Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Whitewashing in the Publishing Industry: A Response to the BloomsburyFAIL

This post began as a response to a comment on the Jezabel thread about the whitewashing of Magic Under Glass, a new young adult book about a girl of color that has a white girl on the cover. GalNovelty, Bookshop, and Reading in Color as well as many others also have blogged about this. The book is put out by Bloomsbury (part of Macmillan) who last season did the same thing to another book, Liar. The blogosphere freaked out and the cover was changed (to a picture of a very light-skinned girl whose hair is mostly covered up). A commenter on Jezabel questioned whether there was really a specific thought that "black covers don't sell" instead of just not much thought being put into what goes on the cover of a book. This is my response.

I work as a children's book buyer at an independent bookstore and interact with publisher reps regularly. I have frequent conversations with my reps about how books are packaged (novels as well as picture books) in which I point out the problematic racism, sexism, heterosexism, & general kyriarchy in them. I would actually say that quite a lot of thought goes into how books are packaged and marketed -- just not a whole lot of socially conscious though. Just look at how many different covers a single title will have in it's publishing history. Publishers are well aware that the way a cover looks affects that title's sales and they will put a cover on a book that they think will help it sell. Clearly they think that books with black kids on the covers don't sell. Whitewashing is not something that happens by accident. One of my reps frankly asked me whether our books with black children on the cover sold. She also told me that she's been told by some of her other buyers that their customers are reluctant to buy books recommended to them if there's a black kid on the cover. Penguin just released a whole new set of covers for Jacqueline Woodson's books that either have no child at all on the cover or have racially-vague depictions of children. The washing out of books with children of color protagonists is not an accident.

However, it is not the only problem at play here. I don't think we should write off the role of the buying public with sarcastic jokey comments about "But White People Won't Buy Teh Books About People of Color!" Many people who buy YA & kids books buy them as gifts. Just as there is an (apparently a-okay) perception that boys won't read books about girls, I'm quite certain that there is a (mostly unstated) assumption that The White Child I'm Buying This Book For Won't Be Interested in A Book About a Black Kid. We live in a racist society. People make racial-charged decisions about the books they're buying. We can't only call publishers out on the covers they put on books. We also have to do activist work around what books people buy for their children.

Similarly, it seems like a whole helluvalot of the books that do have black kids on the cover are historical fiction about slavery, the civil war, jim crow, and the civil rights era. There absolutely should be many YA and kids books about these topics. Absolutely. However, where are the books about black and of-color children who are having adventures, going on quests, battling vampires, falling in love, dealing with school issues, solving mysteries, telling stories about their families, finding out they're magicians? -- all those things that white characters get to do without having to think about their race. There need to be more books for kids of color to read that aren't constantly reminding them (and the white readers) that Kids of Color Are Oppressed.

Just to be clear, I'm not knocking books that deal with serious issues of oppression -- that is a very important issue needing to be covered in YA & kiddie lit. But it's also important that kids of color get to have fun in their books. It's important for them, and it's also important for white kids (and their parents) to see that not every story about kids of color is going to be historical fiction. That hey, if they like fantasy/mystery/contemporary realistic fiction, they don't have to be surrounded by white characters. Perhaps part of the reason that some white people don't buy books with black kids on the cover is that their main experience of books with kids of color on the cover is historical fiction about oppression. Maybe the think: "black kid on the cover --> historical fiction --> slavery --> educational book --> not fun --> i want a fun book for my kid --> they won't want to read that --> i'm buying something else." I'm not condoning this line of thinking, but it's not really being countered by a publishing industry that doesn't seem to be publishing a whole lot of books where the black characters get to have some fun. To be fair, there are some out there -- many small and independent publishers like Lee and Low do a great job -- however the mainstream large publishing houses are not at all doing a spectacular job (The True Meaning of Smekday & Ziggy and the Black Dinosaurs are a few awesome exception to this).

It's not enough to call for black kids to be on the covers of kids books. We need to call for more books about kids of color that are not just about oppression. We need to call for fantasy/mystery/scifi/romance/genre fiction about kids of color who get to have some fun. We need to call for major mainstream publishing houses to start publishing such books. And we can't let them get away with sticking the lightest-skinned "ethnic-looking" person they can find on the cover when we make a fuss. I mean, come on, the girl on the new cover of Liar? She could be black, sure. But it's not super immediately clear is it? You're not wrong if you think that this was done on purpose.

It is RARE that I see dark-skinned unambiguously Not White kids of color portrayed anywhere in kids books (Kadir Nelson is an awesome exception to this) -- from the covers of YA books to the illustrations in picture books, most kids of color are depicted as extremely light skinned. Most black kids (especially the girls) are also depicted with straight hair. Not that light-skinned straight haired people of color shouldn't be depicted anywhere, but the huge preponderance of them in kiddie/YA literature about kids of color is motivated by racism. Publishers MUST be called out on this, and not just by a few kids buyers sitting down with their rep and saying so. Buyers need to refuse to buy any frontlist titles from Bloomsbury at all this season. Those of us who see a problem must unambiguously say so.

Absolutely, boycott. The publishing industry is on it's last tottering knees -- they are extremely focused on money and that is the way to reach them. Write them angry letters -- tell them you want to read books about kids of color that have unambiguously Not White kids of color on the cover. Tell them you want to see more genre fiction about kids of color that aren't historical fiction. Tell them you want picture books with darker-skinned kids who haven't had their hair straightened. Tell them how awesome books, authors, and illustrators like True Meaning of Smekday, Kadir Nelson, Sharon Draper, etc are. Tell them that you're a POC and you want all this. Tell them you're white and you want all this. Buy books with kids of color, read books by authors of color. Support your independent booksellers who take pains to carry books that don't promote oppression and who deliberately carry books from independent presses and by unestablished authors doing new things. Buy books from independent bookstores staffed and owned by people who care about social justice.

Just for a point of reference, here are the big big big publishing houses (who for the most part need to get with the program). Contact them!

Random House (includes Knopf, Yearling, etc)
Harpercollins (includes Hyperion, Disney)
Scholastic (bills through Harpercollins)
Penguin Putnum (includes Puffin, Dorling Kindersly, Dial, Speak, Dutton, Viking)
Simon and Schuster
Hachette Book Group (includes Little Brown)
Macmillan (includes Bloomsbury, Tor Forge, etc)
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

And just think, this post only addresses racial problems with kiddie lit. There are just as many problems with the depiction of gender, sexuality, sex, class, (dis)ability, you name it.


MissAttitude said...

I linked to this here http://blackteensread2.blogspot.com/2010/01/really-bloomsbury-im-done-publishing.html
Thank you for visitng Reading in color and raisng your voice on this important issue. And thanks for sharing this link with me. To me, boycotting in this case will hurt more than help but I applaud you for taking action especially action that really impacts books as a book buyer. Keep it up!

susan said...

Thank you!

Please come by Black-Eyed Susan's. Adding you to my blogroll.

Rae Lori said...

Wonderful post! I agree that I would love to see more kids of color represented in books that are across the genre spectrum and not just in historical "realism" books. Although those are indeed important like you mentioned, there's a whole other world out there where kids of color can experience history, culture and numerous storylines especially in fantasy and science fiction.

I would love to see publishers step up but I wonder if it's a case of authors not being able to sell such books to publishers and/or not many writing them. Thanks to Tu Publishing, I hope this is changing. Hopefully more indie/small publishers and authors will take note of this giant gap in the margin. I've been thinking about writing YA novels myself and the lack of exposure and representation of main characters of color in YA books for our current and future generation is a growing inspiration.

Thanks to you and Ari for spreading the word!

Zetta said...

Have you seen this poll?


anne said...

correction note:
Candlewick Press is an independent publisher that only uses Random House distribution center to warehouse & distribute their books. The acquisition, creation, design & production of Candlewick Press books are completely independent from Random House.

DontBoxSarah said...

oops -- you're right anne, I was thinking about who publishing houses bill through when I wrote this post. I've corrected it in the original post along with a few other things.