Colouring over the whitewash

Liar

Liar

So, who’s been following the recent debacle about a Bloomsbury book with the cover image of a white girl to illustrate the story of a black girl? Liar by Justine Larbalestier was due to hit shelves in November with the cover image of a white teenage girl (left). One problem: the protagonist is black.

The news appeared in July on industry blog Editorial Anonymous where commenters were outraged by the decision. One commenter pointed out that this sort of whitewash is nothing new: “Reminds me of the old-school sci-fi covers I’ve seen. On Octavia Butler’s (whose protagonist’s are always black women) book ‘Dawn’, the original cover was a pale woman with long, blond hair. They corrected it in the next edition (or printing), but still. Completely incongruous with the actual story.”

Larbalestier made a post on her blog and told her readers the sad truth already known to those of us in the trade: “Authors do not get final say on covers. Often they get no say at all.”

Publishers Weekly picked up the story on the same day (Justine Larbalestier’s Cover Girl) where Melanie Cecka, publishing director of Bloomsbury Children’s Books USA and Walker Books for Young Readers did not cover herself in glory with the following comment: “The entire premise of this book is about a compulsive 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 suggestion that this decision was made deliberately is even more alarming than the idea it was unintentional.

Boing Boing also posted an article about the story. Cory Doctorow wrote Race and book covers: why is there a white girl on the cover of this book about a black girl? pointing out that this cover choice was not made in isolation and that all over the publishing industry authors are protesting against the same thing happening to their own books. White children are mainstream. Black children are urban fiction.

There’s supposedly a happy ending to this modern fairytale. Bloomsbury have decided to postpone publication until October and create a new cover. (Reported in Publishers Weekly: A New Look for ‘Liar’.) But the statement the company has issued is not exactly an apology:
“We regret that our original creative direction for Liar—which was intended to symbolically reflect the narrator’s complex psychological makeup—has been interpreted by some as a calculated decision to mask the character’s ethnicity. In response to this concern, and in support of the author’s vision for the novel, Bloomsbury has decided to re-jacket the hardcover edition with a new look in time for its publication in October. It is our hope that the important discussions about race and its representation in teen literature continue…”

Does anyone believe the part about the whitewash being a symbolic reflection of the character’s psychology? Well done to whatever marketing bod thought that up but it sounds profoundly unlikely doesn’t it? Can you envisage a cover meeting where someone said: “You know, I think it would be a really good idea to show this child as white even though she’s black, that would really convey the psychological aspect of her being a liar.” Surely any modern children’s publishing person would respond with cries of “dear lord no!” or at the very least “that could be problematic”.

So while there is cause for celebration in this cover change, those who should be celebrated are the internet bloggers (amateur and professional) who didn’t allow this story to go away, who demanded a response from the publishing company and who stated publicly that this is not okay. I’d like to be able to praise Bloomsbury too but I don’t think you get cookies for backing off from a racist act, not unless you issue a full and heartfelt apology and a promise to do better.

And we can do better. We owe it to ourselves. We owe it to a vision of the future in which white people are not the default, the mainstream and the uncontested image of everyman. We can ‘be the change’. The only thing stopping us is not seeing it as important.

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