Why The Pretty White Girl YA Book Cover Trend Needs To End

By Guest Contributor Ellen Oh, cross-posted from Hello Ello

Graphic courtesy jillianaudrey.blogspot.com. For illustration purposes only.

Recently, there have been more Asians on TV than usual. This makes me happy because it is such a rare event. Spotting an Asian on TV always feels like trying to find Waldo. And when I do spot an Asian on TV or in the movies, I jump up and down and get overly excited, like I’ve spotted some rare species or mythical creature, like a unicorn or Big Foot.

So you can imagine my exuberance over watching the Knicks and Jeremy Lin. What’s not been so cool has been the media response to him. Lots of people have lots of opinions on him and race plays a huge factor in it all. Why? Because, like Asians on television shows and movies, Asian pro athletes are few and far between. Jeremy Lin’s performance is irrevocably linked to his race. He is considered an Asian “anomaly.” Let’s focus on that word “anomaly.” Meaning, “to deviate from the expected”–an irregularity. It is in this way that the media lifts up one man and backhands an entire race.

Asians have long been the silent minority in this country. It’s gotten so bad that when someone makes a racist remark toward Asians, they just shrug it off and make it seem like you’re the one making a big deal about nothing. Or they think it’s funny. Like a couple of white guys who think they are being clever by opening up a restaurant called “Roundeye Noodle shop” in Philadelphia. And then they are surprised when people get offended? The roots of that racist remark stem from Asians being called slanty-eyed chinks.  If anyone thinks “Roundeye” is not racist, you should come explain that to my youngest daughter who had the singular pleasure of being told by two boys in her class that her “small Chinese eyes” were ugly compared to her friend’s “blue round-eyes.” She was in kindergarten and only 5 years old. She cried for days. Words can scar you for life.

Later on, after I got involved and all the participants were made to apologize, a mother of one of the boys contacted me and told me that her son had acted the way he did because they had moved to the area from a small town in the midwest and they had never seen an “oriental” person before. I decided not to go into why I object to the word “oriental” and instead focused on what she was saying to me, this excuse she was feeding me. She was trying to laugh it off instead of taking it seriously.

To be honest, it really bothered me … but it also gave me food for thought. It brings me back to my original point. We are still the silent, unseen minority. And sometimes we have to fight that overwhelming feeling of not belonging. Of feeling unwanted in a country we love and are proud citizens of. I know as a child, books were always my refuge from that horrid sense of being different and hated. But when I look at publishing today, I wonder if my kids will feel the same way.

As a YA author, I’ve found the lack of diversity in publishing profoundly sad. I’ve been particularly disturbed by what I find in the YA sections. Bookshelves filled with cover after cover of pretty white girls. (See Goodreads Best YA Book Covers List)

The difference between the Middle Grade section and the YA section couldn’t be more divergent. Picture books and middle grade books don’t have the uniformity that YA does. They are bright and bold and diverse.

I love this cover so very much. And it’s a great book.  But it feels like only in the Middle Grade section would you find a gem like this. It makes me wish my children would stay in the middle grade section for as long as possible. Because it is safe and welcoming for them.

Putting pretty white girls on all your book covers is the book equivalent of what all our fashion magazines do. An idealization of beauty that is unrealistic and dangerous to our youth. And it isn’t the right thing to do. Seeing a person of color grace the cover of a YA book is like spotting the Loch Ness Monster:  you wonder if you’ve truly seen it and if you’ll ever see it again. How sad is that? To say that only pretty white girls can sell YA books is not a business model that publishers should approve of. And it’s not true. We need look no further than the gender-neutral and iconic covers for The Hunger Games and Twilight series to see the truth.

The feminists have been after the fashion industry for years and yet nothing’s really changed, even with all the research that shows a correlation between teenage self-esteem and these magazines. But let’s face it: there’s a big difference between fashion magazines and books. We see fashion magazines as light entertainment. But books are an important part of our school curriculum. We teach our children about the importance of reading. And we send them out to the library and bookstore to look for books to foster their love of reading. But then they get there and the majority of the book covers resemble the covers of our fashion magazines.

We need for publishing to break this trend. Stop idealizing white beauty. I would rather there were no models gracing YA book covers rather than see wall after wall of only white ones. It’s time for publishers and booksellers to act more responsibly. They have the ability to influence entire generations of young people. Tu Books is already paving the way with multicultural YA titles and covers. They have seen the need in the market, and they are answering it. It is up to booksellers and readers to support them, make it clear that their endeavor is important, and help it become a success. Then maybe more publishers will follow in their footsteps and help change the current landscape of YA book covers.

We need to teach our youth the beauty of diversity. Beauty does not come in only one color. It does not come in only one size and one shape. And maybe when our teens grow up exposed to diversity, then they will grow into adults who embrace it.

And then maybe their children will never call another child ugly simply because they do not match the ideal of white beauty.

 

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  • Danielle Bateman

    I totally agree with you! I think book covers (and content) need to be more diverse in race as well as gender, and possibly sexual orientation. I would love to read books with different races of characters. I like reading about characters who are as different from me as possible, because I like learning about new cultures and how other people view the world. 
    Nearly every book that I have EVER read is about a white girl. I don’t mind reading about Caucasian characters (I am white), but I want to read about male protagonists, Asians, Native Americans (I’m an eighth Cherokee, though it is very hard to tell :]), Hispanics, and pretty much any race. I’m tired of always reading the about the typical white female character.
     It’s sad that as a country we say we are diverse and excepting of all shapes, colors, sizes, etc. when we can hardly read about and see these types of people in literature. Literature effects TONS of people. I have a gay friend who would love to read a book about someone like him, but sadly you can’t walk into a library and just pull one off the shelf. I think today’s books are only representing a part of the population, not the whole, and I hope someday soon that can change. 

    Thanks for the very thought provoking post!

  • Anonymous

    The names in the book (like Nino, Beppo, Nicola, Gigi) and other details created a bit of an Italian setting… but the beauty of textual ambiguity of it is that you can imagine her to look anything you like, or not make up your mind at all if you prefer (it’s not uncommon for the hero or heroine to become “you” anyway as you identify with them).

  • Anonymous

    I know this is slightly off-topic, but the same problem exists in science-fiction books. When they show humanoid characters on the cover, 99% will be white. I have over-looked a number of books simply because you get tired of all the stories being about people who don’t look like you, or like the author of this post, or like my Native Amerian friends, etc. My first foray into Steampunk was because the book featured so many Asian leads in the stories, which was a refreshing change.

  • Susanpolkadot

    Hi,  I write multi-cultural picture books with six big publishers, and I hear the same thing over an d over regarding the cover art – it’s what the marketing department wants.  The editors  don’t have 100% control over the cover.  The marketing guys are probably mostly white.  The key is to get a racially diverse team in the marketing department. Old habits die hard in the big houses. Some of the younger editors are trying to change the all-white approach to buying and marketing manuscripts, but there are plenty of editors/agents who still think only white people buy books and so white protagonists (cover art) are what sells.  In order to change the system, we need to get into the system and change it from within.  I am a white woman selling books with Spanish in it for nearly 20 years.  Progress has been made, but it’s a very slow process.   Not much will change unless people refuse to buy the books.  Vote with your wallet.  If a book comes out with a racially diverse cover, buy it!  Then the publishing houses will figure out that it’s okay to break out of their mold and publish stories that represent everyone.

    Susan Middleton Elya

  • Lyra Zapanta

    Yep. Great post. I’m also Asian, with some European blood. But just because we’re Asians means that we should be outcasts. It isn’t fair. I know Afro-Asian people should also be featured on YA books and not just white people. I may be white because of that Western blood, but it doesn’t make them better than us Asians.

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  • http://imaginaryreads.blogspot.com/ Kris

    I agree that middle-grade fiction oftentimes has a lot more substances than YA books. After reading a large number of YA books in a row recently, I picked up a middle-grade book and found myself wishing for the old days. Many of my favorite middle-grade books I consider classics while I rarely return to a YA book after reading it once. One of my favorites was Maniac Magee; another is Star Girl. I also love the Bayern Books. I still return to these every now and then.

  • Kieren Dutcher

    Great writing. Thank you.

  • http://tylerreeves.org/ Tyler

    I agree with this post, especially the fact that the “pretty white girl” has become the norm in what publishers consider pretty. I also got pretty enraged about the kindergartner and what kind of a home that child goes back to every day. Racism exists everywhere because people in general like/need to find ways to “one up” or become better than their neighbor. I think only in societies where everyone has a common goal or enemy is the concept of beauty truly in the “eye of the beholder”. The less we have to worry about, the more we try to fill that need to worry about crap. Thus racism and general idiocy. 

    Also The Hunger Games doesn’t have a pretty white girl on the cover, but I know what you mean. 

  • Anonymous

    In my 30′s, I came across a couple of YA book that featured people of color on the covers and I actually bought the books and read them! They were great and I know that I would have loved to read them even more when I was younger. What pisses me off is that sometimes when the characters are POC, they will still put a PWG (pretty white girl) on the cover.

  • Harriet

    There’s a British writer I particularly like called Malorie Blackman, who is black and mainly writes about black children or teenagers. I find it interesting that her Middle Grade books often feature pictures of black children on the cover while her YA books don’t, usually not showing any characters on the cover or making it so you can’t see their skin. Definitely backs up what you’re saying here.

    I also think it should be noted that most white people ( and I have to include myself here although I’m trying to correct this) will assume the protagonist of a novel is white until stated otherwise, unless there is a POC on the cover.

    • Anonymous

      Even for non-white people, white is the default unless stated otherwise.

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Morven Anonymous

    Non-star authors going through regular publishers have in general very little influence indeed.  The author’s contract may include the right to be consulted on the cover, but that generally doesn’t give much actual influence.  I know a published author who knew the cover picked for her latest when her fans pointed her to the Amazon pre-order page.  (She hated it, by the way, but is resigned to it after 30+ years of horrible covers).

  • Mickey

    Wow! I’ve never heard of this situation. I have, however, noticed that in some books where the female protagonist is of a white appearance, but is part black, for example, the publishers actually place a brown-skinned woman on the cover. I recall seeing a book like this about a New Orleans quadroon woman who looked white and decided not to follow in her mother’s footsteps in the system of placage. Someone once gave their spin on the reason why this was done. He said that it was to “placate racist whites and ignorant blacks.” He went on to say that if white people were to pick up this book, they would read the novel and be shocked by what the find – that they are more related to black people than they realize. However, blacks would complain that the publishers were trying to make black people feel inferior by puttin ga white woman on the cover. The solution – put a brown-skinned, European featured woman on the cover. See, all sides are happy.” Will POC have to start self-publishing with their own material and own artists to hire?

    • Anonymous

      I’m in the process of self-publishing now because I would not want some publisher to butcher and whitewash my novel!

  • Lily

    Praise be!  One girl tried to argue with me and say “Because all of those books are about pretty white girls…
    duh, if you want YA books with pretty not-white girls on the covers go write
    those books yourselves.” Umm wow ignorant much (clearly this person has never been a victim of racism like me). There are tons of books with pretty white girls as the protagonist and they don’t use a pretty white girl on the cover. Instead they use an original and non-generic cover…not the same formulaic cover that follows a certain equation like the majority of books these days. I’ll admit, if I look at one of those covers I’ll think “Oh, pretty.” But after seeing 50 in a row at a bookstore or a library it gets tiresome.

  • Lily

    Praise be!  One girl tried to argue with me and say “Because all of those books are about pretty white girls…
    duh, if you want YA books with pretty not-white girls on the covers go write
    those books yourselves.” Umm wow ignorant much (clearly this person has never been a victim of racism like me). There are tons of books with pretty white girls as the protagonist and they don’t use a pretty white girl on the cover. Instead they use an original and non-generic cover…not the same formulaic cover that follows a certain equation like the majority of books these days. I’ll admit, if I look at one of those covers I’ll think “Oh, pretty.” But after seeing 50 in a row at a bookstore or a library it gets tiresome.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_XSK4V3HN4QKPUXUJD7M4EP27CE Lisa

    Having the same type of people on the cover of these books is limiting. When my 14 year old daughter sees these books she automatically assumes that they are going to feature boring, insipid characters so she steers clear of them.

  • Kat

    American YA covers are interesting to me since they are very different to the YA covers in my home country. On American YA covers girls are almost always White, and almost always passive and almost never look directly at the camera. Annoying. Actually many women’s books also only show the bare back of a woman. This “demure thing/dowanward glance ” frustrates me as well, in addition to the White-White-Whitey-White. 

  • Michelle J.

    I agree with the fact that we need to make literature more diverse. I hate what the media has done to the “opinion” of young girls of all types, and what it is teaching our young men to expect. It’s horrible.

    The problem is deeper than the covers though. It seems that most of the YA books I’ve seen are written about Caucasians. I don’t actually know the % of the race of published authors. Are most YA authors Caucasian? I don’t know. If it is, maybe it’s because we write what were comfortable with?

    I am, at the moment, trying to write a YA steampunk/scifi with an Asian young man as the MC. Not to be diverse necessarily, but because that is the character I see in my head. Although I wouldn’t mind contributing to the growing number of books out there that are not strictly Caucasian.

    To be honest my greatest fear is getting the character or culture wrong, of offending someone because my life experience is a middle aged white woman.  This book is the hardest and slowest book I have ever sat down to write. So while there is a need for diversity, it may not necessarily be that we don’t care, but because we are trying to do it right and are being cautious.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1130483506 Cleo Hines

       With enough research it’s possible to get it right, there are forums you can visit to pick peoples brains about their cultures, start a facebook group and invite people to give you their perspectives on their particular cultures, no offense, but the middle aged white woman experience is what I find a lot of YA authors using as their reasoning for not writing characters of colour, and I don’t really buy it. One look at Melissa Conway and one would be convinced that she fits that particular experience, except that she has four self published excellently written novels on Amazon, all of which feature prominent non stereotypical minority characters, she just kinda lets them be people. In fact a two part series features a group of minority only super powered kids, one of whom is a Latino guy, and the other two are a Chinese-American guy and a biracial African American girl that are crushing on each other. Of her other two books, one features a nineteen year old Pakistani girl, an undercover Latino cop and an African American man as integral parts of the storyline, and the other has a mostly Native cast, with three Caucasians, two of which play only a supporting role. She’s a graphic artist as well so she designs her own covers that they reflect the storyline accurately.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1130483506 Cleo Hines

       With enough research it’s possible to get it right, there are forums you can visit to pick peoples brains about their cultures, start a facebook group and invite people to give you their perspectives on their particular cultures, no offense, but the middle aged white woman experience is what I find a lot of YA authors using as their reasoning for not writing characters of colour, and I don’t really buy it. One look at Melissa Conway and one would be convinced that she fits that particular experience, except that she has four self published excellently written novels on Amazon, all of which feature prominent non stereotypical minority characters, she just kinda lets them be people. In fact a two part series features a group of minority only super powered kids, one of whom is a Latino guy, and the other two are a Chinese-American guy and a biracial African American girl that are crushing on each other. Of her other two books, one features a nineteen year old Pakistani girl, an undercover Latino cop and an African American man as integral parts of the storyline, and the other has a mostly Native cast, with three Caucasians, two of which play only a supporting role. She’s a graphic artist as well so she designs her own covers that they reflect the storyline accurately.

  • http://twitter.com/karensandlerYA Karen Sandler

    Great post. I get a bit ticked off by the justification that white girls on covers is what sells. If you never put a person of color on the cover, how would you ever know? It’s self-fulfilling prophesy.

    Eye-catching covers do sell. If they all look the same (white girls in pretty prom dresses), how will any of them catch a reader’s eye?

  • Pez

    This is a great article and a trend that I always notice whenever I go to Barnes & Noble or any other bookstore. I always see young white women on the covers of these YA books and I never see any women of color. Its time this “trend” came to an end.

    And I feel terrible for your daughter. When you were speaking to the mother of one of those boys, you should have told her off completely. Her excuse is BS and only serves to continue the vile thought process that is racism.

  • http://twitter.com/EmJayPatrick michaeljpatrick

    I’ve never heard of “Roundeye Noodle Shop” before.  That’s atrocious.  No one would think to open a place ironically called “White Boy’s Soul Food.  Actually they probably would.  

    More to the subject, “The Mighty Miss Malone” looks like a good book and one I will look for for my daughter.  It’s not just the whiteness that is off putting about YA covers, but also the vacuous, doe-eyed protagonists as well. 

  • http://www.scribblesandsonnets.blogspot.com/ Jessica Isabel

    I spoke with a representative from Tu Books at Comic Con last year! I love what they’re doing and hopefully when I finish my first book they’ll publish it!