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>Who Will Read About Whom?

>Responding to the drama about Bloomsbury twice whitewashing a character on a book jacket, Mitali Perkins has a poll going on about how young readers react to covers with non-white characters. Go on over and cast your vote.

One thing and one thing only I want to say about the Bloomsbury covers and the call to boycott the publisher: Doesn’t anyone think it’s great that Bloomsbury is actually publishing books about kids of color where the color is not exactly the main thing? Okay, two more things: would Liar and Magic Under Glass have been published if their authors were not white, and would the covers have been the same?

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. >Great questions–can't wait to see some responses. I don think the boycott call was a bit premature. If there was evidence that people contacted the publisher and were blown off I might think differently but as soon as it got around the book bloggers I heard the news the were changing the cover. Yes, they should have been aware BEFORE publishing the book–especially after Liar, but a boycott? Seemed a bit rash to me.

    And yes, I'm glad these books are getting published! Thanks.

  2. Anonymous says:

    >[This comment has been deleted by the author and rewritten because, wow, had she gone off the diving board into the deep end]

    I think it is fabulous that Magic Under Glass, Liar and When You Reach Me, are stories where race is mentioned and significant and still not the defining feature of characters or the raison d'etre of the book. I've been waiting for this for twenty-five years.

    I think the covers are trivial in comparison.

    But then, I wonder. . . Something so trivial, why couldn't they have gotten it right? Why?

  3. >It's not "trivial" and it wasn't simply an oversight. Whitewashing book covers is systemic within the children's publishing industry–the fact that it was done TWICE by the same publisher within one year tells you just how much Bloomsbury cares about the effect whitewashing has on young readers–especially those of color. If you didn't already read Ari's letter, you really should:

    I’ve worked with children and teens for a long time, and I know that every day kids of color have to actively work against a slew of media messages that misrepresent them and distort their realities. I’ve also seen the delight in a child’s eyes when s/he sees my book and knows—“That’s for me!” So when a publisher deliberately and repeatedly puts a white person on a book about a child of color, I consider that a personal and political assault on the most vulnerable members of my community. I also think it’s an insult to white readers—the publisher is basically assuming that whites are so racist they’ll be utterly repulsed by a book cover that shows a person of color. We have a black First Family living in the White House; the Obamas represent ALL Americans—they are “the face of America.” And I know that a lot of people still haven’t accepted that fact, but catering to their bigotry and intolerance is not the way forward—and that’s just what publishers are doing when they whitewash books.

  4. >As for the "two more things", are you suggesting that passably written books by non-white writers are being published instead of better written works by white authors? Does the historical record and the current state of the industry reflect that, all other things being equal, publishers are far less likely to publish non-white writers than white writers? I would be shocked to learn that you have genuinely concluded that even a handful of presses can be accused of having published non-white writers because of their racial identity. It would seem far closer to the truth to posit that it stubbornly remains the case that non-white writers are published in spite of their race.

  5. Mitali Perkins says:

    >Keep talking, but I'm also looking for covers that have worked.

  6. Roger Sutton says:

    >No, Joe, I'm thinking something quite different–that it is easier for white writers to publish books about nonwhites than it is for nonwhite writers to write about whites–in fact I think it is easier for white writers to get published, period. Also, had a black writer written either of the books in question, there would not have been a white girl on either cover.

  7. Anonymous says:

    >"Also, had a black writer written either of the books in question, there would not have been a white girl on either cover."

    Really? I'm not so sure.


  8. >There IS pressure to put very fair or ambiguously raced models on the cover of books about people of color (PoC)–particularly in the sci-fi/fantasy genres (it was done to Octavia Butler, who was African American, and to Ursula Le Guin, who is white). Black-authored books that are intended for a black audience MUST have a visibly black model on the cover in order to forge that immediate connection between consumer and book (this is what I take to be the industry's way of thinking). But a book that a publisher believes has the potential to sell to a larger white audience will likely NOT feature a person of color on the cover in order to ensure white consumers will pick up the book.

    And Joe–you should check out the CCBC stats that show how PoC are hardly published at all, and are even published less frequently than whites who write about PoC.

    (And as an aside, you might be from the UK, in which case I understand your choice of term, but I'm a woman–not "non-male," and I'm a person of color are not "non-white")

  9. >I just interviewed a ton of authors, etc on this issue for an article to appear in Bookslut and what I found was that although non Caucasian authors have certainly had issues with their covers (from not liking them, to not being asked about them, etc), thus far the only time we have seen dark skinned characters portrayed as white skinned on the cover is with Caucasian authors. (And if I'm missing something, please let me know.)

    You also need to see Trenton Lee Stewart's Mysterious Benedict Society books where it is done three times (each book in the series) with the character of "Sticky". (Leila just found this last week at Bookshelves of Doom.)

    I have no idea why this only happens with Caucasian authors – I'm sure it has nothing to do with them personally but a perception might exist that they will go along with it more than a non Caucasian. Honestly, who knows. (I can' stress enough how I have NO IDEA why this is so.)

    I do think the cover is important when it is a lie of this magnitude – slap a nonphoto cover on there, and it's not so important. Doing this though, putting these covers on these books, negates anything Bloomsbury might have tried to accomplish with the books in the first place.

  10. Neesha Meminger says:

    >I did a short response to this post on my blog earlier today, but wanted to pop in and say that I agree with you, Roger: had the books mentioned been authored by PoC, I'm not sure if they would have a) been published, and (b) if they had, whether they would have featured PoC on the covers.

    I also want to say (which I mentioned in my post) that I resent the implication that PoC ought to be "grateful" for publishers who publish books with characters of colour, and white authors who write characters of colour. It baffles me to think that I ought to be grateful to someone for doing something as simple as offering an accurate depiction of the real world that we all live in. After all, I write white characters in my novels all the time, but no one congratulates me, thanks me, or applauds me for it. It is simply expected.

  11. >I'm not sure why Roger's post makes you feel pressured to be grateful. I certainly don't feel grateful to Bloomsbury. Pleased, yes. Grateful, no. There are stories in my past that I have been deeply grateful to the author for writing and to the publisher for publishing, so it's not impossible that I would be grateful for these. But I am not likely to jump directly to that emotion just because I hear they have characters of color in them.

    I think we should be grateful for great writing. For example, if Shine Coconut Moon moves me, I will be indebted to you for writing it, no matter what color your characters are.

  12. Neesha Meminger says:

    >Anon: Won't you kindly step out of the dark so I can see who I am addressing? Talking about race is fraught with high emotions and tension for all of us. Those of us commenting under our real names are taking a risk by stating our true thoughts and opinions. If you want to challenge an opinion, criticize someone's stance, or simply ask a commenter a question, why not do it "face to face"? We won't bite, I promise!

  13. >Anon,

    I think Neesha was responding to Roger's question: "Doesn't anyone think it's great that Bloomsbury is actually publishing books about kids of color where the color is not exactly the main thing?" The implication is that we should somehow take a moment to celebrate Bloomsbury's decision to publish stories about PoC even if they have, or even as we critique, a whitewashed cover. Over 30% of the US population consists of people of color, yet less than 5% of all books published for children are by or about PoC. I'll think it's great when those numbers start to match up. Bloomsbury and other publishers have an ethical obligation to serve ALL the children in this country, and they don't deserve a pat on the back (or our gratitude) for doing what they ought to do…

  14. Roger Sutton says:

    >Two points (maybe three), though, Zetta–I wasn't praising Bloomsbury for publishing books about POC, I was praising them for publishing books about POC without the usual requirement that a book with a POC protagonist must be about the social or historical experience of what it means to be a POC. That's still unusual, and welcome.

    And remember that a large number of books for children and teens aren't about people at all. They are about bugs, the rain forest, talking hippos. I am also sure that you would agree with me that a book about white children doesn't mean it can't be profitably read by children of color, just as white children should read about people who don't look like themselves.

  15. >I think the problem I'm having here is context…b/c I do agree, Roger, that all children can find meaning in books about different people, cultures, countries, etc. You'd have to check with KT Horning on just how many books are actually about bugs…

    It's the fact that you paired a very serious critique with a completely different issue. Yes, many of us have been asking for stories where race is not figured as a central conflict in the book. But Bloomsbury actually worked to CONCEAL the truth of the story by whitewashing the cover. The question isn't why READERS don't think it's great to have a story about "ordinary" PoC–the question is, why doesn't the PUBLISHER think it's great enough to warrant a truthful cover? Pairing the cover and content issues makes it seem like you're suggesting they somehow balance each other out–bad cover, great content, it's a draw. It's not…

  16. >Neesha Meminger,

    I understand why you want me to identify myself. I hope you can understand why I won't. I believe that anonymity is crucial for the free exchange of ideas and I want my comments read for what they say, not for who said them. This isn't the first time I've said this on Roger's site. So long as he allows anonymous commenting, I will continue to be anonymous.

    Have you noticed how often Roger has tried to start this conversation only to have it stalled because no one will speak? How many times has he pointed the finger at Nikki Grimes article in the Horn Book and heard *crickets* back?

    I understand there are trolls. If I offended you with my comment, I apologize sincerely. I will respect your wishes and drop out of this conversation, but I would argue that calling people out for anonymity has become a way to stifle any dissent in an online conversation. Call people out for being rude. Call them out for being wrong. But I don't think anyone should be discouraged from speaking because they are anonymous. The alternative is words of wisdom from the heavyweights that no one will contradict. Or, no conversation at all.

    Anon 10:39

  17. Neesha Meminger says:

    >Oh, dear. Anon, I wasn't trying to stifle your expression. I just prefer to know who(m?) I am addressing. Certainly feel free to continue commenting! I'm not sure which Nikki Grimes article you are referring to, and this is one of my few visits to this blog, quite frankly. Not for any other reason than I just don't have as much time as I'd like to peruse all the wonderful, insightful blogs there are out there.

    However, I think Zetta addressed where I was coming from quite well. There was no pressure from Roger to feel grateful. There have, however, been comments and posts on the blogosphere along the lines of, "Well, at least the publisher is releasing books about PoC! We should give them kudos for that." This is a sentiment I don't particularly agree with, and Roger's first point reminded me of it. So, I chose to address it by expressing my opinion, and my opinion only. I hope that clarifies.

    Also, just want to quickly point out that there are publishers like Little Brown, FSG, Candlewick, and others who consistently release books by authors of colour about kids/teens of colour, with covers that (in most cases) accurately depict these characters. And these publishers are not praised, thanked, or congratulated for what they've been doing all along.

    One thing I AM grateful for is that the unrelenting pressure from young readers and bloggers has resulted in some very important changes!

  18. Roger Sutton says:

    >Neesha is challenging me to use my comment-linking skills!

  19. Anonymous says:

    >Neesha Meminger,

    No worries, then.
    : )

    Zetta, I think the fact that Bloomsbury is doing with one hand something I applaud and with the other something I condemn is worth discussing. How can these two things go together and how can we act to squash the one without undermining the other?

    Worst case scenario: Bloomsbury goes back to publishing all white people all the time and voila, no more misleading covers. It's not an ethical solution, but it might be a business-like one, if they thought readers would let them get away with it.

    Anon 10:39

  20. Olugbemisola (Mrs. Pilkington) says:

    >Hi Anon 10:39,

    I'm not sure if you mean that readers shouldn't challenge publishers regarding cover whitewashing because it might cause them to cease publishing books about people of colour in general. If that's the case, I think that the risk of the worst case scenario you bring up is one certainly worth taking — I think that the notions that
    1) readers find PoC on covers unappealing
    2) if that's so, that's OK

    must be addressed, and I'm grateful for the readers and bloggers who speak up. And if a publisher is thoughtful about decisions to publish books by and about PoC, then I'd hope they'd be able to take the opportunity to make changes that reflect authentic representations. And if they're not thoughtful about about it now, then perhaps they will be.

  21. Anonymous says:

    >Nick Burd is African American yet there is a white boy on the cover of THE VAST FIELDS OF ORDINARY. I just started the book and as of yet there is no mention of whether Dade is a member of any particular race (that may be forthcoming so someone who has finished the book, please feel free to jump in with specific quotes), but in that absence of that kind of information does Dade default to white because of the boy on the cover or to black because of the race of the author?


  22. Anonymous says:

    >Olugbemisola (Mrs. Pilkington),

    I think that any action can have unintended consequences. I think the best way to combat those unintended consequences is with follow up discussions, which is why I am so pleased to see the new site devoted to combating white washing covers. But I don't think it is enough to just focus on white washing. We should continue to talk point out who is publishing stories with people of color, and who isn't. Like Roger, I think we should be asking, Would these books have been published if their authors weren't white? If so, how can we encourage publishers to publish stories written by as well as about people of color?

    What I want most is to break the habit that says that any cover with a poc on it must be on a downer book. Where is my black Ramona Quimby, indeed.

    Anon 10:39

  23. KT Horning says:

    >Jonathan, in THE VAST FIELDS OF ORDINARY, Dade is never identified as black, white, or biracial (like the author) as I recall, so I think the publisher defaulted to white. The book's not without racial or class awareness, however, as one of his boyfriends is Latino, and another is working class.

    As a reader, I assumed he was white, and it hadn't occurred to me that that may have been due to the cover art alone. But I think I also made that assumption because the author was so specific about race and class otherwise, and since the character talked a lot about other identity issues in such detail, I think if he'd been black or biracial, living in a small Iowan city, we'd have heard about it.

  24. Anonymous says:

    >KT, I had just *barely* started the novel when I read this thread. I've still only read the prologue and the first chapter, but the mother is mentioned as having sandy, brown hair so it seems that Dade is white, and your reasoning seems to support this. I will keep an eye on it, however.


  25. MissAttitude says:

    >Good discussion. I don't think Liar or Magic Under Glass would have been published if they were by a poc.

    I agree with zetta, the question is why do publishers think they can't put a POC on a cover? or publish more stories about them. At least we're having this discussion and I'm grateful for gorups like RAWW that will be watching out for these things.

    I didn't know the author of the Vast Fieldso of Ordinary was black. I knew the mc's boyfriend was Latino (I haven't read the book yet but I really want to0 but I assumed he was white based on the cover. And in my mind, if a character's race is not identified, I assume he's white. Sad but true

  26. Debbie Reese says:

    >Another aspect of this conversation… what about stereotypes on covers?

    Noble Indians sell quite well, as demonstrated by BROTHER EAGLE SISTER SKY.

    Course, the Indians in that book (like the speech itself) are best-labeled "the white man's Indian" (images developed by people who aren't Native). Borrowing "white man's Indian" from the groundbreaking book by Robert F. Berkhofer.

    Think, too, of INDIAN IN THE CUPBOARD… There are other examples.

  27. >Good point, Debbie. I think a lot of this comes down to the lack of diversity within the industry–it seems there are very few PoC editors and perhaps even fewer PoC cover designers…Tarie over at Into the Wardrobe brought this problematic cover to our attention:

  28. >Just wanted to report back on THE VAST FIELDS OF ORDINARY. Nobody's skin color is ever mentioned. Mom has sandy brown hair. Dade has brown eyes and dirty blond hair that he dyes chocolate brown at one point. Several people are described as black, including the woman that Dad has an affair with. I think the assumption is that Dade is white, but the refernces are so fleeting that if the reader needed the characters to be something else, they probably could be.


  29. Anonymous says:

    >To MissAttitude

    Why do you think Bloomsbury wouldn't have published LIar and Magic Under Glass if they were written b people of color?

  30. MissAttitude says:

    >@Anon-Because all too often authors of color are overlooked, especially in the YA/MG gnere. Justine is a well-known author so if it had been written by a well-established black author then yes it would have been published. But Magic Under Glass? I don't think so. It's so hard for authors of color to even get their littlest toe in the door of a publishing house and I think if they had read that the book was about a dark-skinned girl and that the author was ofo color, it may not have been published. I hope I'm wrong though, I've just gotten a bit too cynical. But I would LOVE to be proven wrong but I think the evidence is in the teeny tiny number of authors of color who get published.

    Sorry it took me so long to respond!

  31. Anonymous says:

    >Question: Do authors typically submit a photo of themselves when submitting a manuscript for consideration? Do publishing companies have a box to check for race on their Author Application Forms?

    At what point does the author's race factor in to an editors decision to consider a manuscript?

  32. Anonymous says:

    >This is such a tricky question, I've held off on asking it. We've asked if these books would have been published if they hadn't been written by white authors. I would like to ask if they would have been written. In comments after the Sharon Flake article in the HB there seemed to be a pretty deep river of resentment of Science Fiction and Fantasy in the African-American community. When I say that I wish there were more SF and Fantasy written by people of color, am I really saying that I wish they would write more like white people?

    We write from our experience and from our dreams and I would really like to see more diverse fantasies and Science Fiction. I don't like to think that there is something necessarily white about it.

    We've heard accusations that publishers ghettoize their authors by subject. Do authors of color ever feel pressure from their communities not to write SF and Fantasy?

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