Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Liar Cover Controversy

I don't know how many of you have been reading about the controversy over the cover of Justine Larbalestier's new book Liar. In case you've missed it, let me briefly catch you up. Justine is an Australian author who has written a number of highly regarded books. I have come late to the Justine party--the only one of her books that I've read is How to Ditch Your Fairy--so I didn't realize until this controversy erupted that she makes a point of writing about nonwhite characters. Her new book, which will come out at the end of September, is called Liar and the main character is a black teen who is proud of her short nappy hair. She is also a compulsive liar who is trying to break that habit.

The Australian cover for the book uses the letters L, I, A, R in different configurations. The American cover uses a black-and-white photograph of a white girl with long hair which crosses over the bottom of her face, covering her mouth. The controversy erupted over the disconnect between the cover image and the actual character described in the book. This more than putting a blonde on a cover when the text specifically describes a brunette (seriously--don't you sometimes wonder if the publisher/designer/artist has even read the book?) Many bloggers have seen this as an egregious example of whitewashing books that feature characters of color. In a very thoughtful blog post, Justine discusses the controversy and gives some insight into the designing of books. She does not like the American cover and fought against it, but authors have little say in such matters. One thing in that post that really struck me was that the attitude that pictures of black people on book covers do not sell--which just seems to confirm the whitewashing accusation.

Now as librarian, I very rarely buy books based on their covers. I make my selections based on reviews (both from professional journals and blogs) and patron requests. Most of the time, I do not even see what a book looks like until it has been purchased, cataloged, and put on my shelves. But this discussion has got me wondering about the covers of the books in my J and my YA section. How many do I have with people of color on the cover? How many with white people? How many with no human figures at all? Well, I don't have time right now to go back to the shelves, pull every book off, and analyze its cover, but I did just get eight new books in from the cataloging department--so let's look at those:

12 Brown Boys by Omar Tyree. Graphic illustration using silhouettes, but they are recognizably black. A photo of the author is included on the back cover. From the back cover: 12 Brown Boys by Omar Tyree is a collection of short stories that focuses on the lives of Black pre-teen boys. Readers will connect with Tyree's engaging characters including: Red Head Mike who hates his nickname, but hates his red hair even more. Chestnut, who is sent to live with relatives down south to keep him out of trouble in his Brooklyn neighborhood. William the Santa Monica super kid whose status as a scholar and entrepreneur has even his best friends hating him. Wayne, who resents his role as the oldest child until a tragedy strikes the family. Tyree has assembled a wide range of characters that reflect the diversity of experiences of Black boys - characters that are funny, serious, edgy, street-wise, studious, and all unforgettable.

Absolutely Maybe by Lisa Yee. Photograph of white girl with pink hair lying on a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Summary: When living with her mother, an alcoholic ex-beauty queen, becomes unbearable, almost seventeen-year-old Maybelline "Maybe" Chestnut runs away to California, where she finds work on a taco truck and tries to track down her birth father.

Best Friends by Jacqueline Wilson. Cartoon-like illustrations of the two white girls who are the main characters, though the human figures are just a small part of the cover. Summary: Rambunctious and irrepressible Gemma has been best friends with Alice ever since they were born on the same day, so when Alice moves miles away to Scotland, Gemma is distraught over the idea that Alice might find a new best friend.

The Calder Game by Blue Balliett. Illustrations of the three main characters--two boys and a girl--all 3 white Though the illustrations take up most of the cover, the two lower pictures are rather small. Summary: When seventh-grader Calder Pillay disappears from a remote English village--along with an Alexander Calder sculpture to which he has felt strangely drawn--his friends Petra and Tommy fly from Chicago to help his father find him.

The Door of No Return by Sarah Mussi. Photograph of young (and very nice looking) black man. Summary: Sixteen-year-old Zac never believed his grandfather's tales about their enslaved ancestors being descended from an African king, but when his grandfather is murdered and the villains come after Zac, he sets out for Ghana to find King Baktu's long-lost treasure before the murderers do.

Dragon Flight by Jessica Day George. Large purple dragon with a young boy and girl, both white The image of the dragon dominates, with the humans rather small. Summary: Young seamstress Creel finds herself strategizing with the dragon king Shardas once again when a renegade dragon in a distant country launches a war against their country, bringing an entire army of dragons into the mix.

Max by James Patterson. The title takes up most of the space on this cover. At the top is a small photo-realistic illustration of a girl mostly silhouetted by shadows but hair and arms indicate she is white. Summary: When millions of fish start dying off the coast of Hawaii and something is destroying hundreds of ships, the government enlists the Flock--a band of genetically modified children who can fly--to help get to the bottom of the disaster before it is too late.

Starclimber by Kenneth Oppel. Silhouetted figures of a boy and girl, both white. (This cover strongly reminds me of Patrick Ness's great novel The Knife of Never Letting Go.) Summary: As members of the first crew of astralnauts, Matt Cruse and Kate De Vries journey into outer space on the Starclimber and face a series of catastrophes that threaten the survival of all on board.

So how can we sort these covers? Let's see--we have 2 photographs and 6 illustrations. We have 3 that feature a single character while 5 feature multiple characters. Half of them use character illustrations so small that they are barely noticeable; only two use a human image that dominates the cover. Three covers use silhouettes. Two covers feature black characters while 6 are white. Which ones will wind up being the most popular? That is a question that I won't be able to answer until my next inventory/circulation survey.

It's an interesting issue to ponder. How much does the cover picture really influence whether or not you pick up a book? I'm more likely to pick up a book because I like the author or the book is part of a series I enjoy. A cover illustration might catch my eye, but a clever title will do that too, even on a plain or dull background. It's the the text on the jacket flap (for a hardback) or the back cover (for a paperback) will determine whether I decide to read it or put it back on the shelf.

And here's another thought--do you select books differently when you're in a bookstore than you do in a library? Are you more likely to give a library book a try when you know that you don't have to pay for it? Are covers more important when selling a book than they are in checking out a book?

What do you think?


Lisa Yee said...


I thought you might like to see some of the covers we went through before selecting the final one for ABSOLUTELY MAYBE ...

Lisa Yee, author

smaileh said...

Thanks, Lisa. So how involved were you in the cover selection? Did they show you the choices and ask for input? You've worked with the same publisher (Arthur A. Levine) for the most part--has your involvement in the cover design changed over the years? Was it different working with the Pleasant Company for the American Girl book? (Can you tell that I'm the sort of person that delights in the behind-the-scenes segments?)

Lisa Yee said...

I wasn't intimately involved in the cover selection, though I was consulted about what the main character(s) looked like.

Here's an interview I did regarding the ABSOLUTELY MAYBE cover . . .

I've been very lucky to have had wonderful editors. Arthur Levine is the best in the business, Cheryl Klein, is wonderful, and Jennifer Hirsch, my American Girl editor is fabulous. Each has their own unique style and all are enormously respectful of their authors (and all are lots of fun!).

It was different working with American Girl, mainly because they are on strict deadlines. Therefore, they are very efficient since the book has to debut with the doll. With Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, the deadlines are looser.

I blog about a lot of the behind-the-scenes stuff over at . And even though I've been doing this for a six years now, I'm still learning a lot.

All best,