Thursday, July 30, 2009

Cover Girl Mismatch

Saw this article over at Publishers Weekly: Justine Larbalestier's Cover Girl. The gist of it is that the author wrote a book, "Liar", whose protagonist she envisioned as being "black with nappy hair which she wears natural and short." Her publishers placed a white girl with long hair on the cover. An excerpt from the article:

Fifteen years ago, critics accused Time magazine of racism when it darkened O.J. Simpson’s mug shot. Fast forward to the latest cover-and-race controversy: bloggers are making similar charges against Bloomsbury Children’s Books, which put a white girl with long, straight tresses on the jacket of a novel about an African-American tomboy with short, “nappy” hair. Phrases like “that poor author” and “that’s just wrong” are showing up in comments sections online, in the escalating flap over Justine Larbalestier’s Liar, which hits shelves September 28.

Their perception: that publishers think books won’t sell as well with blacks on the front. “I kept wondering if the publisher thinks books only sell if they’ve got white people on the cover. It bothered me,” wrote Dianne Salerni, author of the upcoming novel We Hear the Dead, in an review.

Even Larbalestier is upset. “I love my publisher,” she said. “[But] I never wanted this cover. I made it clear I didn’t want a white girl’s face. Having this cover on the front is undermining the book that I wrote.”

And yet, some readers—and Liar’s editor—are defending the cover, noting that Micah, the unreliable narrator, could have fibbed about her own appearance. “The entire premise of this book is about a compulsive liar,” said Melanie Cecka, publishing director of Bloomsbury Children’s Books USA and Walker Books for Young Readers, who worked on Liar. “Of all the things you’re going to choose to believe of her, you’re going to choose to believe she was telling the truth about race?”

Unlike Larbalestier’s light and upbeat How to Ditch Your Fairy, which came out last year, Liar is a psychological thriller, with a mentally unstable main character who may (or may not) have committed multiple murders. Bloomsbury is printing 100,000 copies.

The publisher believes that there’s a silver lining to the firestorm. “I do think it’s going to raise awareness of race in teen literature to new levels,” said Cecka. “Clearly, our striving for ambiguity with this cover, and for it to be interpreted as a ‘lie’ itself didn’t work for everyone. But again, if this jacket proves a catalyst for a bigger discussion about how the industry is dealing with its books on race, that’s a very large good to come of this current whirlwind.”

Click here to read the whole article.

The author shares her opinion on the matter here. An excerpt:

There is, in fact, a large audience for “black books” but they weren’t discovered until African American authors started self-publishing and selling their books on the subway and on the street and directly into schools. And, yet, the publishing industry still doesn’t seem to get it. Perhaps the whole “black books don’t sell” thing is a self-fulfilling prophecy?

I hope that the debate that’s arisen because of this cover will widen to encompass the whole industry. I hope it gets every publishing house thinking about how incredibly important representation is and that they are in a position to break down these assumptions. Publishing companies can make change. I really hope that the outrage the US cover of Liar has generated will go a long way to bringing an end to white washing covers. Maybe even to publishing and promoting more writers of color.

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.


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