All over the blogosphere and Twitterverse, there are opinions about Justine Larbalestier‘s book cover for her latest novel LIAR. LIAR is about a multiracial girl named Micah (her father is part black) who is a compulsive (possibly pathological) liar, but the cover features a white girl.
Now, I read the ARC of LIAR back in June and while I remarked on my preference for the Australian cover, I didn’t think much of the fact that the girl on the Bloomsbury one doesn’t accurately represent Micah. I did, but the thought went in one ear and then out the other. Why? Is it because I’m used to seeing white faces on book covers that I’ve disconnected the cover from the contents? Why didn’t the whitewashing of the girl piss me off?
I’m not sure. It may be because depictions of characters on the cover rarely match how I see them in my head. It may also be because covers don’t always reflect the content of the book, no matter how much we want them to. I wrote about avoiding Maureen Johnson‘s earlier books due to the Headless Girl curse. The most famous Headless Girls on covers belong to the GOSSIP GIRL series, so naturally I assumed (even though I actually knew better) that Johnson’s work would dovetail into that subgenre of YA.
I will own that the US cover of LIAR is arresting. If I saw that cover on a bookshelf face out, I would absolutely be drawn to it. It is a good piece of graphic design, so props to the art department. It’s dynamic. It’s striking. It’s also…wrong. But I wouldn’t know that until I started reading. And by then, I would already reading and fairly unconcerned with anything else (this book, it grabs you and refuses to let go).
Let me be clear here: the cover is not arresting because the girl is white; the cover is arresting because of its composition, its starkness, and the dynamic lines of her criss-crossed hair. Would it have been just as arresting if the girl on the cover was black? Absolutely. So why isn’t she?
There’s no good answer for that. It appears as though Bloomsbury thinks that non-white covers don’t sell. But is that true? Larbalestier’s excellent blog post addresses this notion and the fact that it’s something that’s hard to prove. Larbalestier asks if the white face of LIAR would deter black readers.
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?
Does the cover exclude her? I don’t know. I won’t deny that she might be more inclined to pick it up if she saw a familiar face gazing at her. As a child, I will admit to searching for books about Asian-Americans and would immediately gravitate toward novels with Asian faces. I picked up Lawrence Yep’s CHILD OF THE OWL and Sook Nyul Choi’s THE YEAR OF IMPOSSIBLE GOODBYES because of that. And while those books got my readership because of the kinship I saw in our faces, covers with white people didn’t deter me. For that matter, neither did covers with black, Hispanic, Indian, or otherwise. Yes, I was pulled toward books with Asian protagonists, but that didn’t necessarily mean I liked them better than books with protagonists of different races. (One in particular I loathed: APRIL AND THE DRAGON LADY by Lensey Namioka. See? Just because the book is about a girl of similar cultural background to myself doesn’t mean I’ll like it.)
I don’t think the question ought to be “will a child of color feel excluded by white covers?” As much as I hate to say it, we’re used to it. We’re minorities, after all. The majority of this country is white. The real question is “will a white reader buy a cover with a non-white person on it?” That, I can’t speak to. Who knows? THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING features a black protagonist on the covers and I don’t think that’s deterred its sales any.
I think the potential problem Bloomsbury is anticipating is that if reader’s see a black girl on LIAR, then the book will be one of those “ethnic” ones. This, I think, is actually a legitimate fear. I am all for books featuring protagonists of different ethnicities and races, but I will admit to being wary of “ethnic” books. APRIL AND THE DRAGON LADY is actually a fairly good example; the entire conflict of the book is about the cultural clash between a Third Culture girl and her traditional grandmother. That’s it. I didn’t like this book because I didn’t relate to it. Why? Aren’t I an Asian-American girl struggling to reconcile the differences between the Old Country and the New World?
My mother is Korean, my father is European mutt. I was predominantly raised by my only-speaks-Korean grandmother and sent to prep school with a lot of white kids. What’s my culture? If anything, I think my culture is closest to “preppy”. Or maybe whatever the culture of people on Stuff White People Like is. Did I have issues about my race? No. Does this mean I wouldn’t like to see more Asian protagonists in fiction? Of course not. This simply means that “ethnic” books, in which the central and only conflict is about that ethnicity to the exclusion of others, doesn’t appeal to me. I would like to see books about characters who are more “incidentally” ethnic, who have problems and conflicts to solve that aren’t related only to their race (not that they can’t deal with these issues; I just ask that they not be the ONLY issue.)
Larbalestier’s books all have great mixed-race/non-white protagonists. M.T. Anderson’s THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING is about an escaped slave during the time of the American Revolutionary War. Anything by Octavia Butler is fabulous (I love her PARABLE books). I loved Amy Tan’s THE HUNDRED SECRET SENSES. This isn’t a book, but Bend It Like Beckham features a great British-Indian protagonist who just wants to play soccer—sorry, football. Any one else recommend me some more good ones?