Judging YA Books by Their Covers

The mission statements of young adult fiction publishers are crammed with commitments—to promoting diversity, to fostering imagination, to supporting young readers’ developing identities—but when you scan the shelves of your local library or bookstore, what do you see? Odds are, you’re more likely to come across a book featuring a sexy vampire than a story about a black girl, or anyone who’s not white, for that matter.

Cultural whitewashing is a widespread problem in publishing, especially on young adult book covers. Fans of Justine Larbalestier’s Liar were shocked when Bloomsbury released the novel, whose female protagonist clearly describes herself as black with natural hair, with a cover featuring a long-haired white model. Larbalestier herself joined in the online outcry that eventually succeeded in pressuring Bloomsbury to reprint a more representative cover. The author explains:

Editors have told me that their sales departments say black covers don’t sell. Sales reps have told me that many of their accounts won’t take books with black covers. Booksellers have told me that they can’t give away YAs with black covers. Authors have told me that their books with black covers are frequently not shelved in the same part of the library as other YA . . . and many bookshops simply don’t stock them at all.

Examples are all too easy to find. Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix, whose original cover highlighted its Chinese heroine, was passed over by Borders and minimally stocked by Barnes & Noble, prompting the publisher to redesign the paperback with a racially ambiguous model. We’re left to wonder if young adult books about people of color don’t sell, or if publishers and retailers don’t sell them?

According to statistics from the Children’s Cooperative Book Center at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, only 5.03 percent of children’s books sampled in 2013 were written by or about African Americans, 1.63 percent were by or about Native Americans, 3.28 percent were by or about Latinos, and 4.97 percent were by or about Asian Americans. Obviously, these numbers are far from an accurate reflection of the demographic diversity of readers, but it’s been happening for decades. In 2004, Ursula Le Guin famously called out the publishing industry at BookExpo America, saying, “Please consider that ‘what sells’ or ‘doesn’t sell’ can be a self-fulfilling prophesy. If black kids, Hispanics, Indians both Eastern and Western, don’t buy fantasy—which they mostly don’t—could it be because they never see themselves on the cover?”

Books give teens a chance to learn about their world and reimagine their place within it, but what happens to young adults who see no place for themselves in literature? Author Matt de la Peña asks, “Where’s the African-American Harry Potter or the Mexican Katniss?” The same could be asked about young adult readers with disabilities, LGBTQ readers, or readers from non-Western cultures and other minority groups. These teens aren’t looking for just another token black friend or sassy gay sidekick, but for real stories about who they are and who they can be.

Ooligan recently released an LGTBQ coming-of-age story, Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before, with great success, and the design department has finalized the cover of our next young adult title, A Series of Small Maneuvers. If, as editors and publishers, authors and illustrators, librarians and teachers, and of course, as readers, we are truly committed to seeing more diverse books for young adults on the shelves, then we need to invest in creating, publishing, purchasing, and sharing books that deserve to be judged by their covers. There’s work to be done.

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