29 January 2010

How the Mysterious Benedict Society Blew Their Cover?

Little, Brown is scrambling to print jackets for the Mysterious Benedict Society books so that they show a character with “light brown skin” as having, well, light brown skin. I thought it worth considering how this discrepancy probably came about, and how people have reacted to it.

In The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey, Trenton Lee Stewart describes the character of George “Sticky” Washington as “a skinny boy with light brown skin…and a completely bald head.” The series’ other three young protagonists, and most of the adults around them, are white.

Bookshelves of Doom noted how all three books are illustrated throughout by the same artists who drew their covers: Carson Ellis for the first and Diana Sudyka for the second and third. The interior illustrations show Sticky with skin unmistakably darker than his friends’, as in this sample.

But those are black and white drawings, meaning that:

  • “Light brown” comes out as gray, just like apple red, grassy green, and Nike magenta.
  • The editor, who knows the book better than anyone else at the publisher, is seeing every stage of production.
In contrast, the jacket illustrations are in color. The style Ellis and Sudyka use probably means they drew the lines in black ink and then added other colors, such as skin tones, with watercolors. And editors don’t oversee the printing of jackets.

A number of bloggers have posted close-ups of Sticky from the printed Mysterious Benedict covers, showing how pale his skin has come out. However, I haven’t seen any that show the other kids for comparison, as in this detail of the second book from Amazon.
The blonde girl at lower right is pale as paper with spots of pink on her cheeks. The white boy at the left has a little more color. Sticky’s face and arms are slightly tanner than the other kids’. Not enough to be “light brown,” but different enough to indicate that Sudyka originally colored him darker than the others.

Sticky lacks the other markers that cartoonists use to distinguish people with some African ancestry from people with mostly European ancestry. He has no hair! The Mysterious Benedict art style doesn’t really include lips or variable noses. And of course Sticky’s skin is “light brown,” so the watercolor wash shouldn’t have been very dark.

I suspect that whoever oversaw the jacket printing didn’t recognize the figure of Sticky as a brown-skinned boy. Furthermore, that character is in the background of two of the three covers, and thus not an obvious prominent detail to worry about. So in color adjustments at the printer, his skin stopped being brown at all.

As long as we’re pondering representations of race, it’s worth considering that the white boy, Reynie Muldoon, is the most prominent child on all three book covers, as well as the character that all three books start with. This is a series about a group of kids, but are the white girls and the black boy secondary to the white boy?

How does the character of Sticky Washington fit with and work against our culture’s dominant stereotypes of young African-American males? He shares a name with a US President, a trait already familiar when Roosevelt Franklin was in elementary school. But in other ways, the character seems designed to negate negative stereotypes: Sticky’s a bespectacled bookworm, usually nervous instead of cool, totally unthreatening. And, apparently, easily overlooked.

Finally, it’s interesting how long it took for a critical mass of people to notice Sticky’s discoloration. Fuse #8 pointed out the discrepancy between text and cover of The Mysterious Benedict Society back in December 2007, the year that first book was published and widely reviewed. But few folks responded until Bookshelves of Doom raised the issue again this month. By then, the blogosphere had been primed by the more visible examples of Liar and Magic Under Glass.


Anonymous said...

I thought sticky was indian not african american (o well what does it matter idk what all the fuss is about)Well just wanted you to let you know

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the comment. I haven’t seen any direct quote from the book about Sticky’s ethnic background, so I took a hint from his surname “Washington.”

Of course, the character could have parents from different ethnic groups, he could be adopted, the family could have changed its surname sometime along the way, and so on.

Italia said...

This is a fantastic novel,with brainteasers,comedy,drama,and friendship. The book starts out with Renard Muldoon (or better known as Reynie) finding an article in a newspaper addressed to gifted children.His orphanage tutor Miss Purumal convinces him that he IS gifted and he SHOULD go.So Reynie then goes to the first test for gifted children,and he passes.Then,he goes to the next test,and passes,and if I remember correctly (I haven't read this book for a while) there is a third test,of which he passes.Along the way of these odd tests,Reynie meets 2 friends.Kate Wetherall,and Sticky Washington.These two have also passed the tests, though in different ways.By now,all of the children have noticed that everything about the situation is weird,and confusing.There is also a fourth child who they have not met,but soon will.So Rhonda (one of the ladies to help with the tests) and Number Two (the other lady helping with the tests) take the new friends to Mr.Bendict's house. Where they of course,meet Mr.Bendict.Mr.Bendict then tells the kids why they were given all of the peculiar tests.A dangerous mission to stop evil!All of the children end up accepting the request,and prepare for the journey.