It Matters If You’re Black or White: The Racism of YA Book Covers
Most of the time, I love young adult literature and am proud to be a YA librarian. But there’s usually a moment once a month when I feel sick, tired, and embarrassed to be working with YA books for a living — and that’s when I flip through my stack of review journals and see a menagerie of gorgeous white girls staring back at me from the covers of upcoming releases.
If a YA book features a white, female protagonist (and this accounts for a not insignificant portion of YA released each year), it seems inevitable that the book cover will display an idealized and airbrushed masterpiece of her on the cover. And when a YA book actually does have a protagonist of color, too often one of three things seems to happen:
The cover is “whitewashed” and shows a Caucasian model instead of a person of color;
The cover depicts someone whose race seems purposefully ambiguous or difficult to discern; or
The character is shown in silhouette
These forms of racism on the part of publishers are unacceptable. And the fact that it is so rampant within the young adult publishing industry seems particularly despicable. The first step toward change is awareness, and so below I’ve tried to pull together a collection of examples of these forms of subtle and not-so-subtle racism. If you have other examples, please share them in the comments.
Whitewashing happens when a publishing company represents a non-white character on the cover of a book with a white representation. This has been going on for decades — probably centuries — and seems to show no signs of letting up. There have been a couple widely publicized examples of this (Liar by Justine Larbalestier and Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolomore), which have forced publishers to re-release the covers with more accurate character depictions. Yet this public shaming hasn’t stopped it as a widespread industry practice.
**Note: Author Diana Peterfreund has responded to this post on her own blog, stating that the Elliot character is meant to be racially ambiguous and that she believes the cover does accurately reflect the character in her book. Read her response here: “Whitewashing Covers, part eleventy, and Elliot’s ethnicity”
One step down from whitewashing a cover is obscuring the character’s racial identity on a cover. It often seems like white characters are spotlighted front and center on a book cover, while non-white characters are hidden in shadow, have their face obscured, or are distorted in some other way that allows people to assume that the character is white. There are countless examples of this, but here are a few that came to mind.
Don’t misunderstand me here. I think using silhouettes instead of realistic depictions on a cover is graphically beautiful and a great way of not ruining the readers’ personal impressions of what a character should look like. But what I cannot stomach is that the technique seems to be overwhelming used for books with non-white protagonists. Here are some examples from books released during the past year.
Book covers — not to mention the books being published — need to represent the diversity of people actually reading books. As a librarian, I actively seek out stories that feature protagonists of all races, ethnicities, sexualities, and backgrounds. But looking at the shelves, you can barely tell sometimes because the books featuring non-white characters fade into the background behind the eye catching, white faces that stare at you from so many covers. It’s time for publishing companies to stop whitewashing their covers.
*Correction: This post originally stated that the book Liar was “first published” with a white model on the cover, when in fact the advance reader’s copy was printed with that cover; it was never officially published.
— Annie Schutte, currently reading The Returning by Christine Hinwood