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.
*Spoiler Alert* You’d never know it looking at these covers, but the Darkness Rising trilogy actually features a 100% Native American protagonist named Maya. And the fact that she is Native American isn’t just a sidebar. It’s critical to the story: Maya was basically created in a lab by an evil corporation trying to resurrect an ancient type of Native-American super humans who can morph into mountain lions. The face that she’s Native American is mentioned dozens, if not hundreds of times in these books.
There may not be any explicit discussions of race in this book — especially since it takes place in a version of our world where protagonist Malora is the last living human and roams around with a band of horses and later centaurs. But the story is explicitly set in Africa, and Malora is repeatedly described a shaving dark skin … not that you’d know if from the cover.
This combination dystopia and vampire romance features Allison Sekemoto, who is not an attractive, red-eyed, white girl as you might guess from the cover, but rather an attractive, red-eyed, Asian girl. If the Japanese last name isn’t enough to convince you, consider snippets of dialogue such as this one: “My reflection stared back at me, a dirty-faced girl with straight black hair and ‘squinty eyes,’ as Rat put it.”
This is one of the most widely publicized incidents of whitewashing. The book follows Micah, a compulsive liar, who gets caught in a tight web of her own making after her boyfriend dies under suspicious circumstances. Micah is black and is described a wearing her hair naturally. The advanced readers’s copy was released with the cover on the left, but it was officially printed with the cover on the right after public outcry.
Bloomsbury strikes again in another high publicized cover controversy that it also had to change for the reprint. Magic Under Glass is about Nimira, a dance-hall performer who is plucked out of obscurity by a sorcerer to sing with a piano-playing automaton. Nimira is described as having “dark skin” and being from the “far East.” The cover on the left is the original cover, which clearly depicts a Caucasian girl. The cover on the right is the reprint.
This series follows four genius children who come together to solve mysterious and creative tasks. Each of the three covers in the main series initially featured four children who match each of the four children in the books — except for one detail. The character Sticky Washington is described in the books as having “light brown skin,” but has Caucasian-white skin on the covers. The publisher has since re-released all of the books with this corrected.
Cassel comes from a family of famous “curse workers” who can exert power over people with the touch of their hands (hence the gloves). Cassel’s race is purposely ambiguous in this book. He has family members who are described as having dark skin, and different characters in the book make mention of his unclear ethnicity. The original book galleys depicted an even whiter version of Cassel on the cover (if that’s possible), but he still looks pretty darn Caucasian to me.
Ursula K. LeGuin has been vocal about how her characters are depicted on book covers for decades, yet publisher after publisher has disregarded her text. The classic fantasy book follows Ged as he rises in power as a sorcerer. Ged is described in the book as having red-brown skin, yet most of the covers depict him as white, and the movie version is just as bad.
The advance reading copy (right) here is much worse than the final version (left), but they both give you the distinct impression that you have a book about an attractive white female here. The reality is that Elisa is overweight, brown skinned (possibly Hispanic or Arab), and more than a little awkward. She’s also the “Godstone,” or chosen one, which makes her all the more self conscious about what she sees as her physical shortcomings. The sequel, The Crown of Embers, falls into the same trap, showing the silhouette of a very white female in the gem on the cover.
This futuristic retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion changes a lot, including the leading lady’s ethnic makeup. Elliot North is a member of the “Luddite nobility” and is described as having brown skin, dark hair, and almond-shaped eyes. Seen through the whitewashed cover filter, though, you would think she’s a willowy white girl with brown hair and pale skin.
**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”
What you’re seeing here are two very different depictions of protagonist Ai Ling. The one on the left is the hardcover edition, which highlights her ethnicity. The one on the right is the paperback edition, which strangely removed all cultural markers and makes her appear more like a white, goth girl than a powerful and beautiful Asian woman.
These two books pair to make a historical/mythological retelling of Egyptian princess Nefertiti’s story. I can only assume that the cover model is supposed to be depicting the Egyptian princess, but it looks more like a Caucasian woman dressing up as a sexy Cleopatra for Halloween.
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.
This historical fiction book takes place in the Gila River internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II. The baseball players are all Japanese Americans, but it’s a bit hard to tell that between the sunset-obscured lighting and catcher’s mask.
This fantasy novel clearly describes protagonist Khemri as having brown skin and black eyes, but with the swirling green lights on this cover and the partially-obscured face on other covers, it’s pretty difficult to tell. My best guess is that the publisher used a Causasian model for all of the covers.
The female protagonist in this series is white, but the leading male is a crew member who, like all crew members, is a racially ambiguous mix that melds all ethnicities together. If you look closely, his features look non-white, but the shadow is so intense that there’s no way to really tell.
In this survival story, Fisher is told that one of his advantages is that his skin has been made darkly pigmented to help lessen the effects of sun exposure. The weird lighting and back view make it pretty hard to tell, but his skin looks pretty light to me.
The intense yellow lighting and weird angle here make is so that you can’t make out very much about the main character at all, but page one informs you that he’s a famous African wizard.
San Lee is an adopted Asian kid who tells everyone that he’s a zen master in order to try to make friends and impress a girl he likes. But between the hand stand and weird angle, he could be an awkward, socks-and-sandals-wearing kid of pretty much any ethnicity.
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
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