Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Covered, Uncovered, Recovered


If you're a children's book author, bookseller, blogger, librarian or publisher, you would have to have been on Mars for the last month not to hear about the whole LIAR cover debacle - Bloomsbury's decision to put a young white girl with long straight hair on the cover of Justine Larbalestier's new novel about a girl described by the author as "black with nappy hair which she wears natural and short."


The original controversial cover (pictured to the right) began to generate quite a few (as in, a landslide) of questions and complaints from people who found it offensive - a "white-washing" - and Ms. Larbalestier herself labeled it as "a shame" on her blog. She worried that people's reaction to the cover would mean that the book didn't get purchased and didn't get read. The author had this to say about the decision-making process at Bloomsbury, which she couldn't influence but did see unfold:

"The US Liar cover went through many different versions. An early one, which I loved, had the word Liar written in human hair. Sales & Marketing did not think it would sell. Bloomsbury has had a lot of success with photos of girls on their covers and that’s what they wanted. Although not all of the early girl face covers were white, none showed girls who looked remotely like Micah. I strongly objected to all of them. I lost."

What Ms. Larbalestier had hoped was that the North American publishers would go with the cover for the Australian edition (designed by Bruno Herfst) which she felt really captured the spirit of the book. That cover is pictured below. See what you think:

No great surprise that the people at Bloomsbury weren't thrilled with the Australian cover - it's a sophisticated bit of graphic design, using typography itself as a metaphor for the unreadable (blurred, undefined, unreliable, mutable) protagonist. Too sophisticated for American teenagers? That might have been the thinking at the Sales & Marketing discussions (Australians teens are more sophisticated?) Instead, why not follow a trend - girls' faces? Proven track record. Marketable. No complicated visual metaphors to provoke confusion. Nothing to interpret. Only the hair over the mouth - pretty straight-forward and simple, and that's where good design often comes from.

Only one problem - the face had to be a marketable face. So Bloomsbury set up a photo shoot of a white girl with perfect silky hair. A safe cover. Or so they thought.

The storm raged. Bloomsbury tried to wait it out. But the ship began to list and Bloomsbury bailed. They delayed the release of the book by one month, (it will be coming out now in October) and they issued a new cover (shown at the top), designed by Danielle Delaney. For it, the camera has pulled back slightly - which is a shame. While the original cover is the definition of "in your face," the new cover is simply a portrait. I'm not sure who designed the original, but it was great work - what a shame that Bloomsbury specified a white model for the photo shoot. The new design has pulled away far enough to include the girl's hands. Her mouth is slightly visible as well. The hair up near the forehead is curly, but in a permed way, certainly not "nappy." And is there a hat of some sort? The hands appear to be pulling on navy blue ties. In the new version, the black background makes the author's name and the title pop, it's true - and the title is quite a bit larger, spreading to the edges of the jacket. The girl, who appears to be older than the original girl, is black. The new cover might be truer to the way the author describes the protagonist, but it's not as exciting as it could have been if the original layout had been used with a black model. Had the original girl been black, her hair could have been long enough to cover her mouth - people can overlook a problem of hair length, the same way they overlook the fact that the girl in the book is nowhere near as beautiful as the girl on either of the covers. But a problem with the color of skin cannot be ignored.

With the redesigned cover, the publisher also offered this explanation:

“We regret that our original creative direction for Liar—which was intended to symbolically reflect the narrator’s complex psychological makeup—has been interpreted by some as a calculated decision to mask the character’s ethnicity,” Bloomsbury officials said in a statement to PW. “In response to this concern, and in support of the author’s vision for the novel, Bloomsbury has decided to re-jacket the hardcover edition with a new look in time for its publication in October. It is our hope that the important discussions about race and its representation in teen literature continue. As the publisher of Liar, we also hope that nothing further distracts from the quality of the author’s nuanced and accomplished story, and that a new cover will allow this novel’s many advocates to celebrate its U.S. publication without reservation.”

The skeptic in me wonders about a Sales meeting where the subject under discussion is how many books will be sold via a symbolic reflection of an internal psychological state. That sounds a bit lofty for a marketing plan. Much easier to believe is a desire at the heart of it all to "mask the character's ethnicity." Apparently, though, Justine Larbalestier remains optimistic about the outcome of the controversy, despite the fact that she has heard confirmations now of how pervasive the "No Blacks on Covers" attitude is: editors who say books with black protagonists on the cover don't sell; sales reps who have told her straight out that some American accounts "won't take books with black covers;" booksellers who have told her they can't give away books with people of color on the cover. (This is America in the 21st-century?) Yet Ms. Larbalestier thinks the fault may lie in the lack of publicity and support given to these books by their publishers, rather than in some inherent racism coming from people with disposable income and a desire to buy books. She recommends in her blog dated 7/23 that people put their money where their mouths are. Time to buy books with people of color on the cover, she says. Oddly, the two books she recommends to people (though they do show non-white girls) do not show their faces - one shows a girl with her back to the camera, and the other shows a sexy torso. Not exactly ground-breaking territory there, either. But maybe the first steps have to be baby steps?

One last thought here: Read Uma Krishnaswami's intelligent post on this subject over on her blog, Writing with a Broken Tusk. She includes thoughts about covers which depict South Asian protagonists, and she delves into this whole trend to obscure/place into shadow/lop off the heads of cover figures. An interesting read. Not long ago, my neighborhood bookstore featured a whole window display of covers featuring people's feet:

So maybe torsos and backs (and toes) just reflect the modern American belief that our rushed lives are a fragmentary mess, that life cannot be visualized as an integrated whole, that what you see depends on where you stand - now I'm getting into Bloomsbury Territory: symbolic reflections of inner psychological states. Time to stop.

1 comment:

  1. I have more to say about that and I'll save it for my turn to post. I hadn't seen the new cover before reading this. Thanks, Julie!

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