The narrative we’re told/sold over and over again

In January, a storm blew up over cover art for new young adult novel Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore. I haven’t read the book, so I’ll not summarise it, but you can read about it if you click through to the author’s website. The book’s main character, Nimira, is explicitly described in non-white terms – ‘dark,’ ‘brown skin’ – as you can read over at Charlotte’s Library. Here’s what was released as the US/Canada cover.

A young, pale, brunette woman in profile. On a table there is a glass container with a rounded top and a flowering plant inside. She is looking at it and touching it with her left hand. She is in front of a window as indicated by a semi-transparent white curtain on the right and a yellowish sky. 'Jaclyn Dolamore' is at the top in white and 'MAGIC UNDER GLASS' covers the middle and bottom of the image in green.
The shadowy figures of a woman (in a dress with a puffy skirt ending at her knees looking up at) a man. They are inside a cylindrical container with a rounded top, much like the container on the previous cover. There is curtaining around the inside edge of the container. Also in there with them, half hidden by the curtaining, is a piano with sheet music and a candelabra on top. This is all on what appears to be a wooden table. Pinkish and orangey flowers are around and above the glass container. The words 'Magic Under Glass' are written on top of the glass in a fancy script in blue, and 'Jaclyn Dolamore' is at the top in brown.As you can imagine, lots of people are incensed that a person we’re clearly meant to read as white is featured on the cover of that uncommon thing, a YA book about a person of colour. There’s now a statement from Bloomsbury on the book’s page on Bloomsbury’s website (via Shelf Life). ‘Bloomsbury is ceasing to supply copies of the US edition of Magic Under Glass. The jacket design has caused offense and we apologize for our mistake. Copies of the book with a new jacket design will be available shortly.’ As is proper. There’s no word yet on what the new cover will look like. By way of comparison, I’ve included a copy of the UK cover to the right.

A black and white image: a young pale woman stares in front of herself. Her straight hair is crossed in front of her face, obscuring her mouth. 'Justine Larbalestier' is at the top and a larger 'LIAR' at the bottom, both in green.What makes this worse is that it follows on from Bloomsbury doing the same thing last year. The main character in Justine Larbalestier’s Liar, Micah, is a young black woman. The original US cover featured a young woman who – well, I won’t make assumptions as to the model’s racial identity, so again I’ll just say that she certainly has features we’re meant to associate with white people, and we’re meant to read her as white. This would be bad enough in general, but it’s particularly horrible when you consider the plot of the book. Micah is, well, a liar, particularly with regards to herself and life. You’re supposed to spend the book trying to figure out what’s really going on, separating out Micah’s truths from her lies. But, as Larbalestier says on her blog post on the subject:

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.

A black woman with natural hair staring in front of herself. She is wearing a dark blue outfit, but we can't see much of it. Her hands cover most of her mouth; they are curled palm in against her face and holding what appear to be straps from her garment. 'Justine Larbalestier' and 'LIAR' are once again in green at the top and bottom of the image respectively.Here’s what Bloomsbury said in a statement to Publisher’s Weekly: ‘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’. Firstly, their “creative decision” hugely undermined the decisions of the person whose creative work they’re responsible for. Secondly, they’re not apologising for their blatantly racist actions, only for people’s interpretations. It’s the classic deflective non-apology; “we’re sorry we hurt your feelings, please go away now”. Thirdly, it does not matter whether the masking of Micah’s ethnicity was intended or not. What matters is that it happened, it affected people, because it’s part of a crushing system of racism. What matters is that it told a whole lot of young women of colour that people like them are not good enough to be worthy of representation. Now, I don’t know if Bloomsbury are telling the truth about the cover being a conscious creative decision – I wouldn’t put it past them to have not thought it through properly – but if it is, it is hugely inappropriate, especially in the context of the heavily white publishing industry, and hurtful to non-white readers. Happily, they replaced it with the cover to your right.

At the bottom, in red, is 'Justine Larbalestier'. Above that, in shiny red, is 'LIAR' with a backwards 'R'. Above that, less clear, is 'RLAI' The next level is less clear and substantial, with the letters changed around again, and more so with the next level. This is on a white background. The effect is somewhat bloody and it looks very sharp.The thing about Justine Larbalestier, who is white, is that she is pretty hardcore about decentring whiteness in her work, and she has long had my respect for that. (In fact, she has yet to publish a single book with a white protagonist; check out Why My Protags Aren’t White.) It must have been devastating to have had her hard and valuable work undermined in this way. Before I go on, I must make my recommendation for Liar, it’s excellent. I of course bought a copy with the Australian cover, which I think looks rather good.

But this isn’t just about book covers, not just about who is represented in a visual sense. There is a wider context of the (lack of) space allowed non-whiteness, of permitting only some of us in and on problematic terms. Western writing is being translated and dominating other markets even as writers in those regions are struggling to get a foot in the door. In white Western countries, non-white writers have a hard time getting published – unless their background/culture/history is the publishing industry’s trendy flavour of the month. Moving wider, even where our stories aren’t being twisted and appropriated for white consumption, we’re not allowed stories of our own. Having to learn and fit ourselves along white ways of thinking, doing and being means that we’ve less of our own. When you have to know white thought, myths, story blocks – because that’s what you were allowed access to, because you’ve been taught white cultures are superior – they take over your imagination. (If you haven’t read deepad’s I Didn’t Dream of Dragons, you must, you must.) I myself was fortunate enough to have access to stories from many cultures as a child, but I still gravitated to white stories as superior.

But let’s pull back to YA, because these book covers point to a specific problem with the genre. I’ve looked around many a bookshop YA section to see… whiteness. In the authorship, on the covers, in the stories. A good portion of young adult fiction is about addressing the issues involved in growing up in accessible and on teenage terms. I’ve read a lot of YA, but I rarely read anything in which non-white characters constitute anything more than one-dimensional and secondary presence. It’s not really about centring young adult experience. It’s about centring white adults’ perceptions of white young adult experience. It’s not only alienating, it’s denying non-white youth the same means of working life out as our white counterparts.

Books are precious, they’ve been heavensent for me. Books can change your life, change your worldview, change something of your very self. These constant little jabs of alienation tell non-white youth that the sort of thought provocation and lazy silly Sundays and transcendental change books can provide are not for us. These things are for the white kids, the kids important enough to get in the books. Not for us the dreams books foster.

The problems with the Magic Under Glass and Liar covers in particular may be over, but there’s a whole industry left to go. Let’s keep up the pressure so young people of colour can be that much more free in their imaginations and inner lives.

Lots and lots of people have said this, so I’m just repeating here: I don’t think it’s a good idea to boycott Bloomsbury and other publishing houses that pull this crap. Because in doing so, you’re harming the writers who are trying to represent POC in their novels, and you’re reinforcing the idea that people won’t buy books that feature non-white people – or the trope that non-white people don’t buy books. Instead, support books with non-white authorship, non-white covers, non-white stories: borrow them from libraries and ask for more, buy them if you can or recommend favourites to other people. It’s these writers who are trying to fold whiteness back from our imaginations, so let’s help them out and show them what we’ve got.

If you would like to contact Bloomsbury USA, here are the details you need thanks to Tami:

Bloomsbury Publishing

Distributed by Macmillan
175 Fifth Avenue

New York, NY, USA, 10010


F: (212) 780-0115 or (212) 982-2837

Related reading:
Publisher whitens another heroine of color by Kate Harding at Broadsheet.
Kids of Color and the New American Whitewashing by Colleen Mondor at Bookslut.
An Open Letter to Bloomsbury Kids USA. Other Publishing Houses Take Note by Ari at Reading in Color (Ari’s a teenager reviewing POC-centred YA, so go check it out!)

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16 comments for “The narrative we’re told/sold over and over again

  1. February 7, 2010 at 2:21 pm

    Thank you so much for bringing light to this. I have boys and their YA reading tastes lie elsewhere, so I had no idea this white-washing was going on.

    I do have one comment to make: I challenge you and other feminists who are bringing light to this to use the “M” words as in MONEY.

    Women of color are told time and time again that we don’t get CAPITAL INVESTMENTS, we don’t get FFEATURE FILM ROLES, we don’t get MILLION DOLLAR BOOK ADVANCEMENTS, etc etc because we are not bankable because since we are black/latino/asian we are not mainstream and therefore too niche to actually being a profit to the publisher.

    And yet the myth of not being “bankable” is perpetuated by moves like these. Damn if you do, damn if you don’t. Unless we look at another alternative: CONTRACTS.

    The rights and creative direction people sign away just to get a book published is ridiculous. Women, but especially FEMINISTS breaking into mainstream streams of money need to be defensive entrepreneurs. That’s a disccussion rarely taken on these matters: Why it is not only a bad decision to not have control of things like the cover of your book, but BAD FOR FEMINISM as a movement ;)

  2. February 7, 2010 at 3:51 pm

    Also, while the UK and Australian covers don’t show white women as the US covers do, they still don’t show black women.

  3. February 7, 2010 at 3:54 pm

    Well, I wouldn’t be so certain about the UK cover, but it’s definitely not obvious if so – though of course Magic Under Glass isn’t about a black woman.

  4. February 7, 2010 at 4:52 pm

    *rereads* …fail, self. They still don’t show WOC. (and looking again at the UK cover, yeah, she does look white…)

  5. February 7, 2010 at 4:59 pm

    Well, I’m not so sure about that myself, but I agree that may well be what the artist was aiming for. Also this post.

  6. February 7, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    Sorry – I’m being stupid about this.

  7. February 7, 2010 at 5:19 pm

    That’s okay, Rebecca.

  8. Wednesday
    February 7, 2010 at 5:27 pm

    Thank you not just for bringing up the problematic cover of Magic Under Glass, but making it clear that there is a systemic problem regarding non-whites in YA lit covers. I think I’m going to be looking at book covers a lot more carefully now.

  9. February 7, 2010 at 5:43 pm

    this is interesting. i guess i had never really thought about this before. maybe because when i was in high school we read books like “joy luck club” and “house on mango street” and “their eyes were watching God” and i loved every one of them. thank you for bringing this up. this is just another example of what i like to call “subliminal oppression.” our culture is full of it concerning sex, race and class (and other things). these things have worked their way into our culture to the extent that we don’t even recognize them as problems any more. we just continue on and accept it as normal and our attitudes are never challenged. its things like this that need to be brought to light. often, we’re too busy patting ourselves on the back for how “progressive” we’ve become that we don’t stop to admit how prejudiced we still are in so many ways.

  10. February 7, 2010 at 5:53 pm

    I’m afraid I’ve been a bad commenter and not read all the links, but IIRC, one of the responses from Bloomsbury during the Liar controversy was “The character lies about everything else, what makes you think she’s telling the truth about her race!!!!!” (Paraphrased from memory.) It was so very facepalm, and fed into something that was going on in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy blogosphere called “RaceFail”, which Deepa’s “I didn’t dream of Dragons” was written partly in response to.

    That said, may I recommend this post as well for discussion: Karen Healey also has a YA book coming out this year, and she writes about Covers & Race from her perspective as a New Zealander writing about Maori culture.

    “My screams, they were heard from space.

    Here is the email I sent my editors after I had run up and down the stairs gibbering for a while.

    I hope you can put this diplomatically to the designer, but I’m going to be direct here, because it makes me very uncomfortable: there is absolutely no way you can put tā moko on an apparently-white girl’s face, especially with a pattern he just made up, and have that not be incredibly racist. Moko is something people earn the right to wear; women don’t traditionally get full-face tattoos; they’re traditional designs usually applied by someone who has trained in the art, conveying ancestry and achievements (not random patterns); and Pākehā desires to wear moko or “Māori-inspired” body art are controversial at best. That cover is really inappropriate.

    Then I clicked send and had an anxiety attack. Good times!”

  11. Kristen
    February 7, 2010 at 8:34 pm

    Why would it surprise us that American books/publishers white wash books when American history is completely white washed and taught in our schools. This started with Columbus. Wow, he must have been shocked to find people on the land he just discovered. If a white person did not do it first did not matter because it did not count until a white person did??? This continued with discoveries in Egypt where they were so shocked to find royalty that was not white so they left the fact out. Another problem with publishers is the books for little girls that do not begin to show a strong little girl and what profession she wanted when she grew up, but instead tell her if she is a good white princes some guy will come along and take care of her. We need to educate our children and stop telling fairy tales. Little girls don’t have to grow up wanting to be taken care of but are brainwashed everyday to think that is what they want. Using an imagination is great, but lets use it in a way that promotes confidence and celebrates differences and stops sticking us all into a mold.

  12. a lawyer
    February 8, 2010 at 12:55 am

    This reminds me of the objections Ursula le Guin had to the portrayal of race in the TV miniseries based on her Earthsea novels.

  13. February 8, 2010 at 8:12 am

    I do not believe that it was a ‘conscious creative decision’ by Bloomsburry to put a white skinned girl on the initial cover of Liar. In my experience, particularly with these racially based situations….there has always been a coincidental, cover-up excuse so in no way do I buy it.
    Thank you for being passionate about the subject and bringing it to us :)

  14. February 8, 2010 at 6:23 pm

    I work in a bookstore and there are lots of books with non-white protagonists in the YA/Middle Grades sections. In fact, there are a lot of books out there who feature kids who are, y’know, brown and live in foreign countries. Some of them are pretty harsh, some of them are pretty funny.

    On the same subject, there are three sections of reading that really chap my ass: adoption, pregnancy, and parenting. When I was pregnant I did not actually see a single book with a non-white child on the cover…except in the Adoption section. Ain’t that grand? And a book on toddler and baby games (great ideas for when the brain runs dry)(and you’re stuck indoors with a not-quite-2-year old)(who isn’t speaking yet) I got last week? Has full color photos on each and every page. Filled with white children and parents. Oh, no, wait, there are two pages with Asian kids and parents. And then there’s that one page with the black kid and dad. No Latinos need apply, apparently.

    I despair, some days.

  15. Kezmoo
    February 8, 2010 at 7:57 pm

    It’s issues like these that make me wonder whether the people who design these covers have even had a chance to read the books they are making covers for… There have been many books that I’ve looked at the cover and wondered “How does this relate to the story being told?”, and not just about the appearance of the character being portrayed.
    It’s not enough to just tell these designers the genre and a (very) basic synopsis… they need to be able to understand the subtleties.

  16. Robin
    February 9, 2010 at 2:40 am

    Haha, woops. I read that first title as “Magic Underclass,” and assumed it was a clever photoshop and that this post was going to be about the fetishization of disenfranchised groups in romance novels.

    But yeah, that whitewashing is messed up.

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