Sunday, August 02, 2009

And So? Cover images in YA novels

Some of us have been following the debate over the cover image on the US edition of Justine Larbalestier's forthcoming novel, Liar. And groaning, because sometimes the decisions made about covers seem just, well, baffling. Or maybe not. Either of which option is a little depressing.

The Ya Ya Yas take this topic on by examining an enormous array of Asian Americans on YA fiction covers. Funny that all the figures need to be so far away or shadowed that you can't see their faces, or close up so all you can see is eyelashes or belly-buttons. And that's not even getting to whether the figure in fact looks like someone from the community the book's set in, or is after a kind of generic "Asian-American" look, whatever that is.

I did a quick check of the covers of books on my shelf with South Asian protagonists and here's what I found. They don't de-brown the characters, not quite, but they often lighten them up, face them backwards, hide their faces, or do that heads-cut-off thing that seemed to be a trend in YA girl novels in general. Or the images are so close-up that the girl is all eyelashes, or all bellybutton. Where there's a sari, it's usually red or orangey-red or goldish, like a wedding sari, you know. It's always Banarasi, regardless of the region of the subcontinent used in the book. It also always has a gold border, because heavens, don't we all walk our teens about dressed in gold-bordered saris all the time? There are of course no regional differences evident in these covers at all, so that a book set in a southern family is likely to manifest clothes and jewelry straight from the windows of Delhi boutiques.

None of which would matter, of course, except that as Justine points out in her blog, most readers have no idea that the author didn't personally endorse the cover decision.

In the realm of the adult literary market, Mary Anne Mohanraj takes the conversation in another direction, when she analyzes covers of books writen by South Asian women and men. Sawnet features multiple covers by a number of books by South Asian women, a few of them adult-YA crossovers. I'm especially intrigued by Mary Anne's observation that the books by women in her sample featured bodies that were still or at rest, not active or in motion. Come to think of it, that's true for every single YA book I've seen with a South Asian female protagonist. And now I'm thinking, is Shyam Selvadurai's Swimming in the Monsoon Sea the only YA book with a South Asian male protagonist? And yes, the kid's active on that cover, throwing himself into the water in a great energetic arc. And the color is blue-green, no reds in sight. Mary Anne, you may be onto something!


  1. Great post, Uma. I haven't seen Shyam's cover, but will check it out. Isn't that funny that it is a dynamic cover in blues and greens? I wonder why they didn't have a young man's belly button prominently displayed on that cover? *grin*

    Also, I start to think about the "self-fulfilling prophecy" that Justine references in her post, i.e. if we keep seeing covers for young women or teens with inactive, sexualized models, will young women and teens begin to see themselves this way (if they don't already)?

    A very interesting discussion, indeed.


  2. It's been fascinating, the whole LIAR cover debacle, hasn't it, Uma? Why hasn't Bloomsbury apologized, designed a new cover, and sent the new one out to bookstores? Seems easy enough, and necessary. Oh, I would have loved to be a fly on the wall at the meeting where that cover was given the nod of approval!

    Thanks for following the South Asian thread on your own bookshelf - I'd noticed the gold-edged saris, but I hadn't noticed how "still or at rest" the female figures are - that's unsettling.

    Carol Brendler and I are starting a blog devoted to the discussion of kids' books covers - we're calling it JACKET KNACK - and so far, we only have the header, the title, and a one word "Welcome" up at the website ( but we'll soon be going full force, looking at everything from picture books to YA, from re-issues of old classics with new illustrations, to interviews with art directors and cover designers (see previous comment re: fly on the wall) - I hope it will shed additional light on the whole process of authorship, illustation, and marketing. And we're not going to let the idea of marketability vs. integrity to the book's content drift away - we'll pursue it!

  3. Neesha, this whole episode's been quite an eye-opener, but maybe all the conversation around it will do some good.

    "Welcome" seems like a great start, Julie! Sort of what the jackets of books ought to be doing, right? Welcoming readers in?

  4. I looked on my shelves, hoping, hoping, hoping to find a book that showed a realistic depiction of a character. (I found one exception.) The characters' skins are typically lightened, and they are in passive positions. Interestingly, all the covers of my Chinese books (published for the Chinese market, by a publishing company in Beijing) feature inactive characters, male and female. The one exception in all my books does show a female character in a more active position and she is not lightened--her skin is fairly typical for a southern Chinese person.

    The whole debate is frustrating. Yes, the jacket does help sell the book, but I wish publishers would open their eyes and realize that not everyone looks the same and that their covers could be accurate. Also, I wish people wouldn't care about people's skin color or use that to help decide if they buy a book or if they will be friends with someone--but sadly this is a tendency of people all over the world, in many countries. (My kids have experienced people not wanting to be near them because of our skin color.) The only place I've lived where this isn't true is Brazil--and there the issue was social class, not race or skin color.

    Martine mentioned to me once that the different covers of her Keturah book had a huge impact on sales. The Canadian one confused readers, even about the genre of the book.

    As Uma notes, there are huge regional differences in India. Sadly, most Americans don't realize the wide variety of people who live in other countries and tend to group them together, even from very different cultures, in non-logical ways.

    One interesting thing I've never heard discussed in the states is whitening. Both in Brazil and China there are tons of products for whitening skin. Yet in the states and Europe people are trying to darken their skin. It is like "we" all are trying to be this generic someone we aren't. Tons of women and girls use whitening products because they are told that "white" is beautiful. They also undergo plastic surgery. Over 1/3 of the girls in my son's graduating class had had plastic surgery on their faces, to make them look less Asian. This is a disturbing trend.
    Why do people even have this mental idea that "white" is better? And why do many covers of books and magazine "sexualize" girls and women?

    I'm excited for Julie and Carol's blog about jackets. I'll watch for it, and direct people there!

  5. Sarah, yes, those whitening products are all over the place in India--I suspect some of them are quite toxic. And I look forward as well to the Julie-Carol blog.

  6. And so the postscript here is of course that the blogosphere prevailed, Bloomsbury caved, and there will be a new cover for the US edition of LIAR: