By Malinda Lo
Representing non-white, non-straight, disabled characters on a book cover is a complicated thing to do well. A book cover must represent the story told in the book, of course, but it also must speak to genre (a science fiction cover looks quite different from a romance cover) and work for both online booksellers and brick-and-mortar bookstores. A good book cover grabs your attention from across the shop — or stands out legibly in thumbprint-sized images online.
Making things even more complicated is the fact that not all people of a particular race/ethnicity look like stereotypical images of that race/ethnicity. For example, not all people who are “Asian” look like stereotypical images of Asians, which are dominated by often Orientalist stereotypes of Chinese or Japanese people. Asia itself is huge and contains many more nations than China and Japan, and translating a specific character into an image that can be read as “Asian” by people who aren’t familiar with that specific character’s heritage can sometimes fail.
The following images are 2014 book covers that feature main characters of non-white descent, disabled characters, LGBT characters, and covers that suggest non-Western cultures. There is a wide range of representations of characters, from full-face head shots to images of a character’s back or silhouette. Not all images may read as non-white to every reader/viewer, but the question is: Does an image need to read exactly the same way to every reader/viewer?
Obviously, sometimes images of non-white people have been whitewashed on book covers, and that is problematic. But is there a gray area between full-face photographic images of a non-white person, and the wrong that is whitewashing? Is it possible to be more subtle in representing diversity while still speaking to those who are able to read those images clearly?
The fact is: not every book is best represented by a full-face photograph or illustration. Also, many readers don’t like to be confronted with pictures of the characters in the books; they like to cast these characters themselves, in their heads, while they read. And as I stated above, ethnic identity isn’t always clearly recognizable to everyone. I think it’s interesting to look at the entire year’s crop of representations of minorities on book covers to gain some perspective on how identity is depicted in different ways.
People of Color
Native and Indigenous Peoples
Representations of Non-Western Cultures
There is another way to represent non-white and specifically non-Western characters on a book cover: using an image that suggests the non-Western culture that the character lives in.
A Diverse Cast
One book that was published this year depicts a number of non-white characters, and fittingly, it was written by Walter Dean Myers, one of publishing’s greatest advocates of diversity.
Which covers work for you? Which covers do you have problems with?