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As many of you have likely read by now, Justine Larbalestier's upcoming book Liar is about a mixed race teen with self described dark skin and short black hair (she states she has been mistaken for a boy). While I have heard only good things about the novel itself, the blogs have lit up with frustration and shock over the cover - which depicts a Caucasian teen with long brown hair. There is nothing African American or biracial about this model and the choice to use this picture on this particular book has seen a lot of negative response. Justine, after initially stating that the cover choice was made by the publisher and directing her readers to contact Bloomsbury with any questions/concerns, has now responded on her site stating (in part):

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.

I tried to contact Bloomsbury via the PR folks I know and deal with (and have always had an excellent relationship with) and found out this morning that as PW was running a piece on the cover controversy they preferred to let that stand as their formal response. The piece just went live at PW and basically, blames the unreliable lying narrator for the cover:

"The entire premise of this book is about a compulsive liar," said Melanie Cecka, publishing director of Bloomsbury Children's Books USA and Walker Books for Young Readers, who worked on Liar. "Of all the things you're going to choose to believe of her, you're going to choose to believe she was telling the truth about race?"

The rest of the article is about the cover's aesthetics, some negative bookseller/librarian response and the hope that the cover will help change the world: "I do think it's going to raise awareness of race in teen literature to new levels," said Cecka. "Clearly, our striving for ambiguity with this cover, and for it to be interpreted as a ‘lie' itself didn't work for everyone. But again, if this jacket proves a catalyst for a bigger discussion about how the industry is dealing with its books on race, that's a very large good to come of this current whirlwind."

This has to be the lamest and yet most predictable response I have ever come across from a publisher. Of course they won't admit that covers with white skinned models sell better than those with dark skinned, of course not! Not in America! Not in the 21st century! It's not about race or ethnicity at all!!! See, the character lies about stuff and even though we have an author who has gone on record repeatedly about the significance of choosing multi-ethnic characters and who has stated more than once that she purposely chooses for her protagonists to not be white, well in this case we thought she might have been fooling and so we gave her a white girl on the cover just in case.

Just in case Justine Larbalestier wasn't serious about hating that whole whitewashing thing.

I know what Bloomsbury was thinking and I am very very disappointed. They can say whatever they want about it being the character's fault but that is bunk, plain and simple. They were thinking the same thing Dutton thought when they put girls on the covers of John Green's books, or when they themselves put a skinny girl on the cover of a book about a girl battling her weight or when S&S and HMH put a girl on the cover of a book that is actually written from dual narratives of a boy and girl - they were thinking that it would sell better this way.

The only reason a book cover exists is to catch the eye and persuade browsers to pick up the book. This is the model that Bloomsbury thought would sell this book and the excuses - and that's what they are, excuses - are just weak attempts to cover up their initial bad choice. Trying to wrap themselves in an anti-racism blanket after doing something so short sighted and quite frankly stupid is truly inappropriate. No one needed Bloomsbury to help the country along with the discussion on race; we've been having it quite nicely without this book cover. Doing something wrong and then trying to claim it is helpful is not just really really wrong, it's embarrassing and it insults the intelligence of everyone who has written about the need for more multicultural characters in children's & teen books.

Did you really think we needed a white girl depicting a black character to remind us that we are not living in a post racial society? Please.

So then, what to do about this? Justine writes very compellingly about how she had no choice and is displeased by the cover. I believe her. She's a great writer, and the writer should not be blamed for an idiotic editorial decision. On the other hand, the publisher should not be rewarded for one either. So that leaves us with few choices as to how to address this whole debacle in a way that not only allows us to vent our frustration (as I'm doing right now), but also not punish the author and yet make Bloomsbury damn sure aware that they did the wrong thing.

Although Melanie Cecka is clearly the point person on this (from her quotes in the PW piece) Bloomsbury would prefer for Deb Shapiro in PR to respond to your emails: Deb.Shapiro@bloomsburyusa.com. But I don't know if that is the right way to go. I want Cecka to know that this specific editorial decision was wrong and will not be forgotten. So should we blog about this? Yes - a lot. And should we forget it? No. We need to return to the issue of minority characters in children's and YA books and we need to make this cover front and center the example of what publishers are doing wrong. We need to make Bloomsbury an example and insist that they change.

I think Cecka needs to know that books do get judged by their covers and we are judging this one very very harshly. And it was wrong. And we don't want to hear about how it's a play on the actions of the main character (especially because the author herself states this is not true - Micah's race is never part of the book's lies). It was a decision that is tone deaf to the extreme and quite inexcusable. And if they have any concern at all for actual race relations in America, then the paperback cover damn well better be different. We need to let her, and Bloomsbury, know that we have not been fooled and that while they might hope this controversy turns positive that supposition could not be further from the truth. You don't get to spin something like this, not anymore.

What we need to ask is, who's the real liar here, Ms Cecka? I don't expect a revelation from any of these emails, but maybe if they get a stack of them then they will realize we have not been played and that sometimes still, there are ramifications for your actions in America. Sometimes still, you just don't get away with it.

ETA: I keep thinking about this and you know what - we should email Deb and ask her to pass the message along to Melanie Cecka and the entire editorial staff. We should let them know that we are disappointed in this cover and most importantly in what it represents - that white skin sells better and thus, is better. We need to take this seriously, as reviewers and librarians and booksellers we are the ones who must take this seriously. If we don't tell them this was wrong then nothing will change. Bloomsbury will sell a lot of books (and honestly - it would be wrong for Justine's book to suffer for this) and they will think you can do whatever you want. So we shame them. We call them out for what they have done, we say we see it and we recognize it and we know it and we shame them.

This was a decision about dollars but that doesn't make it any less racist. And we tell them that and we make sure we tell them in numbers that are too large to ignore.

comments

That is so sad. I really empathize with the writer. We need some revamping of values in the publishing industry. In all industries. Hell in our society.

Colleen,

You now where I'm stand. I've tweeted. I have a link at Color Online. And I'll be writing an email. Oh, I'm angry. More than angry, I'm going to write and share some pure black woman, head rollin', "Oh, no you didn't say that" with Bloomsbury.

How many times is this publisher going to insult me? Was she serious about that bold face lie to offered? PLEASE.

Oh, one of our CORA girls, Tashi wrote this response at Taste Life Twice

Terrific post, Colleen.

When I read Cecka's response in the PW article, it had "CYA rationalization we hope sounds convincing" written all over it. She is the EDITOR. If Justine says that the character was never lying about her race, the EDITOR would well know this. It would have been a conversation between author and editor long ago.

When I saw the print run, I thought, yeah, there you go. With that level of commitment to it being a big seller (with an author who has so far had solid but not Gigantor sales, and is not a man), they are perhaps making decisions based on fear. Or at least, them wanting it to be a big book has made them less willing to take a stand against marketing, booksellers, etc.

I feel so bad for the author. She was put in such a bad place by her publishers. The deception justification for this cover is B.S. What makes me really sick now is knowing this will only increase the sales of Liar. They do wrong and still profit. So where does that leave the minority reader in search of someone who looks like them on book covers? If I end up reviewing Liar on my blog, I will link to the Australian cover. But in the book store with sales as tight as they are I can't tell someone don't buy this American edition, and its not fair to the author. This Sucks.

I said something like this over at Larbalestier's blog and I'll say it again here. YA books featuring people of color should be more visible on mainstream blogs. The lack of color on a regular basis probably made it that much easier for Bloomsbury to decide on this cover. And part of me doesn't blame them for this decision. Yes it makes me mad as hell but it comes down to dollars. If people who blog about YA books every day, focus on White protagonist and throw in one or two reviews featuring characters of color then why shouldn't Bloomsbury put a White face on the cover.

Doret,

I said as much at Justine's. White teen bloggers will read about POC characters written by a white writer so why don't we see POC Covers by POC writers on teen blogger sites? Why do teens routinely tell me they never heard of the books I showcase by POC writers and they don't express any interest in reading them even when I present books with the same premises as mainstream books except the characters are black.

Publishers need to do better to promote and publish POC writers but publishers publish what readers read. So will all the white readers reading brown writers raise your hands? Better, post our pretty brown faces on your blogs.


What's frustrating in this specific case is that this book is perfectly positioned to bring Caucasian readers over. Justine has fans and she has written consistently about minority characters and her readers are fine with it.

I think Sara is right - the publisher ran scared and clearly thinks that alienating Black readers/bloggers/reviewers is not as much of a concern as potentially losing White readers.

Harriet

Well said,

Melanie Cecka would be better served spending more time talking to teens and less time coming up with lame excuses for her lack of good judgment.

I don't thinks she cares about alienating Black audiences. I pulled up the Bloomsbury USA site and looked at the YA section. It's pretty much the same designs over and over again.

There used to be an old saying "If you're white you're alright. If you're black, get back!"

Bloomsbury has revived that offensive missive and taken it to a new level. They must not have noticed that the world has changed.

If parents and readers aren't "buying" enough ethnic fiction, it's because we're sick of the same old same old urban fiction that has become a ghetto in the bookstore. Finally we get something different (I don't care what the race of the author is) and they shove another white face at us.

Write Bloomsbury UK and tell them to get a new editor-in-chief for their US office - preferably someone of color. Maybe that will get their attention.

Colleen, that is what I don't understand why Bloomsbury thought they would lose White readers. Larbalestier's already has an established fan base. Once fans fall for an authors writing, the color of the protagonist doesn't matter.

I could understand why the publisher would feel the need to use this trick if this was Larbalestier's first book or she was fanless, but it isn't and she's not. This makes me hate the cover that much more because it really wasn't necessary. It would have sold if they did the right thing.

Black readers probably didn't even factor that much into the decision. Bloomsbury probably figured once Black readers figured out Liar featured a Black character, they would buy it regardless of the cover image. They are probably right.
( I will not use my four letter words)

You're right - it was not necessary. They were scared about what might happen based on....well based on something that was said or perceived or believed by their editors.

They could have done the right thing, instead they did what they thought was safer and easier. Our job now is to convince them that this decision was wrong on every single count.

I couldn't have said it better. I'm sending my e-mail this second.
~Tashi

Harriet,

Doret and I promote and review plenty of books by POC writers with POC characters that is not the same old same. I run a library. It is 90% books by and about girls and women. It is 80% books by people of color.

Anytime you are interested in finding diversity among poc characters, come by Color Online. We'd love to have you.

Doret - Justine does have a really great fanbase who would buy her books no matter what, but 100,000 hardcover first print run is huge - beyond "solid fanbase" level. When I saw that print run cited in the Publisher's Weekly article, it just made me think that Bloomsbury is trying to remove all potential barriers to capturing new readers of J's work - a lot of them. Now, the fact that they see a black face on a cover as a barrier is the problem. Especially if that is, like Colleen more or less suggests in her last comment, based on theory and anecdotal evidence. They don't KNOW. They SUSPECT. And in part (I"m guessing) because of the large investment in first printing, they are not willing to take a risk.

What I wonder is why, if they didn't want to go with a face that looked like the character, didn't they go the route of the Australian cover and make it a more abstract image? That's the part that is extra aggravating and perplexing.

Sara - YES. That is exactly what I was thinking. With such a huge print run and obviously a big desire to "push" this book then why not just put a more abstract cover on it? The Aussie cover is very cool (and will attract boys as well as girls which is an added bonus - that's not going to happen with the US cover).

Why do this when you didn't have to? Was anybody over there even thinking about how it could go badly?

Or, and please let me be wrong, did they really think no one would notice?

What if while Bloomsbury was deciding to put a White girl on the cover of Liar, when they weighed the pros and cons, they realized one of the biggest cons, (outrage by readers) could be a pro. (we are talking about the book) All press is good press and all that. What if they calculated that outrage into the first print and bumped it up. Liar sounds like a beautiful book, the cover though not fitting is eye catching. So many customers will buy it based off of those two facts alone. (knowing nothing about all this extra stuff) However, there are going to be people who buy Liar not for the story but the cover controversy. Chances are pretty good that this story will get picked up by NYT or another major source. So more people will be intent on buying Liar because of this ill fitting cover. Think about it, if Bloomsbury didn't want to put a Black girl on the cover, they could've easily gone route of the Australian cover.

The only downside is that they are perceived as racist.

And I guess that's okay, to them, on balance.

Personally, it would be too high a price to pay for me.

Doret - As much as I love conspiracy theories, I don't see it as a calculated move. Things in publishing are usually happening in a really chaotic way (quick, quick, the catalog is due we need a cover! gotta get these ARCs out by [whatever] conference!)...

...and I want to add that it's not like editors and marketing people are monsters. Pretty much every single person I've met in children's publishing is a great, smart, hardworking, passionate individual who wants to get books into readers' hands. I think this was just a bad decision symptomatic of a larger, mostly hidden problem that we need to talk about and it's good we are doing so.

Sara,

I worked in publishing. While I'm willing to agree marketing people are not monsters can we hold people accountable before we rush in making excuses for a real problem and it is not hidden. Racism is insidious not hidden. Huge difference. Whether you are consciously racially bias or not does not minimize the affects of race in this industry or the country as a whole.

I'm disturbed that so many are already defending those who have the power and the choices.

I was raised to be prepared and willing to be held accountable for my actions. I will not let Bloomsbury and those involved in this bad decision off the hook before I have thoroughly and rightly criticized them for a serious and REAL problem.

See CORA girls, Tashi's and MissAttitude's responses:

"The Lie Was The Cover" atyoung, black reader

"Why We Need White Readers To Pay Attention" atTaste of Life

Susan - I appreciate that. I am admittedly naive about racism, which makes it feel "hidden" to me.

Sara,

There is a saying,"When you're white you don't think about it, when you're black, you never forget it."

It is important to acknowledge the very different realities we live. Often we will accuse one another of being overly sensitive or being wrong when the truth is each reality is real.

When most white readers get their fill of righteous outrage, I will still be black. I will still have to hunt for books that promote I really am here and I will likely still be a minority voice in the blogosphere actively promoting books with POC by POC writers.

Very few have responded to my comment about the absence of color among book bloggers. Those marketing folks didn't come to that conclusion without some basis in what they see. Something shaped their perception.

Why isn't my brown face regularly featured on book blogs?

And has no one thought about the silence among teen bloggers? The only teen bloggers who have commented are Tashi and Ari, both teens of color who are active members of Color Online.

And I will not accept that the silence reflects that white teens don't normally comment about industry issues. They comment on YA sites run by adults and those adults haven't spoken up either. Those same adults had plenty to say during the BEA controversy and the riff about professional and hobbyist bloggers.

It is discouraging that we still cannot engage the majority in a substantive discussion about race.

I don't want to blame or guilt-whip white folks. I want acknowledgment and real discourse. I want change. Not tongue wagging.

_There is a saying,"When you're white you don't think about it, when you're black, you never forget it."_

Right. It's very easy for people like me to say, wow, this is terrible, who knew? and then move on. At the same time, the conversation can't get very far if we're not honest and part of me being honest with it is saying, I admit it. I'm naive, sheltered, unaware, clueless, however you want to describe it. I don't think about it much. I don't want to be dishonest and pretend like I'm all over this issue when usually I'm kind of like, "Huh? What? Really? People think that way? Can't we all just get along?"

I have been thinking about what you were saying about lack of color on book blogs. I don't know. I don't think of myself as a book blogger, but when I read a book and love it in my totally subjective, personal way, I blog about it. I figure most bloggers are the same. Also, another poster mentioned something about 2% of covers having nonwhite faces, so if the pool is that small that's another reason you're not seeing as many of them on blogs.

By the way, my editor is AA and we've been having a good discussion about this, too. It's not like I'm *totally* clueless - when we go out together to publishing events, I see that she is pretty much the only AA person around in her position. At the same time, I just see her as a brilliant editor of books by authors of many different races. So I don't know. All this is just to say yeah, that quote is right. And I don't want to pretend I have any clue what you feel, because that's just adds to the insult, I'd think.

Thank you for sharing that email address, Colleen! I have just sent an email, and I posted my email on my blog.

When I first found out about this the other day I was so mad that I cried.

You guys are having a great discussion about this.
I wish Bloomsbury had responded better in the PW article so that we didn't have to consider who did what and why. The response was so inadequate that we are left wondering if good people made bad, clueless or racist decisions because we know the provided reason for the cover - that the narrator is unreliable - is untrue as the author herself has repeatedly said otherwise (and surely she said so as the covers were presented to her).
Bloomsbury has put readers in the situation of questioning everything about their decision-making and they could have prevented that by simply being more forthright about their process. You would think in the internet age they would have realized the need to do that.
As to the lack of minority titles covered in the blogs, well yeah - Susan is right. Bloggers generally read what they like because, well, they aren't doing it for money but pleasure. I know the books I am assigned by Booklist (all NF pretty much) are titles I probably never would have picked up otherwise, but on more than one occasion they have rocked my world. The comfort zone is not always good. If more POC blogged about books then the balance would be better on that front to a certain degree, but more importantly as book lovers and bookish people we just have to be willing to look further than what we know or grew up with. Doesn't mean you can't read the latest Nora Roberts if you love her - by all means go for it. But it does mean you give a romance with African Americ. characters a chance. We just need to become more conscious of ourselves as readers and the choices we make.
We need think more like the melting pot that we are.

I am hoping everyone who is outraged and screaming for justice will do their part to help change come about. It's not enough to leave a comment on the author's blog or email someone at Bloomsbury.

Readers can purchase books featuring people of color
Booksellers and libarians can suggest said books to everyone regardless of race. And booksellers even if you don't stock the book you can still suggest it. Sometimes its about more than the sale.
Bloggers can talk about more books featuring poc.

Everyone is shocked and surprised by Bloomsbury. How could they? They could because no one gave them a reason not to. If bloggers who commit much of their time to reading and talking, suggesting titles barely take notice of books featuring poc, then why would Bloomsbury put a Black girl on the cover.

Your right Colleen, there need to be more POC who blogged about books. I really wish it didn't come down to color. I really wish bloggers, (lovers of books) would embrace all stories.

I enjoy blogging and blog hopping. Though there are times when I can't help but think damn this is just too damn White. Its depressing, frustrating and sad, to go to blog after blog, scroll through pages and pages and only see like 10 reviews featuring people of color. That should not happen.

Susan and I are doing our best to encourage Miss Attiude's new blog young, black, a reader - because as far as we know she is the first solo teen black blogger. We don't want her to get frustrated and give up. I don't know if Miss A is feeling any pressure I hope not but if she is I hope she will tell us. But the truth is what she's doing is very difficult. She doesn't have a ready made audience. Black teens who read Black authors or books featuring Black characters aren't blog hopping. There is nothing for them here. White teens aren't open to reading books featuring Black authors or visiting blogs that do the like.

One last point, I've had my blog a little over a year now. Yes, I know many people don't know about it but it still surpriss me that my site hits are so low. Since, I review a lot of books featuring poc I thought I'd have more people checking in from time to time but that is not the case. This bothers me because I think no one is finding out about these titles or people simply don't care.

Susan, just started a 30 day challenge to get people to reveiw books featuring poc. So bloggers who want to see things change can start by doing Susan's 30 day challenge. Hopefully, she'll mention all the details here. I would do it but writing this with a limited amount of mistakes took all my energy.


you know sometimes i get overwhelmed almost by what i should be reading and writing about. i try really hard to balance between genders as i do think books for teen boys are harder to come by then girls (hence guys lit wire). then i try to include nonfiction in my columns whenever i can as i don't think that bloggers cover that enough and i think a segment of teens actually prefer nf so we should let them know what's out there. and i want to cover books for gblt kids because i remember how hard it was for a dear friend of mine in high school and i want to help those kids and then - YES - also too books by and about POC because it is appalling to me how many books i receive for teens that seem to be written for a 100% Caucasian society. it blows my mind.

so all of this, through everything i do, i think balance, balance, balance. and when i cover books with white characters (and yes - of course i do) i try to hit what's being missed elsewhere, or teens in interesting situations like the hockey playing girls in "twenty mile" or way back when with a debut novelist named sara zarr who wrote about a good girl who got branded bad and no one would forgive her in "story of a girl". i like covering books that consider class issues regardless of skin color, or really funny books (because we don't get enough) or ones with an offbeat somewhat cynical narrator or something really fun and crazy like "petronella saves the day" by dene low. (nothing like it and loved it).

but BALANCE!!!

i'm bound to themes in my columns and don't want to have a color of the month theme. (dear God no). so i fit what i can where i can always trying. September is the space program so....well, it is what it is but i did get that great book by Tonya Bolden on the women who tried for the apollo program. i actually have a book on Alaskan Native teens for December - which is very good and who's ever heard of something like that??? but i know as hard as i try that it might very well not be as good as i can be and it's not easy.

the easiest thing in the world would be to review books about white girls, and i mean that.

but at the end of the day, if we aren't trying to change our corner of the world then who will? i can't solve the health care crisis, or global warming, or get everyone to realize how crazy sarah palin is (sorry - couldn't resist!) but I CAN DO THIS.

It ain't easy. But I can do it and if I can then quite frankly so the hell should everyone.

This comment is from Jennifer who kept getting stepped on by Moveable Type when she tried to comment:

If you want to support the author, you might want to publicize what other sites are recommending -- that people buy the Australian version of the book once it's released. It would send a wonderful message to have the Australian cover sell better than the U.S. one:

http://www.allenandunwin.com/default.aspx?page=94&book=9781741758726

Take care,
Jennifer

Mel

Just thought I'd point out that a likely reason girls are on John Green covers is because they are a large focal point in the books. Looking for Alaska (Alaska is a girl), An Abundance of Katherines (obviously several girls name Katherine), and I haven't read Paper Towns but it's supposed to be about a girl too. All these boys greatest experiences/coming of age moments are defined by a girl. So I understand why they would use a girl in addition to it selling well.

Hey Mel - I've read the Green books (and liked them) so I get how girls figure so prominently in the stories. My complaint about the covers is that they are not guy-friendly. You put a girl front and center on the cover and it looks like a girl book, which these books are not - they are crossovers and written to appeal to either gender (and in anything, more boy friendly). It bothers me that Dutton went for the girl readers knowing they would likely lose boys who would not even pick the book up.

I was happy to see the tpb for "Paper Towns" has a gender neutral cover - just a map with a pin which works great for the story.

I think the cover argument holds up for Alaska and Katherines, but not for Paper Towns, no matter how it's been explained to me. That story is Quentin's story, not Margo's, and to have a girl on the cover is just not representative (in my opinion). I was thrilled to see they ditched it (especially as it wasn't even a good girl cover and I hated the two colors thing).

Thanks for the email address - I've written for whatever impact that will have. I think you're right, the more Bloomsbury hear from people who are outraged, the higher the chance they may change their explanation. Here's what I wrote:

Dear Deb Shapiro (and Melanie Cecka),

I want to write to express my dismay at reading about the cover of the book Liar by Justine Larbalestier, as well as the explanation given in the Publishers Weekly article for why this cover was used.

I was an editor for three years at Lee & Low Books, and now teach children's literature in the UK. This is such an important issue, and as such, an opportunity for Bloomsbury to make a bold and important move at this point. I find it difficult to believe that you really decided to put a white girl on the cover in order to question the race of the protagonist, even when the author herself has said she meant her to be black. As an editor, this explanation makes no sense. Our job, first and foremost, is to follow the lead of authors and help them express their story as clearly and as well as possible. Changing the author's intent through this cover just doesn't hold up. It makes more sense that it was out of a fear that having a black girl's face on the cover would not sell.

Now is a moment when you can come forward, talk about these problems in the industry, begin a discussion about how things can change. The United States is only becoming more diverse, so there is a marketing as well as a publishing imperative to shift here and reflect the faces of the nation. Why not take the lead, admit you made a mistake, and help initiate a discussion in this area?

I will be talking about this cover at the congress for the International Research Society for Children's Literature (IRSCL) congress, taking place next week in Germany. Over 400 people are attending and speaking, and the topic is children's literature and diversity (http://www.irscl2009.de/jom/). This is an area of great importance. I do hope Bloomsbury will rise to the challenge rather than offering unconvincing excuses.

All the best,
Laura Atkins

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