Monday, January 25, 2010

A conversation about book covers and race

Of late in the children's lit world---especially in blogland---there's been a lot of discussion about book covers.

The discussion is centered on this question: "Do books sell better if the character on the cover is white?" Mitali Perkins is asking librarians and booksellers to vote on the question. Head over to Brown Faces Don't Sell Books? to vote if you're a librarian or bookseller.

I wonder how readers or buyers respond to one of my favorite book covers (and books)? I'm thinking of the cover for Rain is Not My Indian Name, shown here.




It is a terrific cover. In it, I see a lot that others might not see. American Indians have been photographed so much, with and WITHOUT our permission. Many of us have signs on our reservations now, telling visitors that they may not take photographs.  It is astounding that people will read the signs and STILL take the pictures.

 Mitali's question and the discussion remind me of an episode of This American Life. In that episode, a clerk at FAO Schwartz talked about working in the "adoption" area of the store, where shoppers could adopt a baby doll. That area was set up just like a nursery. (I thought it was kind of creepy.) What was very troubling about it, was that the first dolls to sell out were the white ones. And then the Latino and Asian dolls. But the African American dolls? No takers. You can listen to the episode here. If you missed that episode, listen to it.

12 comments:

Sanguinity said...

Here's what I love about that cover: it shows an Indian who looks like me.

CaroleMcDonnell said...

Great post!

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Thank you, Debbie.

I'd like to note that my Harper editor, Rosemary Brosnan, welcomed my suggestions on the covers and interior illustrations of all the children's books we worked on together.

Looking back today, I'm even more appreciative of her open, respectful, supportive attitude and her efforts as a champion within the company.

Beverly said...

RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME is one of my favorite book covers as well, Debbie, as is the cover of BLESSING'S BEAD by Debby Dahl Edwardson. Both YA novels are amazing, and both covers complement the text in depicting the protagonists as young women of mixed parentage. Perhaps we can expand our discussion to books with covers that depict young people of color, but are nevertheless fatally flawed. I'm referring, for example, to JEMMY by Jon Hassler, and MY HEART IS ON THE GROUND, by Ann Rinaldi.

SonomaLass said...

That is a beautiful cover!

Delux said...

At this point, really sounds to me like book publishers think that POC dont actually read books, and therefore only need to cater to white bookbuyers who are apparently so deeply fragile that they cannot physically withstand the impact of seeing a bookcover w/a poc on it, even if the protagonist is not white.

Or something.

I couldnt bring myself to listen to that podcast because i know it will only be a hot mess.

Anonymous said...

I like the cover of Rain Is Not My Indian name, too. But although Rain does indeed look how many Indians look, she also looks how many non-Indian whites look. I wonder how the publishers would feel about a Native the color of Adam Beach on the cover. In other words, if you pick up the book and know nothing about it, then what you see IS a white girl on the cover.

Beverly Slapin said...

In some ways you're right, Anonymous. Cassidy Rain Berghoff is identifiably Indian to Indian people, and maybe not so much to non-Indians. What struck me about the cover is that Cassidy looks like Cynthia Leitich Smith, who, like her protagonist, is of mixed parentage. To portray Cassidy as "a Native the color of Adam Beach" might be less likely to work for this story. I think it's important that the cover complement the text, and the text tell a good story. That's why I like RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME and BLESSING'S BEAD so much.

Rob said...

What struck me is how the girl is lit to emphasize the white highlights of her skin. I suspect the publisher did this intentionally, so buyers wouldn't face a girl with uniformly brown skin. That way, Indians can see her as an Indian girl and whites can see her as a white girl.

Beverly Slapin said...

I don't think so, Rob. Cassidy Rain Berghoff is a young Indian woman of mixed parentage, and the cover portrait shows it. Cynthia said that her editor at Harper welcomed her suggestions, and Cynthia's protagonist looks like her. Do you really think that if Cassidy were "all" Indian that her skin and hair would be flat brown with no highlights? RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME is a lovely story with a beautiful cover.

Anonymous said...

The cover of Rain reminds me of the beautiful poster for the ImagineNative film festival: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_22VYE3ewUkw/Susc2gToTGI/AAAAAAAABc8/e9-FMt_zbng/s1600-h/Picture+2.png

Rob said...

Maybe it's just the version Debbie posted. In this version:

http://img1.fantasticfiction.co.uk/images/n48/n240635.jpg

the white highlights are less obvious and the skin is a more natural shade of brown.