Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Judging Covers

I’d like to use this blog post to do three things:
  1. State the obvious
  2. Preach to the choir while dancing on my soapbox
  3. 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...


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.


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.”


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!

Thank you!


  1. I remember hearing someone say "Oooh!" when looking at the cover of THE GOOD BRAIDER, by Terry Farish. The cover shows a person of color, but not a face, but an aspect of culture.

    Maybe that's more what's needed? Or, maybe that opens up other Pandoras boxes, since no one experiences "culture" in the same way...

    ANYWAY, *I* love that cover.

  2. I like the cover of Karen Sandler's Awakening!

    1. Hi Rebecca,

      I'm so glad to hear you're a fan of the AWAKENING cover! If you'd like, I can send you an ARC of the book. You can email me your address at khuang@leeandlow.com and I'll get it out to you by the end of the week!

      Best regards,

      Keilin Huang
      Marketing & Publicity Assistant

  3. I think Kadir Nelson does a great job with his covers. Almost all of them are a close up of an African or African American face.

    I wonder if non-fiction does a better job of creating book covers that accurately convey the content of the book. Carmen Bernier Grand's wonderful biographies in poetry all have close up faces of their subjects, Picasso, Cesar Chavez, Diego Rivera, Alicia Alonso, Sonja Sotomayor, and Frida Kahlo.

    I am thrilled with what Random House did for my Native American character in Written in Stone, highlighting both the girl and the setting in an active pose.

  4. Useful post; good to have it all laid out clearly like this.

    I second the mention of THE GOOD BRAIDER, which is beautiful and dramatic.

    As an illustrator who has depicted children of color on jackets (JAMAICA'S FIND is still in print after 26 years), I observe that it can sometimes be a very different story in the picture book market, where sales choices are being made by adults on behalf of children. UMBRELLA by Taro Yashima, for instance, which features a Japanese American girl's face on the cover, was originally published in 1958, reissued in 1977, and is still in print. I love the loose, bold simplicity of Yashima’s jacket image.

    Another oldie-but-goodie: HONEY, I LOVE by Eloise Greenfield, illustrated by Leo & Diane Dillon. The child’s face is so warm, expressive and delicious, and I love the juxtaposition of more realistic rendering with childlike drawings. The Dillons have done a lot of gorgeous jackets.

    Gene Yang’s AMERICAN BORN CHINESE is graphic and arresting, with only half of the boy’s face showing - and he left such a perfect space for the Printz Award sticker.

  5. I love Awakening too! And there's nothing like Angela Johnson's The First Part Last. I'm still undecided about the new cover treatment for Benjamin Alire Saenz's Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood, though I understand it is now a more "gender-neutral" cover. Sharon Draper's covers are so honest. Loved Romiette and Julio.

  6. I love the cover of Lisa Yee's MILLICENT MIN, GIRL GENIUS. The volleyball and the look on the girl's face tell you so much about the book and the protagonist. I'm also a fan of Allison Whitenburg's LIFE IS FINE.

  7. The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis has a great cover. Sharon Flake's Pinned has a terrific cover. And yes to Millicent Min.

  8. I do love Bronxwood's cover (Coe Booth) though it is a back-of-the head illustration. I second the Sharon G. Flake cover.