Last week Bloomsbury Children's in the U.S. finally righted a wrong that had been igniting controversy all over the web. Young adult author Justine Larbalestier's novel LIAR was set to release this October with this image gracing its hardcover:


Problem is, LIAR's main character is described as an African American girl with "nappy" hair. Unsurprisingly, Larbalestier was disappointed with Bloomsbury's cover choice, as was basically anyone outside of corporate publishing who saw it. There was an uproar online and after significant public pressure, Bloomsbury introduced a new jacket in time for its Fall publication.


Though this is a better representation, Bloomsbury's early official comment on the matter is pathetic (what the kids today might call an Epic Fail):

“We regret that our original creative direction for Liar—which was intended to symbolically reflect the narrator’s complex psychological makeup—has been interpreted by some as a calculated decision to mask the character’s ethnicity...” Um, yeah.

This issue of whitewashing is not new of course, but it's disturbing that it's still happening in 2009.

When I was in sixth grade, I won a writing contest where the prize was a ticket to attend a talk by my favorite author Richard Peck, the prolific writer of scary yet sensitive and honest novels for young adults. The afternoon, which was sponsored by the "Young Authors of America," was held in a large public library which took a long bus ride to get to. On the way, the young authors stopped at McDonald's for lunch. When we got to the talk we were all treated like real writers. Mr. Peck spoke to us about his writing process and the ins and outs of publishing. He even shared his frustrations about the business and marketing of his work. At one point he picked up a copy of a recent YA thriller he'd written, a book we were all familiar with, and implored his audience: "This book jacket makes me angry every time I see it. Can anyone guess why?" We raised our hands one at a time. Was it the color of the title? The fact that the jacket copy gave away key plot points? Was it the hairstyle of the girl on the cover? Each time we missed the mark. Finally, when we'd given up, he said plainly, "At no time in this book, or in any of my books, do I mention the ethnicity of my main character. And every single time they put the heroine on the cover she's some pretty white babysitter type." He went on to tell us why this mattered, why it was important for readers to see themselves in the characters, why it should be obvious not to alienate an entire group of readers when there was simply no good reason for it. He talked about the politics of book jackets and their function as a marketing tool and the fact that the author was often helpless in the decision making process. It was 1986. Twenty three years later, I have not forgotten the words he left us with: "Maybe Blossom Culp is black, maybe she's Asian, maybe she's white. She's whoever the reader is, and I resent any novel whose jacket tries to tell me otherwise."

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Tags: #issues we face, #publishing, #reading, ethnicity

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Comment by LindaLowen on August 17, 2009 at 3:59pm
I've begun to wonder if the whole concept of 'books sell better with girls' faces on the cover' is a scary parallel to the advertising industry, which continues to sow dissatisfaction in the hearts and minds of women so we will buy our way toward a better self of self. Put a pretty white face on a heroine and then soon mass market literature will make us feel bad about ourselves. And I thought reading was an escape.
Comment by Casey D.D. Nicholas on August 14, 2009 at 6:32am
Erin: LOL
Comment by Erin Hosier on August 13, 2009 at 11:24pm
Even the lesbians have to be white? Somebody at North Atlantic needs to mix up their porn collection.
Comment by Renate Stendhal on August 13, 2009 at 5:13pm
A great story, Erin. What a poignant lesson for young writers. I had a similar pathetic publisher's response when my last book, True Secrets of Lesbian Desire, came out. I loved the cover (you can see it on my She Writes page), but brought up the question if the two bodies couldn't be a bit darker skinned in order to include other ethnic readers and be even more inviting that way.
North Atlantic responded that my idea was perfectly unnecessary, crazy, even racist! This was not the first battle of this kind I went through and lost. The sad truth is: the publisher holds the power over the title and the cover and a lot more, unless you are a super star and can put your foot down. Or unless you self-publish"
Comment by Lynsey Griswold on August 13, 2009 at 11:05am
It's really incredible how often this kind of whitewashing happens in our media representation of Americans on all fronts. It's scary, too, because these things do not happen by accident. Somebody makes these decisions on purpose.
Comment by Erin Hosier on August 12, 2009 at 6:25pm
Interesting, Kathy, that your friend is a children's author too.
Comment by Casey D.D. Nicholas on August 12, 2009 at 4:08pm
They did "re-think." Perhaps next time, they'll "pre-think." They get my kudos today, at least.
Comment by Kathy Rich on August 12, 2009 at 3:47pm
Jesus. Thanks for posting.

A friend who writes children's tells about the time he had a new book coming out and suddenly realized that there were two cartoon figures on the cover: one white: the good guy, one black: the bad one. He immediately called the publisher, who shredded the cover. Which meant he book didn't make it into the stores till late and he lost out on sales, but he's still glad he did it.

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