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 â€˜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.