colour on the front cover or asked your library to order one for you? If you were upset by the US cover of Liar go buy one right now. I’d like to recommend Coe Booth’s Kendra which is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Waiting on my to be read pile is Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger, which has been strongly recommended to me by many people.
Clearly we do not live in a post-racist society. But I’d like to think that the publishing world is better than those many anecdotes I’ve been hearing. But for that to happen, all of us—writers, editors, designers, sales reps, booksellers, reviewers, readers, and parents of readers—will have to do better.
While visiting Larbalestier’s blog, be sure to read her wonderful post, “Why my protags aren’t white.”
I’ve been asked a few times why none of my protags are white given that I am white. (So far that question has only come from white people.) I thought I’d answer the question at length so next time I get that particular email I can direct them here.
I don’t remember deciding that Reason, the protagonist of the Magic or Madness trilogy, would have a white Australian mother and an Indigenous Australian father. I don’t remember deciding that Tom would be white Australian or Jay-Tee Hispanic USian. But I made a conscious decision that none of the characters in How To Ditch Your Fairy would be white and that Liar would have a mixed race cast. Why?
Because a young Hispanic girl I met at a signing thanked me for writing an Hispanic character. Because when I did an appearance in Queens the entirely black and Hispanic teenage audience responded so warmly to my book with two non-white main characters. Because teens, both here and in Australia, have written thanking me for writing characters they could relate to. “Most books are so white,” one girl wrote me. Read more…