I’d like to use this blog post to do three things:
- State the obvious
- Preach to the choir while dancing on my soapbox
- Host a love fest
The issue is book covers. Some will argue that I am “beating a dead horse.” But this horse is still very much alive – and pulling a lot of weight. So here goes...
STATING THE OBVIOUS
It’s a cliché, but true – people do judge books by their covers. This is especially true of young people who, in the age of Instagram and Facebook, are very image-focused. We all know book covers are our greatest sales tool. I believe book jackets are the single greatest determining factor of whether a kid will, or won’t, pick up a book. And when it comes to books featuring diversity characters and content, I believe a jacket’s power is doubly important in a book’s impact on readers – and in a book’s sales success.
It seems, though, that we in the publishing community are in a bit of a conundrum – should we show, or not show, people of color on the front of a book? Do images of black or Latino or Asian characters limit or marginalize a book’s scope? Do we risk losing readers, or are we presented with a tremendous opportunity to broaden the limits of image-selectivity?
In my conversations with kids, they’re very honest about book jackets that show characters of color. Some have admitted to me that if they’re not from a diversity background, a cover showing, say, a black character, isn’t one they’ll go to first. I’ve also had black adults who work with children tell me they’re deterred by certain book covers that feature black characters because they feel, based on a cover image, that a book falls into the “street fiction” category and they’re reluctant to present these images to young readers or to perpetuate stereotypes. And just today I had an agent admit to me that her client’s books that feature black characters versus those that have more generic covers, sell less copies.
PREACHING TO THE CHOIR
At the same time, though, to not accurately depict a character on the front of a book is a disservice to young readers and those who serve them. So – we struggle with what are now becoming a new set of stereotypes – books about diversity characters that show only body parts, backs of heads, or flowers, game boards, birds and other non-race-specific images meant to serve as visual metaphors for race-related stories. This is not a new phenomenon. Back in the days when African American R&B singers were topping the charts with their music, there was reluctance on the part of record labels to depict black singers on the covers of record albums, for fear that white listeners would not buy the music. The same has been true with movie posters, product advertising, and magazine covers.
So here we are in the year 2013 dealing with similar issues. I believe that to not show images of diversity characters in their totality (full faces, smiles, hair) is a mistake. How will kids ever get learn to push past what I call “contempt prior to investigation” if we don’t offer them the opportunity to do so? To me, the larger question is, how can we make book covers as compelling and beautiful as possible to engage readers and to stand the test of time? Thankfully, we live in an age when the first family, whose images are everywhere, is a family of color. We’re alive at a time when children are going to school in classrooms that are becoming more diverse. And if you look at many consumer magazines and print advertisements, there are a few more diverse faces in the mix. As book creators, we need to stay on this path, and take a page out of the script from the film Field of Dreams that reminds us, “If you build it, they will come.”
YOU’RE INVITED TO A LOVE FEST
One of my all-time favorite book covers is for a novel entitled The Skin I’m In by Sharon G. Flake. It depicts a full-on image of a darker complexioned teen girl whose entire face fills the frame. The jacket is beautiful, and the book has sold tremendously.
Now, let’s have a Diversity Book Covers Love Fest!
I’d love to know what your favorite covers are, and why. What book cover do you LOVE? This “Book Covers Love Fest” is meant to be all positive. Please share why you LOVE the covers you do, rather than why you don’t like something, or what’s wrong with the state of diversity book covers today.
Let us know of any positive reactions you’ve had from kids, teachers, parents, librarians about the covers you LOVE!