Wednesday, May 13, 2009

YA You Don't Know

This week's Diversity Roll call can be found at Color Online. Susan has come up with a bunch of options looking at young adult lit:

Provide a list of YA writers of color that you think deserve more exposure -or- Showcase cover art that does not reveal the race/ethnicity of the characters -or- Spotlight sub-genre YA fiction with teens of color i.e. graphic novels, romance, mystery, fantasy and science fiction -or- Briefly discuss YA novels with teens of color but race is not a dominant factor in the story -or- If you don't read YA fiction, do a little research and report back on a YA novel/comic you intend to read in the future.

I'm going to talk about two covers, I'm not sure whether they make the racial/ethnic background clear or not. I think it's up for debate.

First, Flygirl. I reviewed Flygirl a couple of weeks ago, it's one of my favorite YA novels of the past year. The cover reflects the plot beautifully, in that the model's racial identity is ambiguous. Without prior knowledge of the storyline, would you see an African American girl on the cover, or just a girl who's a pilot?

Even knowing the storyline--in which the melding of these three aspects of Ida Mae Jones's identity are key to the plot--I saw a pilot first, a girl second, and a person who might be black, third. What if the model's skin were a darker tone? I'm guessing that I'd see dark skin first, pilot second, and girl third. The big question is, why? That's a question I can't answer for myself today, but I'm working on it.

The next cover is my current read: Mitali Perkin's The Secret Keeper. I picked up this book knowing it was written by an author of East Indian descent who focuses on cultural issues, so I was predisposed to think of the main character as Indian. The graphics on the top and bottom of the cover reinforced that expectation, but I think the photograph is ambiguous. I think I'd just see a girl, beautiful and shy. Which, interestingly, doesn't really reflect the main character of the book, who is supposed to be not traditionally beautiful, tomboyish, and feisty. This picture looks more like how I picture her sister--the more traditional, beautiful, and obedient of the two girls, who also happens to have lighter skin (and skin tone is definitely an issue in this family's culture). What about you, if you didn't have expectations, would you see an Indian girl, or just a girl?

Oh, I almost forgot: by addressing one of these questions on your blog and adding your link at the original post on Color Online, you'll be automatically entered to win one of these sets of five multicultural books! Don't have a blog? Email me your response and we'll figure out a way to include you.


  1. Ali,
    I see Ida as black or would wonder if she's black because I have relatives who look like her.

    I also live in a large community of South Asians so I am equally sensitive to Mitali's book cover. I am very aware that skin color is as much an issue in their culture as it is mine own. With Mitali's book though I would not assume that skin tone is an issue just by the cover.

    I think we forget that a reader's experiences and perspective effect how she views a book.

  2. For Ida I just see a young woman. The other book though...the girl looks a lot like Mitch's niece (those eyelashes!) and her father is Egyptian, so that leads me to think Middle Eastern rather than Indian. And I agree...the graphics reinforce that.

  3. Ida looks Black to me. For Secret Keeper I see an Indian girl- because of the long eyelashes and the color scheme of the book cover. Without those two things I wouldn't be able to guess at the girls ethnic background. Secret Keeper is a beautiful cover, and I could see young readers being drawn to it .

  4. I had the same problem you did with the first book; plus darker skin would have changed my perception of the book (which is something I'm struggling with). I've had similar incidents with cover representation of a character not jiving with my visual of that character. My most recent example is Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher.

    For the later, I saw an Indian girl, but I can't be sure if it's not because of the book design around the photo. Hmm.

  5. Lovely post.

    In all honesty I saw:

    Female. Pilot.

    Female. Far too pretty...just look at those eye lashes!

    Colour/ethnicity did not enter my head for either. Maybe other covers would be more 'provocative' in that way. But both covers draw me in... which means they're doing a damn good job!

  6. What a great post- certainly lots to think about. Thank you.

  7. I know people are only trying to be nice when they say they don't see color. They just see a person, or female or etc. But whats so wrong about seeing color? And in the case of Secret Keeper one can take the cover cues - the girls long eyelashes and cover colors and recognize it as a cover featuring a character of color. This world is made up of many shades and I would hope that book covers would reflect that.

  8. Wait a sec, light-skinned people aren't supposed to have long eyelashes? Shoot. Lemme go cut mine. ;-)

    I find it so fascinating, the different ways people view these covers.

    Doret, I would hope so, too! It's not that I want not to see color...but why should it be the first thing I notice? Not a comment on the artwork but on my own perceptions and assumptions.

    I've seen covers I loved where the model's skin was more clearly dark (most recently: Shine, Coconut Moon). This week, though, I purposefully picked covers which I thought were ambiguous. What's ambiguous to me may be perfectly clear to you, and that's okay--it's just a matter of perception.