Don't judge this book by its cover: Bloomsbury deny 'white-washing' character

'Liar' tells the story of an African-American girl. So why did Bloomsbury put a white face on the cover?

By Rupert Cornwell
Sunday 23 October 2011 04:23

Bowing to intense pressure across the internet and from literary enthusiasts, the US publishers of the latest novel by Justine Larbalestier, who writes for young adults, have agreed to change the cover design from a white girl to a black girl, to reflect the race of the central character.

Bloomsbury Children's Books had sent out review copies of Liar, featuring a picture of a white girl with long, straight hair, even though in the story the girl, Micah, is African-American with short "nappy" hair. The indignation was widespread: "Clearly Bloomsbury's staff is in need of an intensive course in diversity," fulminated one critic on the internet.

Ms Larbalestier was also very put out. "Authors do not get final say on covers. Often they get no say at all," she lamented on her blog. "One of the most upsetting aspects of the [original] cover is that it has led readers to question everything about Micah. If she doesn't look anything like the girl on the cover, maybe nothing she says is true. At which point the entire book, and all my hard work, crumbles."

At first, Bloomsbury, which had ordered an initial print run of 100,000 copies, was unmoved. Then came an abrupt change of heart. The original version, it said in a statement to Publishers Weekly, had been intended to reflect the character's "complex psychological make-up". The company "regretted" that "it had been interpreted by some as a calculated decision to mask the character's ethnicity."

The hardback edition of Liar, Bloomsbury said, would appear in October with a new jacket, reflecting their "hope that the important discussion about race and its representation in teen literature continue".

Ms Larbalestier was delighted. "I thought the best I could hope for was a new paperback cover. That it is being re-jacketed for the hardcover is the best news I've had in ages."

The Australian-born author, who is married to science-fiction writer Scott Westerfield, describes herself as "a Sydney girl what writes novels, is obsessed with cricket, and travels way too much". Her best-known books are the Magic or Madness trilogy, and the light, upbeat How to Ditch Your Fairy, which came out last year. Liar, in contrast, is a psychological thriller. It features a main character who is mentally unstable and may have committed several murders.

According to Ms Larbalestier, the "whitewashing" of book covers is a long-standing and industry-wide problem. The use of cover shots of white people, the "ghettoising of books by people of colour, and low expectations (reflected in the lack of marketing push behind the majority of those books) are not new things," she told Publishers Weekly.

In fact, the US cover of Liar went through several different versions. An early one ("which I loved," she said) had the word "liar" written in human hair. But it wasn't to be. Ms Larbalestier said: "Sales and marketing did not think it would sell. Bloomsbury has had a lot of success with photos of girls on their covers and that's what they wanted. None showed girls who looked remotely like Micah. I strongly objected to all of them. I lost."

Finally, however, the climate may be shifting. Ms Larbalestier says she is seeing signs that publishers are taking these issues seriously, "and I'm more hopeful for change than I have been in a long time." It's not only down to publishers and authors, though: "We consumers have to play our part, too," she said. "If you've never bought a book with someone who isn't white on the cover, go do so now."

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