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The Black Girl Who Was White



Above is the cover of Justine Larbalestier's new novel, Liar, which features a black protagonist. You'll note that the girl on the cover is white, which has been done, in part because the publisher has had a lot of success with similar 'face' books, and in part because of the perception that black people do not sell.

Their perception: that publishers think books won’t sell as well with blacks on the front. “I kept wondering if the publisher thinks books only sell if they’ve got white people on the cover. It bothered me,” wrote Dianne Salerni, author of the upcoming novel We Hear the Dead, in an Amazon.com review.

Even Larbalestier is upset. “I love my publisher,” she said. “[But] I never wanted this cover. I made it clear I didn’t want a white girl’s face. Having this cover on the front is undermining the book that I wrote.”

And yet, some readers—and Liar’s editor—are defending the cover, noting that Micah, the unreliable narrator, could have fibbed about her own appearance. “The entire premise of this book is about a compulsive liar,” said Melanie Cecka, publishing director of Bloomsbury Children’s Books USA and Walker Books for Young Readers, who worked on Liar. “Of all the things you’re going to choose to believe of her, you’re going to choose to believe she was telling the truth about race?”

Unlike Larbalestier’s light and upbeat How to Ditch Your Fairy, which came out last year, Liar is a psychological thriller, with a mentally unstable main character who may (or may not) have committed multiple murders. Bloomsbury is printing 100,000 copies.

The publisher believes that there’s a silver lining to the firestorm. “I do think it’s going to raise awareness of race in teen literature to new levels,” said Cecka. “Clearly, our striving for ambiguity with this cover, and for it to be interpreted as a ‘lie’ itself didn’t work for everyone. But again, if this jacket proves a catalyst for a bigger discussion about how the industry is dealing with its books on race, that’s a very large good to come of this current whirlwind.”


Well, isn't it interesting to see this cover being spun as a positive thing. A lot of good isn't going to come from this discussion, unless it is to force the publisher to change it. Otherwise, what is more likely to happen is that a lot of people won't buy Larbalestier's new novel because of the racism that has given birth to the white girl face staring at them.

Yes, I said racism.

Because racism has many forms, and this is one of them.

(crossposted)

Comments

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cassiphone
Jul. 24th, 2009 01:26 am (UTC)
The worst part of this is where the publisher wants the audience to assume the fictional character lied about being black, thereby rendering the cover entirely accurate.

And young US readers have already interpreted this from the combination of the text/cover even though that particular ambiguity was never the author's intention, and it adds an unnecessary confusion to an already complex story...

benpeek
Jul. 24th, 2009 04:43 am (UTC)
well, without having read the book, i thought the comment by the publisher reeked of bad spin...

but, from another point of view of the author, if such an interpretation can only be frustrating for justine, since the last thing a white author really wants to be known for is writing a black character that pretends to be white.
johnnyeponymous
Jul. 24th, 2009 01:26 am (UTC)
It sucks that publishers still believe white buyers won't buy books with anyone but white characters on the covers. There's also no chance of them changing the cover, which is the worst part.

Honestly, I don't even think it's that great a cover. The Australian version is much, much better
Chris
benpeek
Jul. 24th, 2009 04:44 am (UTC)
i actually didn't like the australian one all that much, but at least it wasn't, y'know, racist.
ataxi
Jul. 24th, 2009 01:51 am (UTC)
So darkly comic. We're "striving for ambiguity". No doubt that's what the slave-owners were doing as well. Ok, that's my Godwin moment for this post.

I have to laugh, seriously, at the sheer crass enormity of it all. Can't imagine what the RaceFail people would make of it.
benpeek
Jul. 24th, 2009 04:45 am (UTC)
it's terrible, isn't it?

i do wonder what the racefail people will say--hopefully a lot, since this is actually a real issue.
ataxi
Jul. 24th, 2009 05:17 am (UTC)
You have to wonder if that mealy-mouthed nonsense from the Bloomsbury publishing director is bare-faced hypocrisy and lies, or what she actually believes and has processed and internalised.

It's so hard to tell if people are wicked or merely conveniently deluded.
benpeek
Jul. 24th, 2009 12:56 pm (UTC)
yeah, it's hard to tell. it's probably more the latter, at least this is what i reckon--i don't run into too many purposefully evil people. mostly they just don't understand.
fengi
Jul. 24th, 2009 03:49 am (UTC)
Good god, but that cover is horribly generic. I'm also pretty sure it looks like a bio of an Andy Warhol hanger-on, but not sure.

What was really depressing is the author said a lot of American gatekeepers - i.e. adults who claim to know what the kids like - feel deeply books with a face on them sell better. The example cited as evidence? A paperback with a kid's face sold better than a hardback without one. Really. Because paperback sales are never higher than hardback otherwise.
benpeek
Jul. 24th, 2009 04:46 am (UTC)
yeah, i noticed that too.
ironed_orchid
Jul. 24th, 2009 08:33 am (UTC)
Did you see Justine Larbalestier's response on her blog?

The bit which struck me most was:
. I worked very hard to make sure that the fundamentals of who Micah is were believable: that she’s a girl, that she’s a teenager, that she’s black, that she’s USian. One of the most upsetting impacts of the cover is that it’s led readers to question everything about Micah: If she doesn’t look anything like the girl on the cover maybe nothing she says is true. At which point the entire book, and all my hard work, crumbles.


Which stands in clear contrast to the notion that everything the character says is a lie.
benpeek
Jul. 24th, 2009 12:57 pm (UTC)
yeah, i saw it. i feel sorry for her, really, since if the cover doesn't get fixed, there's a large likelihood people simply won't by the book as a form of protest, or it'll alienate her audience...
ironed_orchid
Jul. 25th, 2009 01:15 am (UTC)
Maybe people can order the Australian version... but that would require effort.
hani
Jul. 24th, 2009 10:06 am (UTC)
Tamora Pierce's book Daja's Book has a black girl on the cover. Granted, it's not a real person...

After reading her own blog, I never knew "black covers" was an issue in the US.

I agree that the comment by the publisher was stupid and small-minded. I know authors rarely get a say on their covers, but I've always been disappointed when the cover so directly contradicts the story inside. If I'm browsing books in a bookstore and I've never heard of the book or author before, the cover (and/or the title) will be the first thing to grab my attention. If that and the summary seems to intrigue me and I've enough space/money, I'll buy the book.
benpeek
Jul. 24th, 2009 01:02 pm (UTC)
yeah, i had, to be honest, kind've hoped that such thoughts of the black people lowering sales had gone...
ext_168393
Jul. 24th, 2009 06:41 pm (UTC)
Hi Ben,

Saw you stopped by Color Online. Thanks for calling a spade a spade. We don't need liberal outrage. We need readers to reject the Bloomsbury edition. We need white teen bloggers promoting POC writers because publishers are paying attention to what this group of readers are reading. We need POC teen bloggers (I'm currently mentoring two). We need adult YA bloggers promoting POC books by POC writers.

We need to fess up and say whether we like or it, we all are affected by racism. Don't dismiss it, discount it or make excuses.

When this crap blows over, I'll still be black.

I think I'm going to hang out here a bit.

Thanks,
Susan
founder of Color Online
benpeek
Jul. 26th, 2009 10:56 pm (UTC)
hey there, susan.

i hope you dig the blog--i'd like to say that nothing like this will ever come up to talk about, but i'm guess we both know that's not going to happen.

b.
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