It Matters If You’re Black or White: The Racism of YA Book Covers

Whitewashing in YAMost 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:

  1. The cover is “whitewashed” and shows a Caucasian model instead of a person of color;
  2. The cover depicts someone whose race seems purposefully ambiguous or difficult to discern; or
  3. 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.


Daughter of the Centaurs - whitewashing
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.
Immortal Rules - whitewashing
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.”


Liar - whitewashing
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.


Magic Under Glass - whitewashing
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.


Mysterious Benedict Society - whitewashing
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.
White Cat - whitewashing
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.


Wizard of Earthsea - whitewashing
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.


Girl of Fire and Thorns - whitewashing
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.


For Darkness Shows the Start - whitewashing
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


Silver Phoenix - whitewashing
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.


Sphinx's Princess and Sphinx's Queen - whitewashing
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.


Ambiguous 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.

Diamond in the Desert - ambiguous race
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.
A Confusion of Princes - ambiguous race
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.
Across the Universe - ambiguous race
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.













The Boy at the end of the World - ambiguous race
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.
Chronicles of the Red King - ambiguous race
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.
Zen and the Art of Faking It - ambiguous race
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.

Silhouetting on YA covers

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

70 thoughts on “It Matters If You’re Black or White: The Racism of YA Book Covers”

  1. I don’t have a problem with publishers using other artwork as opposed to cover models. After all, they need to sell books and attractive, interesting covers help do that. I prefer interesting artwork or other representations since I hate having the power to use my imagination to create the character taken from me. Of course, I think it is incredibly lame for them to use cover models who look nothing like the character within the pages.

    What to do? If publishers only respond to dollar signs, perhaps librarians shouldn’t buy books with these kind of covers? Perhaps we should create a YALSA week in the same vein as Banned Books Week? Obviously, it takes a concentrated, public effort to basically shame publishers into correcting this.

  2. This was a very well put together post. I’m not sure what the best way is to get these changes made. It should be common sense that diversity is a good thing. However one thing I wish would happen is that if authors want their characters to be another race I wish they would just say it instead of hinting at it in eye color and skin color. There’s nothing wrong with stating it and takes away all possibly ambiguity in the reader’s mind instead of them defaulting to white because that happens even with the most careful description like Hunger Games for example. And a lot of these books you’ve found I’ve never heard of as having minority protagonists. So maybe if it were more clear that the cover didn’t match the contents maybe people would be more worried. Not to blame the authors or anything. They don’t control covers but maybe they can control what they put in the book.

    Another white washing was the cover for the Vast Fields of Ordinary. The main character of the book is black but there was a white guy on the cover. I didn’t know if that guy was supposed to be his love interest of what but it always bothered me.

    1. Your point about explicitly mentioning race was brought up during the Rue-in-The Hunger Games controversy, and the explanation I heard for that case was that the races as we know them don’t exist in Panem, so no one would have described themselves or anyone else as “African-American” or “black” or anything similar. I don’t know if that came from Suzanne Collins, but it makes sense for that specific case.

      1. In the book, during the training session, Katniss observes that Rue “…has bright, dark eyes and satiny brown skin.” During the interviews with Caesar Flickerman, Katniss notices that “the boy tribute from District 11, Thresh, has the same dark skin as Rue…” Whether or not races as we know them exist in Panem, Rue is not white.

        Annie, thanks for this excellent analysis! Great work on a very important topic.

        1. I agree that it should be obvious to the reader that we would describe Rue as non-white at the very least, but my comment was more directed at the fact that Collins should have explicitly stated her ethnicity in order to remove all ambiguity. Not only should it not be necessary, but in the context of Katniss’s narration, it would seem anachronistic.

    2. I somewhat disagree with the idea of having to state a character’s race outright. If it makes sense in the context of the story for the character’s race to be stated outright, then that’s fine. But to insert mention of a non-white character’s race when, presumably, the same would not need to be done for a white character is troublesome.

      1. But unfortunatly it does matter. When we see people we have a response. It may be different from person to person, but we take them in, in their entirety. Mentioning Rue and Thresh’s skin tone was a normal observation that anyone would have made. Identifying a character as different from yourself establishes your perspective on them. It was obvious it mattered when the movie came out and there was such an outcry of idiocy. Some went as far as to say Rue’s blackness ruined the movie and book for them. Which gets to the point. In general majority readers are not prone to purchasing books about minorities. The publishers are designing coveres to sell books. The painful truth is they are right…..

        1. Considered the context of the Hunger Games I myself would not have called Rue “black” and the fault here is definitely not with the author since she clearly described Rue’s skin tone. The fault in this case lies with the reader. If they either forget how a characters looks like or simply do not notice that, they are bad at reading.
          We had the same with Angelina Johnson in the Harry Potter series. I can’t remember how she was described in the books except that in her later school years she had dreadlocks, but still her name suggests that she is not british in the common sense and I thought her film depiction fitted the book just fine. But still there are examples like this:

    3. I actually ‘saw’ Katniss having darker skin than she was actually portrayed in the movies, and was quite happy with Rue’s portrayal in the movie

  3. I’m familiar with the problem, but what you’ve done is created a fantastic Spring purchasing list for anyone looking for YA Literature featuring characters of color. My 99% African-American student population will be salivating for these.

  4. As an avid reader I have always found this to be a problem, because I’m so visual, when picking a book for the very first time either if its in a book store or the library.I always get an impression on what the character should look like, it helps paint the picture of the story for me. I think that its sad that something so sacred as the art form of written word is violated so openly. Readers don’t take in to consideration that this is a form a racism. I know that from a publisher’s POV that its a marketing tactic to get more sales but When ever you do see a cover with any other ethnicity’s besides Caucasian its always an urban book. Lets not even get on the topic of plus size main character doing something stellar. That’s another argument all together. I just hope that as a society, as misconceptions about race slowly degrades we can truly see pass it to evolve and do something amazing . Being African American, plus size, female and a writer I hope that I can contribute in this way to the world and young readers as well.

  5. Great post, and a really important subject!

    At the YA Literature Symposium last month, I attended a session on books for guys where the teen panelists were all African American. They made the point of how important it is for them to see someone like them on the cover…one guy even recounted how his friends all picked up a book to try because the cover model looked just like him. Don’t publishers see how they’re missing out on a whole market here?

  6. Another book I read recently that did this is “Dark Companion” by Marta Acosta. The main character is probably Latina (it’s not explicitly stated) but her cocoa skin is referenced several times and yet…the girl on the cover looks pretty white to me.

  7. This is a great post, and it reminds me of an observation my students have made many times. It’s not just that there aren’t many non-whites on the cover. But we’ve noticed that many, many books that do have people of color on the covers have their backs to the camera. They are not afforded the cute, girls-in-ballgowns or cute-hipster-girl looks for their covers, they must look hard and cold and distant, even if their characters are nothing like that.

    It’s such a shame, really, that authors cannot fight harder for more profound representation on their covers.

    1. Shout-out to Cat Girl’s Day Off by Kimberly Pauley. Fabulous hipster lady of color, front and center on the cover. I can’t wait to read it.

  8. I can’t speak to the publishing industry-side decisions, or why the ‘ethnic character/urban book’ assumptions still remain. I followed the Liar situation when it spread through the blogosphere, and it opened my eyes even wider to the breadth of the problem with representation, and how important it is as an author to really push for covers that reflect the diverse content of our books.

    I know our power can often be limited when it comes to covers, and sometimes all we can do it make our discontent noted when covers have already been greenlit by sales/buyers, etc, but there are sometimes ways to work with our publishers to make everyone happy, even if you risk being the odd voice out. My forthcoming YA, Jane Austen Goes to Hollywood, is modern Sense & Sensibility retelling narrated by two sisters who happen to be biracial. It’s an upbeat comedy about status, Hollywood, cute boys, etc — so I was always hoping to get a really bright, vivid cover. When the first designs came through, I was seeing a lot of silhouettes, and figures in the distance: ambiguous ethnicities, and photoshopping of Caucasian models. By searching for stock images myself, and working with my publisher, we were able to find a great photo with an African-American girl on it — and her face, no less! (My first face cover).

    I know that my situation isn’t standard, and I’m very lucky — I had the time to go looking for images, a publisher open to my input, a great designer who took my raw ideas and made them into something special that passed with sales and marketing — but I do remember that moment at the start of the process, looking at the initial comps, wondering if I was going to be seen as a big pain in the neck if I spoke up. I think it’s that moment that we as authors need to step up, and make sure that even if the books wind up without representative covers, we’ve done everything we can — regardless of if it makes us feel ‘difficult’ or ‘problem authors’. Sometimes we think it’s out of our hands, when really, the publisher wants an amazing cover just as much as we do, and will be open to ideas and images if we can find them.

  9. Good article. A slight correction, though: if I remember correctly, the cover of Liar with the Caucasian girl was never actually published, thanks to the uproar on the internet.

  10. Exhaustive, well-researched post! However, that’s not the final across the universe cover. In the final hardback cover (later superseded first by a paperback cover depicting only Amy, then with a paperback cover with no characters), Elder’s features have been photoshopped to look more Caucasian (whether that was Penguin’s intention or not, who can say.)

  11. This example is middle grade, but I wonder about The True Meaning of Smekday. Wonderful biracial main character, very funny book. The cover is a not terribly exciting view of buildings and alien spaceships. Why not picture the main character? Maybe trying to appeal to boys who don’t want to read a “girl” book?

    1. It’s worth noting that The True Meaning of Smekday’s cover was illustrated and designed by the author, although who knows how much input the publisher had on what he could and couldn’t do.

      1. Good point. I follow him on Twitter so I should just ask him, if I can figure out how to do so politely.

  12. Thanks for posting about this. While I understand that marketing departments try to appeal to a broad audience, it is troubling that this trend continues. I’m less bothered by the silhouette or avoidance technique, however, than I am by outright whitewashing, as with the IMMORTAL RULES cover. These choices seem to represent pretty regressive thinking.

    Wendy @ The Midnight Garden

  13. How do you know the girls on the covers of the Armstrong books are not Native? We are not only “people of color” — we are Native Nations with a range of phenotype.

    Course, the protagonists in that series aren’t really Native, are they? There are multiple layers of ‘imagining Indians’ in the series.

    I am in agreement that there are major problems with book covers and racism, but recommend that when the protagonist is Native, we should remember that a range of skin and hair color are possible. There are blue-eyed blonde Natives. Not fakes or wannabe’s, but legitimate Native people. I think there is a story about that in Moccasin Thunder.

  14. As an African American who has worked in this field for almost 40 years, nothing is more puzzling to me than the reluctance of White teens to embrace stories about Black teens. Other areas of popular culture, like hip-hop have no trouble reaching diverse audiences. Yet these same teens are not as open to stories about Black teens in print. Let’s face it: that’s the driving force in this. I wish publishers cared about Black teens seeing themselves in all genres in YA but I doubt they see this as a profitable idea. I seldom see the kind of marketing push behind books featuring African American characters. I doubt if much will change in such a volatile time.

    1. When I was younger it seemed to me a lot of the books featuring African American characters were all about dealing with the hardship of it and I was more interested in books about adventure and mysteries so that’s why I tended to avoid them. Chances are I read quite a few without even realizing it, though since I wasn’t looking for color, if that makes sense.

  15. thanks for such a great post, annie.

    i loved my original Silver Phoenix cover
    which was repackaged because the original
    cover wasn’t carried very widely (skipped entirely
    by Borders and carried very limitedly at BN) when
    it was released. repackaging (redesigning of covers)
    happens all the time for books–but in my case,
    Silver Phoenix was literally the *only* YA fantasy
    title featuring an asian female on the cover on
    the shelves that year. even if limitedly.

    for me, as an author, i’m more keen on getting
    stories featuring diverse protagonists out there,
    so a PoC heroine isn’t such a rarity that it might
    be considered too different or a risk by publishers
    or booksellers or quite honestly by readers themselves.

    when we talk covers, we’re talking about a slew of
    things that happen behind the scenes, including
    BN’s ability to veto covers (and apparent love for
    pale girls featured on covers at the moment–it’s
    a self perpetuating cycle) to the fact that even finding
    a stock photo for a cover of an asian model is harder
    than a white model. and stock photos are what most
    publishers use when they create book covers.

    i was fortunate enough to get a cover shoot for my
    original Silver Phoenix cover. and i’m grateful for
    my repackaging in an attempt to reach a wider audience.
    if you see the full jacket, you’ll see that there are definite
    hints of the book being asian inspired, even if the cover
    is less so.

    as for what librarians can do to help: acquire these
    books with diverse protagonists, recommend them
    to readers, include them in displays and on reading lists,
    and it doesn’t have to be a “diversity” display or only
    for black history month, etc. no matter who might or might
    not be represented on the covers.

    i know i speak for many authors who write diverse
    characters that we’ve written our novels for everyone
    who might enjoy a good read.

  16. That was a fantastic and shocking post. I’ve just finished my first YA novel and was discussing the cover with the artist I’ve hired. There are three characters who will be represented on the cover, Caucasian girl, African-American boy, Asian man. It never occurred me to “white wash” it. I like my characters just how they are, of course, I’m the publisher also.

    I hope more people write pieces like this and maybe there will be changes. We can only hope.

  17. I had never thought of silhouettes as trying to disguise race but it’s an interesting thought. I actually like that style of design better. I feel like book covers are mainly just stock art with some minor alterations anymore which is probably contributing to the problem. I am twice as likely to pick up the silhouetted book covers (actually I’ve read 3 and am reading a fourth from that list) which probably leads to me reading more diverse than average.

  18. I agree with you in principle, and one of the things we try to do at Tu Books is to showcase our characters of color on the cover whenever possible, whenever the design would allow it. We are an imprint dedicated to publishing books that star people of color. Every book we publish stars a person of color. But to address your last point regarding silhouettes: not every book we publish needs a face on the cover. The silhouette was what happened to work for the particular book. You don’t change the design to something lesser *just* to show a face on the cover.

    Summer of the Mariposas is one of the most striking covers we’ve had at Tu, which grew out of a natural process that involved input from the author and inspiration on the part of the designer. And its Latina influence is still right there on the cover–in the title itself and in the Aztec butterfly in the sky. Five girls flying into the sky in a way that you could see all their faces would have looked weird, not striking.

    And Cindy Pon, above, makes a great point about the difficulty of finding appropriate stock photos–it’s been a challenge, and in the case of five Latina girls in a particular pose who all look like sisters, it would have been impossible, if we could even put together a design that would look good with five girls’ faces on the cover. But we’ve also succeeded with other cover designs and stock photos, such as with Cat Girl’s Day Off, Tankborn, and its forthcoming sequel, Awakening. And for some we’ve decided to go with a photo shoot (Vodnik) or with artists (Galaxy Games and the forthcoming Hammer of Witches).

    Once my spring books come out, my imprint will have 6 of 9 books that feature faces on the cover, and every one of them a POC. But there are other cover designs than faces that work as cover designs, and we lose a lot if we insist that only faces be on the cover.

    I agree book covers shouldn’t be whitewashed, and that we need to be aware of these issues in YA books. The reason I founded Tu Books was to combat the lack of people of color in YA fantasy and SF. And editors at other houses, many of whom are members of the CBC Diversity Committee, are also working on these issues within their own houses, and you’re right that there are hurdles to overcome, very real ones, within a lot of publishing houses. But I think the problem is also a systemic one that involves the whole chain of readers, librarians, teachers, booksellers, and reviewers as much as publishers and writers. This is an issue that we all share blame in, and can only be solved if we all work to resolve it by being more aware in our reading habits and seeking out diversity. Cindy’s suggestions that this needs to happen not just in history months is right on.

    The complication to this is that I have a feeling that in a few years we’ll start to look at all the faces on the covers of YA books as being as corny as all those photorealistic paintings of YA in the 1980s. They’ll eventually look dated. And portraying the character on the cover, as you note, creates an image of the character in the reader’s head that interferes with the ability to imagine them as anything else. So when a publisher decides to go with something other than a face on the cover, oftentimes it has nothing to do with institutional racism and everything to do with wanting an original design in a sea of faces-on-the-cover jackets. Apparently this year, a lot of us chose a silhouette as a solution. Next year it might be a graphic instead.

    This issue is even FURTHER complicated by the very real reluctance of readers to cross racial boundaries and that pictures of the character on the cover may actually deter some readers. There’s a great discussion of that on Hunger Mountain by Mitali Perkins that I highly recommend, in which Mitali Perkins recommends that YA books shouldn’t have faces on the cover at all, considering the kinds of pressures teens are under at that age. Well worth a read for a counterpoint to this discussion.

    But as long as we have this continued faces-on-the-cover trend, we’ll work to portray our characters of color on the cover whenever possible.

    1. I love the covers for Mesquite Tree and Summer of the Mariposas. They mean more to me as a person who was raised to value our community and the land our reservation is on (pueblo tribes were not relocated from our original lands).

      The move to faces on the cover discussion seems akin to egocentric American values that are about the individual, not community. And, about beauty, too. The cliche – beauty is in the eye of the beholder – applies here. Tu got it right for this beholder (me).

    2. i really appreciate this thoughtful post,
      especially coming from an editor’s perspective
      and from Tu Books specifically.

      i will say that i take issue with the notion that,
      hey, you are one of the rare books that feature
      a PoC character therefore you HAVE TO SHOW
      the face to represent in some way.

      that, in itself, is pigeonholing these books in
      a way that all other books aren’t necessarily
      pigeon holed.

      as i said, i don’t think the issue would be so
      glaring if there were more than a handful of books
      with PoC main protagonists among hundreds
      that are published each year in YA–as is the case
      is now.

      and YES, iconic covers are a way to bypass
      all the pale girls.

      1. I definitely agree on that point. On numbers, we haven’t improved at all in the percentage of books that star people of color (and some years we do worse than we were doing 20 years ago).

  19. Sometimes I wonder about all the look-alike covers too. When I was taking creative writing classes back in college, I was honestly too afraid to write a character who was obviously not white. Sound dumb? It is. But since I am white, I didn’t want anyone saying I was misrepresenting their culture and I didn’t want to be making a statement. I just wanted to write stories about characters but not make any sort of statement about their race. I don’t even know if that’s possible though, given your great examples of all these covers.

  20. You make a very good point; it’s very literally a case of selling a book by it’s cover, but you should be selling the story for what it is, not trying to squish it into what you think readers will accept – essentially you’re assuming racism among your audience if you think they’ll only respond to a Caucasian cover.

    Ironically enough, I dislike most of these covers on sight, not because of the whitewashing (as I don’t know the characters aren’t white yet) but because of the reliance on stock photos of gorgeous young models. I’ve always been more of a tomboy and I’m certainly not willowy and graceful, so as soon as I see most of these covers I assume that there’s no way I can relate to the heroine and disregard them. However when I read your blurbs, some of the stories sound quite interesting to me.

    Publishers have gotten into a bad habit recently of relying on stock footage, making all covers look bland and samey as they generally rely on portrait shots of a character that tells us nothing about the story. The publisher who posted above said how hard it was to find 5 Hispanic girls who looked related … hire an illustrator and they can just draw that for you. The results are often so much more visually interesting. Compare the most recent cover of ‘Life of Pi’ following the movie release with any of the older illustrated covers, which I much prefer. They give you so much more information about the mood and tone of the story, while still leaving lots to the imagination of the reader, which is how we like it best.

    1. I just wanted to note that for small publishing houses, reliance on stock photos is an issue of cost. An illustrator, while preferable, is just too expensive. As someone who has independently published some of my backlist, I know all too well that while I’d love illustrated covers on my books, they’re far beyond my budget.

  21. Have any of you ever seen the cover for “Vessel” by Sarah Beth Durst? The main character isn’t white, and the cover shows her face (not white-washed) very clearly.

    Take a look:

    I’m not saying that this isn’t a pervasive problem, but I thought it would cheer you all to know that there are some covers out there that try to be honest.

  22. As a writer who can also draw, personally, I don’t see what the whole “must use stock photos” thing is. In college for a basic design class, you are required by the curriculum in most cases to do basic drawing. That includes live models.

    And I would think after the success for such cover artists as Michael Whelan to SELL covers, that it wouldn’t be *that* hard to hire an artist who can draw and put it on the cover.

    I do design, writing and drawing. I can visualize and actualize my characters for the publisher… so why can’t a really good artist do the same?

    I get that drawing something from scratch is more expensive, but look at all the cover artists who did just that and how they made their name is from that.

    When I draw a character, I reference real people from photos (a tip of a nose there… those eyes there..), celebrities from those countries, memory of people I’ve met, etc. Artists, unless working out of the French caves that aren’t getting tourism… they should be able to do the same… If me, a rookie can do it and do a decent job of it in half a day… then why not a digital painter that have the where with all about the negative space required for a title to do the same. The human face, despite race, only has a few variations… It’s not as if you need a special degree to paint someone black, Korean, Chinese, etc. It’s not as if the ears are pointy and where the nose is.

    We have something called the internet, this worry about stock photos. I don’t get it from the writer side nor the graphic design side.

  23. Great post. As a WOC, I don’t find these stats shocking, sadly.

    As a side note, I wanted to point out that fancasting for some fandoms is also very problematic. It’s not just the publishers. I see graphics made by young readers that totally disregard a character’s ethnicity (Magnus, Rue, Christina from Divergent, etc). My favorite excuse is that POC only have brown eyes and that only white people can be tan. Characters shouldn’t be defaulted to being white and yet here we are.

    Also adding to your list of silhouetting:
    Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan- The main character is half Asian.

    Ambiguous Ethnicity:
    Partials by Dan Wells- The character is Indian but we only see her from behind.
    Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell- The male love interest is Asian but we only see the back of his head.

  24. I’d also like to add that when they do put a black girl on the cover (as in the corrected Bloombury covers and many–most– others) they are not varying in their shade of blackness, are they? They mostly feature light brown skinned girls who many times also look as if they are bi-racial and of mixed black + other ethnicity. As a black woman and reader it frustrates me to see the constant underrepresented shades of the “dark” and “brown” of our skin. As if Hershey chocolate black girls who are beautiful models are hard to come by…

    Do we remember the fall out when Rue in the Hunger Games was cast as a black actress for the movie? Who is to blame when Susanne Collins’s description of Rue and Thresh were one and the same (dark skinned) people in the book and the frustration of the fans over the accurate casting choices? Would having more accurate covers dissuade young readers who are not of color from buying YA books that feature an ethnic Heroine/Hero in the book and on the cover? Are these the kinds of things publishers are looking at (bc it’s all about the sales for them!) into when taking account who to represent on the cover of the book?

    I love this article! Thanks so much for writing about it.

  25. Excellent post about an issue that just won’t go away. I think somewhere there is a consensus that pretty white girls (with dead expressions and flowing dresses) sell YA books. Possibly this is based on market research. It may even be true. Has this morphed into a belief that cover models of color impede books sales? Has research been done on this too? I’d love to see it.

    I much prefer books with no cover models, or obscured cover models, no matter the race. but I do think it’s important to address the imbalance with some diversity in covers. Ethnicity can be expressed in other ways too, such as graphical designs (say Pacific Coast Native designs or Arabic writing or mosaics) or cultural objects (a menorah, an abacus, chopsticks etc, but only if they are relevant to the plot!) .

    For your interest check out my Pinterest page on this topic:

  26. interesting. Because most people assume racism was solved in the 90s. It’s like a dirty secret that’s constantly buried. It’s very hard to look at a single book and call racist leanings or a handful of books. But its not unlike the Hawkeye Initiative. When you look at the patterns scary things emerge and that’s what interesting. I’ve never thought of it before (guess i need to read more). As I said you present a very very compelling story.

  27. The bigger problem is racism on the part of the book buyer. Books with African Americans on the cover do not sell well in other markets. The publishers want these stories read. As an author of a YA series that has great reviews from RT and the Library Journal, I can attest to this. There are Af.Am teens on the cover although there are multi cultural characters. The sales have been lukewarm in spite of the reviews.

    1. This concerns me, since a big part of this discussion is that readers of color should be able to see themselves on covers. Are you suggesting that a white reader being drawn to white cover models is somehow racist? White kids struggling to see themselves in books about kids of color is no more racist than the opposite.

      I get that there is an element of privilege here. I also get that many readers of color are drawn to the same white covers because they have become attuned to this norm as representing the kind of books they enjoy, or that are popular with their classmates. But no one likes being called racist just because they are drawn to their own familiar culture.

      I think there are at least big two issues that need be addressed. One is the perception that every book with a kid of color on the cover is about either racism or some other stereotypical issue (gangs, immigration etc). The easy fix for this is to put a honking great sword in the cover model’s hand, a raygun, bow and arrow, magical talisman, wings, cupcakes or what have you. (see some of my examples here:

      The other issue is that there are what, a hundred million people of color in the USA? Under 18s of color will soon outnumber white kids. This is a giant market. If these kids need to see themselves on book covers somehow they need to buy, request, borrow, suggest or otherwise support this market. If they don’t, this whole discussion has been based on a fallacy because they will have demonstrated that in fact they DON’T want to read about themselves. If books with covers models of color sold well, publishers would do them more often. It’s a business after all, not a public service. And a market of a hundred million should be able to get good sales. I’m Canadian. I know what a small market is.

      I just hate to think that readers and writers of color are waiting for the rich white kids to ride in and save the day. I don’t think it will happen.

      One place to start would be to have teachers of color, or teachers of majority non white classrooms choose GOOD (and relatable) diverse books for classroom reading. Something similar to THE OUTSIDERS or HATCHET, that the kids love. MONSTER by Walter Dean Myers would work. In general too many curriculum books are whiter than white. And when a diverse title is chosen it’s often so dreary, sad or inscrutable it turns readers off for life. That needs to change.

      By the way, I added your books to my pinterest board.

      1. One thing that I took away from the YALSA Lit Symposium was that a significant proportion of teens of color are financially underprivileged. So even though they often DO want to read books about people like them, they do not have the means to buy books. So they share, borrow, etc. them instead. This might be translating into the lower sales on those books publishers see.
        Obviously there are all kinds of assumptions in that trail of logic, but it still may be true. These are crazy complex issues.

      2. I think the argument that young ppl of color want to see themselves on book covers is very flawed. I did an RT conference where there was a teen session. I watched Af Am teens pick up my books, and then put them down in favor of books about mermaids, demons and other fantasy titles. I had an Af Am mother ask me if there was sex or profanity in my books. The assumption was that due to the covers these books were urban or ghetto.

        Now I’ve been told by publishers that Af Am teens don’t want fantasy books. They do. Unfortunately very few are published with teens of color on the covers.

        The issue is unfortunately bigger than a blog post. No one is thinking any rich white kids will save the day. I don’t just write for black or white teens. I write for teens. You’d never know by my covers.

        1. Part of it is that a lot YA reading is “aspirational”. Kids aspire to be mermaids, dragon-riders, immortal, spies etc. Or they aspire to be popular and beautiful. Unfortunately this last still translates to white, blond and thin, even for kids of color.

          So I think we could start with black, Hispanic, Asian or otherwise non-white mermaids, dragon-riders, immortals or spies .

  28. YES! So true. I have to agree with everyone pointing out that you can’t really say it’s the market when the market presents no alternatives. Of course people who want to read will buy books with white people on the cover, because it’s either that or don’t buy books. But I do think librarians need to put themselves at risk and make more of a statement with their collection development money and put far more money into Tu Books, Cinco Puntos Press, Jump at the Sun, etc, and a LOT less into HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, etc. I can’t think of a better way to make a point. And yes, it might mean having to work harder to get circ stats up, but that’s our job, anyway.

  29. YES! So true. I have to agree with everyone pointing out that you can’t really say it’s the market when the market presents no alternatives. Of course people who want to read will buy books with white people on the cover, because it’s either that or don’t buy books. But I do think librarians need to put themselves at risk and make more of a statement with their collection development money and put far more money into Tu Books, Cinco Puntos Press, Jump at the Sun, etc, and a LOT less into HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, etc. I can’t think of a better way to make a point. And yes, it might mean having to work harder to get circ stats up, but that’s our job, anyway, right?

    1. I don’t think it’d be very fair for the kids who frequent a library that decides not to carry certain books on principal. Many kids and teens can’t afford books, so the library/librarian would therefore be more or less choosing what teens could read.

  30. It would be interesting to show these book covers to your students or teen patrons and ask them what their first impressions are. Do they see racism, or unrealistic beauty?

  31. While THE HELP isn’t a YA book, the three birdies on the American cover mark a stark contrast to the UK and French covers with actual black maids in performance of their duties of watching a white child. It’s just one more example of the need to either whitewash or maintain ambiguity on a cover, especially in the US. I thank you for this article, as some publishers know exactly what they’re doing. And they continue “conditioning” readers to expect non-minorities on the cover. Most times we hear “covers featuring minority protags won’t sell” but how do we know this? Publishers push the books and pump money into novels they want to sell, but what if an equal push was given to say, award winner SALVAGE THE BONES which features a minority protagonist?

    I didn’t want to just sit back and complain, so I started my own ebook company featuing diverse protags rarely mentioned in literature, YA ebooks featuring a Maori-African American teen werewolf, a Haitian Witchling, a Chinese gargoyle and a Hispanic Valkyrie. But I’m also mindful that white characters also populate the stories being told, and I get to create my own covers which don’t whitewash the characters. I think more minorities may want to think about self-pubbing, instead of waiting on publishers to wake up and be inclusive. It may be a long time in coming.

    People are free to write what they want, but when an author and publisher forget that minority kids read also, then they shut out a vital segment of the population, as if to say they only cater to one reading group. It’s been done for far too long, but it takes articles like this one, with well researched visuals to show just how one sided publishing has been, and frankly, continues to be.

    1. If THE HELP had been published with black maids on the cover in the USA the publisher would have been raked over the coals. The “black maid” is one of the most hated stereotypes in American media.

  32. I think it’s a matter of money. Publishers may feel that putting an ethnic teen on the cover will deter White teens from reading it because the teen will think it’s unrelatable. Ethnic teens are used to reading books about White teens, watching TV shows that feature a White cast, and playing with White dolls so reading a book with a White teen on the cover doesn’t deter them.
    I see this when we plan Black history month programs or El Dia. If Black history month is in the title or if the title is in Spanish, White patrons won’t come because they don’t think it is for them. If the turnout continues to be low, we may have to stop doing these programs. The same goes for publishers. If a book doesn’t sell with an ethnic teen on the cover, what do I do? Stop publishing the book or change the cover?
    I’m curious to see what would happen if you put a cover of an ethnic teen and a cover of a White teen in front of a group of diverse teens to see what book they would pick and why.
    As a Black library associate who buys YA books, I thought this article was interesting but I’m not shocked that this happens. I’m sure publishers are well aware of what they are doing and some might hate that they have to do it.

  33. Thank you for an excellent article which clearly highlights a frustrating problem. I am Pacific Islander/Samoan, an avid reader – and have always sought out books to read that had multi-ethnic characters – as well as the usual ‘mainstream’ fiction. My teenagers devour books as well and it is always a pleasure to find books with people who ‘look like us’ in them. I am the author of the YA Telesa Series which is fantasy romance set in contemporary Samoa and inspired by Pacific mythology. The most rewarding feedback has been from Pacific young people worldwide who are embracing the stories precisely because “it’s about us! It’s about places/cultures/stories we can relate to.”
    I appreciate your well-researched list of books because youve given me and my children some more excellent book choices outside the ‘white-mainstream-box’. Off to check some of the titles out now!

  34. Just one more reason I’m proud to be an indie author. Not only do I have total control over pricing, release dates and content, I get final say in my cover art as well. One of my characters in my series is Hispanic, and guess what? The girl on the cover is also Hispanic.

  35. This is indeed unfortunate. Not only does it reinforce the European standard of beauty but it implies that ‘if we put an obviously on the cover, we won’t sell as many books.” Also indicative of our society’s demand of seeing only certain people/ethnicity/features represented, as evidenced by the ignorance following the above-referenced movie release. Here’s what’s really strange: We have to have Black, Latino, Asian, etc. authors to represent our stories or our kids are pretty much SOL. That’s pretty sad, because I am sure that we (blacks) read more books written by whites than white people read books written black authors. I allow my girls to choose their own books but I also make sure I grab works by minority authors so that they can see themselves on the pages of books.

    Great piece and very brave of you to write it!

  36. People are very eager to demand more minorities on covers. They cry out in rage when they’re not there, they cheer when they are– but you know what they’re not doing? They’re not BUYING those books. Stop being politically correct because it makes you feel warm and toasty inside and actually BUY books with diverse protagonists! That is how you will change this whitewashing situation.

    The cover of Cindy Pon’s first book was beautiful, and I saw bloggers eagerly praising the proud depiction of the Asian girl on the cover… But I noticed they weren’t buy and reading the book, they were buying and reading books with pretty white girls in ballgowns on the cover. Yes, the very same accursed white girls in ballgowns they’re ‘just so sick of seeing’.

    All I can conclude is that many of the people talking loudest do not want what they say they want.

  37. I have to say, considering the lack of racial diversity in YA, there is still something disappointing about an author writing a lengthy blog post responding to readers who saw themselves reflected in a protagonist with arguably ambiguous racial identity basically saying “no, no, you’re wrong, actually she is very, very white!” Which is even stranger to insist when she explicitly states that the heroine’s grandfather is of Maori descent (i.e. not white) and it is recognized in the text that she looks somewhat like him. But whatever.

  38. Awesome post and I completely agree with this problem. It’s not YA, but I loved Jim C. Hines post and his newest book’s cover Codex Born because he worked hard to make sure he had a Native American model and the heaviest model he could find. What he ran into, though, is that there just weren’t that many model images for his illustrator to choose from once he insisted on a Native American model, and so the final illustration still isn’t as heavy as the character is supposed to be. I’d like to think that this is at least partially what the industry runs into, that there are less non-Caucasian stock images and model images for illustrators to use so sometimes it just seems easier to use a Caucasian image that fits and try to make it look more ethnic. I’m not saying that’s the right solution at all, and maybe it’s naive to think that that is the problem, but at least in one situation it seemed to be. That also brings up the fact that there should then be a call for more non-Caucasian models and plus-sized models so that there are stock images available for cover illustrations!

  39. I completely agree about the person covers, though, I also think we just need less of them in general. I don’t quite agree with your other points, though. I like book covers without people or faces. I like illustrations and silhouettes. And I don’t really think it’s entirely fair to gather up a bunch of illustrated and silhouetted covers and call it racism. I’m not sure about the silhouettes since it seems to be a fairly newer cover idea, but aren’t there a lot of illustrated and graphic covers with white characters that don’t highlight their skin color as well? (I’m not saying that’s racism, just pointing out the other side of things.)

  40. This really worries me. I’m a black writer I write fiction and fantasy…will kids not read my books because of this? Should I just stop right now? I can’t wrap my head around this.

  41. There’s a book with a black lead called Landwhig’s Pride-The Fifth Token of Life.
    The lead is black, Bridget Reid’s her name. But the cover has only her green sword.
    I suppose that the author possibly wanted to avoid the trouble.

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