Lying on the Cover

by Guest Contributor Neesha Meminger

There’s been a great firestorm of controversy over Justine Larbalestier’s cover for her recently released novel, Liar. Ms. Larbalestier is the Australian-born author of How to Ditch Your Fairy and other fantasy/sci-fi titles. She has a wide fan base. She is married to Scott Westerfeld, best-selling author of the Uglies series. Together, they are a veritable, YA fantasy/sci-fi powerhouse.

The frukkus around Liar is because, in the book, the character describes herself as “black with nappy hair” which she wears short and natural. The cover image is of a white girl with long, straight hair.

Some have argued that the model could be of mixed race, or just a light-skinned black woman. The fact of the matter is that regardless of what she could be, within a racist context, most people looking at that cover would assume the model was white. Besides which, she clearly does not have short, nappy hair.

On her blog, Larbalestier has a picture of WNBA star, Alana Beard, who she thinks is more like what her character should look like. According to a report on Mediabistro’s Galleycat blog, Larbalestier was initially thrilled with her cover. They state that, back in April, she put this up on her blog:

“This cover was so well received by sales and marketing at Bloomsbury that for the first time in my career a cover for one of my books became the image used for the front of the catalogue . . . Apparently all the big booksellers went crazy for it. My agent says it was a huge hit in Bologna. And at TLA many librarians and teenagers told me they adore this cover.”

If this is true (I haven’t gone through her backposts), as an author I can relate to the excitement she must’ve felt at all the hoopla surrounding her book (okay, not really relate, because I haven’t ever experienced that, but it must’ve been awesome). But as an author of color, I’m saddened that the first thing to occur to her wasn’t how inaccurately her main character was depicted and what the implications of this could be.

However, that aside, Ms. Larbalestier is certainly doing her part in addressing the cover issue now, and throwing her support behind authors of color who are struggling to gain the recognition and publisher backing that she and other white authors currently enjoy. We need more agents, editors, booksellers, librarians, and authors who have the platform to speak up (and be heard) to voice their dissatisfaction with the way the publishing industry is set up—with the old-world, deeply ingrained views it expresses through where its publishing and marketing dollars go.

The publisher—in this case, Bloomsbury—stated this in a recent Publisher’s Weekly article:

And yet, some readers—and Liar’s editor—are defending the cover, noting that Micah, the unreliable narrator, could have fibbed about her own appearance. “The entire premise of this book is about a compulsive liar,” said Melanie Cecka, publishing director of Bloomsbury Children’s Books USA and Walker Books for Young Readers, who worked on Liar. “Of all the things you’re going to choose to believe of her, you’re going to choose to believe she was telling the truth about race?”

Okay, wait. Bloomsbury might consider checking in with their author before issuing public statements like the one above, because the author, herself, blogged this:

Liar is a book about a compulsive (possibly pathological) liar who is determined to stop lying but finds it much harder than she supposed. I worked very hard to make sure that the fundamentals of who Micah is were believable: that she’s a girl, that she’s a teenager, that she’s black, that she’s USian. One of the most upsetting impacts of the cover is that it’s led readers to question everything about Micah: If she doesn’t look anything like the girl on the cover maybe nothing she says is true. At which point the entire book, and all my hard work, crumbles.

Clearly, two pretty contradictory statements.

When we were in the brainstorming stage for the cover of Shine, Coconut Moon, my editor said she wanted the image of a “modern-looking, young Indian woman’s face.” (We can debate what “modern-looking” means in another post, but yayy for my editor!). Her idea was poo-pooed because, apparently, another publisher had released a novel with a “young, Indian woman’s face” on the cover in the same year. Obviously, we couldn’t have TWO Indian women’s faces on the covers of books in ONE year.

In contrast, I urge you to take a stroll through your local bookstore—any one—and count how many books have covers with white faces on them. If you are too lazy to walk to your local bookstore, simply go onto any debut authors’ site and take a gander at the book covers. Here are few to start you off: Classof2k9.com, classof2k8.com, and feastofawesome.com. What you’ll see is a small slice of the books released in any given year—and *gasp!* there are more than one with a white face on the cover. I doubt anyone’s editor ever said, “No, no. We simply cannot have a young, white woman’s face on the cover of this book. Another publisher already did that this year.”

Likewise, in the comments threads of blog posts about the LIAR cover, some commenters are asking if the publisher would have done the same, had the book been about a white protagonist who was a compulsive liar. Would the publisher have put a black face on the cover, in keeping with the “lying” theme?

It’s disheartening, to say the least, that this cover issue might not have inspired the mass media frenzy it has, if the author weren’t Ms. Larbalestier. Her book will sell well regardless of how this cover issue plays out. Her publisher has put a lot of money behind it, and will undoubtedly do their best to guarantee success.

How many authors of color could claim the same support? The prevailing belief in the industry seems to be that books with characters of color and, specifically, protagonists of color, don’t sell. In other words, “There’s no money in it.” So, putting a brown face on the cover would be like shooting yourself in your Sales foot.

The problem is that it becomes a never-ending cycle. Kids of color never see themselves reflected (anywhere—not on television, in film, magazines, and book covers), and as a result don’t ever have that possibility of imagining themselves in a variety of roles. A luxury young white people enjoy, often without ever recognizing it as a privilege.

The way I see it, part of our job as children’s book and YA authors, is to plant seeds of creativity through our writing. For ALL children and young adults. If our publishers/editors/agents/booksellers are not on board with our vision, it is also our job to do our darndest to challenge their decisions, as ardently as we can. That is the only way we will see true, lasting change.

Ms. Larbalesteir is doing that. Speaking up against a publisher’s decision is not an easy thing to do for any author. Our livelihood depends on being agreeable and not being cast as a “difficult” author. We sometimes have to fight for every word that eventually makes it to print. We face having to make compromises on all levels of the process and we agonize over those compromises. What we initially write is, a lot of times, not anywhere close to what the public buys.

It’s tougher still, for authors of color and those of us writing about the “other” experience. Because for us, there is “what sells” and what our story is. And what sells is determined by editors, publishers, booksellers, marketing folk, and other gatekeepers—most of whom, in overwhelming numbers, are white, heterosexual, economically well-off, and are forced to worry perpetually about the bottom line.

The argument is usually that it is supply and demand—as in, “We sell what the public wants.” But the public can’t buy what is not available. And if black and brown faces are constantly erased from book covers for children and young adults, children of color will reference whiteness as the standard for what is beautiful, what is valuable, and what is possible.

That is a tragedy on so many levels. For all of us.

*After I wrote this post, I went to read the latest comments on Justine’s blog. A commenter, Christine @198 asked point-blank if this had been a ploy all along on the part of Bloomsbury, and possibly, Justine. Fair question, I guess, given the different reactions Justine had to her cover as reported by Mediabistro. Justine’s response to the commenter was this:

200. Justine Says:

Christine @198: No. I never wanted this. I fought tooth and nail against that cover. But even so I keep wishing I could go back in time and fight harder, find the exact argument that would persuade them. I never wanted this disaster.

I never said I loved the cover. If you read my post about the US cover and then my post about the Australian cover you’ll see a stark contrast. Courtney Milan (who I’ve never met in my life) did that comparison on her blog.

Liar is the most ambitious book I have ever written. But no one’s talking about my book; they’re talking about that bloody awful cover. Trust me, no author wants that. I told my editor a week ago when I was trying to get them to change the cover (again) that I wish I had never written it.

Whatever success Liar has or doesn’t have is now completely overshadowed by its US cover. I’m trying to deal with that but I wish people would stop talking about my damn book and focus on the larger issue, which is racism in the publishing industry.

July 27th, 2009 at 8:57 am