Author wins fight over “whitewashed” book cover.

// 12 August 2009

A bit of good news for once! Australian author Justine Larbalestier was appalled when advance copies of her children’s book about a short-haired black girl, Liar, featured a long-haired white girl on the cover. But following an internet campaign, and pressure from Larbalestier and her agent, the publishers, Bloomsbury, have now changed the cover, and the book will be published in hardback in October with a black girl on the front.

Larbalestier says this is not an isolated incident:

[she] believes the issues of “whitewashing” of covers, ghettoising of books by people of colour, and low expectations for these books are industry-wide. In 2004, Ursula Le Guin asked why “even when [my characters] aren’t white in the text, they are white on the cover … I have fought many cover departments on this issue, and mostly lost. But please consider that ‘what sells’ or ‘doesn’t sell’ can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. 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?”

Publishers argue that “black books don’t sell”, but Larbalestier views this as defeatist:

“I don’t think anyone can know until books with black faces on them get a big marketing push. You can’t tell anything if such books get very little promotion,” she said. “I think the belief that white people won’t buy books about black people is a widely held one, but I do think the furore over the cover of Liar is causing people to rethink that. And to ask themselves ‘if it is true, what can we do to change it?'”. She urged readers to start buying books by “people of colour”, recommending Coe Booth’s Kendra and M Sindy Felin’s Touching Snow.

Comments From You

Sarah // Posted 12 August 2009 at 1:05 pm

This is great news, but having seen the new cover, it seems the publishers have still chosen a black girl with a very light skin tone. I would also recommend ‘Kindred’ by Octavia E. Butler.

JenniferRuth // Posted 12 August 2009 at 5:22 pm

Sarah – The author said that she imagined the protaganist looking a bit like Alana Beard of the WNBA.

Lola Adesioye also wrote about this on Comment is Free:

Don’t bother to read the comments – the level of racism contained within is enough to make you cry. I will never understand why people are so FAST to defend or dismiss racism rather than just going “Gosh, as a white person I never noticed that before but it does seem pretty racist – I guess we could stop!”

It shouldn’t shock me, but it always does.

lynx // Posted 12 August 2009 at 5:53 pm

this is a victory not just for people of color but for creators of content in general. It’s time the big distributors realized that they don’t have the right to control artists. Their role is to disseminate content, not to censor it. so good for her!

also – Ursula LeGuin is one of my favorite authors and I’ve wondered about the discrepancy between her content and her covers in the past so thanks for including her quote on the issue!

SunlessNick // Posted 13 August 2009 at 5:24 pm

Good. A victory for respecting the actual writers of the stories they agreed to buy.

Anne Onne // Posted 13 August 2009 at 7:59 pm

What SunlessNick said. I never liked the fact that writers seem to have relatively little power to decide what their own work will be represented with, and whether the artwork or design picked feels true to what is actually inside. I remember hearing about the whitewashing of Ursula Le Guin’s books and wondering why the hell anyone would consider that necessary, and how frustrating it must be for writers to have someone else dictate so much about their work. And what effect things like this have on our perception of each other, with minorities and women airbrushed out of imagery. Someone once said that if aliens came to Earth, they would take one look at all our media and reckon that at least 2/3 of people were male, and nearly everyone was white, based on the pictures we choose to represent ourselves as a society with.

Then again I’d ideally like writers to have more freedom in general, and all covers to be an extension of what the writer themselves feels their work is about, rather than just a marketing gimmick picked by the publisher.

PuckIsId // Posted 14 August 2009 at 1:41 am

I had a conversation with my wife, who is mixed black/white, about this very issue. She strongly disagrees with the publisher for their cowardly actions. This is a great victory and the more we all can do to hold publishers accountable, the better.

mag may // Posted 14 August 2009 at 8:09 pm

Why must racial tension even extend to “bookcovers”? Haven’t we learned to accept all races alike. We all poop, we all smell, and we all pee…what else is there to say????

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