Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality


Whitewashing in Young Adult literature

January 26, 2010

Over the past few months, Bloomsbury has been under scrutiny for using racebending tactics for the cover images of their young adult genre novels. What blogs across the web have been discovering, this practice is not uncommon. Various other publishers make the decision to whitewash characters of colour for the cover images of teenaged- and adolescent-themed books.

Cover of Larbalestier's Liar, before and after

Bloomsbury’s first faux pas made on the US cover for Justine Larbalestier’s novel Liar. Although the protagonist in the book is a black, teenaged girl, Bloomsbury saw fit to use a female model that was not black. Protests ensued and people complained to Bloomsbury, asking why they saw fit to whitewash the protagonist for the cover image.

Says Larbalestier:

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—they’re exiled to the Urban Fiction section—and many bookshops simply don’t stock them at all.

How welcome is a black teen going to feel in the YA section when all the covers are white? Why would she pick up Liar when it has a cover that so explicitly excludes her?”
Ain’t That a Shame, justinelarbalestier.com [emphasis added]

Dolamore's Magic Under Glass cover

Bloomsbury admitted their mistake and changed this cover. But they did not learn any lesson from this experience. Yet again, with a first-published author’s novel, they use a pale-skinned model for the cover of a book where the female protagonist is dark-skinned. Jaclyn Dolamore’s upcoming novel Magic Under Glass once more became the subject of wide discussion and debate, as well as contact with the publishers to ask why they chose a white model to portray a non-white character.

Once more, Bloomsbury plans to retract the US cover and replace it with one that it more suited to the story, releasing the statement: “Bloomsbury is ceasing to supply copies of the US edition of Magic Under Glass. The jacket design has caused offense and we apologize for our mistake. Copies of the book with a new jacket design will be available shortly.”

Whitewashing Books: Not just Bloomsbury

Two shades of Sticky

Unfortunately, it’s not just one single publishing company who gets away with whitewashing covers. The book-review blog Bookshelves of Doom brought to attention a children’s book published by Little, Brown Books. In the book The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the ‘light-brown’ skinned character Sticky retains his colour in the inside illustrations, but is mysteriously bleached in the colour cover painting.

Canadian author RJ Anderson notes:

It’s almost as though the publishers responsible for these decisions think that people of color are so shocking and distasteful that we have to hide them from casual view, and reveal their existence only to those who have already committed to spending money on the book and therefore aren’t likely to take it back.”
–RJ Anderson, commenting on Bookshelves of Doom

Lit blog Into the Wardrobe also noticed that Dragons Can be Whitewashed Too:

The Dragon and the Stars (DAW, May 2010) is a science fiction and fantasy anthology featuring Chinese writers from all over the world. The cover is of a Western dragon, not a Chinese dragon. Click here and here to read blog posts and comments about the cover.

Covers Uncovered: People of Color on Books

Just how serious are publishing companies about ensuring that Caucasian models are the focal point of young adult lit covers? The blog The Ya Ya Yas did extensive research over the past recent years, to end at one unnerving conclusion: “it’s not as if it’s unusual for Asian-American characters to have their race obscured on book covers.”

Jacket Whys looked at a total of 775 young adult novels, and found that:

80% of them had people on them. A full 25% of all book covers had white girls pictured on them, and 10% had white boys. Only 2% of the titles I looked at had African American boys or girls pictured on the covers – a sad state of affairs.”

How much can publishing companies get away with this? With most publishing companies, authors have little to no say in the cover of their book, particularly for first-time published authors. Book covers are tied in with marketing – the more appealing the cover, the more units will sell. What sort of message is being sent to teenagers when publishing companies blatantly whitewash their covers in the name of financial gain?

Taking Action: Fighting Discrimination in Book Publishing

As Blooomsbury has demonstrated (twice), your opinion can make a difference. If it wasn’t for people speaking out about Liar and Magic Under Glass, discussing it on their blogs and writing letters to the publishers, the changes would have never happened. If you find another case of a whitewashed cover:

  • contact us at info@racebending.com
  • post about it on your blog
  • contact the publishing companies and ask them why they are whitewashing the covers of the book. Encourage your friends to do the same!

Related Links (non-Racebending.com)

About the Author

Loraine Sammy is one of the co-founders of Racebending.com

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  • Kay

    I know another example of this. Have you ever read the Uglies series? The books take place about 300 years in the future where everyone gets an operation to become “pretty” when they are 16. The thing is that most of the “Pretties” in the first three books are described as having olive-colored skin, while the people on the pictures of the first three books are pale. Even the author, Scott Westerfeld, has said that the covers are misleading because the characters in the books are not that white. The first three books take place in what used to be the United States and there has been a lot of racial mixing in the last 300 years, so many of the characters are basically bi- or multiracial.

    I guess one good thing about the covers is that the fourth book cover features an Asian girl and the main protagonist in that book is Aya Fuse, a teenaged Japanese girl. But it’s still kind of hit and miss because it seems like the publishing company assumed that the lead characters in the first series were white by default because they weren’t referred to as being a specific race.

    (I am referring to the older covers of these books. I think the newer editions have different covers.)

    Clearly we don’t live in some sort of post-racial utopia when publishers want to racebend the people on their book covers because they view people of color as being to repulsive to sell books.

  • anonymous

    Why don’t black covers sell? Is it because black teens aren’t buying books?

  • silveryfeather208

    Not just books are being disgraced. Movies too. Especially Hollywood. For example, in ‘The Hunger Games’. Rue was black. People were upset. I just don’t get why. So what if she was black, brown, white, yellow, olive, etc as long as she was what she was in the book. How do the authors and creators feel?
    And, in both defence, it’s not just white people who are at fault. In Asia, white people are shunned in certain cases. I speak from experience, being Asian in a north american society, people pick on minorities. Yet when I go back to asia, having been ‘culturally different’ i wasn’t as accepted.
    Acceptance and tolerence, or lack of, is the problem.
    (Sorry if I have any spelling/grammar errors, I’m just a middle school student..”

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