21 January 2010

“They’ll never actually tell you why they’re rejecting the book.”

For the second time in a year, the American wing of Bloomsbury has withdrawn a book because its dust jacket showed a young white woman but its protagonist is actually a young woman of color. The first book was Justine Larbalestier’s Liar, the second Jaclyn Dolamore’s Magic Under Glass. (Both books also show young women who are gorgeous, which the Liar heroine says she’s not, but that’s another question.)

Book bloggers were at the forefront of spotting this problem and pressing Bloomsbury to fix it. There are now many fine essays online about the value of books about children of color and the need to respect authors’ visions. But can pressure on publishers fix the problem?

Last June Elizabeth Bluemle wrote a Shelftalker column from her bookstore in Burlington, Vermont:

I’ve noticed a strange trend among grandparents these days, and sometimes among parents: the tendency to reject a book for not being specifically, literally representative of their child’s world. . . .

Or, most disheartening of all, a whispered, “I don’t think he’ll really be interested in that,” when the child’s skin color on the cover does not match the child’s skin color in real life. (I’ll add here that only white customers make this kind of comment; customers of color — even if they were so narrow-minded — wouldn’t have the luxury of limiting their children only to books about kids like themselves; there just aren’t enough. But that’s a separate post.)
To which Elizabeth Bird at Fuse #8 and the New York Public Library system added:
We get that here in New York too. Only they’ll never actually tell you why they’re rejecting the book. They’ll just pluck out all the titles with kids of other colors and leave them surreptitiously on the table for you to find later.
The fact that those adults aren’t expressing their prejudices out loud shows how such discrimination has become taboo, which is a Good Thing. But the testimony of these book professionals suggests that quietly entrenched racism is still silently affecting some people’s book choices. And in a capitalist economy, that might affect book covers.

TOMORROW: How can we tell?


Charlotte said...

I will come back tomorrow for sure!

Ruth McNally Barshaw said...

Liar has been out a while. Is it selling well? Does the controversy have anything to do with its sales? Is it, too, a victim of quiet discrimination by parents who don't think their kid will read it?
What's the right thing to do? What if the bookstore or library only had limited space; how would they choose between popularity (sales) and education?
It's a balance between what the consumer wants and what's good for her, isn't it?
Publishers aren't experts at ending discrimination, and it's not their mission. Is it fair to expect them to take a loss in the interest of helping race relations?
Are ethics situation-relative?
As a Bloomsbury author I feel for both sides of this issue. It's not a black-and-white, true-or-false test. It's an essay question.
I'm definitely interested in reading more commentary.

(word verification: Supro. This issue is supro-charged)

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, any comparative measurement is hampered by the fact that every book is different, and every book gets published for the first time only once. So there’s no way to experiment and say this approach worked better than that.

The fact that Liar became a cause célèbre means that we can’t really tell if the new, more accurate cover increased sales, or the higher pre-publication name recognition increased sales, or if sales went up at all.

I think it’s noteworthy that while lots of people complained about Bloomsbury’s blindness about the covers of these two novels, folks didn’t notice until this week that a character on the cover of The Mysterious Benedict Society is colored paler on the outside of the book than on the inside.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I had an African American woman apply for a library card for her son. We now have 4 colorful designs from which to choose. The mother looked the designs over and explicitly rejected the one picturing a white child - it was a detail of a mural and showed a Little-Prince-like boy leaping through the air. She said she did not want an image that did not reflect her son's existence.

I forget which of the other designs she settled on. Maybe the tie-dye one. That one's popular.

J. L. Bell said...

Ah, Berkeley.