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Smile for the cover: A look at People of Color on YA book cover art

 

Here’s why we need to embrace People of Color on young adult book covers.

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Where are all the People of Color on Young Adult book covers?

That’s the question book designer Jenny Kimura asks in a blog post for We Need Diverse Books. She explains that although we have seen the massive mainstream success of YA novels like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han and Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, which feature characters of color on their covers, there are still important conversations about representation on YA book covers that need to take place.

“A book cover is a key place for promoting visual diversity and is the first encounter a reader will have with a book to know whether it’s diverse,” says Kimura.

Covers of The Hate U Give (Balzer + Bray), Children of Blood and Bone (Henry Holt Company) and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (Scholastic Fiction)

The reality is that People of Color (POC) are still underrepresented on the covers of YA literature. After analyzing and compiled data on 1,400 book covers (you can read the report in its entirety here), Kimura was able to show that in 2018, “white individuals on YA covers made up a little over 60% of all 1-individual covers, while all explicit POC representation combined didn’t even reach 20%.”

The issue of lacking representation of POC on book covers is magnified in specific genres. Author Suyi Davies Okungbowa tells how he struggles to find YA Science Fiction novels with Black boys on the cover to share with his 17-year-old brother who lives in Lagos, Nigeria.

“His question wasn’t why there were no black boys like him in the stories, because there definitely were. I guess he wanted to know, like I now do, why those boys were good enough to grace the pages inside but were somehow not good enough for the covers,” recounts Okungbowa in a blog post for Tor.

Lack of representation on YA book covers has been an issue ever since publishers started using the term “young adult.”

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In her article, ‘It Matters If You’re Black or White: The Racism of YA Book Covers,’ librarian Annie Schutte explains that, historically, YA book publishers have purposefully avoided giving prominence to POC on book covers through 1) whitewashing characters 2) depicting characters whose race seems purposefully ambiguous and 3) showing characters of color only in silhouette.

Covers of Brown Girl Dreaming (Nancy Paulsen Books) and Fallen Angels (Scholastic Paperbacks)

The good news is that the amount of identifiable, visual racial representation in YA books is increasing. Nowadays, publishers are less likely to whitewash a character or make their race ambiguous on the cover. Instead, we are seeing books with prominently displayed POC sitting atop best seller’s lists. The success of these diverse novels is sending a strong message to publishers: put characters of color on the cover.

To help celebrate the work of publishers, book designers and illustrators who are working to make a difference, here are some 2020 releases with bold and beautiful covers to be excited about!

1. All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson

Cover of All Boys Aren’t Blue (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

2. Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From by Jennifer De Leon

Cover of Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From (Simon Schuster)

3. A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow

Cover of A Song Below Water (Tor Teen)

4. Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

Cover of Clap When You Land (Hot Key Books)

5. The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar

Cover of The Henna Wars (Page Street Kids)

6. Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas

Cover of Cemetery Boys (Swoon Reads)

7. Lobizona by Romina Garber

Cover of Lobizona (Wednesday Books)

8. Dear Justyce by Nic Stone

Cover of Dear Justyce (Crown)

9. Black Girl Unlimited by Echo Brown

Cover of Black Girl Unlimited (Holt/Ottaviano)
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Spencer is an undergraduate student at the University of Calgary. He is studying English Literature and Education. He reads, researches and writes about Children's and Young Adult Literature. His dream job is to teach Muggle Studies at Hogwarts.

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