Race in YA Fiction

I recently posted a link to a blog post about YA book covers and race (find it here if you want another look). I read it, re-read it and then read it again. It annoyed me, and at first I couldn’t work out why. It was well written, arguments were well formed and the author had done her research.

After reading it the third time, I realised what was wrong. The subject is an important one, however it is not in any way, shape or form, one sided. The blog post wasn’t a fair or unbiased representation of the facts surrounding the issue. The author has cherry picked the covers and books that highlight her point. I am not disputing the fact that there maybe an issue, but presenting a one sided argument will do nothing to make any changes. In some instances the author looks at covers and sees only what she wants to see – and that is the crux of the issue.

We all picture characters differently, regardless of what the book says, if you get an image in your head, then its stuck there. I ignored the descriptions of Katniss, in my head she was blonde, no idea why, but she just was. My mum pictured her as a red head.  I am sure no two people’s katniss’ look the same. Descriptions can only do so much, people interprit them differently – olive, tan, light, fair, dark, golden, all words to describe various skin colours,  all meaning something different to each and every one of us.

So not only do you have the issue that everyone pictures the characters differently, but you also have the big dollar signs that the publishers see. I don’t know the stats, but lets face it, they are there to sell books, and there are far too many people that are still ignorant enough to be put off a book because of the colour of the model on the front. Its not big, clever or morally acceptable, but it DOES happen. Perhaps you could argue that the publishers should not bow to these people, and perhaps you are right, but they are there to generate sales, as many as possible and THAT is the reason (and probably the only reason when it boils down to it) that there are often whitewashed covers.

But is race on book covers the real issue? You don’t see fat (or even plump) girls, tattooed individuals (or pierced), gay or bisexual males or females, you rarely see solitary men (boys are normally always accompanied by a beautiful girl, a monster or some special effect)  if you are arguing for equality on book covers, why not push for these things to be highlighted too? When do you find these characters in YA books? Despite a large proportion of the teen world being heavily pierced or tattooed, rarely does a character lead the story with more than a hidden tattoo (which is normally a source of power or some such nonsense), they are saved for the bad guys. Equally how many heroines are overweight, or even suffering from an eating disorder? These are real life issues that affect young girls everyday, but they are not written about.  What about sexuality? The only book I’m aware of that has an asexual lead is quicksilver by RJ Anderson (not yet released), I can’t think of any that have bisexual or gay leads, there’s the odd gay best friend (Alec in mortal instruments etc), but its rare.

So in summary – why do some races get ‘whitewashed’ or hidden on book covers? Because of those bigots out there that still think your skin affects who you are. Why do publishers pander to them? Sales. Is race on book covers the issue? No, the issue is the YA genre is largely written with white characters, perhaps a greater call for diversity within the genre would be more beneficial to all. Not just race but diversity across individuality, sexuality and health, as well as everything else that teens face today.

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2 thoughts on “Race in YA Fiction

  1. To me, the race issue on covers is very complicated, and it isn’t just race that is under-represented.

    I didn’t really think about this until you pointed out the bit about there very rarely being a lone male on a YA fiction cover But pretty much all the covers I see when walking down the YA aisle is pretty girls in pretty outfits, posing like models, and usually they are all white. There is no handsome guy posing on a cover alone, without a trusty female companion to say “Look! There’s a pretty girl in my book!”. There are few covers that are just nice works of art, whether they’re pop art or classical renaissance type works, or heck, even typography. All of the covers feature pretty, white girls who usually do nothing but stand around looking pretty and mysterious.

    And while sometimes it can be difficult to make someone “look” gay, or have piercings without looking gothic, or have a tattoo, there are ways around it. Have the gay guy/girl on the cover holding hands with the same gender love interest. If your main character has piercings or tattoos, don’t give into the temptation to make them look menacing and an evil badass.

    Since not many authors have a lot of control over their book covers, I feel that the publishers are a huge part of the issue. They don’t want to possibly lose money on bad sales and then further lose money by having to change and reprint to cover. Say if the book was about a girl that gets tangled up in vampire business, and this girl is a character of color. If they replaced the usual cover of a white girl who looks mysteriously beautiful in her cool outfit, to a girl of color who looks mysteriously beautiful in her cool outfit, I feel that publishers would not lose that much money. After the initial “she doesn’t look like ____ from _____” (personally I substitute “Bella” and “Twilight” in the respective blanks, but use whatever comes to mind”, people will start buying the book because hey, it’s a supernatural romance about vampires and that’s the kind of thing they want to read. It goes the same way for any YA genre.

    At the same time, and I would like to say I’m not trying to justify the publisher’s cover choices, I can see why the covers consist mostly of white, pretty girls. If they put a gay/black/asian/chubby/disabled person on the cover, they run the risk of someone calling them racist, or homophobic, or too liberal, or misrepresenting a particular minority. And if that person makes a big enough stink out of it, the media might catch wind of this huge publishing company who is being discriminatory (ha, like they aren’t already), and the media does like to stir up the drama further. The publisher then runs the risk of losing money because of bad sales, and then further losing money by having to redesign and reprint the book with a new cover.

    To me, this is a issue with a very complicated answer. Publishers will have to go out of their comfort zone, readers will have to be patient and buy those books in order to make a change, and everyone will just have to be calm and not wave the “you’re doing my minority wrong!” flag prematurely. It won’t get fixed immediately, but hopefully we can expect more cover diversity in the near future.

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