Teens Do Judge a Book by the Cover
by Mitali Perkins
Confession: at times I want to ditch the label “multicultural.” I flinch when booksellers or librarians inform me regretfully that they can’t buy my books because their shops and libraries don’t serve “multicultural” kids. When I’m paraded or introduced at events as a “multicultural” writer, the qualifier can made me feel tokenized and sidelined in the blink of a well-meaning eye.
But my negative feelings about the label disappeared a couple of years ago during the Kennedy Center’s Annual Multicultural Literature Festival.
Several of us were waiting to sign books inside a large room stocked only with books about non-white protagonists. Someone cut a huge ribbon with oversized shears, music began to play, and in streamed a score of brown and black children. Eager faces lit up at the sight of hundreds of covers featuring kids like them. For once, they weren’t on the margins, and I remembered again why “multicultural” kids need “multicultural” books.
But I still don’t get it when adults tell me young readers won’t connect with heroes of other races. “You read books like Kite Runner and Unaccustomed Earth,” I say. “Why not expect kids and teens to cross borders in their reading?”
I point to other artifacts of youth culture. “Their generation celebrates the mixing and mingling of races in television, music, and movies. Why not in books?”
On my blog (mitaliblog.com), I’ve become a proverbial broken record with a “windows and mirrors” plea: “The best novels let young people gain insight into other lives as well as reflect realities in their own lives.”
More confession: I worry that such noble soundbytes are unrealistic in the marketplace. Once the gatekeepers step aside in young adult literature, will teens choose book covers featuring faces of other races? Now that Justine Larbalestier’s Liar no longer features a white girl, are fewer copies selling?
Nobody seems to want to answer uncomfortable questions like these, so I took an anonymous poll on my blog about book covers. 138 librarians and booksellers responded, and here are the results:
25% said, “A YA book with a brown, black, or Asian face on the cover is RARELY bought or borrowed by white teens unless I push it.”
37% said, “A YA book with a brown, black, or Asian face on the cover is SOMETIMES bought or borrowed by white teens unless I push it.”
38% said, “A YA book with a brown, black, or Asian face on the cover circulates or sells THE SAME as other books, depending on buzz and reviews.”
Based on my unscientific data, then, it seems the race of a face on a young adult book cover does make a difference to white teens, and presumably to all teens. Assuming that these results (and the cynics) are right, I present two proposals for book covers in the world of children’s and teen books.
Keep covers—and illustrations—richly diverse when it comes to books for babies, toddlers, pre-K, and elementary-school-aged kids.
Preschool and elementary school students are wide open to stories suggested by teachers, librarians, and parents. It’s a time in life when you’re on the hunt for connections.
Back then I didn’t notice that books I loved like Heidi, Little Women, and the Betsy-Tacy books were about white girls. They were about children, and I was definitely one of those. If I had discovered a book like my own Rickshaw Girl in elementary school, I probably wouldn’t have noticed that Naima was brown like me. I would have read (and hopefully enjoyed) it simply as another book about a girl.
That doesn’t mean, however, that I wasn’t subliminally picking up messages about race, culture, gender, and power from the books I was reading. Childhood is a time when attitudes about such things are formed for life—perhaps it’s no surprise that during my young adulthood I battled deep-seated emotions of marginalization and exclusion.
The good news is that today, more educators are aware of stereotypes in books and many seek to include a diversity of literature in the curriculum. Television and movies aimed at kids have made big strides in representation. There’s certainly work to be done, but let’s hope that in 2010 and beyond, North American young children will subconsciously register a rainbow of faces as they make connections in all kinds of stories.
Get most faces OFF the covers of young adult novels.
Everything changes when it comes to the teen years. It’s a time in life when you’re on the hunt for identity.
I was in my upper teens when I realized that the protagonists in the books I loved were all of European descent. It was embarrassing; I felt like I was denying my culture. Was I a white-girl wannabe? I hoped not, but I began reading contemporary fiction with white faces on the covers in secret and shifted my focus to fantasy. I could at least imagine that Tolkien’s Aragorn was brown—a depiction of his face wasn’t on the book covers before the New Line movies.
I didn’t have much choice back then when it came to dark-skinned heroes, but maybe that’s an excuse. In my mostly all-white schools, would I have had the courage to carry around a novel with a brown girl on the cover? Not in middle school, that’s for sure. Probably not until eleventh grade or so, when my identity was more secure. (Too bad the first YA novel I’d find featuring an Indian American face was the one I myself would write years later.)
I try to imagine the experience of readers like me in today’s world, when at least a few covers on the margins (typically not bestsellers, mind you) bear non-white faces. I’ve come to the conclusion that while the book cover world may have diversified a bit since my coming of age, the pressure on teenagers remains the same. It might even be worse.
During grades 6-10, only the rare teen these days has the chutzpah to be seen in public with any book that isn’t trendy. A black teen might be embarrassed to carry around a novel with a white girl on the cover, a white teen is teased with “wigga” if he reads a book with a black face on the cover, and an Asian American trying to blend in feels uncomfortable when her teacher hands her an “Asian” novel in front of the class. Despite their generation’s relative openness to other races and cultures, our young people seem to be stuck in narrow trenches when it comes to their own ethnic identities.
That’s why publishers are managing to lure readers across gender and race lines and even time periods with action-oriented, faceless covers for novels like Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld and Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.
Australian publishers seem to understand this better than American houses. Take Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth, for example. I showed my brown teen son two covers (the first for the US edition and the second for the Australian) and told him they were about zombies. Guess which book he wanted to read?
I’ll give you three other reasons why a move toward the elimination of faces and models on young adult book covers makes sense.
First, it shifts the power to embody characters from the publishing house to the reader and writer. Readers can choose to flesh out the writer’s descriptions mentally (some tips for writers here and here), or hurry through a gripping story and ignore them altogether. The power of the imagination to cast the characters is an advantage a written or oral story has over a movie—why compromise that advantage by trying to imitate another medium?
Second, covers without faces don’t go out of date as quickly. Trends in teen hair and clothing change fast—anyone seen a bouffant or permed hairdo on a cover girl lately, for example?
Last but not least, the e-book revolution could eliminate traditional book covers altogether. Kindles, iPads, and other devices make covert reading more possible—we might see teens crossing more borders in fiction if they read privately. On the flip side, given that this is a generation which loves to personalize for public display, I can imagine teen readers mastering creative apps and designing their own e-book covers for beloved books.
Blogger Ari at Black Teens Read, Too represented her generation in an open letter to Bloomsbury during the cover fail controversy:
I’m sure you can’t imagine what it’s like to wander through the teen section of a bookstore and only see one or two books with people of color on them. Do you know how much that hurts? Are we so worthless that the few books that do feature people of color don’t have covers with people of color?
But what if teen shelves had no faces on any of the covers, while middle grade and picture book shelves were well-stocked with faces from many cultural backgrounds? If there weren’t a flood of white teen faces surrounding a reader like Ari as she browsed the aisles, maybe the sting of under-representation would lessen a bit.
Let’s empower teens to travel far and wide in their reading by keeping YA novels richly diverse—and by “defacing” book covers that might hinder such journeys. And let’s include them in the conversation as we seek to express race and culture in stories. Because in this discussion, as we saw during cover fail, it’s helpful when adults are willing to admit when we’re wrong. You can start by correcting or informing me; I’m listening, I promise.