You can’t judge a book by its cover. And yet so many of us do.
I certainly learned this in a surprising way with The Unnaturalists and to a lesser extent with The Tinker King.
Vespa Nyx, one of my main characters, is biracial; her ancestry is English and Chinese (many centuries and a world removed). She has auburn hair and green eyes. (And “pig cheeks and cat eyes” as her awful classmates note at Seminary). When the book was published and people began sounding off about it, I was floored at how many people said that the cover didn’t accurately reflect the character, because they were convinced she was white. I was careful to show throughout the book that her true heritage was kept from her (though people who shared her heritage knew immediately). Her family was covering up her true identity and forcing her to pass, a painful and dangerous journey for many people.
With all the hubbub that had gone on about publishers failing to accurately represent characters on their covers, I was so proud of my publisher for going the extra mile to get it right. And yet people were saying that they got it wrong! Some even accused them of pandering to diversity pundits just to get more attention.
That could not have been further from the truth.
Vespa’s appearance was based on that of a friend I met while on exchange in Japan. She was full Japanese and possibly albino. Therefore, her hair was naturally auburn and her eyes were green. Her schoolmates ridiculed her for looking different. Some even said she had demon blood. She was terribly ashamed of her looks and was extremely shy because of all she’d suffered. I can only imagine what that must have been like for her. I wished, even back then, that I could somehow give her a voice, a way to feel like she belonged.
There are also a group of people in the book called Tinkers who are forced to live outside the City gates because the Cityfolk are afraid of them and their connection to magic. In the acknowledgements, I was careful to mention the influence of the Baima people of the Sichuan highlands on the creation of the Tinkers. I’d spent a summer with them while my husband researched Asiatic black bears at the edge of the Tibetan plateau. My character Syrus Reed owes a great debt to a Baima lad we affectionately called Soldier Boy because he’d just come home from the army when we arrived. He used to sing to us in the evenings, trading songs as gifts.
The Baima are an endangered people. As industrialization has swept many of their children from their native villages to make a living, the people are losing many of their traditional ways beyond recovery.
What I am doing — making sure that people of color are front and center in my fiction does not seem like anything unusual to me. And yet, as far as I know, I am one of few authors fortunate enough to have covers that feature Asian protagonists. People have told me how happy this has made them, how important it’s been to them to have non-white characters in positions of power within a narrative and to have those represented so boldly on the covers for all to see.
In fact, those who have been most enthusiastic and responsive about the books have indeed been people of color. Yesterday when we launched The Tinker King at my local convention, I was overjoyed to see such diversity in the crowd at the party, and I have to believe that the covers are part of what’s making people come and feel welcome enough to stay.
We all deserve a place at the table together, and if I can do something in my small way to make that happen, I am happy to have my book judged by its cover if it means helping to broaden representation. I will always strive to give everyone, especially those who have felt most marginalized or silenced, a voice in my work.
Tiffany Trent is the author of THE UNNATURALISTS and THE TINKER KING (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers). THE UNNATURALISTS received a Green Earth Book Award Honor for its attention to environmental themes. She has also been on various lists, including the New York Public Library Books of the Teen Age, for her dark fantasy young adult HALLOWMERE series. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies including WILLFUL IMPROPRIETY, CORSETS & CLOCKWORK, and MAGIC IN THE MIRRORSTONE. She loves being in China after living and working there for many years; she returned recently to adopt her daughter. Visit her at www.tiffanytrent.com.