A book cover is an invitation, a gateway to content, and a reader’s first experience of that book. In other words: covers matter. But what kind of responsibility do publishers have to represent cultural and ethnic diversity on book covers? On September 25, members of the Children’s Book Council’s Diversity Committee gathered for an illuminating panel on the topic of diversity and children’s book covers. The speakers were: author Coe Booth; Laurent Linn, art director at Simon & Schuster; Felicia Frazier, senior v-p of sales at Penguin Young Readers Group; Elizabeth Bluemle, author and co-owner of the Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, Vt.; and Joseph Monti, a former book buyer at Barnes & Noble and now an agent at Barry Goldblatt Literary.

The committee was established earlier this year for the purpose of engaging in active, critical dialogue about issues of diversity in children’s books and in the publishing profession. Members of the committee include editors, writers, publishers, art directors, and others committed to promoting diversity in their fields. Prior to the event, the speakers were asked to write about their thoughts in regards to children’s book covers on the committee’s It’s Complicated Blog, so the dialogue had already been simmering when the group sat down at CBC headquarters to a sizeable and enthusiastic audience. Alvina Ling, executive editorial director at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, moderated the discussion.

The conversation opened with some background on how much involvement the speakers have with cover design and how book covers are selected. The group’s personal involvement with creating book covers ranged from a lot to not much at all. As an author, Booth reported that she generally has very little control over what the covers of her books will look like, though she does report an occasion where she was so bothered by a book’s cover that she was able to influence the decision to change it. Linn, however, has direct involvement with designing and implementing book cover art. He referred to the “incredible number of factors” that help to determine a book’s cover, including author considerations (Has the author written other books? What do the previous covers look like?), the book’s genre and its audience, and whether to feature a photographic or an illustrated design. Linn explained that selecting a cover design for a book involves the integration of fresh concepts with those that have worked well in the past.

Frazier, who focused on the marketing angle, stressed the importance of making informed decisions in terms of the “messaging” that a book’s cover will deliver to readers. She specifically mentioned the significance of the decision to either align a book’s design with successful trends or to veer away from them.

Ling asked the panelists to discuss the reasons that particular books may have received their cover images. Linn presented three recently published titles, which center around ethnic minority and/or LGBT teens: Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy by Bil Wright, which features an iconic, “silhouette” design; Angela Johnson’s A Certain October, which has a single photographic image of a girl; and Boyfriends with Girlfriends by Alex Sanchez, which offers a photograph of white and minority teens looking at one another while reclining on the floor.

Linn wanted the cover for Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy to be a departure from the author’s previous book covers, since they were very different books. He also wanted the cover to represent the book’s protagonist – an overweight, Hispanic gay character who is “very out and very proud,” and who is also judged harshly by how he dresses. But ultimately, the decision to use an illustrated profile of a teen, rather than a photograph enabled Lin to depict “a sassy character without getting too specific,” and potentially avoiding pigeonholing of the book as LGBT literature. Linn also discussed the title of the book. In this case, the title provides a descriptive, eye-catching hook, which allowed the cover’s graphic to be less explicit.

For A Certain October and Boyfriends with Girlfriends, photographs provided the arresting images that Linn felt the books required. In his recent post on the CBC Diversity blog, Linn describes his decision to dress the models on the cover of Boyfriends With Girlfriends all in gray: “That way, you first notice the overall similarities of the characters –the diverse yet alike warm skin tones and cool clothing tones –then, as you look closer, you see the differences.”

So, what about the myths associated with YA cover art, namely, that putting a brown person on a cover means it won’t sell? Ling raised this important point with panelists as a conversation topic.

As a bookseller on the front lines, Bluemle noted her experience that it’s adults who are far more likely to be turned off from a book based upon the race of the person on the cover. “It’s an adult issue,” she said. “Kids want windows into other people’s lives.” As a side note, she also observed that covers with minority figures on them often have “muted earth-tone” color schemes, rather than having bright, attention-grabbing graphics. She commented upon the “assumptions that we’re not even aware of as artists, designers... just as people.”

Monti expressed the belief that the question of whether or not to put a minority on the cover of a book will eventually be obsolete, saying that racial integration is the wave of the future, and that teens today are not as concerned with such distinctions as are previous generations. He also noted the cover of Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian’s Burn For Burn, which seamlessly integrates minority and non-minority characters. For this title, a minority character on the cover appears to be a non-issue.

But Booth, whose own books feature photographs of minority characters on the covers, suggested that anxiety over how a book might be pigeonholed based upon its cover image is, unfortunately, well-founded. “I love seeing black kids on covers,” she said. But too often books featuring black kids’ faces (or even those books simply written by black authors) are swiftly shelved in “Urban Fiction” or on display for Black History Month, rather than being acknowledged for their actual content. The cover of her book, Tyrell, shows a picture of a boy with corn rows gazing into an urban landscape. She wrote on the group’s blog about how the cover image led to the essential “ghettoization” of her book in terms of how it was categorized and displayed by bookstores and in libraries.

Bluemle echoed Booth’s comments, referencing the institutionalized racism that she believes plays a role in the publishing world and influences cover choices. Denying minority children the right to see their faces represented on book covers amounts to a kind of “starvation,” she said.

The physical placement of books about minorities in relationship to other books provides its own powerful, sometimes subliminal messaging to consumers. Frazier spoke about the importance of addressing book “associations and adjacencies,” and that those who create YA book covers also have the power and authority to take chances and break perceived rules: “I don’t believe in rules,” she said. “If you can’t figure it out, you’re playing by the rules.” If anyone has the power to normalize images of black teens on book covers, it’s the publishers who produce them, Frazier suggested.

The group theorized about new approaches to book covers that might service the content of the books, the authors, and readers. While removing all faces from YA covers and relying on iconography rather than photographs may free readers to envision characters as they would like, Ling raised the possibility that younger readers particularly may value the physical depiction of a central character. Linn suggested that depictions of emotion are often what draw readers to books, rather than to a specific image or the race of the individual. Linn believes that part of the appeal of the cover for A Certain October is the “hopeful” nature of the image. Readers receive an impression of the main character from the cover, but the partial concealment of her face as she turns skyward allows the emotion in the image to play a greater role. Such images successfully “show the character without showing the character.” Whether iconic, photographic, or somewhere in between, Linn emphasized that each book and its cover treatment have to be considered on their own terms.

Sometimes a bad book cover is a bad book cover is a bad book cover. Bluemle admitted that she sometimes “hides” book covers from customers, especially when she knows that the book’s content outshines its potentially offputting cover art. She noted that sometimes books with covers that show “in-your-face” close-ups can turn away readers by taking them out of the story, suggesting that leaving some imaginative wiggle room in cover art can be a benefit.

However, despite the strength of the silhouette image for Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy, Bluemle commented that using silhouettes on covers may provide the subliminal message to minority teens that “they aren’t worth showing.” She noted that there aren’t many white characters placed in silhouette on book covers.

Monti brought up the point that part of the “myth” behind the idea that minorities on covers don’t sell has to do with scapegoating. If books don’t perform well, sometimes the color of the person on the cover becomes the point of contention. In reality, perhaps it’s more a question of the quality of the presentation. But he agreed that many favorite covers do tend to be iconic in nature, rather than photographic.

The group referenced books like the Twilight series and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian as books with iconic images on their covers—the latter being a book very much centered around a strong, minority character.

Linn steered the dialogue to picture books, which have covers that are often already predetermined by the illustrations. He used the example of Angela Johnson’s Lottie Paris Lives Here as a book with a cover that exuberantly introduces a black character: “It’s about a girl—period. Not a black girl. It gives me hope,” he said, as he held the image up for the audience to view.

In conclusion, the panelists each addressed the question of what publishers can do to bring diversity to the forefront of the industry.

Monti, who offered several examples of YA book covers with minority figures on his blog posting, noted the increasing number of gay-friendly covers featuring male protagonists. “It’s a starting point,” he said, and the launch of an ongoing dialogue that will continue to evolve into new opportunities. He also suggested that publishers and other industry professionals might take a wider perspective on the content of books, drawing from the material itself as a way to craft innovative cover art.

From the art development angle, Linn stated that individuals in his role need to spend more time with each book, so as to select covers that judiciously represent their content.

“We have to evolve... to change our approach to the dialogue” about diversity and the way it is presented or concealed in YA books, Frazier remarked.

Booth and Bluemle reinforced the importance of refusing to categorize books based solely on the color of the characters, author, or expecting authors of color to produce certain kinds of books.

Ultimately, thinking broadly and acting boldly, chipping away at stereotyping in terms of how titles are marketed, and getting powerful books featuring minority characters into the hands of readers no matter what, emerged as the ongoing goals for the group of driven book-world professionals.