Ellen Oh, YA Book Covers, and the Race Discussion (Still?)

So we’re still talking about having characters of color be featured on book covers. Still. You’d think by now we’d be past this. I mean, with all that noise around Liar and Magic Under Glass we might have learned a little something. We might have grown as an industry. Right?


For the unfamiliar, in recent YA publishing history, there have been two (of several) kerfuffles where a book about a character of color featured a white girl on its cover. Both Larbalestier’s Liar and Dolamore’s Magic Under Glass both suffered from what we call “whitewashing.” In both cases we have a happy-ish ending, because after a fuss was raised, the covers were fixed to accurately reflect the contents of the book. But the fact that we even had to go there kind of sucks.

And the discussion still isn’t over. Ellen Oh has noticed that, if you hit the YA section of the bookstore, if there’s a girl on the cover, she’s a pretty, thin, white girl, ninety-nine times out of one hundred. (There’s a bonus problem Oh doesn’t mention, where a lot of these girls are also passively post and/or dead, but that’s a rant of a different color.) She refers to the Best YA Book Covers List on Goodreads as evidence of this.

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.

The problem isn’t one instance, the problem is the norm. One single book cover isn’t a sin. But a wall of book covers that all look near-identical is. Idealizing a specific image of beauty at the expense of others is not healthy, ever. Not seeing representations of yourself in media, ever, has this slow and subtle buildup, worse for some than for others.

What really kills me is the excuse I often hear touted about. “Black covers don’t sell.” I’ve heard this only anecdotally, but so many times, from so many sources, both within and outside of YA. This is a problem that exists in all publishing, it seems. I suggest you read NK Jeminsin’s post Don’t Put My Book in the African-American Section.

So basically, books with people of color on them rarely exist because they “don’t sell.” Even when the person inside the book is a person of color, the cover can’t reflect that. And when the book is about people of color, and the person on the cover is a person of color, they get shuffled off to the various ethnic-book sections, because white people don’t buy black books, and the majority of people who buy books are white.

People. It’s twenty-fucking-twelve. Can we please at least pretend we’ve matured as a society?

2 thoughts on “Ellen Oh, YA Book Covers, and the Race Discussion (Still?)

  1. DeadlyAccurate says:

    I hope the book I just finished, Shadow Ops: Control Point by Myke Cole, proves them wrong with really strong sales. The hero is black, and the cover reflects that. The book was awesome, and I can't wait for the next one. (Sadly for me, it just came out, so I'll have to wait forever for the sequel).

  2. Stacey says:

    My favorite part of this post is the very last sentence. LOL! I feel the same way. Great post!!


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