For much of my childhood, I remember my mother writing. She had scads of notebooks around, filled with her handwriting that I still could identify anywhere. She had a fascinating electric typewriter (yes, I said typewriter – remember those?) that I learned the qwerty keyboard on and played with at any available opportunity. I remember when she got a new typewriter and the old one became mine – oh joy! Mom wrote short stories and articles and submitted them to various magazines and other places. For a while she worked on a novel, and by then I was old enough to be her proofreader and we’d talk about the story as it grew. By then I was trying my hand at writing some of my own stuff. Mom is surely the number one reason I love words and why I idolize women of color who dare to write.
Mom did get a children’s book published. It was a sweet little story about my brother and I and our (my) pet bird. The things that happened in the story really happened, and she used our real names. I remember how very very exciting it was when a box with some of the published books came to our home. I was over the moon thrilled and so very proud. Some of my pride was misplaced, though – I think I was more jazzed about seeing my very own name in a real live book than I was by the fact that my mom had written it and gotten it published. Sorry about that, mom – I was ten.
The thing about the book, though. It were illustrated, simple line drawings, kids, parents and a parakeet. The parakeet, for whom the book was named (and the protagonist of the story, if you must know – yes, I was a secondary character BUT a character nonetheless) was on the cover of the book. But the people in the story were clearly white people. That was the first time I learned that authors have little or no control over what the book cover or illustrations look like. And of course that was one of my first lessons about the assumption of whiteness, whiteness as the “norm” for humanity, and then the more nuanced lessons about whiteness as “what people really want” or “what people really prefer” as in books with black people on the cover don’t sell, which is not to be confused with “black people don’t read” and/or “black people don’t buy books.”
All that to bring this to your attention. (h/t ABW and others)
Justine Larbalestier is a young adult fiction writer, and her newest publication, Liar, is about a dark skinned, nappy headed mixed race girl.
This is the U.S. cover of Liar.
You can read Justine’s take in full here.
Here’s a snippet:
Covers change how people read books
Liar is a book about a compulsive (possibly pathological) liar who is determined to stop lying but finds it much harder than she supposed. I worked very hard to make sure that the fundamentals of who Micah is were believable: that she’s a girl, that she’s a teenager, that she’s black, that she’s USian. One of the most upsetting impacts of the cover is that it’s led readers to question everything about Micah: If she doesn’t look anything like the girl on the cover maybe nothing she says is true. At which point the entire book, and all my hard work, crumbles.
No one in Australia has written to ask me if Micah is really black.
I get that publishers want writers to write, and they most, if not all of the time, writers take a back seat to cover design and other illustrations. But to change the visual representation of the way the author describes characters, especially when, as Justine says, it is important to the way the book is read – well, who does that serve, really? The Australian cover, by the way, does not give a visual representation of Micah, the main character.
I’m gonna see if I can get the Australian version of the book.
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