Tag Archives: race and representation

Perceptions of Diversity in Book Reviews

This essay was originally posted in four parts on Tumblr.

By Malinda Lo

For the past few years, I’ve read hundreds of reviews for Diversity in YA. I read them to determine whether a young adult book has a main character who is of color, LGBTQ, and/or disabled, and thus is appropriate to include on DiYA. Sometimes the book’s cover copy reveals this, but often it does not — or it deliberately obscures it — and then I have to read reviews to figure it out.

The reviews I read range from Goodreads reader responses to blog posts to mainstream reviews (like from the New York Times) to trade reviews. Trade reviews are brief reviews published in trade journals such as Kirkus or Publishers Weekly, and I usually start with these for several reasons. First, they’re short, and because I do DiYA in my spare time, I don’t have the luxury to read lengthy critical essays on every single potentially diverse book that’s being published. Second, these brief reviews pack in a lot of detail including spoilers, which are often key to determining if a book has diverse content. Third, they’re edited by the editors of those trade journals, which means they should have been fact-checked. Sometimes trade reviews do contain errors, but generally speaking I believe they are reliable about the facts of a novel’s plot.

If a trade review only hints about race or LGBT or disability issues, then I turn to blog reviews and Goodreads to confirm my suspicions. But more often than not I find that trade reviews do include details about the book’s diversity, and lately it has become increasingly common for trade reviews to state a character’s background quite plainly. I appreciate this because that’s why I’m reading these reviews, and I think an up-front statement that a character is gay is much better than an insinuation that the story has something to do with sexuality. It removes some of the stigma from historically marginalized identities, and it helps those of us who are seeking out these books to find them.

Of course, not all reviews discuss diversity in a skillful way. Frankly, it’s hard to do it in one paragraph, and I recognize that. I’ve encountered reviews that reveal broader assumptions about race, LGBTQ, and disability issues, and sometimes those assumptions are based in unfortunate stereotypes. Over the past several months I’ve been keeping track of reviews that I felt did a disservice to a book’s diverse content, and revealed latent racist, heteronormative, or ablist beliefs.

These reviews reveal a few specific issues or perceptions about diversity: the idea that diversity in a book is contrived; the critique that a book contains too many issues; the question of believability; the demand for glossaries; and finally, unsupported assumptions relating to race. Continue reading Perceptions of Diversity in Book Reviews

Beyond Diversity 101: More on Representing Latinos

Submitted by Emily a DiYA reader (whose identifying information was deleted when Tumblr queued this — sorry! I don’t understand Tumblr. Grr.) in response to Diversity in 2012 YA Bestsellers

It seems your breakdowns are frequently linked to things I read regularly (YALSA Hub, PW’s Children’s newsletter) and I really enjoy your breakdowns. I read all 4 parts of this series, and while I enjoyed it all, I was especially interested in some of the comments regarding characters of color on book covers.

This is a topic I have paid attention to since the Liar cover controversy several years ago.  As a librarian serving teens in a public library setting, I am very aware of representation on covers of books I display and recommend.  I think visual diversity on book covers is extremely important, and I remember a really interesting post you did a while back on the trend of characters in color in silhouette or outline only [DiYA: Was it this quote that we posted?], so that their race was not known by looking. (Putting makeup on the fat boy comes to mind.)

Let me stress again that I agree that characters of all looks and backgrounds belong in our books and on our covers.  But I have to say one thing that bothered me, just a little, from part 3 of this series.  On discussing characters of color on the covers, Perfect Chemistry is given as an example where character Alex Fuentes could look Hispanic or could be a white guy with a tan. I’ve read all three books in this series and all three brothers are clearly Hispanic in ethnicity.  My issue here is that some argue that he doesn’t “look Hispanic enough.”  Again, I reiterate that I understand and wholeheartedly agree that people of all backgrounds belong on book covers.  But what exactly does “look Hispanic” mean?  Quite honestly, not all Hispanics look the same.  Not all Hispanics even have dark skin.  My husband is from Mexico (meaning born and raised there.)  His parents were both born and raised in Mexico.  Their parents were all born and raised in Mexico.  I admit, my knowledge of his family tree ends there but that’s 3 generations born and raised in Mexico, yet if I put him on the cover of a book featuring a Mexican main character, many would probably say he doesn’t “look Hispanic” or look Mexican.”  As much as we have to place people from a wide range of backgrounds on the covers of our books, we also have to realize that not everyone looks exactly as we think they should for their heritage, that doesn’t make that heritage any less real.

Malinda Lo responds:

Thanks for your thoughtful submission! I wanted to note that I totally agree with you that not everyone who is Hispanic looks like stereotypes of Hispanics. The issue of passing as one race or another is fraught with many complications (I’m actually biracial myself, but I  pass as Chinese), and I hope that what I wrote about the book cover of Perfect Chemistry is not being misunderstood. I was attempting to be brief (because the series of posts was already extremely long), but sometimes being brief leads to mistakes. So let me elaborate.

I wanted to clarify that the reason I did not include Perfect Chemistry in the “undeniably includes person of color on cover” category is because I am aware that the public’s perception of Latinos (and every other race) is skewed by stereotype. As I said in the post:

“The boy on the cover looks like he’s of color to me (in the book he’s Latino), but I can easily see someone arguing that he passes as a white guy with a tan.”

As you can see, I’m not saying that I personally see him as “a white guy with a tan.” Additionally, I used that phrase deliberately because it sounded ridiculous to me, and yet I hear that kind of thing often in discussions about book covers, race and representation. It’s a mistaken belief that people of color are all dark-skinned.

While many of us understand that’s not true, in the posts on diversity in 2012 YA bestsellers, I was attempting to look at the covers of PW’s bestselling YA books from a mainstream consumer perspective. What does “mainstream” mean? In this context, it means a white, middle-class reader, probably female. I believe that some of those mainstream readers would see the boy on Perfect Chemistry as being Latino, but I also believe that some of those mainstream readers would not. You only have to think of the public reaction to the casting of Amandla Stenberg as Rue in The Hunger Games to know that race is not always seen, even when it seems perfectly clear to some of us.

Similarly, even though the cover of Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Prince features the character Jem Carstairs as portrayed by an Asian model, Clare has had her fans tell her that they don’t think Jem is Asian. She told Racebending.com: “He speaks Chinese, he is from China, he is portrayed on the cover of Clockwork Prince by an Asian model. And yet people still come up to me and say –or Tweet me and say–that they were shocked to hear he was Asian, or even that they are displeased that he is Asian.”

Basically, I wish everyone understood that being a person of color does not mean you fit into certain stereotypes of appearance, but the fact is, many people do categorize people (and representations) based on those stereotypes. I’m not saying it’s OK; I’m pointing out that it happens.