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'Liar' --- and publishers' values

Judging by the 'Liar' controversy, ethnicity is a no-no on young adult book covers.

December 13, 2009|By Lizzie Skurnick

For those who follow the internecine squabbles of the young adult literary world -- nope, it's not all "Twilight" -- this past July brought a new twist to an old story. A book's cover that little resembled what's found inside is a perennial authorial grouse. But in the case of Australian writer Justine Larbalestier's "Liar," the grounds for complaint were irrefutable. Micah, the heroine of "Liar," is black. But on the original covers, never shipped, of Bloomsbury's American edition, the girl featured was white.

As a junkie for the 1970s and '80s era of classic young adult fiction notable for its remarkably detailed portraits of characters, I've long been annoyed by the trend of cover art that strategically isolates girls' torsos, legs, feet, half-faces and chests, reducing the viewer to a creepy voyeur (and the publishing community to a drearily redundant Bluebeard). But whitewashing cover art was an offense of a different order.

In a blog post, Larbalestier detailed the anecdotal explanations she'd found for the unfathomable: "Editors have told me that their sales departments say black covers don't sell. Sales reps have told me that many of their accounts won't take books with black covers. Booksellers have told me that they can't give away YAs with black covers." Bloomsbury's polite response strained credulity: "We regret that our original creative direction for 'Liar' -- which was intended to symbolically reflect the narrator's complex psychological makeup -- has been interpreted by some as a calculated decision to mask the character's ethnicity," the company said in a statement to Publishers Weekly. Still, by August, Bloomsbury relented, reworking, in current peek-a-boo style, the cover from a white girl whose straight hair swung in precise waves over her mouth to a black girl gently pulling her collar up to much the same effect.

Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I enjoyed a reading rotation featuring vibrant black characters. (My parents, an interracial couple, were sophisticated enough to mix it up.) On our shelves at home stood hokey anthologies ("The Black Woman"), calls to action ("Black Power," "The Fire Next Time," "White Man, Listen!"), classics ("Up From Slavery," "The Souls of Black Folk"), memoirs ("Soul on Ice," "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl," "Manchild in the Promised Land," "The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man"), literary fiction ("Sula," "Passing," "The Street," "Another Country," "Meridian") and the Toni Cade Bambara's uncategorizable, uproariously funny "Gorilla, My Love."

Happily unregulated, I pored over a beloved children's picture book about union activist Fannie Lou Hamer alongside "Nigger," comedian Dick Gregory's memoir. "Giovanni's Room," featuring Baldwin's doomed gay couple, and "Black Like Me," the story of self-tanning activist, were favorites. On recent visits, I have noticed one particularly improbable item, "The Black Jews of Harlem," still remains where it has stood, untouched, since 1981.

And school reading was similarly supplied. My predominantly black high school, it seemed, required a book report on "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" every other week. We also read "Things Fall Apart," "Black Boy," "Native Son," "Cane," the poetry of Ishmael Reed, "A Raisin in the Sun" and "Invisible Man." Somewhere along the way, I picked up "Kindred," "Coming of Age in Mississippi," "The Blacker the Berry," "Home to Harlem," "Just Above My Head" and "A Lesson Before Dying." By the time I took college courses in African American literature, only a fairly recondite work like "Black No More, "George Schuyler's satire (appropriately enough) about a black man who finds the scientific process to transform himself into white, surprised me.

But apart from my beloved Fannie Lou Hamer picture book, none was actually a book for young people -- and there, the black faces on the cover I found could be quite different. There, the characters themselves often stood on the sidelines, narrative satellites meant to help along a white character's growth -- if they weren't actually the help. Thus, in my edition of "The Member of the Wedding," Berenice, cook and counsel, stands in an apron and head wrap above Frankie, clutching her shoulders in concern. An almost identical pose is found in my movie tie-in edition of "Summer of My German Soldier," as Esther Rolle, who played Ruth, a kindly housekeeper helpless against the parents' abuse of her charge, holds Kristy McNichol to her patterned house dress, gazing off stoically into the distance.

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