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19 January 2010 @ 06:08 pm
An(other) open letter to Bloomsbury Kids USA  
A real open letter this time, now that I'm calmed down to the point of some coherence.

Note: I have sent this to bloomsbury.kids@bloomsburyusa.com and children.publicity@bloomsburyusa.com; ellen_datlow lists contact information  here.

Formatting set up for my email.


To whom it may concern,

The sun set on the British Empire a while ago.  Thought you might like to know.

I am an adult of color, a writer and a voracious reader.  I spend hundreds of dollars a year on YA books alone, since I'll buy multiple copies of good YA books as presents for younger friends and family members.   I don't believe I'm the sort of customer you want to lose.  And I am appalled at you.

By pretending that people like myself don't exist, don't buy books, or will shut up and put up with your blatant, insulting whitewashing of covers, you are doing precisely that.

If I had seen your original cover of Liar[1] in the store, I would have shrugged, moved on, maybe considered checking it out of the library -- despite liking Justine Larbalestier's work.  It's a pretty boring cover.  (I tell you this because you seem to have no idea how dull and interchangeable the shelves full of white-kid images look.)

The cover you gave Liar in the wake of massive controversy[2] is not just closer to accurate; it's also far more interesting.  As it happens, I knew from descriptions of the book (and how badly your original cover misrepresents it) that it's fascinating -- but had I known nothing about the controversy, I would still have been intrigued by the cover you actually went with.  I bought the book. 

To be clear: I would have bought Liar without knowing anything about the controversy.  I would not, however, have bought the book with the cover you originally intended.  And I don't seem to be the only one. 

However, it seems you've learned nothing from reader responses to your screw-up over Liar, since your cover of Magic Under Glass, by Jaclyn Dolamore[3], features yet another generic Period white-girl.  Yaawn.

How fortunate for you there is another controversy[4]. (Did you think there wouldn't be, or are you cynically using us to do your PR?) Your generic-pretty (and insultingly whitewashed) cover wouldn't get a second look from me -- why should it, among the dozens and dozens of period white-girl images with "Magic" in the title?  But the book itself promises a fascinating cross-cultural culture-mix point of view.  A Victorian-esque fantasy with a Persian-esque protagonist[5] is precisely the sort of book I'd grab -- and get copies to pass on if I enjoyed it.

Your cover misrepresentation doesn't just offend any reasonable sensibility; it is boring.  You do an original-sounding new author a real injustice with it.  However, since you seem to be stuck in the 1980s (1950s?) with your apparent belief that nobody will buy books with brown people on the cover, allow me to clue you in: people of color read, too.  Your habit of insulting and belittling us this way is really damn stupid.  And the number of our white allies who notice, speak up, and are out of patience with your reactionary practices is growing.

I'll be watching your response to the current controversy, and I will be watching how you respond in the long run.  I would hate to boycott a publisher, since it's a move that would hurt authors too, but if you continue the way you have been, I shall be recategorizing you as too idiotically racist to support.

Shweta Narayan

[1] http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_gJWmXPJu-Ps/S1PV8s3fabI/AAAAAAAAAo0/kI2boTiH3e0/s1600-h/liar.jpg
[2] http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_gJWmXPJu-Ps/S1PV9EldH8I/AAAAAAAAAo8/Ahe2LNR7Oug/s1600-h/FinalLiar.jpg
[3] http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_gJWmXPJu-Ps/S1PV8RiX5PI/AAAAAAAAAos/xQUsYIZmZPM/s1600-h/magic-under-glass.jpg
[4] http://jezebel.com/5451058/magic-under-glass-the-white+washing-of-young-adult-fiction-continues / http://bookishblather.blogspot.com/2010/01/book-thoughts-racefail-on-magic-under.html / http://blackteensread2.blogspot.com/2010/01/open-letter-to-bloomsbury-kids-usa.html / http://charlotteslibrary.blogspot.com/2010/01/cover-of-magic-under-glass.html / http: //www.chasingray.com/archives/2010/01/on_whether_or_not_bloomsbury_h.html
[5] Who looks great here: http://roberts.vorpus.org/~shweta/magic-under-glass-protag.png
Current Mood: angryangry
Alan Yeealan_yee on January 20th, 2010 02:24 am (UTC)
*applauds Shweta's smackdown*

Anyway, it sadly just doesn't seem likely that Bloomsbury is the only publisher guilty of whitewashing covers of books with non-white protagonists. This shouldn't be happening period, but I can't imagine they would be the only ones doing it. That doesn't excuse Bloomsbury in any way, of course. I still wonder if there are other cases of recent whitewashing that haven't been publicized like Liar and Magic Under Glass have been.
shweta_narayan: authorpic1shweta_narayan on January 20th, 2010 02:26 am (UTC)
I'm sure there are, but I also suspect that it's not just Bloomsbury's mind we're working to change here.

And they are one of the really big ones.
mevennenmevennen on January 20th, 2010 10:45 am (UTC)
God almighty. This is just dire. The last time I came across this, though I bet it wasn't the last time it happened, was with one of Elizabeth Moon's novels with a protagonist who was clearly black and in her forties. The 20 something on the cover looked like something out of the Aryan nation.
Lenora Roselenora_rose on January 26th, 2010 03:06 am (UTC)
Plenty. In SF/F, Elizabeth Bear's first trilogy (Hammered, etc.). Sarah Monette's third book (The Mirador). At least one Patricia McKillip Book (Alphabet of Thorn, I think), though I'll forgive a Kinuko Craft cover a lot. Virtually every edition of Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea books (There was a rather nice set recently which featured a Ged with darker skin, but his features under it were closer to Caucasian than to anything else, which made it kind of a half-assed attempt as far as representation goes.) Talia on Jim Hines' Princess covers should probably be darker than she is.

Plus, I suspect -- with no actual proof -- that more of the books with people of colour as protagonists get covers without people on them at all. (The Spirit Ring is the only one of Lois McMaster Bujold's books I can think of where the cover doesn't feature a person - but considering how dreadful were the Baen covers on her other books at that time, I can't see that as all bad.)
(Deleted comment)
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on January 20th, 2010 03:50 am (UTC)
Yeah, and I was so angry, again, at the Earthsea movies whitewashing him again :(

And yeah, the book sounds awesome!
(Deleted comment)
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on January 20th, 2010 10:49 pm (UTC)
Wow,were my links broken!
Thank you!
(Deleted comment)
shweta_narayan: authorpic1shweta_narayan on January 20th, 2010 03:52 am (UTC)
Oh yeah, I agree it's pretty. They all are; pretty-white-girl being generically-Period with "magic" on the cover is about as stereotypical in its way as "torso with jeans and tattoo".

If they put half as much effort into reasonable representation that they did into the pretty, the books wouldn't all blur together. Also I wouldn't feel insulted :)

Now an actual Middle-Eastern or Asian girl wearing that dress? Would be awesome.
(Deleted comment)
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on January 20th, 2010 04:24 am (UTC)
Agreed, and it'd be memorable precisely because it'd be different.

Yes, I agree. Margaret Mahy's The Magician of Hoad is (arguably) Yet Another one of these: cover art shows an ambiguous-probably-tanned-white protag, and her protag... just... isn't. And the cover art thereby misses out on the absolutely wonderful image of a brown-skinned boy with a wild mass of long black hair worn in either lots of braids or one big braid, and silver glasses, and (sometimes) the creepiest smile ever. I love my mental image of this boy as Maori-like, since Mahy's from NZ and the clearly-white-people are called "Secondcomers" -- though I don't know if it's what she had in mind per se.

I should write to that publisher too. I think I only have the energy for one angry letter today though.
Dichroicdichroic on January 20th, 2010 04:40 am (UTC)
That's about right. Looking at the initial cover of Liar without having read the book, I actually don't find it boring. Knowing just a little about the plot, I actually find the original composition a little better because it's clear her mouth is meant to be covered - the second cover is ambiguous about that. (Which is a stupid mistake, because it would be easily corrected with the model and props they used!)

But if I read the book and like it (as I have liked others of Larbalestier's work) then I would care about the character. And *then* I would be annoyed that she'd been misrepresented.

But even if I assume that the publisher doesn't care about whether I'm disillusioned later, only whether the cover sells books ... well, it seems to me that for anyone *not* actively trying to seek out more diverse characters, the second cover works as well to sell books (and better for those who have heard a bit about the book and like accuracy); for someone who *is* seeking out a wider range of characters, the second cover works much better.

And for a girl who needs there to be some books about people like her that second cover could change the world.
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on January 20th, 2010 04:47 am (UTC)
Fair enough :) I encourage you to write to them stating your opinion too!

Personally, I find it decidedly same-ish. The pretty culturally-valued-body-shape white teenagers on cover are all starting to look the same to me.
Dichroicdichroic on January 20th, 2010 04:59 am (UTC)
Makes sense - but since I'm buying the vast majority of my reading on e-book these days, the cover is sort of irrelevant. I can see the picture of it on Amazon, but generally it's been recommended to me before I got that far.

Basically I'm not looking at enough covers to be bored by them :-) If I were doing a lot of my buying based on browsing bookstore shelves I might be having a lot more issues with same ol' same ol' covers.

But so we have a subset of people who aren't affected either way by the cover, and another who have a strong preference for the more accurate cover. The commercial decision seems obvious ... unless there really is a large group of people who will only buy covers showing paler people. I wonder if they've updated their research recently?

All that is before you even get to the growing number of people who are appalled at the whitewashing of books, either by not including CoC at all or by more literally whitening them on book covers. And the ones who aren't exactly appalled, quite, but they've heard there's this fuss and they're kind of troubled that the publisher is doing that, and well, there are a *lot* of new YA books out and it's just as easy to buy a different one.

I think publishers are going to find themselves regretting it when they don't consider those latter groups.
asakiyume: warrior princessasakiyume on January 20th, 2010 03:43 am (UTC)
That is an **awesome** letter, and I hope it helps and I hope the EMINENTLY STUPID Bloomsbury publishers change this cover too. AND DOESN'T KEEP DOING THIS.

shweta_narayan: aieeeeshweta_narayan on January 20th, 2010 03:53 am (UTC)
*sigh, I hope so.
asakiyume: warrior princessasakiyume on January 20th, 2010 04:16 am (UTC)
Just now went back and reread your letter and noticed the contact info you provide for the Bloomsbury group. I'll send them a letter too.
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on January 20th, 2010 04:25 am (UTC)
Yay! Thank you :)
asakiyume: warrior princessasakiyume on January 20th, 2010 04:21 pm (UTC)
Here's what I sent them:

Dear movers and shakers in the marketing and editing departments,

I was very disappointed to discover that Bloomsbury’s cover for Jaclyn Dolamore's debut novel Magic Under Glass featured a pale-skinned girl when the heroine of the book is described as dark-skinned. One gets the impression that maybe you don’t think dark-skinned girls can be attractive, or that they shouldn’t be on the cover of books. This seems especially true given the fact that you initially put a white girl on the cover of Justine Larbalestier’s novel Liar—about an African-American girl.

You publish stories with people of color as main characters—please represent them in your cover art!

Yours truly,

(Deleted comment)
shweta_narayan: authorpic1shweta_narayan on January 20th, 2010 04:25 am (UTC)
Thank you.

I went against my polite-girl socialization :)
(Deleted comment)
Julie Andrewsjulieandrews on January 20th, 2010 04:17 pm (UTC)
Hear Hear. It's so frustrating when a company just doesn't learn from its past mistakes.
calizencalizen on January 20th, 2010 05:07 pm (UTC)
Just when we think we've come so far, we realize how much farther we still have to go.