January 21, 2010

"Black" Covers and Me

 ETA: Years later, this is a post I've regretted writing. While I acknowledge my own privilege within it, I understand now how blind I was to the privilege of being able to go into any bookstore and see covers that reflected me and that I could instantly connect with. Nor was I fully aware of the privilege of being able to assume that the majority of characters I read about looked something like me. Since I wrote this post, many memorable covers featuring black characters have come out, and I can only hope that book covers continue to change and reflect the diversity of our world and showcase characters of all types for all readers.

Jaclyn Dolamore has responded to the kerfluffle about the MAGIC UNDER GLASS cover, which many people saw as an echo of the LIAR cover disaster.

Book Cover

Dolamore's response points out one major difference: her character lives in fantasyland, not the real world. Justine Larbalestier felt ill-served by the LIAR cover because it caused you to doubt about the only thing about Micah that was undisputedly true. Dolamore feels that her story stands on its own, independent of cover image. (And there are plenty of cover images, no matter the content, which have absolutely nothing to do with the book.) There's also the fact that this isn't replacing a black girl with a white one.

Book Cover

This isn't really about the MAGIC UNDER GLASS controversy. But thinking about writing about it got me thinking about black covers and my reaction to them. After all, one of the apparent reasons publishers are reluctant to design black covers is they believe they don't sell as well.

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I'll admit, I buy less books with black people on the front than white people. Part of it is a matter of genre. I've heard fabulous things about Coe Booth, the author of TYRELL and KENDRA. Neither book strikes me as my kind of thing. They look like the YA version of urban fiction, which I've never gotten into. Urban fiction tends to be too grim for me. It often features people who are in tough economic situations, people without choices - or at least without good ones. If you can't tell by reading this blog, I tend to prefer happy books. I read for fun, not to be beaten down by grim realities.

I know people who didn't have my life. I've spoken to a friend on Monday, who had to walk five miles to her aunt's house on Saturday because her parents never came home - they were in jail - and she got hungry. It happens disproportionally to black and Hispanic kids, but it happens to white kids too. It sucks, I know it sucks, and I try to do what I can. I don't want to read about it.

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One of my favorite genres is urban fantasy. There's magic, always a plus, and the women tend to be tough. The books are heavy on wit and action, light on stuff that will make me feel bad about my life. The only urban fantasy with a black main character I can think of off the top of my head is The Vampire Huntress Legend series by L.A. Banks. I read MINION and it wasn't my thing, and tried another book in the series later since I knew a bunch of people like the series. It isn't the black woman on the cover that keeps me from buying these - it's the hippy, New Wave paranormal stuff that also keeps me from buying Yasmine Galenorn's novels.

Book Cover

So what did I buy, with a black person on it, that I enjoyed? Well, there's BAD KITTY by Michele Jaffe, which I utterly love. It's full of wacky hijinks in Vegas, so what isn't there to love? Of course, despite Jas mentioning that she's biracial multiple times, I didn't really register it until the fifth time I read the book - about the same point I realized that the cartoon girl on the cover didn't represent a chick with a tan. I felt rather willfully blind at that point.

I felt that too when I went searching for memorable covers with black people on the front for this post. The first book I thought of? HANGING ONTO MAX by Margarent Bechard.

Book Cover

Turns out the cover has white people on it and is about white people. Clearly, my cover processing skills need help. With a little research, I think I was conflating HANGING ONTO MAX with THE FIRST PART LAST by Angela Johnson.

Book Cover

Most interestingly, both profesional reviews posted on Amazon seem to think the cover is a selling point for the novel.

From School Library Journal:
The attractive cover photo of a young black man cradling an infant will attract readers.

From Booklist:
The great cover photo shows the strong African American teen holding his tiny baby in his arms.

Then I continued on to black covers that I not only remembered, but purchased. And it turned out that both were books I bought in spite of the cover because I liked the author. But the color of the person on the cover didn't have much to do with why I thought they were crappy covers. One of the books is STUCK IN NEUTRAL by Terry Trueman.

Book Cover

Look at it! It's monochromatic, and that palatte is not bright or attractive. The overlay of the face looks messy rather than an artistic representation of being trapped in a useless body.

The other one turned out to be another one that didn't actually have a black guy on the cover. It turned out the cover was just ugly and in darker colors. Behold DARK ANGEL by David Klass, which received an extremely fortunate cover change for the paperback.

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In the end, poking around on Amazon did not help me discover much about whether I was more or less likely to buy a book based on the color of the person of the cover. Actually, it taught me that I apparently don't recall covers as well as I thought I did and that maybe I need a new pair of glasses.

I first heard about the MAGIC UNDER GLASS controversy on Jezebel. The linked article has a great summary of the YA blogs that first noticed the issue.


  1. This is a very nice post, props to you.

    I like Hanging on To Max very much, random fact. I also rather like the cover for Stuck in Neutral. Not great, but I don't hate it.

  2. I wouldn't say I hate it, but it's nothing that would've made me pick the book off the shelf if I hadn't already read something else by the author.

  3. I've wanted to read Bad Kitty for a while now, but hadn't yet got around to buying it (bad me!). I have to admit, I thought that was a tan too.


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