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Coverflips: The Not-So-Subtle Message of YA Cover Art

[Editor’s note: Maureen has posted a follow-up post.]

It started with a tweet:


That was May 6th. By May 7th, author Maureen Johnson’s tweet had turned into a full-blown challenge, with coverage all over the Internet. (You can follow the conversation and the challenge Johnson proposed on a variety of sites, from Tumblr to Twitter, with the hashtag #coverflip.)

Copycat Covers: YA Book Covers That Make You Look Twice

DoppelgangersOkay, I admit it. I’m getting older and having more trouble remembering things like the names of YA books I’ve read. I can sometimes remember them by their distinctive covers, but lately, that’s gotten harder because of the trend to make all the books look similar to one another. I don’t know if that’s deliberate by the publishers or just because there are so many YA books being published now (particularly paranormal books), and there are an finite number of covers artists can come up with. I know that the topic of covers is one that we never get tired of writing about, judging by the number of recent posts on the topic.

I could go on and on about how the covers of these books, mainly paranormals, objectify the female body, or parts of the female body, and portray the female characters in a passive role without giving the reader any hint about what the female character is actually doing in the books, but I’m going to leave that for a future post.

Your Granny’s YA

While many mark the beginning of young adult literature around the time The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton was published in 1967, authors had been penning teen novels for many decades by then. To start our look at retro YA, we’re going to go back about a century and then work our way forward from there.

Frank Merriwell was a Yale man who excelled at … everything. He was a teetotaler and didn’t smoke. His adventures were published as magazine articles from 1896 through 1912, and later as dime novels, comic strips, and collections of comic strips. He was portrayed through radio performance and in film.

Strange Associations

Does this remind you of anything?
Does this remind you of anything?
When you read a lot of YA over several years, you start to notice things. At least if you’re me. Sure, you notice some plot and character formulas at work, but that is to be expected. And yes, some books obviously resemble each other — which is good, because it helps us compile read alikes!

That’s not what I’m talking about though. I’m referring to a funny and lesser understood phenomenon. I make associations. Basically, I’ve begun matching trivial little details of different books. What’s the use of this? I don’t really know if there is one. Sometimes it does seem like an interesting sociological phenomenon. Like when two film biopics of the same person come out within in a few months of each other. Everyone thinks, Why Hitchcock? Why now? Other times, it doesn’t seem to mean anything; it’s just coincidence. (I’m not a detective, so I’m allowed to believe in coincidence).

Anyway, dear readers, I’m going to share some of these strange associations with you now. I can’t remember all of them, but here are a selection for your entertainment.

Three books where the mother is a highly successful romance writer

Looks Matter (With Books, Anyway)

I totally judge books by their covers.

Don’t get me wrong; I usually don’t stop there. The beauty beyond a book’s skin is what I really look for. But the cover of a book can be enough to make me check it out immediately — or to stop me from opening its pages for months. The cover is the first thing about a book I see, so of course it’s important in deciding whether or not to read it.

For me, the cover that stands out from the others is the cover I’m drawn to. I’m sure in some way they’re all designed to be the cover that stands out, but lately, it’s been easy to see the trends in the look of YA literature. Teen books can largely be grouped by their covers.

clockwork princessFirst, there are books with real people modeling on the front. With those covers, it feels like I’ve seen so many recently featuring a girl in a fancy, sumptuous dress, even when it doesn’t have much to do with the book. Most recently, Clockwork Princess by Cassandra Clare joined the crowd with this kind of cover (though its dress can be forgiven due to being set in the 19th Century). Other popular titles following this trend include The Selection by Kiera Cass, Matched by Ally Condie, and the Fallen series by Lauren Kate.

Those are all fantasy or dystopia books, however. Most of the other covers with models that I see are realistic fiction, so they feature teenagers in normal clothes. Usually they’re doing something semi-related to the novel, like holding hands or walking along train tracks, but often they’re ambiguous enough that the cover could be switched with that of another novel on the shelf and each would still have a similar effect.

From Russia with YA

A year and a half ago, I relocated from Southern California to Moscow, Russia. Since I do not speak or read Russian, I accepted that my book needs would not be satisfied through local bookstores for the most part. This certainly has not stopped me from exploring the shelves here when given the chance, though, and I have been surprised by some of what I have found there.

I had my first American YA sighting shortly after I arrived. While checking out the book section of a hypermarket, I was surprised to see Cassandra Clare’s City of Ashes face-out on one of the shelves. Despite the Russian text, it was easy to spot since the cover art was the same, with a fierce-looking Clary beyond the cityscape. I found City of Bones and City of Glass next to it and, over the next few months, I visited her books there more than once, just to see something familiar and recognizable.

Cassandra Clare's City of Ashes / Photo courtesy of Dom Knigi
Cassandra Clare’s City of Ashes / Photo courtesy of Dom Knigi

Showing Our True Colors: YA Covers That Got it Right in 2012

Publishing companies aren’t putting out enough YA titles that feature protagonists of color. And when they do, some book covers try to hide or obscure the characters’ race by showing them in silhouette or in shadow, or at times whitewashing them completely. Even the most diverse library collections sometimes look homogenous when you just see the covers. Don’t believe me? Check out my post from last week: “It Matters If You’re Black or White: The Racism of YA Book Covers.”

The problem is insidious, but it’s not completely pervasive, as many of you pointed out in the post comments last week. There are a lot of publishers, authors, and books that have no problem putting people of color on the covers of their books. So I just wanted to take a moment to recognize and celebrate those folks who understand how important it is for everyone to be able to see their own identity validated on the cover of a book. Here are some books covers that got race right in 2012.

Ichiro by Ryan InzanaA.D.D.: Adolescent Demo Division by Douglas RushoffNever Fall Down by Patricia McCormickBoy21 by Matthew Quick

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.