Whitewashing Covers, part eleventy, and Elliot’s ethnicity

On the YALSA blog, there is a discussion of white washing on the cover of YA novels, and one of the novels mentioned is For Darkness Shows the Stars. There are many inaccuracies in this article (including stating that LIAR was released with the original cover), and I’m not sure if the librarian who wrote it has actually read my book or is instead simply repeating something she read on a reader blog.

I have not responded to any mention of this supposed “problem” with the cover of For Darkness Shows the Stars, because I have personally only ever seen it mentioned on a reader blog where the blogger in question hadn’t read the book, but instead took an out-of-context quote from yet another blogger. I don’t really feel it’s my place to get involved with reader reactions to my book. If there is a failure in communication between an author and any particular reader, well, that just goes with the territory. No writer gets through to every reader.

And I’ve been back and forth about posting this all morning. But in the end I decided that when it’s being repeated on the ALA website as if it’s fact, I feel like I must respond.

After the release of Rampant, I realized it’s important to name characters’ races in books, as Giovanni Cole was universally NOT recognized as black (he’s half African-American, half Italian). But I also realized that doesn’t necessarily help, as I got letters from readers, additionally, wondering if there was a typo in Rampant when Zelda’s skin is described as black. (“Do you mean her hair?”) She’s French AND black, guys. You can be both.

However, describing race posed a particular challenge in For Darkness, which depicts a post-apocalyptic society where they don’t engage with race the same way we do. How can you describe someone, for example, as looking Korean if you’ve never heard of Korea?

One of the big choices I made in writing For Darkness was not to state explicitly that the book is set in New Zealand. This is something I’ve corrected for in the paperback edition, by the way, because I’ve received too many letters from readers who are confused, and even wondered if the odd names of constellations mentioned in the book mean that it’s set on another planet. (Hey, bonus points for picking up on those names). Some readers have picked up on the clues (Southern hemisphere constellations and a discussion of Northern constellations that can’t be seen, the name of the “Cloud Fleet”, the description of the two islands that make up their whole world, the description of the ancient cultures that existed there), but there was even some poor reader who noted my use of Commonwealth terminology, but took it to mean that the book was set in England (which you don’t actually need a boat to get off of if you’re motivated enough, and certainly not a big boat).

Because the book is set in New Zealand, the language they speak is English, with Kiwi (New Zealand) terminology and accents. One of the things this means is that “browning” is what happens when you go out of doors without a hat. Lots of English, Australian, and Kiwi people say this. When writing, I thought it was a nice nod to Austen’s original, in which Sir Walter Elliot accuses people of it all the time. It’s unfortunate, though, that it seems to be confusing a few people.

Elliot is described as follows:

“Elliot’s features, which had been harsh and solemn even when she was younger, hadn’t softened with age. Her dark brows were thick slashes over the deep-set, almond eyes she’d inherited from the Boatwright side of the family. The round snub nose came courtesy of her grandfather as well, and the skin that turned brown in the sun, then sallow in the dark winter months. She’d also gotten his full lips, though, and her black hair took on ruddy highlights every summer. But Elliot was no beauty, and she knew it.”

That description is meant to clarify for American readers that Elliot’s “brown” skin is not brown like, say, an African-American, but a much lighter color dependent on how much sun she gets. But if you take only the word “brown” out of that description (as the post on YALSA did) you are left with another impression entirely, which is not that her skin tone is a combination of genetics and her enormous amount of outside work (compared to her family) but rather, a coded depiction of race.

Here’s a picture of me after I hiked around New Zealand in the sun (they have, like many extremely southern lands, some unfortunate ozone depletion) for a few months (with sunscreens, long sleeves, and hats!):

And I’m all white. Elliot’s grandfather identifies as Maori, (though he almost certainly isn’t full-blooded Maori, in this population-depleted post apocalyptic future). The rest of her family is white, probably of British isles heritage. Perhaps if I had specified that Elliot’s grandfather identifies as Maori, rather than talking about the history his family had with the islands long long before the Reduction, this would not have been confusing. But it implies a modern relationship with race that the post-apocalyptic characters don’t have.

Elliot does look much more like her darker-skinned grandfather than, say, her sister. But I’d say her skin tone is probably closer to my mother’s or my brother’s, which are both darker than mine. In high school my sports-playing brother got as dark as his best friend, who was Indian. I used to get pretty brown myself, until a serious injury when I was in high school taught me about skin damage.

And since I’m playing around in my old photos, here’s a pic of me at prom (note this is after I figured out about sun damage), where to the probable dismay of my date (the guy behind me), I wore a Jane Austen style regency gown and hair instead of the slinky numbers that were popular at the time (see other girls in pic):

Ah, Jane. You and I go way back.

But I digress. So, Elliot is part Maori, mostly white. Let’s take a look at the girl on the cover:

Is she paler than I picture Elliot? Oh yes. But more importantly, she has pink and blue starlight shining through her skin. Guys, the Elliot on this cover is dissolving.

I kid, mostly. But here’s a case where the cool special effects that make this cover so amazing and distinctive and gorgeous kinda backfired. It’s a stock photo, and FWIW, the original stock photo they showed me, the model’s hair was dark black and her eyes were covered in crazy green and black makeup. Obviously, makeup doesn’t belong on Elliot, and unfortunately, her hair didn’t show up at all against the night sky background, so they had to highlight it.

Honestly the thing that is keeping me from thinking this girl looks like Elliot is not a few shades of obviously washed-out-by-starlight skin and hair, but rather the fact that the girl on this cover is scary skinny. Look at that arm! Elliot has a much fuller figure than that. If my fairy godmother descended from the sky and granted me one change I could make to the For Darkness cover, it would be to give that girl a few sandwiches.

But I love the cover, even if the shade of her skin isn’t exactly how I picture it. After all, this is the shade of skin they put on my white-bread-from-Ohio-in-the-middle-of-a-New-Haven-winter heroine:

The only reason I know that model is white is because I met her. From the crop they used on the photo, with her black hair and brown skin, she might be Latina, Southeast Asian, even Maori. Her skin shade and hair color is as off by as many degrees as Elliot’s is. But of course, lightening the hair and skin of a multi-ethnic character on a cover is way more problematic than darkening the hair and skin of a stated white character.

And that wasn’t the problem for me with the Secret Society Girl (and Under the Rose) cover. The problem for me is that it deeply misrepresents the contents of the book and the character inside. Amy wouldn’t be caught dead in that outfit. This book is not about a prepster from 1985 playing golf at a country club. I have been asking Random House to get rid of this cover for six years now (most recently in September). I think it hurts sales. It was dated when it came out (when it was trying to invoke Prep, a book that had been a previous bestseller but doesn’t resemble mine at all) and it’s certainly dated now.

But the For Darkness cover? I think that does reflect the book. It’s probably the most accurate portrayal of a book I’ve ever gotten in terms of a cover (compare that to the otherwise lovely cover of Ascendant, a book about killer unicorns, where the only unicorn even remotely near the cover is a fourteen point clip art wingding outline on the back). When you pick up the For Darkness book, you know what kind of story you are getting. And though her skin tone is lighter than described, she is not depicted as being a different race than she is in the book. That I would have a real problem with (more on that in a bit).

Whitewashing is absolutely a problem, especially when book covers take a character of clearly represented race and put someone different on the cover (as with LIAR), or when books about black girls get the ubiquitous “silhouette” cover. But sometimes, things are misinterpreted or just don’t appear the way they are intended. Greg Van Eekhout, author of The Boy at the End of the World, has a great post about this:

“I found a graphic from an anthropology website showing the range of human skin tones across the world (there’re a lot more than just white, brown, and black), and I indicated the range of skin tones I thought would be right for Fisher. In the first version of the cover, Fisher’s skin tone was well within the range I’d indicated. The problem was that he was standing in shadow, and what looked brown in a color swatch looked like white skin in shadow on the cover.”

In the case of my cover, her skin ended up looking very silver/blue/violet once the special effects of starlight were added. And even though the starlight shining through her skin is very obvious even in the picture on the YALSA website, most people just see the paleness of her skin, and don’t associate it with the starlight.

And sometimes, readers just want something to bitch about. I have a friend who hand-picked the Asian-American model on her cover, only to get an email from a (white) reader that the model “wasn’t Asian enough.” It really bothers me that the only time I ever see people online talking about Cindy Pon’s amazing Silver Phoenix series is when they are complaining about the new covers. The conversation stops being about anything else.

I firmly believe we should be complaining about whitewashing. And I do think it’s making a difference. These are all new books from this year:

I’ve also seen several instances lately where the paperback version of a book actually specifies race when the hardcover didn’t (hardcovers on left):

But of course, according to the argument made in that YALSA blog post, the gorgeous, gorgeous paperback cover of MISFIT is problematic because it “obscures” the face of Jael. (The author would probably also take issue with the EC Meyers covers, because they have the shattered effect that also “obscures” the faces of the characters.) And the original hardcover of MISFIT, which I am totally jealous of because it looks like such a “big” book (so often “big” books don’t have people on them at all — see also Divergent, The Hunger Games, Legend), would probably get in the crosshairs, too. (See also PROPHECY, the upcoming debut fantasy from Ellen Oh that has an Asian main character, doesn’t have a person on the cover.)

In the comments section of the YALSA blog, the publisher of Tu Books (a spec fic imprint focused on stories about people of color) points to the fact that sometimes, artistic decisions are made not to obscure the race of the characters, but to best illustrate the book. Obviously, an imprint like Tu isn’t hiding anything. And covers like the one on Fair Coin, Quantum Coin, and the Misfit paperback are using artistry not to hide race, but to enhance the image. Would a regular, not dramatically lighted photo of Jael on Misfit be as striking? (I LOVE THAT COVER.)

I also love this cover, which the YALSA librarian says is “obscuring” the MC’s race:

And the title. In fact, thank you, blogger. I’m off to purchase this book now.

This guy is clearly Asian. The answer to “there aren’t enough people of color on covers” is not to make covers with simple, artless portraits of people of color on them (I really don’t like the redone LIAR cover — I wish they’d actually covered the model’s mouth — maybe a scarf or a ribbon or even more artfully posed hands? It just looks rushed, which it probably was.)

The solution is exactly what covers like Misfit, Quantum Coin, and Zen are doing. Beautiful, eye-catching covers that ALSO have POC in them. And yes, you can pull off a gorgeous full face and body cover (hi, Vessel and Clockwork Prince) but saying that’s the only acceptable option is going to do these books a disservice, and is going to detract from the actual problem of whitewashing.

Personally, I draw the line at depicting a person of the wrong race on the cover of my novels. And sometimes, that’s not easy to come by. In most conversations about this issue, the lack of suitable stock photography comes up. I have personal experience with that. The single most important factor to me when designing the cover to my upcoming book, Across A Star-Swept Sea, was that Persis not be depicted as white. She lives on a terraformed island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and the population is descended from Pacific Islanders and Southeast Asians. She is unequivocally and explicitly a person of color, and to make things even tougher for my cover designer, she has some other appearance… shall we say quirks? They ended up doing a photo shoot, and I’m the luckiest writer in the world at the way the whole thing came together.

But that’s all I can say until February. :-) But OMG this cover. Even better than For Darkness on the pretty oh so pretty scale. Plus the model looks EXACTLY LIKE PERSIS.

So in conclusion: yes, let’s absolutely keep fighting to depict people of color correctly on the covers of books. But let’s also be reasonable about both the content of the books and the entirety of what the covers are actually depicting.

As for me, I’m getting back to copyedits, where I can tear my hair out over what I need to make more clear in this book, using lessons I’ve learned from all my other ones (terraformed volcano island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean = That’s why they call it New Pacifica), even though I know that there will always be something, and that’s just the way it is.

Posted in biz, industry, mea culpa, Oceania, other writers, PAP, responses, SSG, star-swept, writing advice, writing industry, writing life, YA

11 Responses to Whitewashing Covers, part eleventy, and Elliot’s ethnicity

  1. molly says:

    I’m glad you shared your thoughts and clarified some things. It’s great that this discussion is taking place, and you raise some good points. I agree that the only mention of books like Silver Phoenix are just the politics surrounding the cover is sad, and that there are lots of covers that do have fantastic images of people of color on them. It’s important that the certain limitations surrounding producing book covers be noted, and that “whitewashing” may not be the motivation behind the marketing decisions.

  2. This… this is perfect. More than perfect. I have no words. I completely agree with you on so many, if not all, counts of this post. I can’t believe people put so much emphasis on race (like, getting all worked up when a character isn’t plae- or cream-skinned). I’m Asian-American (descended from India), so I guess I’m a little biased, but it’s so true. Thank you for 1) writing this post and 2) making a character of yours a character of color. It’s nice to see more diversity in young adult novels.

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  4. Tez Miller says:

    Set in New Zealand and the Pacific? I want to read these books even more! :-)

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  6. Kate K.F. says:

    This just makes me even more sure I need to find your book as not enough books or the world pays attention to New Zealand. This is also a great discussion of how complicated getting cover art right is. Thank you for this entry.

  7. Kaethe says:

    I haven’t gotten to For Darkness Shows the Stars and won’t until later this month. But reading the description of Elliot, I would not have gleaned anything like the cover model. While I understand that race was something you wanted to avoid, the physical description sounds to me like an African American. “Her dark brows were thick slashes…The round snub nose…and the skin that turned brown in the sun, then sallow in the dark winter months. She’d also gotten his full lips, though, and her black hair took on ruddy highlights.” I don’t have a visual image of Maori as distinct from other dark-skinned peoples, but I’d be expecting a girl with skin at least as dark as the model’s on Pinned, with thick, coarse hair, probably similar to mine, naturally curly.

    So, yeah, I’d have said your cover was whitewashed, too. Hell, I’d have said Elliot was made-over to a Disney ball, with the dress, and the sleek hair, and the willowiness. That isn’t the look of a young woman who does a lot of outdoor chores.

    • Diana says:

      Hi, Kaethe,

      Isn’t it interesting what assumptions we can bring that aren’t in the text at all? For instance “coarse, thick, and naturally curly” hair when all I said was that her hair was black and took on ruddy highlights in the summer. And most people on this planet with black hair it’s either straight or a little wavy.

      I wonder if you would make an assumption that her hair is “thick, coarse, and naturally curly” *because* you would want Elliot’s hair to look like your own. When I read the Hunger Games, I picture Katniss, of the olive skin and black hair, as looking like my half Italian mother, who also has olive skin, black hair, and a father who is a coal miner. Perfect, right?

      And of course those readers who actually did the OPPOSITE with Giovanni in Rampant, who IS African American, but decided that his “brown skin” meant he was Italian! (I would never have an American narrator say someone had brown skin when discussing a white person, because Unlike the English/Australians/Kiwis, we don’t use that term to mean “tan”).

      I’m not sure where you got the notion that race was something I wanted to avoid, though. I pretty much state the opposite in my post. But it’s also important to note that race does not always mean what Americans right now think it means. Like in America, we tend to think of someone as being African American if they “look black” due to our history. In some Latin American countries, to take one example, it’s very different. It would have been easy to have my modern American narrator in Rampant, Astrid, say that Giovanni was black, because that’s how she would put it. It would not have been easy to have my post-apocalyptic in-place-that-used-to-be-New-Zealand heroine, Elliot, say anything more than what she actually does in the book, which is that her grandfather is descended from the earliest people ever to settle in those islands. And if I’m reading your comment right, that might not even have helped you, because you say you don’t have a clear picture of what Maori look like.

      To be honest, while writing the book, the idea that anyone would ever think Elliot was any part African American never even occurred to me, because there aren’t very many African Americans or even Africans in New Zealand, which is otherwise a reasonably diverse country. (Not many Latin Americans either.) There is a white (Pakeha) majority, then the rest of the population is Maori, Asian, other Pacific Islander (Maori is a type of Pacific Islander, similar to Hawaiian native), South Asian, and a few Middle Easterners.

      But this all goes back to my general point. The depiction of Elliot is more than a word taken out of context, or even a paragraph. It’s a whole book.

      And of course, people are going to add in their own stuff that isn’t in the text (like you did with the curly hair) and then just mentally erase stuff that doesn’t fit that mental image they’ve already decided on. Like we all remember the story where people mentally erased all the times Suzanne Collins specifically stated that Rue was black because “she reminded Katniss of Prim.”

      Sidenote: to this day, my mental image of Jace Weyland is that he’s really short — like, 5’4″. I don’t know why I think he’s short. It’s certainly not in the text. Cassie Clare has personally told me that I’m utterly nutballs. But that is my mental image of him and it will not be shaken. So I still kind of have to give myself a mental shake whenever i see a new cover or, you know, movie trailers.)

      You’re right that she is “more glamorous” than I picture her (and, as i stated in the blog post, DEFINITELY more skinny) but I think the expectation that the cover has to be literal in every detail is a little too much. If you’d seen a cover where a girl is standing in overalls in a wheat field fixing a rusty tractor, would it say “post apocalyptic retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion”? No, it would not.

      (Other Sidenote: My first copy of Pride & Prejudice had, like, a portrait of a Duchess on the cover. In no way, shape or form was that Lizzie Bennett, before or after Darcy. The diamonds alone cost 10k pounds.)

      • Kaethe says:

        Diana, thanks for taking the time to respond.

        It is curious what people bring to the text, what we add in by way of our own associations. I’m sure I though “course and curly” because that’s the hair my daughter and I have.

        And I only meant avoiding race as an inappropriate cultural construct to the world you’d built.

        Anyway, I have tremendous respect for authors, like you, who are aware of issues of race and face them head on. It’s the only way, I think, for the next generation to move beyond.

        Looking forward to reading the book!

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