Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Race in Middle-Grade Books

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:

Benedict 2 cropped inside

But take a look at the front cover:

Benedict2 with arrow

Erm, WHAT? Let's look a little closer:

Benedict 2 close up

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:

Benedict 3 cropped inside

But, again -- close the book and look at the cover:

Benedict3 with arrow


Benedict 3 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
Publicity Department
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,

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:

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.”

Wow. How shameful.

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!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Princess and the Frog Review

I finally saw The Princess and the Frog last week and have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed it. In some ways, it is typical Disney fare (though in the good category). The story followed the typical boy meets girl style, added a few silly sidekicks (though I usually love the sidekicks), one bad guy, beautiful animation, great toe-tapping songs, and, of course, a happy ending. The result is a lot of fun.

But this blog always looks at things in terms of writing. Can we extrapolate parts of a movie and put them towards a book? Absolutely! A story is a story. It has plot and characters, just like any other story. When I watch something, I always look at it in terms of writing.

I would like to focus on the main character, Tiana, for she was the one I liked the best. I liked the fact that she was determined, smart, and hard working. One of the things that really irks me in most movies is when the hardworking person is always told by her/his friends to lighten up. Now, could some uptight, type A people learn to relax? Of course. But is it by learning meditation, how to paint, or just hanging out more with good friends and family? No, it's almost always how to party more. Great way to achieve your goals. Tiana knows that you don't achieve your dreams by wishing on stars or waiting for your prince to come; she knows it comes through hard work. But every character should have a fatal flaw - in her case, she works so hard for her dreams that she misses what's really important - love, in this case, not really from her prince, but from her family. She had worked so hard to achiever her and her late father's dream of owning a restaurant that she forgot how devoted her father was to the people he loved. A quality she doesn't lack, but has put aside for other things. To really achieve her dreams, she must learn what she needs, not just what she wants.

What I liked best was that it is not Tiana's looks that get her Prince Naveen (in fact, she doesn't even want him at first), but it is her smarts and determination that make the prince fall in love with her (after all, they both spend much of the film as frogs). It is the prince who must change to get the girl - he must learn that life cannot be one big party and that you can just toss people aside like used handkerchiefs. Life is about balance, and being nicer to people. Only after he learns this does Tiana start to fall in love with him.

Overall, the movie is sweet, full of heart, and fun. It's very nice to see a movie that doesn't resort to bawdy jokes, edginess, and hipness. It's nice to see a movie that is, well, nice.