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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Distributed by Macmillan
175 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY, USA, 10010
F: (212) 780-0115 or (212) 982-2837
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!)