Wednesday, March 7, 2012

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

Recently, there has 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 minority grace the cover of a YA book is like spotting the Lochness 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 multi-cultural 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 and 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.


Heather said...

As a cover designer this resonates deeply within me. So many authors want the trendy look and don't stop to think of all that it implies. I'm thrilled to say though that I have a few I'm designing that will add some color to the mix. ;)

Stephanie Smith said...

I completely agree. I'm currently writing a YA novel with a Japanese-American (as in, English-ancestry father, Japanese mother) protagonist, and though a subplot, cultural displacement features quite a bit. There are times when I wonder how much of a risk I'm taking in having a male "minority" as my main character. It shouldn't even be a concern, yet somehow it is, given the demographic of, well, the young white girls on the covers of most YA. Is YA ready for minority protagonists? I certainly hope so. Thank you for your insightful blog.

Caroline Tung Richmond said...


I couldn't have said it better, Ellen. Thank you, THANK YOU, for posting this.

As I read this post, I tried to think about YA book covers that feature a minority character. Surprisingly (or not surprisingly?) only two books leap into my mind immediately: Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon and Huntress by Malindo Lo. Other than those, I'm drawing a blank. And I've read dozens upon dozens of YA novels in the past five years.

I really hope that publishers will feature more minorities on covers. Not only that, I hope we see more minorities in movies and on TV and on the cover of magazines. I hold out hope--and I do think things are getting better--but skepticism still gnaws at me. But I would like very much to be proven wrong!

Jay Kristoff said...

My UK cover (getting released this month) has a Japanese girl on it, and it kicks ass.

I have no idea what the US will give me, though. I think the switch of covers for Silver Phoenix still looms large in everyone's minds.

But, the first step to stomping this trend is speaking out about it, so kudos to you for raising your voice!

Laurel said...

Hi! *waving*

I checked my tweetstream for the first time in, well, eleventy-teen years and this link was at the top. And it being you, of course I clicked through.

Couple of thoughts. First on my heart and mind, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE do not judge the mom of the kid who said the horrible thing. I have kids who look like poster children for the Aryan movement. And, on occasion, one will make an observation about the appearance of someone else, which is mortifying for me.

(Okay, I admit it is more likely to be 'fat heinie' than a skin or hair or eye shape comment. But still NOT OKAY TO SAY. And we DO NOT SAY THOSE THINGS IN OUR HOUSE!)

In the child rearing game, I try so hard not to reprimand them for observations or opinions while explaining that they absolutely have to remember that their words can hurt someone else's feelings. And I also make a concerted effort to acknowledge beauty- and more importantly, IMHO, achievement, in articles, TV shows, photos, etc. that cover other races and cultures.

But if my four year old observes en voz alto at the grocery store, "Wow! That lady is really DARK!" when she sees that gorgeous ebony skin that some lucky people have, it's not her fault. It's not my fault. It's socially inappropriate, but it is not a slight nor a result of what she hears at home. Only her own observation of something outside of her normal experience, which includes a pretty healthy variety. (I'm white as new milk, her best friend is a gorgeous African American child with almost green eyes, and she has Middle Eastern and Latino classmates.)

And on the book covers, yes. Over it. I would love to see less "phoning it in" with the pretty white chicks and more covers like Twilight. (I mean, not LIKE's been done and emulated ad infinitum, but whoever came up with that branding is a genius and I would love more of THAT! Thematic graphics instead of generic Cosmo Teen girls.)

I, too, thought of the SILVER PHOENIX cover. One of the most magnificent covers (the original) that I have seen in years.

Allison said...

Thank you for this post! I completely agree. The pretty white girl cover trend is tired. I can think of several great YA covers depicting people of color, but that's because I'm always specifically looking for them, NOT because there's so many of them. My children (still practically babies) are half-Asian/half-white, and I hope the YA book cover landscape changes significantly by the time they're old enough to read these books.

Michelle said...

I'm just going to toss this out here, since I'm a glutton for playing devil's advocate to start up healthy debate.

You call for publishers and booksellers and readers to do something to change the white girl cover trend, but don't say what they need to do or how they can do it.

I agree that the near-absolute whiteness of YA covers is a problem. There has already been a lot of discussion about the issue, but no one has offered any tangible and actionable suggestions on how to fix it.

Take, for instance, Liar by Justine Larbalastier. The YA—and literary community at large—responded to the whitewashing of the cover in a vocal and specific way. They spoke up, en masse, and demanded: "The cover must change!" And eventually the cover was changed. It succeeded because there was a realistic goal where people knew what they could do to act.

What is lacking in the debate at large are specific goals and the actionable steps to achieve them. Vague calls for change result in debate—sometimes heated—but little more. That's because people want to help, but if you don't give them something tangible that they can do, there is little chance for true change to happen.

Stacy Whitman took an actionable step when she start Tu Books, which was referenced in the post. She's a prime example of one person creating change by creating and executing a plan toward achieving her goal.

So now I ask, what one thing can the readers of this blog post do right now to bring an end the trend of white girls on YA book covers? What short-term and achievable goal will start that process?

Note: Saying "buy more books with people of color on the cover and by authors of color" isn't the answer, at least not in the big picture. It leaves the responsibility for making change up to the reading public, who likely aren't aware of the issue might not even care.

Starting a petition on isn't a good answer, either, unless there is a specific demand addressed to a specific person or entity.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

Michelle, you have a good point but I believe asking people to support Tu books and support minority authors or books about diversity is the key to this issue. I think Stacy would agree with me and say that while she took initiative to address a need in the industry, she needs people to read, buy, and support her books and help her become a success. If every person who reads this post goes out and buys Tu books or Cindy Pon's books, etc, or spreads the word to make this issue more public, than we are making progress. I do believe in the power of words and the voice of the people. If enough people care, things can and will change. One blog post won't do it. Me alone on my soapbox won't do it. But I'm not alone. Dissemination of information is a powerful tool. What I hope I've done is start a conversation that grows and grows, added on by many other voices and stories. It may be naive, but I truly believe that one action can lead to many that can lead to change.

Sophia Chang said...

Geez. Whoo.

You know why I don't touch race in my blog (yet)? Because I'd be too angry. I'd be WAY angrier than you. I'd be so angry I'd alienate everybody with how livid and full of rage I am at the issues and the way so many people think. Even some of the comments make me gnash my teeth with how deeply they've missed your point. I'm even holding back now with every ounce of my control not to use more extreme language.

I think this will change after I get published; I'd feel both the freedom and voice to speak my thoughts out, like Tamora Pierce so ardently does on gender issues with her livejournal.

So thank you Ellen. I'm so glad I met you. I'm so glad you exist. And I'm so glad we're sisters in this.

Erin Shakespear said...

Beth Revis tweeted about your post and I just wanted to say it's brilliant.

I'll be the first to admit that I don't notice these things. But when you point it out, it's so obvious, it makes me wonder how I didn't see it before.

(new follower! :)

fishgirl182 said...

thanks for voicing something that i think i lot of people have noticed but not many people have said anything about. i am glad that there is more diversity in the media now but cover trends don't reflect this at all. sometimes i'd rather just see text and a cool graphic rather than another girl in a dress on the cover. hopefully if enough people speak up about it, publisher will realize that they won't lose sales by putting diversity on the front of a book.

Jessica Spotswood said...

Brava, Ellen! I agree. I'd love to see more diversity on YA covers -- and between them, too. I think a great step toward diversity would be more writers writing outside their own race, gender, sexuality.

Leigh Bardugo said...

Great post, Ellen. I'm so sorry your daughter had to experience that. I think that buying and promoting books that buck this trend are actually really great ways to take action.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Such a great post. My daughter is adopted from China and my husband is Hispanic so we can totally relate to this personally. Luckily we live in a diverse community so my daughter hasn't experienced too much discrimination but is totally aware of it.

It's so sad about the book covers. Because a book like The Gathering is not about a white girl. It's about an adopted girl with Native American roots. What's wrong with showing that on the cover?

I didn't realize this wasn't a problem with middle grade. Interesting. I only hope if my book ever gets published that they cover right. I'd be embarrassed with my family if they didn't.

Rowenna said...

Great post--and thank you for your viewpoint! I had just noticed and blogged on the trend of "girls in pretty dresses" in historical YA (complaining mostly about how the dresses weren't historical), which seems irrelevant to this conversation, but the more I think about it, the less it is irrelevant--it's publishers feeding girls the same old "fashion magazine model" line about who and what is pretty. Which is so dangerous--especially when we leave behind pretty dresses and start talking about ethnicity instead. It's an implicit indication that, if you aren't white (and stereotypically WASP-y white most times, at that), you're not pretty--which, for YA age readers, is a pretty loaded and damaging concept.

Leah Cypess said...

This is so heartbreaking, and I'm so sorry it happened.

While I appreciate Laurel's point about allowing children to make observations, I do not think this incident was in anyway as innocent as that. "That lady's skin is really dark" can be an innocent childish comment, even if an embarrassing one. "You have small Chinese eyes" is NOT innocent. And while no parent has complete control over what our children pick up from the general culture, it's the reaction that's important. The reaction to your child calling another child ugly, even regardless of the racial component, is not to make ridiculous excuses. If I were you I would be completely angry at this mother, even if I wouldn't express that anger because it might not be in my child's best interests (and because I'm a wimp).

I also agree with you that publicizing the issue and buying books featuring POC are the answer. The question of "who should bear the burden" is a good on, but I'd like to think that no one should bear it alone. Writers, publishers, and readers can all do our bit and slowly change will happen. And this post will be one of the many reasons for that change.

Anna Staniszewski said...

This is such a tricky issue. When I was writing UNFAIRY TALE LIFE, I purposely didn't describe the main character because I wanted readers to imagine her any way they wanted. But of course, when the book was given a cover, that all changed. I think you're right that MG does seem to be more diverse cover-wise; I wish I knew how to expand that to YA.

Charles Gramlich said...

Well at least half the books I read have aliens on the cover. As in outer space aliens. I will have to pay more attention on TV. I don't really notice that much about characters' ethnic roots I guess. There is a character of Korean descent on The Walking Dead, which is one of the few shows I watch.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

Hi everyone! Thanks so much to all for your comments! I'm so happy to have this open discourse with all of you.

And Leah and Laurel - I do agree that the comment was not as innocent as a child commenting on noticing racial differences. But I can forgive a young child because they don't know any better, I was actually more troubled by how lightly the mother took it especially knowing how upset I had been and my daughter had been. That's where I had issues. She was laughing as she said "oh he's never seen an oriental person before so you know how kids are..." If it had been me, my approach would have been so different. I would have apologized profusely for the hurt my child had inflicted. I would not have made light of the issue.

And thank you to all of you who are recognizing that this is an ongoing issue and that more people need to be aware of it. We can initiate change if we can spread the word.

Lisbeth Davies said...

I've collected book covers for as long as I can remember and I'm just scrolling through over 2,000 cover images I'm prepping to upload and yes, pretty while females make up for well over 90% of those covers.

It seems that the default is "pretty white female" unless the main character is very definitely not and this is definitely not just a YA problem.

Thanks for writing about this, it's given me much to think about.

Melanie Crowder said...

Yes, middle grade books are awesome, and maybe they do represent characters of different ethnicities on the cover more often...I'm thinking of CLARA LEE AND THE APPLE PIE DREAM by Jenny Han, PROJECT MULBERRY by Linda Sue Park, LING & TING, NOT EXACTLY THE SAME by Grace Lin, KIRA-KIRA by Cynthia Kadohata and more....

The only YA cover I am coming up with is HUNTRESS by Malinda Lo...

I think there is a great deal about YA covers right now that deserves our attention. Thanks for continuing the conversation, Ellen.

Sayantani said...

Well said Ellen! Hooray! I think your making the connection between pretty white girl book covers and fashion magazines is right on - these images tell our children what is beautiful and for children of color, not seeing oneself is akin to being told "you don't count, your story doesn't count."
I recently tried to make the same connection between whitewashing actresses/models of color on magazine covers and similar controversies on YA book covers:
Of interest, Hyphen and Sociological images have in the past done nice essays on "what makes an Asian Book cover" links here:

Marianne said...

Well said! I am a mom too and can appreciate a child making observations of others but calling someone ugly for it is a straight insult that may have been a repeat of something they heard from home. Words hurt. I was called flat faced chino in grade school where white people were the minority.
No one was forced to aplogize. No teacher helped. And I was told just to ignore the comments. I eventually had to defend myself with by calling them names back. It stopped but I can bet no one came out.unscathed.

Lily Cate said...

About the classmate's mother's comment - I call shenanigans on that one. Maybe she used to live in a pretty homogenous community, but they've never, ever even seen someone who looks different than them? Ever? I live in a teeny, tiny rural midwest village, and we have a mix of ethnicities at our local elementary school.
I can understand a kid saying something inappropriate - my son certainly did, at the age of three. By kindergarten, we had plenty of chances to teach that it is not okay to be intentionally hurtful, ever. That wasn't a misuse of language by a kid who didn't know any better, it was a flat out insult.
I hope the mother was just embarrassed, because if my kid ever did anything like that, there would be a sincere apology from me and him, not an excuse.

And on the topic of book covers, I find them tedious.

Lori M. Lee said...

Beautifully said, Ellen. Thank you so much for posting this.

I feel so much for your daughter, not only because that is a HORRIBLE thing to have said to her, but because I see myself in her shoes, and it still hurts. Words DO scar for life.

As Sophia said, just some of the comments on this post that have TOTALLY MISSED THE POINT due to their white privilege make me fumingly mad and frustrated.

I've read so many wonderful manuscripts in the last year featuring minority characters as MCs or love interests, and I keep hoping and praying that they'll get picked up by an agent or a publisher. I think what Tu Books is doing is amazing, and I plan to support them as much as I can.

I also believe that one action can lead to many actions that can lead to change. I'm so grateful for this post.

Liana said...

Great post. I think every minority child who has attended a predominantly white school has a story like that (or ten). And I agree that the mom owed you a better apology. She was basically blowing off the fact that this is a big deal for you and the kid and her child was a part of it. If it's not important to her how can she guide the kid in not making the same kind of mistake? But... anyway...

It's sad how it seems to be the consensus that YA covers with non-white faces won't sell. And it really won't change unless people put them out there more. Right now you only really see them on Dafina and Kimani Tru books, which are good, fun books. I'm not sure what to do to change it besides everyone demanding that the cover truly be reflective of the characters inside and then everyone else changing their mindset. Just because there's a black face on the cover doesn't mean it's a "black" book. Or Asian or whatever the case may be. It'll take some time but it also takes some commitment from the gate keepers of these changes such as publishers.

Janet Gurtler said...

I was really really happy with the cover of IF I TELL, in which Sourcebooks correctly portrayed the cover character as biracial.

It's a tough issue and I find it hard to comment as a "white girl". But trust that I am on your side in this.

My brother adopted a baby from China last year and she is so cute and amazing, and I'm so glad my son is lucky enough to have her as a cousin.

Shveta Thakrar said...

I love you, Ello.

stephanie kuehn said...

Such an excellent post. Thank you for writing this. I think Drs. Clark and Clark's doll experiments (Brown v. Board of Education) demonstrated the lasting psychological impact of living in a culture that values and idealizes one race/ethnicity/physical attribute over others. And for teen girls browsing in a bookstore who don't fit the image on the covers, I'm sure they do feel a sense of inferiority. And that's sad.

Zoƫ Marriott said...

I'm so glad to see this post! I agree 100% (or even more than that, if it were possible). I've blogged myself about how disturbing I find this over-arching trend for pretty, skinny white girls, often in poses which suggest death. I think it's damaging and sad and the more people who speak out against it, the better.

At the same time I feel a little guilty because I have been so overwhelmingly lucky with my cover art so far. We had a tiny blip when the U.S. edition of my second book took the clearly non-white model which had been used on the UK version and photoshopped a different head onto her body, but other than that looking at my cover art shows you a beautiful selection of diverse faces. In fact, I've made a special montage to share with you, just so you can see that some publishers are getting it right:

Krispy said...

Thanks you for this so-relevant and well-articulated post. I've been wanting to say something in general about race in media, especially as pertains to Asians, because of all the hoopla that has come out of the Jeremy Lin hype (among other bits of upcoming media that brings up questions of race and racebending/whitewashing), but I haven't been able to form the words. You've expressed here at least some of what I've been feeling, and I thank you so much for putting these concerns out there.

Anonymous said...

Difference is the most beautiful thing in the world. The problem here is so much bigger than just YA covers, but change must start somewhere. I am a white girl myself (I have blue eyes, white skin and dark hair). However, odd as it may, be all my life all I wanted was a little color (sadly all I could achieve was a bit of painful red). I believe the things that make people different from others is what is most beautiful. The most awful things in history have been done because one person or group would not accect others as they were. I have often felt embarassed for being white because of the horrible things white people have done in history, as well as still doing. I'd like to say that it is all history now. It makes me sad that it's now 2012 and there are still so many racist things that are accepted. I live in Colorado, and my husband works in a smaller city where bigotry is accepted by many people, he has fired people for racist comments and met quite a bit of controversy for it. I personally believe we need, as the human race, to stop thinking of people as white, black, asian or whatever else and start thinking of each individual, as human. No matter what makes us different everyone deserves equality. How can we accomplish this? That is the most important question. I believe more diversity in cultural socialism is one of the biggest ways, so change book covers? absolutely! How are children to learn to accept other peoples/cultres as equally as thier own if they never see anything else? I have a 2 yr. old and an infant and they will be shown and taught about people who are different, by teaching them not just acceptance but love, and not to judge other people for how they look, but what they do.

Jennifer Ambrose said...

This is such a complex and important issue, but I am going to try and just touch on a couple points and hope I don't bungle by skimming details.

First of all, it sucks that the "White" people in the comments are often apologizing like this is all their fault.

Yes I'm White, but when I see these YA pretty White girl covers I don't see me. I see a fake skin color, as if the skin has been bleached into a blank canvas.

You can look at the issue as "White" girls being used as the normative beauty standard but I also see it as this blank canvas. As if being White means you have no connection at all to a cultural heritage.

And in addition to diverse racial cover models, can we get girls who are not pretty? Not perfectly skinny? And, as one commenter pointed out, who don't look dead??

Compare YA books targeted at men and women. I bet you'll find that not all male covers revolve around the man's face, regardless of race. Once again, the value of women even in a book, comes down to her beauty (and the fact that publishers feel that beauty should conform to a certain racial standard is of course a huge part of the problem, but only a part, in my opinion.)

Jennifer Ambrose said...

PS Laurel, I believe Stephenie Meyer herself designed the first draft of the original Twilight cover.

So maybe part of the solution is for authors to brainstorm their own covers and present some ideas prior to being sent the final cover art. I know publishers say they hate this, but they are clearly in need of some new and more diverse ideas!!

Myrna Foster said...

I think this trend bothers a lot of people, and we need to be more vocal about it. Thank you for making it a priority.

Anonymous said...

Great post! I'd love to see more diversity on YA covers as well as with main characters. It irks me when different nationalities are mentioned in a negative way. Either by just mentioning the nation because apparently no further explaination is needed or using stereotypes.

The only upcoming release that I can think of right away with a girl on the cover other than the usual is The Girl in the Clockwork Collar. If I look there will be more, but no doubt not enough. There was talk last year of more diversity in YA and I was glad to see people talking, but I haven't seen much evidences of more than just talk yet.

Amber Elise said...

THANK YOU FOR THIS POST! I don't understand why we stress the importance of diversity in lower level grades but we toss out all of these teachings as soon as they enter high school.

It's upsetting.

I agree that we need more racial neutral covers. I like the ones where you can't see the person's face so that there is at least a LITTLE mystery as to the person's race. I would love to see a cover with just a person with darker skin. Not to say that they are black, hispanic or whatever, just a person who isn't obviously white and we don't need to know WHAT their race is.

If I remember from Hunger Games there was no mention of her race, just that she had dark(ish) skin with dark hair. I liked that a lot (even though I just imagine Jennifer Lawrence the entire time..)

Once again, thank you for FINALLY saying what everyone was thinking.

Unknown said...

Wholeheartedly agree. The pandering to demographics for the sake of sales needs to end. It has been an issue with the words that get published for a long while, and--as you astutely point out--it has also shaded the covers/marketing of those words.

We get it; white teen girls buy the most books. That doesn't mean every character and cover needs to reflect it. I also think it goes beyond basic principals of diversity. It's a matter of flavor.

We don't need and/or expect to see the same types of people in our daily lives, so why should books be so uniform?

Good for you for saying something.

Anonymous said...

While I agree with the idea of more diversity in YA book covers -because for the love of all that is holy, how many gorgeous girls with flowing tresses in prom gowns can we take? But forgive me if I'm being ignorant here, but what sense would it make to put an Asian girl on the cover of a book that was not ABOUT an Asian girl. I think the real question here is not the picture on the covers but the actual content of the books written. If there was an Asian girl on the cover and not once is it mentioned in the character's physical description that she was in fact, Asian, it would just confuse readers, No?
And as far as the "Oriental" comment, I think everyone tries so hard to be politically correct and not offend anyone, that no one really knows what's currently appropriate or PC anymore. As a "white" girl, I once asked my black friend what she preferred to be called, African American or Black, (because I had come to assume that Black was an insult and not PC) And she said Black is better in her opinion. In that woman's mind, Oriental was probably much better than some insulting slang and could have been what she considered PC. She was probably just trying to be polite.
So in this case, you shouldn't always judge a book by it's cover. Sorry, I couldn't resist:)

Patricia Marques said...

I think it's an upsetting issue and that you handled the situation very well when it came to the mother making excuses - and yes. To me, that read very much as an excuse.

I also feel that to me, the problem goes beyond the covers. Although I feel this is a good place to start. I've seen the same things done in movies, with characters I loved, from anime and manga, and the cast picked were blatantly not from the same culture as the original character - it'd be a good thing if that could start to change too. (Although, I don't actually have any faith in Hollywood truth be told.)

I'm possibly veering off subject but I want to see so much more. I want to see multicultural couples in YA as well as mixed race characters (which is more of a personal thing for me). I think this is so important, and I know that we can't force people to write what we want. But I want to see this in YA especially; contemporary, fantasy and urban fantasy - genres which get picked up by our young readers who don't even notice that all of this is missing from the YA section on their local bookstore.

Actually, the saddest thing about all of this is just that. They don't even realise what's missing.

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

AMEN! I grew up in Hong Kong and have spent most of my life wishing I looked as Asian as I feel. So this offends me, too. And I do the exact same thing when I see an Asian person on a television show ... and yes, I'm also Linsane. My oldest daughter is Chinese and our favorite past time lately has been reading DUMPLING DAYS by Grace Lin together. I'd love to see books with Asian protagonists in the YA section, that's for sure!

Melodie Wright said...

I've noticed this as well - mainly the overwhelming number of dead-looking white girls on the cover. Wearing frilly, flowing dresses with limp hands outstretched. Obviously, these covers sell books. When they stop selling books, the designers will shift to something else. May that be soon.

And I must comment on the put-down your five y/o received. As a teacher, I can say kids make comments like these to each other all the time. Any difference is noted and remarked upon. And corrected by the teacher. It kills me when my kids are hurt by cruel comments but I'm also aware (if too mad to acknowledge it right away) that the early years of school are all about learning social norms - what is and is not appropriate. Your child was noticed bc she's Asian. My child was put down bc he wears glasses. Or is Jewish. Or comes to school in dirty clothes. Or can't say the letter R. Unfortunately, no matter how diverse our book covers are, children are still going to be learning social norms by trial-and-error in kindergarten.

Joss Arden said...

Ellen, the insult your daughter received from her classmate - not to mention the mother's response - was totally unacceptable and I'm sorry that happened. I feel like it's been common knowledge for some time now that the term "oriental" is offensive and I don't think there's any excuse for using it.

In any case, I agree with you about the lack of diversity in YA covers. What I struggle with as a white person is what I can do to help. One of the things I've seen come up in discussions like this is that unless there's a specific reference to a character's race or ethnicity in the book - and I'm often struck by how often there isn't - white readers tend to assume the character is white. Even if there's not a person on the cover. I assume the presence of a white model on the cover doesn't help things.

I really appreciate you posting this.

Anonymous said...

I'm about the share the unpopular opinion here, but just listen to my reasoning before you bash me. I'm really not trying to start something, but I can't get over seeing nothing but "I agree 100%" "So right!" no real content or reactions of your own to this.

First and foremost, I am white. I can't even imagine the things someone of another race has to deal with in their daily life or through the course of their life. However, I do not and should not have to apologize or feel sorry for my race and their 'actions'. One person, or even a group of people, do not reflect the views of an entire race. I am only responsible for my actions, my words, and my opinions. (And someday my children's.) Which is, that everyone is equal.
I am not responsible for any sort of image that enters into the media. Wanting to change that is nice, yes. But it is also idealist. (Which while most of my views and opinions are considered that.) There's a line to what is realistic, which is sad. Although there is always hope for the future.

Your entire.. view point is based around throwing words out like "multicultural" or "diversity" when you only touched on your own race.

Father more, you talked down whites, or rather CAUCASIANS. Who are everywhere all over the world, much like other races.
You do not insult one race in empower another. You are doing nothing more than what was done to you. Those people where ignorant. Others are not.
Or is that okay because white people aren't subjected to that? Am I not allowed to feel insulted or offended? Some people think that.

I am lucky enough to know that one race is not better than the other. I was raised to appreciate everyone from everywhere, and I know that I am lucky to be raised and educated as such.

I'd also like to add that there is a clear different between the ideals of beauty, being pretty, and being of one race. You put the two together, associating a personal opinion (and preference) with an entire race and blame them for putting that image out into the world.
While these girls are nice looking (I'm sorry but I'm not going to call people names like 'ugly' now.), I find people of other races MORE beautiful.
Plain and simple as that.

Most of the time I see "plain sickly looking vampire/ghost" girls. Not my ideal of what's pretty. It's fake and unachievable.

At the end of the day I find the topic it's self and the questions it raises valid, but I felt as a whole it wasn't handled very well.
Along with comments such as 'white privilege' are in very poor taste and beyond offensive. I can't tell you how ill that makes me.

Along with, have you seen the 'foreigners' in Asian media that they throw in. Lots of black people that curse and lots of white people with bad accents who are clueless.
I just shake my head, it doesn't offend me. Products such as double-eye lid tape, bleaching cream, promoting the images of 'S-lines'. I think it's really sad.

Eve Proper said...

These covers are disturbing. They'd disturb me even if they weren't photo after photo of girls who look like me, except younger and prettier than I ever was.

Would it kill publishers to move away from the close-up cover? These aren't fashion magazines. How about depicting something crazy like ... oh, I don't know, a scene from what's inside? Don't the girls do anything in these books, or are they just pretty faces?

I know that's a minor complaint compared to the whitewashing, which doesn't stop with YA books. Look at my shelf of Delany novels, and you will see characters who have been made over into white people. I guess I just don't have the optimism to believe the publishing industry will actually tackle this problem. I just don't know why they don't sidestep it a little by not making the covers all about the face.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

Anonymous, I'm not going to bash you but I do want to point out a few things. First of all I have never raised the issue of white privilege nor did I ever say all white people should apologize for the specific actions of one person. I don't want that and you are absolutely right that no one here should have to apologize.

If I talked down whites, I really apologize. That was not my intent. When I brought up the Jeremy Lin incident, I was clearly pointing to the media as problematic. If you know anything about what has happened to Lin you would know that those that bashed him were not all white. And I pointed to 2 specific incidents that involved Caucasians but I do not feel that I was attacking all of one race. If there is a part that you think did that let me know and I will address it.

You state that I throw around multiculturalism and diversity but only speak from one racial perspective. I'm not sure I understand your comment. I'm a minority, why couldn't I speak on diversity? Why can't anyone speak for diversity? Does the fact that I speak only from an Asian perspective invalidate my argument?

You say that I'm blaming an entire race for what Is just my opinion or preference of an idealized beauty. Actually, this is not just my opinion. I've researched the issue of feminism and girls self-esteem and it is a valid issue raised by many researchers and academics. That the fashion magazines have perpetuated an idealized white beauty and that even minority models are successful only if they conform to some form of it. There are numerous academic papers and thesis on this subject. I assure you I did not make it up. You can even google it and find many news articles. That's why I compare the issue of book covers to fashion magazine covers as it is tied to self esteem not just for minorities but for all girls.

I'm sorry you thought I did a poor job with an important topic. I just wanted to get this topic out there and have people talking about it. Even though you didn't like my approach, this blog post has generated more posts and lots of discussion which I hope will continue. And that's what I was hoping for.

Melissa said...

I don't read much YA, so forgive my ignorance, but I think the real question is do these cover models reflect the race of the main character? And if so, shouldn't the focus then shift to the authors? What is the diversity of THEIR race? I mean, I'm a Caucasian author and I write what I know - Caucasian heroines. If the diversity of the covers is fairly directly proportional to the diversity of the authors, then what's the problem?

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

Anonymous, I'm not going to bash you but I do want to point out a few things. First of all I have never raised the issue of white privilege nor did I ever say all white people should apologize for the specific actions of one person. I don't want that and you are absolutely right that no one here should have to apologize.

If I talked down whites, I really apologize. That was not my intent. When I brought up the Jeremy Lin incident, I was clearly pointing to the media as problematic. If you know anything about what has happened to Lin you would know that those that bashed him were not all white. And I pointed to 2 specific incidents that involved Caucasians but I do not feel that I was attacking all of one race. If there is a part that you think did that let me know and I will address it.

You state that I throw around multiculturalism and diversity but only speak from one racial perspective. I'm not sure I understand your comment. I'm a minority, why couldn't I speak on diversity? Why can't anyone speak for diversity? Does the fact that I speak only from an Asian perspective invalidate my argument?

You say that I'm blaming an entire race for what Is just my opinion or preference of an idealized beauty. Actually, this is not just my opinion. I've researched the issue of feminism and girls self-esteem and it is a valid issue raised by many researchers and academics. That the fashion magazines have perpetuated an idealized white beauty and that even minority models are successful only if they conform to some form of it. There are numerous academic papers and thesis on this subject. I assure you I did not make it up. You can even google it and find many news articles. That's why I compare the issue of book covers to fashion magazine covers as it is tied to self esteem not just for minorities but for all girls.

I'm sorry you thought I did a poor job with an important topic. I just wanted to get this topic out there and have people talking about it. Even though you didn't like my approach, this blog post has generated more posts and lots of discussion which I hope will continue. And that's what I was hoping for.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

Also I wanted to thank everyone for commenting and for those of you who have been out there tweeting and making your own blog posts on the subject. Thank you so much! It means a great deal to me to have good discourse on this topic.

And I really do appreciate all the different opinions out there, even those who don't agree with my post. I am very grateful that we have the ability to discuss this reasonably and have disagreements and agreements and enlightenment - on both sides. I have been so enlightened by many of the comments that I've read and the tweets I've seen. So thank you all for that.

I wish I could respond to all of you individually but I'm on a deadline so I just want to answer Melissa's point about whether or not the real issue is does the cover reflect the character's ethnicity. I would say that isn't my point. My point is that there is a pervasive viewpoint that minority girls on book covers do not sell books. (See Justine Larbalestier's Liar cover controversy where a major publisher whitewashed a cover as an example but not an only example.) The issue isn't the whitewashing as it is why they did it. They thought having a black girl on the cover wouldn't make the book sell. This is the issue I'm addressing. So what you see is a trend of lots and lots of white girls on books. The worst offender is definitely in the paranormal section where last night I found only 2 books out of the 20+ faced out in that section, did not have a white girl on the cover. For a young minority girl, it must be intimidating and frustrating to be faced with that.
The answer isn't then to put minorities on covers just for the sake of diversity. That's not what I'm saying. What I'm asking for is to use iconic covers instead. I point out Hunger Games and Twilight as big successes that didn't need to put a pretty white girl on its cover, although it could have. And in fact, they probably sold better because of it because they allowed for more crossover appeal in their readership.

yesterday, I just read a fabulous article by Mitali Perkins on this subject and she says exactly this. Let's have diverse faces in PB and MG books where they are happily accepted and don't seem to affect sales. But for teens, move towards covers without faces so that we aren't overwhelmed with this current trend. Because it is a trend, like fashion magazines, that isn't just bad for minority kids, but for all kids.

Melissa said...

I see your point, and I agree the covers should have some variation - not always a close up of a face. (I also dislike the skinny, perfect models everywhere - so unrealistic), but I still think the issue of who the story is about is a valid part of the equation.

moonrat said...

A difficult (and, unfortunately, naturally upsetting) topic, and kudos to those who have been brave enough to tackle it here--as Ello says, talking about it is what builds awareness and fixes problems. It's too bad that talking about it is so difficult and painful, and I commend all the commenters here--even the ones I don't agree with (!)--for that bravery.

As a white woman, and an acquisitions editor who (in some very small way) gets to make some minor media decisions, the white privilege stuff is something I think about constantly. My solution for myself is proactivity. What can I do--as a reader, an ally, and an advocate--to make the world better? Regardless of our individual races, it's a privilege we ALL have to live in a world where we can educate ourselves and make good proactive consumer choices. I'm personally an advocate of voting with the wallet--buying books that support representations of diversity in all its forms (including books with thoughtful covers, although this is just one form of diversity expression), recommending them thoughtfully to other people who like to read, and talking (in friendly, gently proselytizing ways) about these ideas that we've had a chance to think about but maybe some other potential allies have not.

Stacy Whitman said...

Thanks for mentioning Tu! Our goal is definitely diversity in covers as well as the stories themselves. I often talk about the numbers--who's reading, who's buying, and how that compares to the population at large, then looking at those numbers in comparison to who's featured IN the books, and who's writing the books themselves. And in all cases (see graphs here, though those numbers are a little out of date and I haven't had a chance to include 2010 census numbers; see Mitali Perkins's blog for more up-to-date numbers in a chart) the percentage of people of color *reading* books is far greater than the number of people of color featured IN the books or writing them.

So it's a multi-pronged problem. We need more diversity in publishing itself (so editorial, marketing, and sales might understand better that these books *do* sell, but that perhaps their old ways of marketing aren't reaching the full readership potential), in the books--both inside and out, and in the authors themselves.

I'm a member of the CBC Diversity committee, which is working on specific goals to address these problems, such as reaching out to schools to let kids know that publishing is a career option, reaching out to publishers and agents to encourage diversity and talk about ways we might be missing out on readership, that kind of thing. We have a blog where we're recommending books as well.

And by the way, I have a Pinterest where I keep book lists of diverse books by category (fantasy, science fiction, realism, etc.). Check it out here, and feel free to suggest more titles. (I haven't had time to keep it completely up to date, so I know there are titles missing.)

As far as covers specifically go, I think that there are times when a symbolic/graphic cover work, and times when they don't as much. We've actually had faces of our main characters on 4 out 5 of our covers so far, because that's what worked for the story and the current state of covers in YA. I also love symbolic covers and intend to have plenty of those, but part of what we're doing is making a statement that these kids *should* be on the cover just as much as any other, and that they're beautiful. Personally, I'd rather have a guy with his arm on fire on the cover of Vodnik than any of the other options, even though we had some really great ones. :) We're actually doing a 2-part blog post about how we came up with the cover for Vodnik, by the way, which your readers might find interesting. We're showing some of the options we looked at, and talking about why we decided on the one we liked best, over here:

Jaye Robin Brown said...

It's funny, in my art classes students will often ask me to help them make skin color. I always ask, "What kind of skin color?" It's surprising how many students get stuck on that for a second until they say, "like mine" or "that's a good question." As if they'd never thought of it.

I once did an elementary assignment where they had to draw what they though the tooth fairy looked like. My favorite was a little Hispanic boy who drew a male, Hispanic tooth fairy complete with wings. Diversity in action.

Beautiful post. I'm sorry for your daughter's pain.

Kimberly Pauley said...

As one of Tu's authors (my third book, Cat Girl's Day Off) is coming out through them in April, I can't agree more. I'm half-Chinese and was very excited to have Stacy take on my book AND give me a cover where the main character actually *looks* like my main character. Growing up (even "way back when"), I never "saw myself" on covers. I hope teens of all races find my book and enjoy it. Nat's race isn't an "issue" in the book and I actually think that's very important. It's just part of who she is, which is how it should be.

Stacy Whitman said...

And by the way, I think that another thing that gets at the heart of this issue is that I don't believe that white kids--even at 75% of the reading-book-buying public--are only interested in reading about themselves, especially those interested in speculative fiction. It's the whole windows-mirrors thing--white kids have LOTS of mirrors. And I think those mirrors are beautiful--those girls-in-gowns covers are often *gorgeous*. But there are so many of them in comparison to other kinds of depictions on covers that it starts to feel like a message is being sent: this is what beauty is.

Kids of color need their own mirrors, because they have lots and lots of windows into white culture. But white kids--like that kid who insulted Ellen's daughter--also need windows, which builds empathy and understanding, helps kids put themselves in others' shoes. And it's just a more interesting world that way.

Michelle said...
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Michelle said...
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Michelle said...
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Dr. Cheryl Carvajal said...

FANTASTIC points! And we need more minorities IN books, too! That's part of what books can do: help us explore worlds and cultures (and races) that are not our own.

Now, as an author, I have to think of how I can contribute to this change.

Michelle said...

Let me start off by saying that my comment yesterday wasn't phrased terribly well. I made the mistake of posting it before I went to sleep without proofreading to make sure everything I said was clear.

What the comment was supposed to say is that, for things to change in the near future, everyone (including me) has to do more to make it happen. Buying books by minorities is good and should definitely be encouraged, but it's not enough to make a difference right now. That strategy will likely prove effective in the long run, over several years, but not in the immediate future.

I've learned that the best way to make big changes is to set smaller goals and achieve them while working toward the larger cause. That was my main intent. What people are doing by posting about diversity and buying more diverse books is good, but it won't bring about big change as soon as we'd all like.

And now on to a more controversial point. I understand why several posted as anonymous, because they would have faced the same condemnation that I do right now.

I'll be honest. I was fairly upset yesterday with many of the not-so-thinly-veiled attacks on what I'd posted. Especially the comment about how people were filled with rage because of my "white privilege." So what that says is, since I am white, my opinion and efforts to do something to move this debate from talk to action is negated.

I'm sure this will all be dismissed as well since I must not know what I'm talking about. Never mind the fact that all my best friends growing up were either hispanic or black and I didn't really even notice or pay attention to it. Nor the fact that I wished so much growing up that I was Native American, and latched onto the thought that there might be some of that blood, though probably distant, in my heritage. Nor that the doll I most loved was a Pacific Islander Barbie. She was beautiful and I wanted to look just like her.

My opinion will count for nothing despite the fact that I have been personally under attack on numerous fronts because of my religion. I guess being a religious minority doesn't count, even though my ancestors faced rape, murder, and all sorts of cruelty—including an order from the government to exterminate them. So I obviously can't be empathetic to the cause of persecution and bigotry, and want to do what I can to make things right.

To negate anything a white person does or says as "white privilege" is, as an anonymous commenter said, very insulting. I guess that cancels out any good that Tu Books does, because the director isn't a minority, either.

To really accomplish something, people will have to accept that many white men and women are sincere in their desire to make the world a color-blind place. Instead of pushing us away, perhaps it would be good to accept us as friends fighting for the same cause.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

Michelle - I feel you. The problem with the internet and with words in general is that when we are in a rush things come out in ways we might not always mean. I think your first post came off strongly but I'm sorry people reacted strongly back. They too probably wrote in haste and in high emotion.

But may I say that you made my day with your new post?

"To really accomplish something, people will have to accept that many white men and women are sincere in their desire to make the world a color-blind place. Instead of pushing us away, perhaps it would be good to accept us as friends fighting for the same cause."

This was beautiful and I was very moved by it. Thank you. I believe in this wholeheartedly and I see it everyday. That's why I think change is possible. Because of statements like this. And I really appreciate it.

Drina said...

I am disgusted at how that mother reacted to what her son did to your daughter. Laughing it off and making excuses is completely unacceptable.

I agree that books should be more diverse, and I would add that they shouldn't airbrush all the pictures. Let the girl have a few pimples or be overweight, for Pete's sake! Show that ALL people are worthy of writing about and being on the cover.

Lori M. Lee said...


First of all, I'd like to clarify myself by saying your being white does not invalidate your opinion. I never said that. Nothing and no one can invalidate your opinion.

What *I* meant by white privilege is that you ('you' general here, not YOU you) are coming from the perspective of a majority and, oftentimes, are not able to see the full impact of certain words or actions due to the fact you've likely never encountered them in a way that demeans you as a person. That doesn't mean you CAN'T eventually see or understand, or that your opinion doesn't matter.

Second of all, I took no issue with your comment specifically, although I can see why you'd think so. You said you were playing devil's advocate, but I didn't see it that way. I wanted to know as well what else might be done and how (to which Ellen answered quite well, I think).

So in case this is TL;DR, your opinion is not invalid, and I'm sorry my comment came across that way.

Michelle said...

Sorry, this is going to be another long one.

Lori, I appreciate your clarification, but the essence of your comment still seeks to invalidate my opinion. To quote:

"You are coming from the perspective of a majority and, oftentimes, are not able to see the full impact of certain words or actions due to the fact you've likely never encountered them in a way that demeans you as a person."

I realize my comment was really long, so I suppose you missed the part about experiencing exactly that because of my religion. In recent months, I've been reticent to even put in my online profiles that I'm from Utah, because there have been more than a few people who've made up their minds about who I based on that one fact, and have proceeded to harass me to the point where I've had to block several people, especially one man who sent his followers after me. All for the simple fact that I'm Mormon.

So I ask, are only certain groups allowed to claim persecution? What about sexual preference and identity, or perhaps political beliefs? Consider the Red Scare in America during the '50s. Both of those groups were targeted, especially gay men and socialists.

That doesn't even touch those who have physical and/or mental limitations. What of the many beautiful people I've known with Down's Syndrome, who sometimes aren't even aware of the abuse being heaped upon them. Or try explaining to close friends—people who know and love you—that you're bipolar, to be told with skepticism, "But you're not crazy. You can't be depressed."

Some of us carry our injuries beneath the skin, where it is not so easy to see.

"That doesn't mean you CAN'T eventually see or understand."

And with that statement you contradict everything you said earlier about not invalidating others' opinions. It's like an indulgent pat on the head of an ignorant child. How could they possibly suffer persecution or be hurt by hatred? They're white!

Prejudice knows no boundaries. Whether now, in the past or, tragically, in the future, every group of people has or will experience some kind of persecution. No one is immune.

A person need not experience the exact same kind of persecution to be empathetic and supportive of the overall cause. To think so builds a wall between people who could be working together for a greater good.

For things to change, everyone must be willing to see people as individuals instead of THOSE OTHER PEOPLE, or they perpetuate the cycle but with tables turned. Either way, it nurtures hatred.

And that is where I will end, because bickering among people who could be allies does more to harm the overall cause than any outside force ever could. All I'm saying is that you have to let go of the idea that white people don't or can't be subject to hatred and persecution. There is no way to know a person based on appearance or the sparse details listed in an online profile.

Until you know someone intimately, understand her hopes and fears and hurts and loves, how can you know what difficulties she's faced in life? Instead of condemning others, why not seek out ways in which we are all the same and build upon that?

Lori M. Lee said...

Michelle, I repeat: my original comment was NOT DIRECTED AT YOU. And I'm sorry my words hurt you in spite of that. I did read the part in your comment about your religion. I understand that you understand what it is to feel persecuted, and I sympathize. I really, truly do.

How could they possibly suffer persecution or be hurt by hatred? They're white!

Prejudice knows no boundaries. Whether now, in the past or, tragically, in the future, every group of people has or will experience some kind of persecution. No one is immune.

See, this is why we're not connecting. I KNOW all this. Prejudice is as varied as people, and no one is immune. I don't believe white people are excluded from persecution, and I don't know why my words are coming across that way. If I did, I would srsly have no ground to stand on.

When I made my original comment, I was only thinking about RACE. Prejudice and ignorance as a direct result of skin color. It was spoken in anger, and that anger was exclusively directed at a specific part of a comment. I don't want to single it out, but I'd be willing to explain myself in private and hope that you'll understand where I was coming from.

I wasn't thinking about prejudice as a result of religion or sexual orientation or body type or income or any number of things we have no control over--and, you know, that's my fault. I have to be more careful of my words as well. Just as nobody is excluded from prejudice, nobody is excluded from inflicting unintentional harm.

A person need not experience the exact same kind of persecution to be empathetic and supportive of the overall cause. To think so builds a wall between people who could be working together for a greater good.

You're absolutely right. Srsly, I don't want to argue with you either because we DO share the same goals. It would be an amazing, amazing thing if more people thought the way you do.

Michelle said...

I appreciate that, Lori. And it's good to discuss these things and clear up any misunderstandings. If more people did that, we'd be a lot further along with efforts to end discrimination. :)

Jaime Reed said...

A fellow debut author recommended that I read this blog post and boy am I glad I did. Great post! I’ve had the same gripe with the book covers on the YA shelves and I personally hate covers with faces on them--it’s a distraction. All the girl’s look the same: oddly cropped pale faces that look extremely depressed. Your argument is the reason I wrote my series The Cambion Chronicles, which is a YA paranormal romance. The main character is a biracial girl (black/white) and yes her face is on the cover. Link--->

I want my niece and the girls in my neighborhood (which are a lot) to be able to read about someone who looks likes them, that they too can have adventures, get the cute guy, and not be the token sidekick. I think every kid has that right. I’ve gotten comments on how rare it is to see a person of color on the front cover, and that there is a sign that things need to change. I hope my series can help create more opportunities for other authors and present more diversity to the genre.

Becky Mahoney said...

I just want to say, Ellen, I really admire you for making this post, and I agree with everything you said 100%. It's something that I worry about with my own manuscript, which has no white characters to speak of. Here's hoping that, if I'm lucky enough to get it published someday, the cover will reflect that.

And I'm so, so sorry that your daughter had to go through that!

Mandy said...

Thank you for this post, Ellen, and for all of you commenting on it. I love this type of open dialogue, and I have found all of your comments and perspectives enlightening. It gives me a lot to think about as a writer and as a consumer of books. The choices I can make (including diverse characters in my work, buying books with characters of color and non-whitewashed covers, adding my voice to those advocating change) may be small, but I hope that they will help.

Melinda R. Cordell said...

Awesome post. I'm sorry that lady just didn't get it.

I saw a few folks in the comments wondering what they could do to help change this. The first thing I'd recommend is to Google "racefail." We had a huge blowup on the internets about race a few years back, and as I read through the tons of posts on the subject, boy were my eyes opened. I've said stupid things over the years, made a remark that still makes me cringe to this day, which still shames me. But it really makes you think, not only about the way we as whites respond personally to folks, but how larger society is so messed up in this regard.

Naturally, you can vote with your pocketbook, not only with books, but the toys you get your kid. Why buy only white dolls for your daughter? And which of the Disney princesses actually played active parts in their stories? Mulan and Pocahontas! But they get relegated to the "Princesses of Color" accessories. Which makes me mad because Mulan was kicking some major tail everywhere!

And the third thing is that whites should step out of their comfort zone and write main characters of other races. All I've had the guts to do are mixed race people -- which I'm more familiar with -- but if we can put more POCs in our books, we can get more POCs on our covers. Do your research, tho.

I hope this is slightly coherent since I'm on my lunch break and I still need to eat! But you're doing awesome work with this post, and it's great that people are talking about it.

Melinda R. Cordell said...

P.S. whilst running out for my little pizza, I thought of something else. During the racefail debacle, a number of white folks said, "Oh, but if I write POCs and do it wrong, then people get mad at me." Which was something that had been holding me back, too.

But I ran across a reply that made a lot of sense. In essence, this is it: You're writers. You do your research. You write things to the best of your ability. You push yourself outside of your comfort zone. And if people say things about it, suck it up! That's what happens to published writers. Learn from it, see it from their perspective, and move on.

I wish this were not busy season, but then the post would be longer, and everybody would fall asleep from boredom or from my inane silliness.

Anonymous said...

While I was reading The Mighty Miss Malone, my husband commented that the girl on the cover looks like so-and-so. He's never commented on the cover of ANY other book he's seen me reading. :)

M Pax said...

Most of my mc's are aliens. :D But even with the aliens I try for a diverse mix of characters. Reading about perfect white people all of the time is boring.

I love reading about different experiences, cultures, etc... Seeing through a different perspective.

It's something I'll be more mindful of than I have been.

Victoria Dixon said...

As the (adoptive) mother of a beautiful little Chinese girl who has albinism and therefore has brown hair and drop-dead gorgeous Chinese eyes, I'm frequently concerned for her identity. Will there be a time when some idiot will tell her she's not Chinese because she doesn't fit that model? They'll be well-intentioned, I'm sure, and that makes it worse. My daughter is beautiful in body and soul and we're trying to make sure she values her heritage. I hope and work toward a day when someday society will.

vic caswell said...

I wish I could write a long comment here, because your post and the following discussion is so terribly important and true, But i'm not somewhere that is possible.
As someone who is starting her own freelance illustration company, with a focus on cover art, this is a big reason why I've decided to try to break into that business.
There is no excuse for this trend.
Diversity is truly beautiful.
Thank you for writing this post.
_Vic caswell

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

I have to say that I've been very impressed and happy with the discussion that has been going on and I thank every single one of you who has commented. I appreciate this open dialogue and a chance to air everyone's viewpoints on the issue.

I also want to thank all the blog posts and tweets that have continued to go out. I am very grateful for all the support.

G.M. said...

Hello Ellen, I came to your blog after reading about it at Victoria Dixon's blog.
The issue is not the cover of the book, but the content. Books, where the MC (main character) is Asian, should have an Asian picture on the cover. I guess all the books that you found on the YA books shelve have a white girl as the MC, so the cover was appropriate.
The issue is not the cover of the YA books, but the content. Why there are not many YA books with storylines about Asian MC? The answer is simple ...there are not many readers,YET, for these novels. Publishers are in the business to make money. Your anger should be more about the YA readers who don't embrace Asian YA books .. because if they do, book publishers will publish them.
At least 5% of the US population, or 17 millions, are Asian Americans. If many of them will support YA Asian books, then publisher will prublish them with Asian cover.
So, how can you reach the Asian American population and convince them to buy Asian YA books? .. and when they do, other "so called white" Americans will follow.
And by the way, I wrote a China-America YA novel, where 85% of the story is in China and the rest in the US ... and if and when the book will be published it will have on the cover the real picture of a Chinese teenage girl.

Christina Farley said...

Yes, yes, and yes. This cover issue and diversity in YA frustrates me to no end. And now as an author who writes multicultural characters I've found more frustrations in the last 6 months. But bringing diversity to the ya market is what I'm passionate about so I will press on.

rainbowriter said...

Thank you for bringing this to my attention. The racial stereotyping in this country is so pervasive that we don't even realize the extent. Actually since I mostly read thrillers it seems the only thing irritating is that the author's name takes up half the front and is usually larger than the book title. I have a vision of my upcoming book cover where one of the main characters is a Bigfoot (or is it?) but one primary protag is Latina, one black, one Native American. I will keep this post in mind when I get to that point. It also says something about the rampant arrogance and ignorance of our current political scene.

rainbowriter said...

Did not realize I needed to provide a link but happy to do so. I will post this on my FB page but since I am not real handy with computer stuff you may just have to look it up...but I will try. Janet S Church Facebook. (J.S.McCormick, Author)

Jeannie Lin said...

Well said. Media so affects our ideas of beauty and even our ideas of "normalcy". Next up -- and this may seem hypocritical coming from someone with warrior girls and courtesans on her covers -- but I'd like to see Asians on covers who are not exoticized: not geishas or samurai.

Baby steps...

Jayrod P. Garrett said...

This is one of the best written smartest blog entries I've ever read. I agree with every word of it. Thank you for being a voice for diversity in literature. We don't have nearly enough people like you. Thank you so much.

Stacy Whitman said...

Jeannie, for non-exotified Asian girls, we've got one coming out this spring! :)

David Macinnis Gill said...

You need to send a link to this post to the YA buyer at Barnes and Noble. That single person decides which books the stores carry. Because that person has so much power, they tell the publishers what kind of covers they want, which is usually a cover just like the books that have been selling best.

Middle school books aren't affected by the same market forces because BN doesn't have such singular control over the market, and because the middle grades books are designed for libraries and book clubs, not the shelves.

Nickie said...

Have you seen the cover for any of Nnedi Okorafor's books? Zahrah the Windseeker, Who Fears Death, and many others. Fabulous books, with covers that are not "white".
I do hope we see more and more non-white covers. To say that is very sad to not feel included is an understatement.

Laura said...

Well said!

I would like to see more illustrated covers- lets employ artists and see some creativity than just grabbing stock photos. A huge amount of work goes into the writing of a YA and the cover should do that work justice.

CJ Omololu said...

More posts like this please! I'm so happy that my publisher (Walker/Bloomsbury) decided to put the brown love interest front and center on the cover of my book that comes out in June. It is NOT an interracial love story in that this is not the focus of the book, but if he were white, publishers wouldn't hesitate to put him on the cover and I'm thrilled that Bloomsbury felt the same way. Unfortunately, this is not a decision that is taken lightly and only time will tell if this affects sales in any way. And Barnes and Noble is totally on board and I'm told will be carrying the book in their stores' YA section. One book at a time.

Raven M said...

Thank you for this post. As a teenager who reads and writes and who is of color, it makes me sad that I can't seem to find more books that features characters that look like me. There are a few books out there with black main characters but they're just stereotypes on paper.

Someone in an earlier comment asked if YA was ready for minority protagonists? Well to answer to that it's not whether they're ready, it's whether they're going to finally accept that people of color do exist and that we're not walking stereotypes.

Ey Wade said...

Reminds me so much of the author Carleen Brice and her blog "White Readers Meet Black Authors" where she struggles to bring to light the habit of 'whitewashing' book covers and just getting readers to try all minorities.
My YA novel D.N.A. has a mixture of all races in it and no 'person' on the cover just because I want the book to be purchased for its content and not the color of its 'skin'.

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

Your post gave me a lot to think about, Ellen! I blogged about some of my thoughts today and linked back here. I hope we can see some change in this area.

Tea Remus said...

I love this. I feel like the "pretty white girl" character is overused. I am currently writing a book with a male, African American character.

Maria L. said...

I'm an illustration student, and I know someday that I'll probably be assigned to do book covers. I will definitely keep this in mind, it's such an important issue that needs to be addressed.

Also, that's a terrible thing that happened to your daughter, there's no excuse for it.

Janet Wong said...

Thanks for the great post! For me (as with several of your other commenters), the issue isn't race so much as "an ideal girl" that doesn't fit the content of the book. My first poetry collection, GOOD LUCK GOLD, was published by McElderry/S&S with a cover girl that looked like a Chinese Barbie doll. It might've been a great romance novel cover, but didn't match the poems inside (including one called "Noise" about the name-calling and teasing over eyes). The book is now out of print and I've created my own paperback version through CreateSpace. This time, I think the cover girl fits much better. Please take a look!
(And I'll be one of the eager readers when your book comes out; congratulations!)

Anonymous said...

I'm disgusted by the woman's desperate need to cover up her son by coming up with an excuse that really just translates to 'we don't get out enough'.

And, 'orientals'? Really? Let's call black people 'colored' while we're at it. And native americans 'indians'. And inuit peoples 'eskimos'. Might as well go all the way if you can't even get with the times and use proper terms.

I'd know. I'm half-black and half-white. I grew up with the white half of my family, raised by my white mother. My schools were predominately white and so were my neighborhoods and all my friends.

I was lucky enough not to get bullied or teased like some kids do, but I still had a few incidents that stuck with me 'til this present day.

Like people looking at my tan skin and curly hair and asking if my mom adopted me. Or a kid in elementary telling me I can't join in a group activity because I'm black. Or a girl telling me I'm ugly and calling me slurs. Or a white woman leaving her house to confront me with my younger brother, who inherited more my mother's appearance, and ask me 'what I'm doing with him'. Or being called 'colored'.

The list could go on, but I'll cut it off here. This article is wonderfully written and continues to highlight an ugly reality for anyone unfortunate enough to not be completely white in America. To this day I have issues with how I look, and I hope the same doesn't happen with your daughter. It's a soul-sucking feeling that I wouldn't wish on my worst enemies.

As for the YA novel issue, that's something I've noticed as well. Interesting how the younger the age group, the more diversity is pushed. I wonder if that suggests a social issue that gains less importance as kids grow older.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

I have started working on a cover for my YA LGBT book that I will be self-publishing soon. I hate that this is even an issue. I thought about the cover while I wrote it, and wanted an African-American girl on it. I will not be true to myself or my character if I do what society thinks I should do. My book is not a book about the color of the character. It focuses on relationships and sexual identity. If it doesn't sell because the person on the cover is not the "norm," at least I will have courageously created a book that ALL teens could relate to without compromising myself. Look for BrookLyn's Journey soon. It will be the cover with the young African-American girl on it. LOL!
Thanks for this post. We have become what we have because we don't talk about issues openly. I welcome the conversation. Kudos!!

The Busy Author said...

I've started a tumblr collection of images to inspire YA writers and cover designers to be more diverse in their thinking. You can find it here:

Everyone please contribute images!

Amber said...

I noticed one of the comments playing devil's advocate, asking for action - what do you suggest DOING? Well, one thing you can do as a reader is place requests at the library for books (such as those published by Tu). If they don't have them on the shelf you can submit a request for purchase. Our local had a couple, but not many, Tu titles, so I subbed forms for several. They may not get all of them in, but readers showing demand for books about POC is one thing to DO, and it's so incredibly easy to start with the library.

Anonymous said...

I'd say the cover model should natch the physical descriptions of the characters IN the book.

Stephanie Power said...

As a caucasian reader I would actually love to read more novels (YA and "adult") that feature non white characters on the cover. I've read dozens of celtic based fantasies, it'd be great to find more Japanese, Chinese, Indian, and Middle Eastern based stories. Not just because we need more multicultural representation but because it's nice to read and learn about other cultures. The Pretty White Girl problem doesn't just hurt readers in that seeing cover after cover where all the pretty protaganists are white girls harms the self image of readers from different ethnicities but it also robs white readers of seeing things from another point of view. It's important for EVRYONE to have more multiculturalism in books. Not just on the covers but inside as well.

And if you haven't already discovered and read it, Hiromi Goto's Half World is a pretty great novel featuring an Asian protaganist:

Ian Wood said...

It's not a YA thing or a book cover thing - it's a societal thing. That's what needs to change. Changing book covers is a contribution to a solution. It's not the solution itself.

As I understand it, the author of a book has nothing to do with the cover unless that author self-publishes (or is an author with enough weight to influence the cover design), because big publishing (TM) is god!

The way authors can contribute is to write books which are ethnically diverse or even ethnically neutral. We don't have to describe every character down to the last detail to define them for our readers!

But YA books have bigger fish to fry than this. Bad covers are not the only problem we have with how YA authors - even female YA authors - abuse and betray their main female characters.

Olivea said...

I'd also like to add the lack of male protagonists. It seems like from the time Katniss got popular we have only seen girls. Most of which are similair in personality. I think not only do YA covers struggle to grasp diversity but sometimes YA authors. We need not only a change in covers, but also in the books themselves.

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