More about cover art

A few more assorted notes about cover art on books, especially with regard to issues of portrayals of characters of color.

First, a followup about the whitewashing of the cover for Magic Under Glass.

The Bloomsbury Kids site now says:

Bloomsbury is ceasing to supply copies of the US edition of Magic Under Glass. The jacket design has caused offense and we apologize for our mistake. Copies of the book with a new jacket design will be available shortly.

Excellent news!

One could wish for a somewhat more detailed and/or comprehensive response from the publisher; I still don't have much sense of whether they understand what the problem was, nor whether they're going to try to be more careful in the future. Still, I'm glad to see them taking this step.

There's a linkspam post that provides a bunch of links about that issue. A couple of links from that post led me to discussions of yet another whitewashing problem, the covers for the Mysterious Benedict Society series. Elizabeth Bird at School Library Journal was one of (I gather) several reviewers who pointed out the problem back in late 2007:

I am referring to the character of Sticky Washington. Sticky has dark skin in the book. Now look on the cover. It took me a while to figure out why I wasn't seeing Sticky there. I was, but they've bleached him out. In short, they made Sticky white.

Leila Roy at Bookshelves of Doom provided more details and pictures in a post last week. The character is dark-skinned in the interior illustrations, but white-skinned in the cover art of all three books in the series.

Travis at 100 Scope Notes provides closeups.

I'm pleased to see that this story, too, has a happy ending:

"We are adjusting the covers of all three titles immediately as they reprint in order to offer a more faithful rendering as soon as possible," Melanie Chang, Little, Brown's executive director of publicity and communications, told School Library Journal.

But come on, publishers. Get with the program. It shouldn't take you two years and three books to notice that there's a problem and fix it.

Meanwhile, Karen Healey provides some discussion of how little control most new authors have over their covers, and a detailed look at the development of her own book's cover. This was a case where the author spoke up about a problem before the cover was printed, the editors were sympathetic to her concerns, and the deeply unfortunate original version of the cover art will not be on the book when it's published.

Karen also discusses both positive and negative aspects of the cover they ended up with, which is clearly a huge improvement over the original, but nonetheless has its own potentially problematic side. It sounds to me like a reasonable compromise for everyone involved to have made.

Anyway, good entry, especially worth reading if you're interested in the process of how cover art is chosen (though that process of course varies a lot). The comment thread is good reading, too; among other things, a couple of people note that some publishers do consult their authors about covers these days, which I'm glad to hear.

That comment thread includes, among other things, a link to zeborahnz's survey of covers at a bookstore in (I think) Christchurch.

In the science fiction/fantasy section, she looked at about 500 covers, about half of which showed people. Six of those covers showed characters of color. (On books by American, British, and Canadian authors, all (I think) from publishers or imprints based in the US.)

The comment thread on Karen's entry also includes a note from author Cynthia Leitich Smith noting that three of her books, from HarperCollins, feature characters of color on the cover. (I mention this 'cause for now, given how often publishers get it wrong, I think it's worth noting when publishers get it right. Some day, I hope it will be so unremarkable that it won't need remarking on.)

I'll close this entry with a link to a project Mary Anne started last year, Red Sari: An Analysis of S. Asian and Diaspora Book Covers. (It's a work in progress.) She wrote:

My original cover was an 'artsy, literary' cover, but under market pressure, the cover was changed to an image of a brown-skinned woman with wet skin, wrapped in a red sari. I had heard that this was common for the covers of S. Asian books, so I eventually decided to do some research and see if that was actually the case.

She talks about what happened with her cover, shows the covers of various editions of her book from other countries, and then discusses some other writers' covers. To navigate through the pages, click the NEXT link at the end of each page.

2 Responses to “More about cover art”

  1. Jim Moskowitz

    Thanks for the link to Karen Healey’s post, Jed; it interested me a lot.

    But I have to wonder if people are doing too much Judging A Book By Its Cover. After all, the characters inside are the most important part, compared to the picture on the cover. If the book introduces you to a character of color through hundreds of pages of their thoughts and actions, that’ll have a much bigger effect on (changing?) the reader than the cover illustration will.

    There’s possibly even a lure-them-in effect: if nonwhite covers keep a certain portion of the public from reading a book, then a falsely-colored cover could be the best way to reach them — people who should really be hearing the message contained beneath that cover…

  2. Jed

    Your emphasis in your third paragraph is on the effect on white people. One big part of the problem with whitewashed covers is the effect on readers of color.

    No time to write a detailed response right now, but please read the post about Magic Under Glass by Ari, who I gather (based on the blog URL) is a black teen. In particular, read the paragraph that starts out “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.”

    It’s certainly good and important to have characters of color in books, regardless of whether they appear on covers. But don’t underestimate the importance of covers.


Join the Conversation