Saturday, August 15, 2009

Discussion: Is the New LIAR Cover Not Enough?

As most of you know by now, last week's big news was publishing giant Bloomsbury's announcement that they were changing the original cover of Justine Larbalestier's YA psychological thriller, LIAR, into something more representative of Justine's intentions for Micah, the protagonist. The original cover featured a white-looking girl with long, smooth tresses--when Micah is described as being racially mixed, with nappy black hair. The new cover, unveiled last week, looks like this:

A vast improvement over the original, right? The model's race is now consistent with the main character's. When Justine posted the picture on her blog, people went wild with praise. Many are in love with this beautiful cover.

It's beautiful, yes, there's no doubt about it. The girl has the kind of inhuman beauty that makes us hate yet worship supermodels at the same time. And oh yes, it's quite wonderful that the model's race now matches the race that Justine intended Micah to be.

But when my first reaction upon seeing this cover was, "Oh. Ah... well... ah... okay, I guess."

Shocked? Horrified? Incensed at my less-than-passionate response to the new cover? Let me try to explain why I feel this way.

I feel like many readers read books with one of two goals in mind: they want to escape into another, fully realized world, or else they want to find a story that resonates with them, that they can relate to. Either way, one of the most important things is our ability to believe in the MC as a real person, complete with complexities, contradictions, passions, and vulnerabilities. Books like the Gossip Girl or A-List series may be great guilty-pleasure reads, but I doubt that many people read these books and go, wow, I can really relate to / want to be / can see myself in [insert bitchy, beautiful, and tormented character name here]!

In the same way, a book's cover influences the way we perceive the story and characters, whether that is the author and publisher's intentions or not. A cover should aim to reflect the overall mood of the book, if not to provide us with a minutely accurate photograph of what the MC looks like (because every person's preception of the book's MC is slightly different).

When Bloomsbury exchanged the original white model for a black one, they addressed part of the issue, but with an impassioned solution. The new LIAR cover is not enough because this model is absurdly status-quo beautiful. This model has a face that you'd be more likely to see in a Cosmo ad for makeup than in real life. Even more upsetting is that this is the superior--white--race's definition of beauty: the mainstream population is taught that this sort of beauty--symmetry, flawless complexion, soulful eyes--is the sort of look we should all strive for in order to be considered beautiful. Never mind that the model's skin is dark; she has the type of beauty that would be accepted in any social or ethnic stratosphere she journeys to.

When Bloomsbury replaced the white face that once stood on the cover, they replaced it with an image of beauty that the white, mainstream population considers acceptably beautiful. It's the tactless equivalent of darkening a mainstream model's skin using PhotoShop: there is still something "truthful" missing from this cover. We are still using the "white" standards of beauty for the cover.

The issue of having minority models on book covers is far from having a quick fix. Bloomsbury did a fairly respectable job switching covers in such a short amount of time. However, this cover is a shallow surface fix that has still not succeeded in addressing the fact that white standards dominate almost every aspect of society. Like Neesha Meminger said brilliantly in her guest post on Justine's blog, this is an issue that the dominant race--the white race--needs to address with passionate, prolonged, and never-ending fervor.

This is not a one-time battle, nor is it a one-step solution. The problem lies deeper within our society, the product of hundreds of years of intellectual and biological evolution. Says Zetta Elliott in her insightful comment on Justine's blog entry about the new cover:
As Justine correctly points out, Hollywood and Madison Ave. have long shown a preference for women of color who approximate white standards of beauty; you may not know, however, that this “preference” extends much farther back to the time of slavery.... White abolitionists, committed to ending slavery, could still only sympathize with enslaved women who looked “almost” white (this also operated in literature–Uncle Tom’s Cabin being a glaring example)....

So please don’t dismiss the significance of colorism in today’s society; light-skin privilege (of which I am a beneficiary) is an extension of white supremacy. We need to call it out whenever we see it, and insist upon the human/humane depiction of dark-skinned people in visual culture. Bloomsbury pulled a fast one on us, and I’m about as grateful to them as I am to those white abolitionists who only bought the freedom of pretty, light-skinned slaves.
We have been brought up to believe that the dominant race's standards for pretty much everything is the definition of perfection. Go to college. Raise a family. Have smooth and shiny hair. The cover satisfies the superior race's definitions of beauty and acceptance. But is it a good representation of our society? Says homasse in the comments section:
They went with as light a Black woman as they could find who would still instantly code as “Black.” Black enough to be Black and exotic, but not TOO Black or Black enough to be threatening.... But I guess we have to take what victories we can get. At least now there is a Black woman on the cover, and that’s, well, something.
Is this cover a satisfying solution to the dilemma of an overbearingly white dominance in numerous aspects of publishing and marketing? Must I look at this cover and still think that my looks are inadequate, because I will never have clear skin, a symmetrical face?

Bloggers, readers, authors, and other members of the reading world clamored for a black face on the cover. Well, we got a black face... but one that is still one that conforms to the status quo. It's a step in the right direction, but in the end, it's not enough. It may even be a cop-out.

So, no, I am not satisfied with this LIAR cover. There's a black model on the cover, sure, but she's beautiful by the standards of this world's superior race, and thus fails to address the fact that "white" values are still the only acceptable standards we must all strive towards. I hope that people don't see this changed cover and think that our battle has been won. This is not a win by any stretch; there's a long way to go yet before the representations of humanity that grace the covers of books, magazines, and movies will accurately reflect the diversity of our looks and beliefs. There's a long way to go before the word "beautiful" does not instantly bring one particular image to mind.

What do you think about this issue?

49 comments:

  1. My first reaction when I saw the cover: YAY! WHEE! We made a difference!

    My second reaction: Wow, she's awfully pretty.

    My third reaction: What, didn't she have short, nappy hair? Isn't this longish and curly (in a stylized way, not a nappy way)?

    After that, I felt a little...disquieted about it. I mean, I thought it was great that the cover was changed, and I didn't want to take away from that. I still count the cover change as a win.

    But...

    You're right. It is a pale (literally and figuratively) version of the author's intent. I *DO* think this is a step in the right direction--but just a step.

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  2. This reminds me of a debate that used to crop up in the magazines I used to read when I was a teenager, like Sassy, which was the undoubtedly the best mass-market magazine for teenagers ever -- quirky, liberal, fun to read, far more than just a vapid collection of beauty tips and hot boys. Sassy was always trying to push boundaries. But it sometimes backfired. One time they put a girl in a fashion spread who hadn't shaved her armpits and got a ton of hate mail. They also talked about how issues with minority faces or without any model on the cover tended to sell more poorly in general. So how far can a business follow their morals before they simply can't exist anymore? Sassy eventually was bought out and turned into another crummy magazine. Then it disappeared. I was devastated.

    Beauty sells. And while there are some aspects of beauty that come in and out of fashion or vary by location there have been studies that suggest that all human beings respond to certain qualities in a face, like symmetry. We can recognize beauty around the world and throughout history, in a statue of Nefertiti, in anime characters, in paintings in temples and palaces from hundreds of years ago.

    Unfortunately I don't really have a conclusion to this. I wish we did live in a world where it was more acceptable to look a number of different ways. I know that I'm affected by what society governs to be beautiful. I would like to see a world where Micah could be portrayed as she is described in the book, tall and athletic and capable of passing herself as a boy and the book would sell really well. But realistically I don't think we're there. Could we get to that point? And how? That I'm not sure... I guess we can only keep inching forward and talking about it.

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  3. I think the cover is a step in the right direction, but it's still not quite there. It's not the huge change we wanted to see, but I'm glad we got some change. My biggest issue is that Bloomsbury refuses to apologize. They act as if the problem was our inability to understand their "artistic vision" with the old cover, when really the problem was their assumption that a white face would sell more books and no one would notice.

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  4. Am I missing something? Didn't you say the MC was "racially mixed"? If that's the case, I don't understand the comments about the model not looking black enough. Wouldn't putting a dark-skinned black model on the cover of a book about a mixed-race character be just as inaccurate as putting a white model on the cover?

    As far as the girl looking model perfect... well, the publisher is trying to sell books. As bad as it sounds, how many of us would be enticed to pick up a book if it had an ordinary (or even plain) person pictured on the cover? Yes, we might enjoy the book once we started to read it, but that first impression is important.

    As it stands, I think this is a vast improvement over the previous cover. At least this one is more representative of the MC. It's not perfect, but it's better.

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  5. I agree with La Coccinelle's comment almost word for word. :-)

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  6. Am I happy Bloomsbury changed the cover? Yes.

    Do I like the new cover? Hmm. The first time I saw it, I just thought, "Huh ... A different white girl?" My biggest problem with the new cover, however, has nothing to do with race or skin tone, but rather with the fact that the new model looks about 30-35 instead of like a teen. It takes something away from the book, imho. To be honest, I'd expect to see it in adult fiction, or maybe even romance. I don't know why, there's just something off-putting about the maturity in the new model's eyes (and the over-perfection of her skin!).

    The part I found most interesting about the original cover wasn't the race of the model; it was the crossing of the hair over the girl's mouth. That, too, has been lost with the new cover. They could've painted an x across the new model's mouth, or used tape or lipstick or whatever. The cloth/hoodie/cloak-looking thing is just confusing to me.

    I love book covers, I really do, but this book has received so much publicity that I don't need the cover to differentiate it from tons of others on the shelves and beg me to pick it up. If I choose to read this book, it won't be because Bloomsbury got it right or wrong. It'll be because I'm interested in the plot/storytelling.

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  7. La Coccinelle and Mindi,

    As someone who has plenty of mixed-raced family members or those who are black but could pass for white, yes, the model could very well have the complexion like the model on the cover. What you're missing is the history and explanation Steph very clearly explained: the choice of model reflects an ideal of white beauty in black face. The publisher's choice reflects a mindset that says white is the standard and everyone else is Other.

    The model is model beautiful. Does the model in anyway strike you as a girl who could pass for a boy? Does she match the character described?

    How many books with POC characters have you read this year? How many books with POC characters on the cover have you seen reviewed on mainstream blogs. The teen book blogs are exceptionally void of color and when you do see one, the character is often Asian, a group considered closest to white and the Asian character is either fantasy or the ethnic equivalent of an all American, i.e. white character.

    Now I don't think you don't like POC. I think your blogs reflect the books that are most popular and those books are first given the green light by publishers who put lots of support and promotion behind them. These are the books they market to you. And you increase the popularity and success of these books on your blogs.

    What I don't think teens are consciously aware of is how people of color are marginalized. Your generation is used to diversity ads and the multicultural casts in teen shows and movies, and this mistakenly has a lot of you thinking that racially we have arrived. We have not. I can list YA books that will tell you we have not arrived: Shine, Coconut Moon, Skunk Girl, Does My Head Look Big In This? All these books talk have POC characters that describe what it means to be POC.

    Bloomsbury's decision isn't an isolated one. It is a standard practice. Go to your bookstore and look in the YA section. Count the number of books with POC characters. Look on your community blogs, where is my face? Not there.

    Our society is so conditioned to seeing whiteness as the standard that most don't even realize the absence which is the marginalization of everyone else.

    That's the problem. The Liar controversy provided the platform for us to take an honest, real look at how race colors even books.

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  8. Great article Steph. It is one of the most thought-provoking, brave pieces of writing I have seen in the blogosphere and because you, a young woman wrote it, I am even more impressed. To be young and to go against the grain you are risking backlash from your peers but you publish this anyway and that's about conviction and courage. I applaud you.

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  9. I'm linking this at Color Online. Thank you.

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  10. This is such a big issue that needs to be dealt with but how exactly are we supposed to deal with it? What are the steps we should take to solve this issue? Thank you for posting this. I think its good whenever we talk about big meaningful issues. So we can help change the way things are and it make it better. Not just sitting back and letting things happen.

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  11. Thank you for explaining this so clearly, Steph.

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  12. Great post, Steph! My friend Laura Atkins recently posted her short essay on white privilege in the children's publishing industry--your readers might want to check that out (http://sites.google.com/site/tockla/). Majority group (white) *dominance* leads to the idea that white superiority is "natural" or "inevitable" instead of deliberately constructed and constantly reinforced; when one group controls what gets published, how it's distributed, and how its presented to the public, many other groups are either marginalized, entirely excluded, or misrepresented. If Bloomsbury had people of color ON THEIR STAFF, helping to make these important decisions, it's likely we would have had a different outcome. As for the comment about "plain faces" being less appealing, the image could have been manipulated to make the "plainness" intriguing: use effects to blur the image, create a collage of various skin tones/facial features, or only show the model's eyes or MOUTH, since she's a liar; show her fingers crossed behind her back...this cover actually used minimal DESIGN and focused instead on the beauty of the model; when so many people wrote that the new cover was "gorgeous," what they were really saying was, "That MODEL is gorgeous." Not the same thing...among other things, Bloomsbury showed a serious failure of imagination with this cover...

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  13. WIthout disagreeing with or taking away from anything you've said here, I'll throw in my two cents by adding that this isn't just a racial issue, it's a feminist issue. Or, it's a racial issue within a larger feminist issue. Book covers are advertising, basically, and advertising NEVER uses normal-looking women. Characters who are supposed to be fat? At most, the cover model might be not-anorexic. Characters who are supposed to be plain? Maybe a beautiful girl with less makeup. Characters who might be written as specifically UNattractive by conventional standards in some way? Maybe we'll see her from the back. Basically, it's like the world is wearing a t-shirt that says NO UGLY CHICKS. And by "ugly" they mean anything that does not fit the symmetrical, European, no-bigger-than-size-6 standard. It's not just a fight for people of color, it's a fight for women.

    (And don't get me started on movie casting. In The Truth About Cats and Dogs, we're supposed to believe the beautiful Janeane Garofolo is frumpy and fat. Totally stunning actresses are routinely cast as the "ugly duckling" - stick a baggy shirt and a pair of glasses on her and now she's a dog...etc.)

    I agree with the points made about the final Liar cover: she's too pretty, she looks too old, it looks like the result of a shoot from America's Top Model "smile with your eyes!" challenge. I think the original model looked more normal.

    Like I said, I don't disagree with anything you've very succinctly described. But I also agree with fabulousfrock-in that in some ways it's just another depressing example of a what women have dealt with since the dawn of time, just against different standards over the centuries. The racist aspects of the issue certainly add another layer of insult and discouragement over how little has changed.

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  14. I prefer the black-and-white shades for this cover. It just seems more un-truthful, as you said. The colorful shades on the new cover just seem to bright and sparkly....especially for a book titled "Liar"!

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  15. Sara,

    I hear you. Can we not suggest gender matters more. To say it's racial within a larger feminist issue contributes to the rift among black and white feminists. Race is the reason many black pro-women activist now identify as womanists. To argue gender is greater than race to a woman of color, is argue that we put gender before color and that is not only *not* an option but it's like asking us to split ourselves.

    Yes, I agree there is the issue of feminism and I'm glad you bring it up. And it's not size 6, Sara. They're shoving "0"s down our throat when the average, healthy woman in this country is a 14. And most women of color I know have never been a size "0".

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  16. Zetta,
    Glad you joined the conversation. For those who don't know, Zetta is the author of A Wish After Midnight. A YA novel about a black girl who doesn't like her looks but she is one kickass, protag.

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  17. Thanks for the shout-out, Color Online! And for interjecting INTERSECTIONALITY into the discussion of feminism...the Liar cover is ALL about the ways black women in particular are oppressed in multiple ways simultaneously. And notice how when black MEN are used in advertising (or anywhere else in popular culture), there's a preference for them to be dark-skinned...(remember that Vogue cover with LeBron?)

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  18. I think Sara brings up an interesting point as well. I have noticed that books that have a female character on the cover, regardless of race, always show her as beautiful, perfect, and if she's a teenager, older looking than she actually should look.

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  19. First of all, I need to inform Color Online that I read People Magazine from time to time, and "0" is FAT; "00" is the ideal these days.

    Second, I agree that: this girl could never seem like a boy; that is not "nappy" hair; and I had to look at least 3 times to see if she really wasn't white.

    And yeah, publishers may like beautiful women on book covers, but why are we still catering to that? Why aren't women in the business making it *their* business to make sure ALL women are represented? La Coccinelle said "how many of us would be enticed to pick up a book if it had an ordinary (or even plain) person pictured on the cover?" Um, I might think, gee, this publisher is courageous; this book is honest; this is a book I might *love.*

    This is not a fair society in many ways; book buyers who care about that can and should exercise the power of the purse, in my opinion.

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  20. My bad, Rhapsody. Well, you know, we're old. I quit picking up publications that are not interested in what I'm interested in.

    Great response to LaCoccinelle. I WOULD pick up a book with a 'plain' person. I'd be impressed with a publisher who respected diversity and my intelligence as a reader. I don't want nor do I buy airbrushed bullcrap.

    But then I'm older and I was a strange child, too. As a teen, I realized that white was the standard and all that teeny-bopper starts was not marketed to me but my girlfriends and I was cool with my friends but I could give a rat's butt what the media was selling because they weren't talking to me in the first place.

    I was a double digit girl and I'm a beautiful, double digit woman.

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  21. I'm really loving the conversation going on here, and Sara Z., you bring up a great point that this isn't just a racial issue--it's a sexist issue as well. Perhaps the reason this sort of controversary always seems to be about a racial issue may be because "feminism" has the negative connotation of already privileged, mainstream, and light-skinned women claiming they still don't have equality, wah wah wah? It's an interesting point, and certainly one that I haven't thought of deeply before.

    Both racism and sexism are issues that run deep in society, but people may fail to see the connection between the two. How many times have I seen or heard POC women ragging on white women for claiming about their oh-so-difficult-and-oppressed lot in life? Maybe one problem is that these two camps fail to recognize that they are, in a sense, part of the same battle, and that they don't need to protest their involvement in the other issue in order to make progress. Just some more things to think about.

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  22. Hi, La Coccinelle and Mindi: yes, the MC is said to be racially mixed. I'm not saying that the model's skin color is not an accurate representation of Mica, but rather what susan of Color Online has succinctly summarized: it's the fact that white standards of beauty are still being imposed on minority models everywhere in society. I agree that this cover is an improvement over the first, but the point I'm trying to address is not just limited to LIAR (as jessjordan said, this controversary has given LIAR so much publicity already that I'd be horrified if anyone *did* judge the book by its cover, as the book is exceptionally well written itself), but to book covers and publishing as a whole.

    I think it says a lot when everyone agrees the model on the new cover is extraordinarily beautiful. Justine mentioned on her blog that she sort of imagined Micah to look like the basketball player Alana Beard. If Bloomsbury had put a similar-looking model on the cover of LIAR, would the cover still be considered beautiful and perfect? When your average colored teen girl picks up this book, how will she feel at looking at the image on the front cover? Will she be proud that a model of her race has made it onto the cover of a prominent book? Or will she feel inferior, that she does not have the bone structure, the skin quality, the hair of this model that Bloomsbury chose to "lead" the publishing world into the next era of POC book covers?

    But yeah, status quo beauty sells best, unfortunately. This is something that's not just an issue in the publishing world! :)

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  23. Well, the rift between black and white women in the feminist movement goes back to the 19th century, when white women excluded black women from their organizing efforts in order to preserve their solidarity with Southern white women AND their racial privilege (white suffragists were outraged that black men got the vote before they did--not b/c they were MEN, but b/c they were BLACK). Sara raised very valid points; women of color feminists just want to ensure that race is part of *every* conversation, just as class and sexuality should be as well. There's no "universal woman experience" and feminism succeeds as a movement when it recognizes and responds to specifics like race...

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  25. Steph,

    Women of color are not forgetting anything. There is intersectionality for us and we are unwilling to separate race and gender.As a black woman it impossible for race not to be a competing factor. Why ask me to regulate my race and culture to second priority? We have black sons, brothers and husbands. I cannot fight for equality for women and forsake my other half. How can I profit if my family doesn't benefit as a whole?

    I highly suggest more reading about the rift which is also about socio/economic issues as much as it is race. The criticism of mainstream feminism isn't simply race. I didn't identify as a feminist until I connected with feminists in the UK. These were mostly white women but these feminists unlike the movement here, advocated for all oppressed people. These feminists argued for equality across race, gender, sexual orientation and class. Far broader in their message and agenda than the movement in the US.

    There is a tendency in our society to want to box and pigeon-hole issues into neat boxes. But societal issues are not science experiments with defined elements separated out and able to study outside of the context of the whole.

    I came to feminism by identifying with a group of white women which proves the disconnect between black and white feminists in this country can't be reduced to a matter of race. It is a matter of issues and perspective.

    As a black woman I was raised to think first of the collective, community. Ask many whites and you'll find the individual is the priority. Children are raised to think of themselves first and then others.

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  26. Susan,

    It's very interesting that you say you were raised to think of the collective. When I was studying in Japan, I took a course in intercultural communication and we talked about collective vs individualistic societies. Many Asian cultures, including Japan, are collective while many European societies are individualistic. The US, and western culture in general, tends towards the individualistic.

    A collective society relies on shame and the threat of ostracism to control - which is sort of what I see this whole Bloomsbury backlash as - many have said they should be ashamed of themselves.

    But if they are individualistic, then inducing shame is not as effective as inducing guilt. Sure, shame made them change the book cover but until they feel guilty for their actions, they have no need to apoligize.

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  27. PS:

    To answer the original question - Is the new LIAR cover not enough?

    I'm impressed that Bloomsbury responded to criticism and took on a considerable expense to change the cover to reflect a more racially correct main character. I don't recall anyone saying they would only be satisfied with an average looking model anywhere in those pre-change conversations and I think the beauty standard in media is really a whole different (though certainly related) can of worms.

    An extreme example perhaps - but if a woman has a choice between a romance cover with a shirtless guy who is fit and toned and a cover with a shirtless guy with a pot-belly (certainly more average) which is she going to pick? I think a certain amount of the allure of reading is wish fulfillment and such "fantasy" covers cater to that.

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  28. Really excellent post, Steph. And I agree, this cover does not really address all of the problems with the original. It's a small step, and as such, worth the blogosphere patting them/ourselves on the back for the pressure we put on. It raised the issue visibly (no pun intended), and got lots of people talking and thinking. It's easy to see the problem with putting a white girl's face on the cover about a black protagonist. This problem of white and western ideas of beauty is less obvious to many. As Zetta writes, this can become so pervasive and inevitable that people don't see it. I don't have much more to say, other than thanks for expressing this so honestly and clearly.

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  29. Lenore,

    I was also raised in a traditional black church. As far as I know most churches teach the importance of the greater good for all. Individual needs come second. In most Western religions as far as I know, shame is a cornerstone. I left my childhood faith.
    I threw out the water but not the baby.

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  30. Lenore,

    I also participated actively in many forums from the beginning of the backlash. And in every forum I commented, I read all comments.

    There is a very clear difference by race how readers responded to the new cover. Among white readers, the reaction is mixed. Among POC readers, overwhelming, the readers were unimpressed. Glad it was changed. Not surprised by the model. And nowhere, where I read, did a POC reader ask for a cosmetic change. We didn't ask for a beauty standard that excludes us. We asked for a realistic representation. Many of us didn't expected a change. My hope was that Bloomsbury took a financial hit.

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  31. Susan - According to western religions you don't get to heaven by being part of a godly group. You get there by taking personal responsibility for your sins.

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  33. I would really like to add something new and meaningful to this issue, but for now I'll just say that I totally agree with Sara Z. Totally.

    And I think this issue is one that will be talked about for a long time, because at the heart of it is the willingness of the general public to be led in these directions. And when you're talking YA literature, you're also talking about the YAs who buy them which, because of the self-conflict inherent in the age group (who didn't struggle with issues of identity and wanting to "fit in" at some point as a teenager?), I think it's going to be very, very difficult to get an entire demographic to look beyond the surface of these things.

    Which doesn't mean it isn't a worthwhile, battle, of course. I guess it just means that I don't have the answer... Does it start with YAs saying, "I will not buy into these ideals of race/womanhood/etc?" Or does it start with publishing houses (and movie studios and magazines) saying, "We will not use a model that does not accurately reflect the characters in this book/movie/society EVEN IF it means we don't sell book/tickets/magazines?"

    A productive, thought-provoking conversation is certainly a good start.

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  34. "And when you're talking YA literature, you're also talking about the YAs who buy them which, because of the self-conflict inherent in the age group (who didn't struggle with issues of identity and wanting to "fit in" at some point as a teenager?), I think it's going to be very, very difficult to get an entire demographic to look beyond the surface of these things."

    I think you just did add a new and relevant point.

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  35. Hi Lenore,

    Deleted my last comment, too wordy and not clear.

    Connect the dots here for me. I am not clear what you're saying.

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  36. Hi Lenore,

    Deleted my last comment, too wordy and not clear.

    Connect the dots here for me. I am not clear what you're saying.

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  37. I recently asked an editor (not mine) why every editor seemed to be a Yalie (mine aren't.) She replied, truthfully, that the jobs were hard to get, paid like crap, and you had to be near Manhattan. All of which meant, you had to have the luxury of not being in the job for the money. Those were the hard facts. And that I had it wrong, everyone was from Vassar... ;)

    When I came to publishing, the industry at large felt a little like Yale to me. Backwards-looking, historic, elite. I was lucky to be there. But the reality is, when I was at Yale as a grad student, half the time the grad students were on strike in solidarity with the local labor union. Gay orgs felt welcomed and religious orgs felt persecuted. No matter how you fall on those issues, it has to be noted -- how traditional was that? Even within an "elite" institution, what began to change was the atmosphere from within. The people who were already accepted had to change first.

    If that is us, then what now?

    Institutions change when they are made to change. I applaud this post and this conversation, but wonder where the next step takes us. As another editor recently said to me wrt Liar, change will come when we stop buying the books. But if the only message that can be heard comes from me is as a consumer, how can I send that message without punishing the books or the authors I love, who don't get to pick their cover in the first place?

    My first reaction to the new cover, btw, was this: especially in layout, it seems to consciously recall the original. Why do that, unless to capitalize on all the publicity of the recent debate? Am I just being cynical? Maybe it was an economically determined decision? Anyone?

    My second reaction was this: insert beautiful [white or black] girl here.

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  38. Margaret, I think you've brought up a whole slew of interesting which points, which is how we consumers can affect change without hurting or seeming like we're against the wonderful author who wrote the book. In this case I don't know if not buying the book is the best decision. I think that with all the publicity surrounding this controversary, many people have certainly been exposed to Justine's books, and as a result LIAR will sell well either way. And to respond to what Lenore said, I'm not looking for an apology for Bloomsbury. I'm impressed that they took the extra step to change the cover, and hope that they will profit from LIAR. But I don't think apologies are going to get us anywhere, and in many cases people like to respond to the apology with, "Hmph! Whatever you say. We know you don't really mean it. You shouldn't have it let get to this point anyway. I do NOT accept your apology."

    Perhaps the best thing we can do is get more and more people to engage in these types of conversations. It's certainly an interesting topic to debate; maybe in future book conventions (like BEA 2010, anyone?) there may be panels discussing different types of beauty on book covers? What I've started here is really small; I'm just hoping that I can bring it to the attention of those who haven't yet thought of it, so that maybe they will be encouraged to voice their thoughts about it, and so on and on through the social "food chain" until the Big Guys--the publishing industry--get to talking about it. Censure and ostracism are not going to work here, but keeping the dialogue open and consistent hopefully will!

    And I've heard it's that most *authors* are from Vassar... E. Lockhart once compiled an impressive list of twenty-something YA authors who are Vassar alums. ;)

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  39. Oh, I forgot to respond to your question, Margie! I think Bloomsbury chose to keep the same key elements in the new cover because that was what they had been going for in the same place: an image of a character whose words could not be counted upon to be true. I actually did like how the hair covered the old model's mouth as a sign of the unreliability of her words. With the new one, I think they were trying to do the covered-mouth thing again, only with a hoodie, as Micah apparently likes to wear them a lot in the book.

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  40. Frankly, I think the problem with the image of beauty is not limited by race. Are the white people on the covers of books truly representative of the white population? No. This is a more universal issue that says we must all be stick figures with gorgeous, tight, blemish-free skin.

    America the Beautiful is a documentary (by a black man) about the eternal search for perfection in the U.S. and the price that our children pay for having this image shoved down their throats.

    Yes, this is more keenly felt among dark-skinned people because their images are severely lacking in our society. The whole industry needs an overhaul, but as long as sex and "beauty" sells, it won't get it.

    As for the cover change. I'm glad it happened. It is a step in the right direction though, yes, it doesn't go far enough.

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  41. I agree, Steph, it would make a great BEA panel. And I agree the first step is keeping the conversation going - so glad that you did that here :) Also appreciate your comments about the new cover as purposefully retaining some successful elements from the first, I had not thought of that.

    And I agree with Sarah, I'm glad the publishers changed it, which is more than I think any of us expected. I was surprised how quickly that response came about, knowing how complicated the cover approvals process can be.

    LOL Vassar. :)

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  42. mstol,

    And how many other positions are positions where the employee has to be in a socio/economic class that allows them to accept a low-paying job after spending an insane amount of money on an education? For many POC college students, going into a lot of fields is at odds with their desires to finally secure a position that elevates them economically.That reality also contributes to the homogeneity among jobs like editor.

    Sara, of course the issue of beauty crosses all races. Ideals of beauty is a universal one. And race dictates the hierarchy.

    We cannot remain powerless victims. Why do we keep circling the wagon of "What can we do?" and sounding as if we don't believe we have power? Even after we DID affect change.

    For starters, can we grow a pair and concede the dollar talks. We're speaking truth to power. We're speaking truth to Corporate power. You don't shame a corporation, you affect their bottom line. Justine is nobody's naive little girl. She was fully aware of the potential financial risk here and she took it anyway, and if you don't think she considered the money factor shame on you.

    We can confront the issue under-representation of POC characters in books and on covers by reading and promoting those books.

    In response to the controversy, Color Online launched the Color Me Brown Challenge. I asked readers to read and blog brown. If you want publishers to know you do believe in diversity, that whitewashing is unacceptable, then show some love. Blog brown.

    Color Online, Reading In Color and Taste Life Twice and Black-Eyed Susan's exist as response to the the absence of color among book bloggers particularly YA blogs. And Color Online existed before the Liar controversy. We are advocates. We are committed to expressing the social commentary necessary to elicit dialogue and change.

    I have been an outspoken activist for diversity and multiculturalism before Liar. And before me there was Mitali's Fire Escape, Paper Tigers, The Happy Nappy Book Seller and more. There are bloggers who have been actively advocating for greater diversity in the publishing industry for years. Join the ranks.

    Bloomsbury didn't act in a vacuum and not all readers were unaware. Now that you know what will you do?

    John F. Kennedy said every person can make a difference and every person should try.

    Spend less time lamenting what you can't do and get busy doing what you can. That's what you can do.

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  43. I think everything that can be said has been said in this post and in the comments. All I have to say is I agree with you whole-heartedly Steph! Amazing post. This isn't reall progress, we still have a long way to go.

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  44. Color Online: I completely agree, and I think the point here is that it is up to the people who already have some degree of acceptance within any industry to promote change from within. That's what Justine was doing when she spoke out (respected author) - that's what Steph was doing when she blogged this (respected blogger) - that's what Maureen Johnson was doing when she retweeted the link - (respected author) - that's what Mitali and yourself and all the blogs you mentioned are doing, every day (*respect*)...

    Odds are, if you're reading this blog, you have some measure of the ability to do just that. What I like about the LIAR discussion is that someone already accepted by the institution used her place to speak up. As you so rightly point out, that's a JFK moment in and of itself, and I don't think any of us will soon forget it.

    Thanks for all the great posts!

    Margie

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  45. Thank you, Margie,

    And do come by. Love to chat with you more.

    And yes, Steph rocks. She was one of the first bloggers to make me feel welcome.

    Best,
    Susan

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  46. Hi, Mass Media Minorities - I'd be honored and happy for you to quote this on your blog! I will check your blog out...in a few minutes, after I've done my laundry... as well as respond to the fascinating new comments that have appeared since my Internet turned traitor on me last night. Because, like Margie said, much RESPECT to EVERYONE who's been reading and/or contributing to this post!

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  47. Excellent post and equally excellent discussion. When I saw the new cover I had many of the thoughts expressed here. The question about the appearance of a significant age difference between the two cover models (and the 2nd model and the books' MC) struck me, too, as did the fact that the 2nd model is much 'prettier' than the first, a much more made up, stylized beauty.

    That made me curious. Is the idea that in order to sell a cover with a darker-skinned woman she'd better be as gorgeous and glam as possible, but a white teen can be sort of regular? This touched off so many thoughts for me about 'standards' of beauty and how those standards are applied to and affect WOC.

    In neither cover did Bloomsbury deal with the description that the MC could pass for a boy. Neither model could ever be seen as anything but female. Another choice which, I'm sure, is also about what 'look' is going to sell.

    (And here's where I'm just generally snarky and maybe you should skip to the next paragraph. I was also struck by the decision to go with a color cover as opposed to black and white. Two thoughts: 1) was this done because, if the new cover was shown in B&W, it would be difficult to see that the model wasn't white ... and 2) is there an implication that, if we saw the first model in a color shot, we'd see that she is somehow 'ambiguously ethnic' and not truly 'white'? Ok, enough snark, back to the rest of my response.)

    While I could see immediately that the new model was a WOC, I was both unsurprised and offended when I first saw the cover. My scripting of the order put out at Bloomsbury: "Oh, let's shut down all the noise. Go find the whitest black woman you can and reshoot the cover." No real thought about the issue, certainly no real thought about how WOC would respond to this new face. She's darker than the first model, we should all be able to relate now. Feh.

    My answer to the question in the title: the cover is both too much and not nearly enough.

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