Despite the fact that we're told not to, we all judge a book by its cover. We pick up the book and if the cover is appealing, then take a closer look at the story inside. These covers are carefully picked over, edited, and designed to entice the reader. But do the covers always reflect what is in the book?
If you haven't heard, there was a terrible (and deserved) flap over the US cover for Justine Larbalestier's novel Liar. Although the main character is black, Bloomsbury saw it fit to use a white model on the cover. Protests ensued and people complained to Bloomsbury asking why they used a white model for a black character. Relenting to the pressure, Bloomsbury changed the cover.
Now Ms. Larbalestier's book was YA, which I do not tend to focus on, but this idea of whitewashing covers got me thinking. Is this a more common thing than we may even notice? Sadly, it is common, even in middle-grade, as in case of the next story.
The book-review blog Bookshelves of Doom brought to attention this puzzling and alarming problem that has affected a middle-grade book, specifically The Mysterious Benedict Society. I bring their observations to you here.
The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Puzzling Change of Skin Color.
From page 21 of The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey:
To Reynie's surprise, Sticky looked exactly as he'd looked a year ago: a skinny boy with light brown skin, anxious eyes (though perhaps the anxiety came from not yet having recovered his breath), and a completely bald head.
On the inside of the book, the illustrations depict that description. This one is from page 17:
But take a look at the front cover:
Erm, WHAT? Let's look a little closer:
Um, yeah. Not so good. I mean, WHY? Did his SKIN TONE affect the COLOR SCHEME?
Book Three. Same deal.
From page 9 of The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner's Dilemma:
Sticky looked to have suffered even worse. His sweat-soaked clothes clung like a wet suit to his skinny frame; his light brown skin had gone a sickly shade of gray; and behind his wire-rimmed spectacles, which sat askew on his nose, his eyes seemed dazed and glassy.
Once again, the inside of the book looks right. From page 41:
But, again -- close the book and look at the cover:
EXTREME CLOSE UP:
As Travis over at 100 Scope Notes said, "it wasn’t enough to make him white, they made him albino with rosy cheeks". ___________________________________________________________________
Let Little, Brown Books for Young Readers how you feel about this. You can contact them at:Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
237 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10017
So why on earth did Little, Brown and co. feel the need to whitewash the character? Ms. Larbierster offers eye-opening insight as to why the Powers That Be at Bloomsbury made their decision.
"Editors have told me that their sales departments say black covers don’t sell. Sales reps have told me that many of their accounts won’t take books with black covers. Booksellers have told me that they can’t give away YAs with black covers. Authors have told me that their books with black covers are frequently not shelved in the same part of the library as other YA—they’re exiled to the Urban Fiction section—and many bookshops simply don’t stock them at all. How welcome is a black teen going to feel in the YA section when all the covers are white? Why would she pick up Liar when it has a cover that so explicitly excludes her?”
– Ain’t That a Shame, justinelarbalestier.com
So is that the reasoning behind why Little, Brown should make their light brown skinned character so white on the cover? It makes very little sense, particularly on a cover that features several different characters - most of whom are white.
How common is this practice? Apparently, in YA, quite a lot
Jacket Whys looked at a totaly of 775 young adult novels, and found that:
Wow. How shameful.
80% of them had people on them. A full 25% of all book covers had white girls pictured on them, and 10% had white boys. Only 2% of the titles I looked at had African American boys or girls pictured on the covers – a sad state of affairs.”
The next time you pick up a book, take a look at the cover and see if it fits the characters inside. And if it doesn't, let your indignation get heard!