Proof of the power of the web: Bloomsbury Children’s Books has told Publishers Weekly exclusively that it will change the controversial cover of Justine Larbalestier’s Liar, which is coming out this October. Bloggers, commentors and the author herself had criticized the publisher’s choice of a white girl with long, straight tresses for a novel about an African-American girl with “nappy” hair.
Typical pre-switch comments: “I think many publishers still live in the last century.” “Clearly Bloomsbury’s staff is in need of an intensive course on diversity.” “Buy the book, [and] return the cover to the publisher requesting a ‘corrected’ version.” Phew.
This week Bloomsbury officials have switched course. “We regret that our original creative direction for Liar—which was intended to symbolically reflect the narrator’s complex psychological makeup—has been interpreted by some as a calculated decision to mask the character’s ethnicity,” Bloomsbury officials said in a statement to PW. “In response to this concern, and in support of the author’s vision for the novel, Bloomsbury has decided to re-jacket the hardcover edition with a new look in time for its publication in October. It is our hope that the important discussions about race and its representation in teen literature continue. As the publisher of Liar, we also hope that nothing further distracts from the quality of the author’s nuanced and accomplished story, and that a new cover will allow this novel’s many advocates to celebrate its U.S. publication without reservation.”
Larbalestier praised the company’s decision. “I thought the best I could hope for was a new paperback cover for Liar. That it is being re-jacketed for the hardcover is the best news I’ve had in ages,” she told PW via email. “Bloomsbury is keeping me closely involved in the process of creating the new cover. While nothing is final yet—there’s been a photo shoot and comps and they’re looking at the Australian jacket as well—I’m confident what we wind up with will accurately reflect what the book is about.”
The author noted that the problem is longstanding and “industry-wide.” “Whitewashing of covers, ghettoizing of books by people of color, and low expectations (reflected in the lack of marketing push behind the majority of those books) are not new things,” she said.
But the extensive discussion of it is. “I'm seeing signs that publishers are talking about these issues, and I’m more hopeful for change than I have been in a long time,” said Larbalestier. “However, we consumers have to play our part too. If you’ve never bought a book with someone who isn’t white on the cover go do so now. Start buying and reading books by people of color.” A few of her recommendations: Coe Booth’s Kendra and M. Sindy Felin’s Touching Snow.
Bloomsbury publishing director Melanie Cecka, who edited Liar, made the decision with the full support of the company, said Deb Shapiro, Bloomsbury’s publicity director. “As a group, we stepped back from reading all the comments in the blogosphere and said, ‘What is in the best interest of this book?’ We’re very proud to be publishing this book.” Cecka declined to comment about the decision and process until the cover is finalized.
Bloomsbury is not the first publisher to change a jacket because of public pressure. In 1980, 17 years after he first published his Best Word Book Ever, Richard Scarry re-drew the cover to respond to claims of sexism. “He became a target for social critics who were aware that children are influenced by the images they see,” said children’s book historian and critic Leonard S. Marcus, author of Golden Legacy: How Golden Books Won Children’s Hearts, Changed Publishing Forever, and Became an American Icon Along the Way. As a result, Scarry put a male bunny in the kitchen with the female bunny. “It didn’t change just for stylistic reasons,” Marcus said.
Publishers have changed interior art, too, to silence critics. In the 1960s, Whitney Young, president of the National Urban League, singled out Golden Books for leaving black children out of illustrations for A Day at the Zoo, said Marcus. Golden Books added African-American kids to the drawings.
Cover art is “a marketing decision,” Marcus stated. “It’s a selling tool.” With it, publishers try to appeal to the largest number of prospective readers. Paul O. Zelinsky, illustrator of the 1984 Newbery winner Dear Mr. Henshaw, told Marcus that someone from the marketing department had told him to move the pencil the boy holds from his left to his right hand, in the thinking that most readers are righties. (Zelinsky switched the pencil position.)
While Cecka and her team have not yet chosen the new jacket for Liar, possibilities include using text only (like the Australian version of the book) or a photo of an African-American girl. Bloomsbury officials declined to give a dollar amount for the cost to re-jacket the books in the 100,000-copy announced first printing. At the time of the decision, all the jackets had been printed, but the books had not been wrapped. Costs for covers vary widely, and are dependent upon many factors, but a publisher printing 25,000 jackets might expect to pay close to $7,000 without design or illustrator costs.
Prominent bloggers supported Larbalestier’s criticism of the original jacket. In a post on the Web site Boing Boing called “Race and book covers: why is there a white girl on the cover of this book about a black girl?” co-editor Cory Doctorow wrote, “Justine’s right about this one.”
In the end, her publisher agreed.