Fifteen years ago, critics accused Time magazine of racism when it darkened O.J. Simpson’s mug shot. Fast forward to the latest cover-and-race controversy: bloggers are making similar charges against Bloomsbury Children’s Books, which put a white girl with long, straight tresses on the jacket of a novel about an African-American tomboy with short, “nappy” hair. Phrases like “that poor author” and “that’s just wrong” are showing up in comments sections online, in the escalating flap over Justine Larbalestier’s Liar, which hits shelves September 28.

Their perception: that publishers think books won’t sell as well with blacks on the front. “I kept wondering if the publisher thinks books only sell if they’ve got white people on the cover. It bothered me,” wrote Dianne Salerni, author of the upcoming novel We Hear the Dead, in an review.

Even Larbalestier is upset. “I love my publisher,” she said. “[But] I never wanted this cover. I made it clear I didn’t want a white girl’s face. Having this cover on the front is undermining the book that I wrote.”

And yet, some readers—and Liar’s editor—are defending the cover, noting that Micah, the unreliable narrator, could have fibbed about her own appearance. “The entire premise of this book is about a compulsive liar,” said Melanie Cecka, publishing director of Bloomsbury Children’s Books USA and Walker Books for Young Readers, who worked on Liar. “Of all the things you’re going to choose to believe of her, you’re going to choose to believe she was telling the truth about race?”

Unlike Larbalestier’s light and upbeat How to Ditch Your Fairy, which came out last year, Liar is a psychological thriller, with a mentally unstable main character who may (or may not) have committed multiple murders. Bloomsbury is printing 100,000 copies.

The publisher believes that there’s a silver lining to the firestorm. “I do think it’s going to raise awareness of race in teen literature to new levels,” said Cecka. “Clearly, our striving for ambiguity with this cover, and for it to be interpreted as a ‘lie’ itself didn’t work for everyone. But again, if this jacket proves a catalyst for a bigger discussion about how the industry is dealing with its books on race, that’s a very large good to come of this current whirlwind.”

Editors try to use jackets to grab readers’ attention and convey the essence of a book, said Meghan Dietsche Goel, children’s book buyer for BookPeople in Austin, Tex. “The [Liar] cover really captures the idea of hidden truths and an unreliable narrator, and it’s certainly very visually appealing and attention-grabbing.”

Justine Larbalestier.

Goel understands why the publisher chose a real girl’s face. The 2007 Newbery Honor-winning TheWednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt was “difficult to sell,” she said, because its jacket was simply a chalkboard. “We just could not sell it with that cover, even after it became a Newbery Honor,” she said. The paperback edition, by contrast, is faring better with a lively illustration of a boy behind a tipping-over desk, she noted. “Covers matter. No matter how much we’re behind the book, if the cover isn’t appealing it isn’t going to do well.”

Both supporters and critics of the Liar jacket think it’s arresting. “The cover works symbolically,” said Catherine Linka, children’s and young adult book buyer at Flintridge Bookstore in La Canada, Calif. “We have a character who is hiding a lot, and the cover does a wonderful job of communicating that secrecy—the bangs, the hair crisscrossing across the face.” Her caveat: readers want a cover to give “an honest representation of the experience that they will have with [a book],” she said. “Teen readers even get pissed off when a brunette protagonist is portrayed on the cover as a blonde.”

Will the long-haired, Caucasian beauty help bookstores sell them all? “I looked at it and thought the marketing department decided this book would sell if they had a pretty girl on the cover,” Salerni said. “I was wondering if they thought if they had a mixed-race girl on the cover, it wouldn’t sell. It bothered me that it might be right that this book would sell better with this girl on the cover.” (Internally, the Bloomsbury staff loved the cover, designed by Danielle Delaney and created from a stock photo by Gleb Semenjuk of Shutterstock.)

“I would change the way the girl looks. I would make her look a little more ethnic,” said Margaret Brennan Neville, children’s buyer and manager for The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City. She thinks Micah lied more about her “inside self” than about her appearance. (She’s right. In an interview with PW, Larbalestier, who is married to Uglies author Scott Westerfeld, said Micah told the truth about her race. And she addresses the controversy over the cover on her blog.)

The Australian
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Patti Cook, teen services librarian for the Austin, Tex., public library system, finds the Liar cover “aesthetically” appealing, but likes the letters-only approach on the Australian jacket better. “I love how the word ‘liar’ is rearranged [in the Australian version], just like Micah rearranges the truth,” she said. The U.S. version doesn’t offend her since, after all, Micah is a liar. “[But] I do tend to prefer covers where the character portrayed reflects the character in the book,” she said. “People are very unhappy when the cover does not reflect the character. I think it’s because they think the art department didn’t read the book.”

No bookseller has refused Liar because of the cover, said Lise Friedman, a sales rep at Macmillan who is selling Liar to bookstore accounts. Also, she said, “I haven’t had anybody who read the book who didn’t like the book.”

The controversy does indicate that times are changing. “It’s a good sign that people are upset about the cover,” said Larbalestier, who prefers the text-only cover of the Australian version of Liar. “I want this dialogue to go beyond my book. I want every publishing house to think about this.”