Monday, August 17, 2009

Pants on Fire: More about the LIAR Book Cover

The controversy over Justine Larbalestier's forthcoming book, Liar, has settled down, the corrected cover has been revealed, the book's release date has been reset, Julie has weighed in with her well-reasoned post, but I'm not ready to drop it. It seems to me there are two main issues exposed by this story. One, the image on the cover of the book clearly does not reflect what is described inside. And two, the (possibly outdated?) notion that a dark-skinned cover image will hurt sales.

So first, the image of the book doesn't reflect what's inside. Perhaps the decision-makers at Bloomsbury thought they were being clever, what with their symbolically-reflecting-the-complex-psychological-makeup-of-the-main-character angle. (I am assuming that the entire thing was not just a big publicity stunt--a possibility that the skeptic in me likes to entertain) Trying to reflect a deeper psychological makeup on the cover seems reasonable--if it weren't for the fact that it goes against the author's intention. Perhaps the problem of differences between a book's cover and the words inside is a matter of degree. I mean, if Nancy Drew is described in the story as titian-haired, but you feel she's more of an ash blonde in the cover art, that's one thing. If the picture on the cover of a novel shows a snow-capped mountain in the distance that is nothing like the terrain for the setting of the book--that might be excusable, as in this cover for the Australian paperback edition of Tim Wynne-Jones's The Maestro (titled The Flight of Burl Crow in AU): See that Alpine-like mountain in the distance? This cover was illustrated by Australian Peter Gouldthorpe who had apparently never traveled to the rocky, tree-covered terrain of the Canadian Shield. It goes against the author's intention, but it's not crucial to the telling of the story, so meh. Let's try something else. What if Clifford, the Big Red Dog sported the image of a big red cat on the cover? Okay, that's not a perfect example for many reasons, one being that the author, Norman Bridwell, is also the illustrator. But it certainly would subvert the author's intention--and confuse the reader. Let's try this one: what if Patricia MacLachlan's Sarah, Plain and Tall came back from the marketing department with this cover on it:
Gosh, my Photoshopping skills are terrible, but you get the idea, right? The book's intent, message, everything changes if we think of Sarah as black. What I'm trying to get at is, it's one thing to use a cover image that doesn't quite fit what's in the book. But when you're changing the race of the character without the author's approval? It changes EVERYTHING. Sure, Larbalestier's character is a liar, but lying about race? Race? In the United States?--or anywhere, for that matter. It's too charged with meaning, too much of a different set of issues. No, sir, I don't like it. Hooray for the cover change.

Now issue two. Skin color on book covers. Whoa. Books with black people on the cover won't sell? Really? I mean . . . really? This suggests not only that white kids will buy books only about their own race, but also that minorities are not in the bookstores buying books--at all. Wrong on both counts. At least, I hope so. I fear I may be too optimistic. When the Liar debacle first made the rounds of the online forums, author Nnedi Okorafor weighed in with her experiences as an African-American author of young adult fantasy novels. Two of her books (which sound awesome, by the way, and have been added to my reading list), Zahrah the Windseeker and The Shadow Speaker, both feature characters with African racial makeups. And there was some going back and forth to get the covers right. Her first novel, Zahrah the Windseeker (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005), is about a girl living a futuristic African world who was born with hair that grew out as seven dreadlocks, each one entwined with a green vine. Her hair sets her apart, giving her special powers, and her hair plays a crucial part in the novel. Here's the original (and gorgeous) hardcover illustration, by Amanda Hall:

Okorafor's second novel, The Shadow Speaker (Harcourt, 2007), is about a very dark-skinned girl from sub-Saharan Africa, but the original cover for this book depicted a white girl. Then a light-skinned girl. It took another round of talks to achieve the final image:

Nnedi was kind enough to respond to my questions about her book cover adventures:

  • Just to clarify for myself, it was the cover of the paperback edition of Zahrah the Windseeker for which you had to request a cover change or adjustment, right?

    Yes, it was the paperback. The hardcover’s cover was PERFECT!

  • Assuming the answer to #1 is yes: After getting such a beautiful cover illustration for the hardcover of Zahrah, when you saw the light-skinned girl on the paperback, you must have been, what? Taken aback? Disappointed? Did they make any excuses for the very light skin--or balk at making the change to her skin to better represent the actual character in the book?

    I actually liked the paperback cover a lot. I loved the butterfly, the flowers and the eyes of the girl they chose. But yes, she was just too light-skinned. Of course I have nothing against light skinned people. It’s just that my character was not light-skinned at all and I felt she should be presented as how she was written. My publisher didn’t make any excuses for making her so light and I didn’t expect any. They changed the girl’s skin tone right away, though. And we all were happy.

  • Re: Zahrah's hair: I think the little bit of hair visible on the image they did use is sort of straight-looking, but you mentioned in your online post that they changed the straightened hair so that it more closely resembles the seven dreadlocks that are so integral to the story. What did they do, exactly --just crop off the hair more?

    Sigh, yes, it’s straight. That was the one thing that really bugged me and continues to bug me. Zahrah has seven super thick long long dreadlocks. They added some green tinges to the girl’s hair on the cover so that it doesn’t look so much like hair but that was the best they could do.

    In this case, the problem is deeper. They used a stock image for the photo and when it comes to stock images, you’re going to run into a problem: There are less “stock” images of black girls with any kind of natural hair, let alone long thick dreadlocks. The reason? That’s another can of worms we can open some other time.

  • For The Shadow Speaker, a white-skinned image on the cover must have come as a surprise, especially since the story takes place in and around Nigeria. Any idea what they were THINKING? When I look at the cover, it seems not only logical but better artistically to have the girl's silhouette dark against the ginger-colored sand.

    The Shadow Speaker takes place mainly in the country of Niger, not Nigeria (though one of the characters is from Nigeria and his back-story happens there). But still, it’s the same problem. Heck yes, I was surprised when I saw what they initially came up with. And confused. In my stories you are not going to question what a character looks like. I’m not interested in playing with physical ambiguity, especially since I’m writing characters of races that are so rarely portrayed in science fiction or fantasy.

    In The Shadow Speaker I think I even SAY that Ejii is “black skinned”. She’s half Nigerian and half Wodaabe and she lives in a town in the Sahara desert. She’s very dark and West African. I think at the time, the designers said, “Oh, we were just using a stock image”. I wasn’t interested in the reason; I just wanted it changed. Immediately.

    I think it was just a case of people thinking on autopilot. The designers were very cool. They were happy to talk about the cover and change it. Ejii went from white to light-skinned. My agent and I made a fuss again (I didn't believe in just making an attempt, I believed in getting it right 100%). Then finally Ejii was dark. Granted, Ejii has a low-cut afro and not the short dreadlocks she has on the cover (and yes, I did request that they change her hair), but that was as good as we could get. The dreadlocks didn’t imply any deeper subtle racial issue (like straight hair would have), so we said “ok”.

    So my publisher listened and understood. We all make mistakes. It’s how we handle our mistakes that shows our true character. And my publisher handled it superbly.

  • It does not seem as if the skin tone of the images on these covers have hurt sales. Any comments about that?

    I think the United States has issues with race that go very very deep. I think putting faces of color on covers might hurt sales, sure. But that’s due to that submerged vein of institutional racism that still runs in this country. I think even people of color have issues with seeing images of themselves. My sister once told me about a woman who sells beautiful African-looking dolls. This woman said that a lot of parents (who were black) were calling and complaining about their dolls when they got them. They were saying their dolls were too dark and their hair was too nappy. They wanted lighter skinned straighter haired dolls for their dark-skinned nappy haired little girls. Go figure.

    I think the more we see diversity in images, the weaker the racist beauty myth becomes. And then eventually it will truly die.

  • Any hopes--or fears--or predictions--about what will happen with the cover on your upcoming novel about the albino Nigerian girl?

    My editor is Sharyn November. She rocks, she understands and she knows what she’s doing. I have complete faith in all that she does. She’s already come up with an idea for the cover that I’m absolutely delighted by. But yeah, I love the challenge of this one.

Thanks, Nnedi!
It seems this problem is far from resolved. Maybe it's the stock image people that need a good talking-to. Or maybe it is we who are the problem. When was the last time YOU bought a book with a person of another race depicted on the cover. If you're a member of an ethnic minority, the answer is probably "not long ago" because so many books have whites on the cover. However, I'm white and I can think of just four children's books on my shelves right now with dark-skinned people on the cover. In the Land of Words by Eloise Greenfield, illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist, Shante Keyes and the New Year's Peas, by my friend and talented author Gail Piernas-Davenport, illustrated by Marion Eldridge, Julius Lester's Day of Tears and the great Varian Johnson's My Life as a Rhombus, a young adult novel. My results are pretty sad, percentage-wise. I'm hard-pressed to think of any Asian or Latino images on covers that I own. It's not a bias on my part so much as a lack of awareness. Well, that's gone now. As Justine Larbalestier implies on her blog, we need to do better.

For more talk about LIAR, see Jacket Whys.
For more about Nnedi Okorafor's work see her website.


  1. This is a really interesting interview and great points were made. It is ridiculous that we are having to have these kinds of discussions in the 21st century. Good Lord, I thought we were moving forward when we elected our first African-American president, but now it seems as if we have taken 500 steps back, and all over children's book covers. It is unbelievable. Thanks for your thoughtful post and interview!
    Margo Dill
    Read These Books and Use Them

  2. This was great. Thanks for the insight into Okorafor's book covers.