Thursday, February 28, 2013

Cover Blind

An It's Complicated! — Marketing & Sales guest post by a former storyteller in Northern Ireland and the current Champaign Central High School Librarian, Corinne Hatcher.

Librarians anticipate information and literature needs instinctively. Four years ago, when I changed from being an elementary school librarian to a high school librarian, I had a steep learning curve to know the literature that would best suit the needs of my population. I was surprised by the ways teens are particular about what they read and rushed to anticipate what they would like to check out. It didn’t surprise me that the Nora Roberts and Danielle Steel paperbacks that I found on the shelves were outdated in a school that was largely free-and-reduced lunch and African-American. 

In my search for more appropriate literature, I became acutely aware of the lack of young adult literature available that echos my students’ lives. Because these students are not necessarily the population that buys books, it was hard to find voices in literature that celebrated them. The publishing world has come a long way in offering a variety of voices to fill out the American teen experience, but we still have a long way to go.

This all being said, after I got my bearings, I became aware of how students limited themselves by reading only literature that they think they would relate to. Even avid readers would insist that they could not get anything out of a book that was about a teen of a different race. Perhaps we could consider this a bi-product of teens' hyper-awareness of identity and blow it off as an important part of maturation. But I also think this limitation is born out of an educational system that overly values students’ ability to relate to characters. Do we always have to relate to a character for a book to be good and/or to learn from it?

An example comes from my sophomore English classes. Students are asked to read a book that is set in a different country other than the United States. Many of the students (black and white) used this as an opportunity to learn the geography and social history of countries that they had never heard of before. Some international students were allowed to read something written about their home country. However, there was major push-back when students realized that they would not be able to read an American novel written from their own racial identity. They perceived their blackness as enough “other” to warrant reading an African-American book for the assignment. In many cases, they were using the international students’ choice as an excuse to read what they wanted to read from their own culture. Ultimately however, in pushing them beyond their comfort, we gave them an opportunity to know themselves through learning about others.

I frequently hide books behind my back; I do this because I know that there are many students who will decide, because of the race on the cover, that the book is not for them. I know this is particularly problematic when books are published with covers that do not accurately represent the characters that they are about—think about Chris Crutcher’s Whale Talk or Justine Larbalestier’s Liar. We live in a world where Hunger Games fans are upset when they realize that Rue is black.

I wonder about a future where the greatness of literature is judged solely by how much we deem the character to be exactly like us and it scares me. For solace, I hold on tightly to the Danielle Steel and Nora Roberts left in my collection, because I know I will find a reader for them all.

My advice to publishers is to keep the race of characters off the covers and my advice to the rest of us is not to care if they don’t.


  1. I think the problem is that so few books are shelved in libraries/schools (even if they exist, a lot of libraries don't carry them) that reflect kids of color, and they get so many windows into other lives/cultures, that they get fatigued at it. At least that's been my impression with kids I've talked to about the issue (though some find it hard to articulate the idea).

    I do feel you're right that kids need to push beyond their boundaries. Having grown up in a small town in western IL--if you're talking about the Champaign, IL area that you're teaching in, I'm from 3 hours from there--I know how that small-town mentality can affect how you look out at the world, too.

    But I think that need to relate comes out of an innate need to see themselves as a person of value to the greater world, which can be hard to find sometimes if you're in the minority in whatever way.

  2. I am proponent of the non-face cover; even for body image and class purposes, there can only be so many thin, boarding-school-attending, moneyed, dominant culture, long-haired female cover specimens and characters before an awful sort of fatigue sets in. Going back to Mitali's now famous "window vs. mirror" take on literature, I really strongly believe that especially a school library needs BOTH.

    In our tiny school library - at our very small, mostly Caucasian school - I read exactly ZERO books which reflected my reality. However, I got a lot of "window" reading done, and developed a yen to find out what I could be like elsewhere. Which is also the goal of books, I think.

  3. I'm seeing a lot more "non-face" covers myself...the problem is, where there ARE faces on covers they still tend to be white.

  4. I understand the reason for your advice to publishers, but I have to disagree. The books I write and publish feature kids of color on the covers. That means I get to see the faces of the kids (and of their parents) when they see books that highlight someone who looks like them. The problem with most faceless covers is that most POC grow up knowing that if race isn't mentioned, then its about a Caucasian.

    SO my books show he faces of the kids the books are about, whatever their race or gender. Because I do believe it does something to a society when a group of people is invisible in literature, or on covers. it certainly does something to the kids who are excluded.

  5. I disagree too. I don't want to ask a child of non-European ancestry to read or purchase a book, and simultaneously imply that the color of her/his skin is not attractive/marketable enough to grace the cover of the book.