Judge A Book By Its Cover

Magic Under Glass


Bloomsbury seems to be on everyone’s shit list right now, owing to the second time they’ve white-washed a cover. The first fiasco involved Justine Larbalestier‘s very excellent LIAR, which was thankfully rectified. But as Aja Romano pointed out, Larbalestier is an established author with an established online following–enough to warrant a change in cover. Poor Jaclyn Dolamore may not be so lucky.

I’ve written before about my reaction to LIAR’s white-washed cover, as well my distaste for minority “problem novels”. My feelings are pretty clear: I’d like to see a novel with a protagonist who is incidentally a minority (either a person of color or queer). I want the protagonist’s narrative to be informed by but not defined by their minority status. I want his/her narrative to stand alone from the “minority experience”.

Finding that in fiction is becoming less and less difficult, as is evidenced by Larbalestier’s LIAR and Dolamore’s MAGIC UNDER GLASS. It’s the covers that are something else.

The American Aesthetic


The adult cover for the US edition of THE GOLDEN COMPASS

The saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is both charmingly idealistic and very, very true. Now, I don’t know much about the design process as I haven’t yet had the opportunity to see it for myself, but I can say something about covers as a reader and as a person of color.

Browsing a bookstore, one can see that covers roughly fall into four categories:

  1. Faces
  2. Objects
  3. Illustrative
  4. Representative

The YA cover for the US edition of THE GOLDEN COMPASS

Children’s fiction seems to favor faces while adult fiction seems to prefer representative covers. When HIS DARK MATERIALS was reissued as an adult title, it was given different cover treatment.

As you can see, the YA edition has Lyra’s face/illustrative while the adult cover has…a zodiac figure. (Don’t ask me why; the reasoning behind cover treatment is not something with which I’m acquainted yet.)

Illustrative and face covers for YA books are more popular in the States than abroad–the UK editions of HIS DARK MATERIALS featured objects rather than characters. There is a distinct cultural aesthetic, and here in the US, this predominantly means pretty people in photoshoots. (Sarah Rees Brennan had a brilliant post about UK vs. US covers, but unfortunately I can’t find the link. :()

This is where we run into problems.

Default Setting: White?

US cover of LIAR

The United States has a difficult and storied history with race. What makes our country so great is also the source of some of its unspoken problems. We are a country founded on egalitarian ideals and we try our damndest to keep true to them. But facing and addressing the issues of class and race are difficult for us because perhaps we feel lingering guilt that the playing field is not yet equal.

In America, when describing someone, if race is not used as a descriptor, then our immediate assumption of that person’s race is “white” and specifically Anglo-white. Other “white” ethnicities are often named: Italian, Irish, Spanish, etc. I will admit to assuming all characters are “white” when race is otherwise not specified in a book because that is the cultural language with which I’ve been raised. People often assume I’m “white” on the phone.


LIAR by Justine Larbalestier

Not to mitigate Bloomsbury’s culpability with regards to LIAR and MAGIC UNDER GLASS, but I know for a fact that not all designers read the entire novel. They simply don’t have time. They often receive blurbs or excerpts from an editor that s/he feels is representative of the work. Of course, I think it’s poor research on the designer’s part not to ask what the protagonist “looks” like (if the cover will have a face on it). I’ve seen many covers where the character on the jacket doesn’t at all resemble the character inside. The problem is exponentially more enraging when the race doesn’t match.

Whose fault is it? The designers for not paying enough attention? The editors for not caring enough? The sales people for not believing “ethnic covers” will sell? The readers (like myself) for buying into the white = default idea? Is this all a self-perpetuating cycle?

A Solution

I don’t think there are any short term answers for this. What needs to happen is a consciousness shift. We’re making our way there, but it’s far from perfect. Let us (the publishing companies) know that this is not okay. Blog about it. Make a ruckus. Nowadays we know it’s not okay for Mickey Rooney to tape his eyes slanty and play a horribly stereotyped Japanese man. Hopefully tomorrow we’ll know it’s not okay to have a white person represent a person of color on a book cover.

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14 Responses to Judge A Book By Its Cover

  1. E. Kristin Anderson (Emily) 19 Jan 2010 at 4:10 pm #

    JJ, I love your post. Eloquent, to the point, and informative. I really hope that Bloomsbury gets their act together soon, because I love their books, but I’m obviously hating this trend in whitewashing covers.
    I totally agree – there needs to be more books about minorities as PEOPLE first and minorities second. When I was a bookseller I had a long conversation with a young black girl. She said she was sick of reading books about oppressed black girls struggling to survive in the ghetto, and mostly read books about white girls instead. I gave her a couple of books where I felt minorities were portrayed better, but I really struggled to come up with titles (and don’t remember the ones I gave her now).
    We all deserve to see ourselves in literature. As a white girl from New England, I’ve never had to go looking. I hope that, as an author, I can write across race — like Justine did, so very well — to make this the case for more teens.

  2. Najela 19 Jan 2010 at 4:48 pm #

    I love how the blogosphere is burning up about this. I’m trying to write my own blog about it because I am a person of color and I mostly read books about white people just because that’s what’s available to me. I’m more likely to pick up books that have nice covers and most of the books that do have white people on the covers are by authors that I like like Maureen Johnson books or John Green’s Paper Towns hardcover. I wonder why authors don’t have a say in the book cover. You think they’d discuss their ideas with with the design department or something.

  3. Irk 19 Jan 2010 at 10:45 pm #

    A friend of mine works at a retail bookstore chain and had a lot to say about this – most of it with rolled eyes and a “tired of this” tone. She often finds covers with minorities featured on the front in the minority interest sections, even Xmen comic books with Storm on the cover. She said it’s sad, but having a white person on the cover helps a lot in placement and such. I’m really not surprised.

    Libyrinth by Pearl North was an interesting experiment – in person the cover made the protagonist looks racially mixed like she is in the story itself, but online the cover’s scan is lightened a lot so that she looks white. Of course, the shame of it is that I picked up the book in person because the main character looked mixed-ethnicity, which I don’t see as much in fantasy covers. Then I liked the sound of the book’s premise (and it really was a fun read) so I decided to encourage this effort and purchase it. Telling this to a friend who looked it up online and saw a possibly-white person on the cover (due to the lightening) sort of gave us both a, um, moment.

    Anyway, I find this blog helpful (for me):


    Since a lot of writing I’d probably enjoy gets sorted into sections that I feel nervous poking into, as honky as I am. Bookstore friend does agree that she gets a few white customers who look very nervous when the books they’re purchasing have racial minorities on the covers – as if they’re not supposed to be buying them. It is a weird ingrained fear that is difficult to pin down and talk about.

  4. Andrea 20 Jan 2010 at 12:23 am #

    In YA, it seems even more important to avoid these stereotypes. The world that I was born into is not the world my young nieces were born into. I hope that by the time they’re old enough to read YA, these issues will have been overcome. I don’t want them growing up in a world where white is the default, or where booksellers feel they need to segregate books with minorities on the cover.

    In my own work, I try to avoid mentioning race and rely on physical description instead. Race is so impersonal – it evokes a cardboard cutout image rather than a breathing character.

    Shouldn’t the editor be responsible for giving the art dept. a physical description of the protagonist, rather than just a blurb? Even the wrong hair color is jarring to a reader.

  5. Kristan 20 Jan 2010 at 10:23 am #

    I don’t really have anything to add, so I’ll just thank you for a very eloquent post about such a difficult topic. It’s a shame to see these things happening (especially to a debut author – I can only imagine the heartache!) but hopefully by not shying away from these issues, by discussing them publicly and intelligently, we can find ways to remedy them.

  6. Nathalie Mvondo 20 Jan 2010 at 10:54 pm #

    JJ, your post is fantastic and I enjoyed your practical approach and analysis. I will definitely recommend it.

    It seems so obvious that a majority of people would not buy a book based on the skin color on the cover. I wonder if saying it loud would make a difference to publishing houses, and contribute to the shift in consciousness you mentioned. It doesn’t hurt to try. Here is a link: http://www.petol.org/bc4all

    Thanks again for your post.

  7. Name (required)Peta Jinnath Andersen 21 Jan 2010 at 12:20 pm #

    I’m happy to see persons of color taking this on – while I respect Larbastier’s efforts, amongst others, I can’t help but wonder about the lack of media from non-white authors.

    Jaclyn Dolamore addresses the cover issues on her blog, here.

    It is heartening to see novels about people who just happen to be minorities popping up. Until recently, it felt as if every cover with a person who looked even a little like me (I’m half-Indian) was tied up in racial issues. (Lots are also about belonging, but working out who you are and where you belong is what being a teenager is about, isn’t it?)

    Thanks for the great post.

  8. Nathalie Mvondo 21 Jan 2010 at 3:38 pm #

    Bloomsbury issued a statement:

    “Bloomsbury is ceasing to supply copies of the US edition of Magic Under Glass. The jacket design has caused offense and we apologize for our mistake. Copies of the book with a new jacket design will be available shortly.”

    The link is here:


  9. katiebabs 21 Jan 2010 at 10:22 pm #

    Someone is not doing their job correctly if the wrong information about a character’s race is being handed over to the designers of the covers, which in turn they create a “white cover”.

    Someone needs to take responsibility because if this keeps happening over and over the public will get fed up, the readers won’t buy the books and the publisher may go out of business.

    The time for making excuses needs to stop and action must happen now.

    Bloomsbury USA looks like fools for allowing the Liar and Magic Under Glass to have “white faces” on the covers when their main characters are the total opposite.

    Shameful and sad.

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