Apparently Only White Girls Get Invited to YA Prom

A lot of bloggers have pointed out recent trends in young adult book covers: dead white girls, white girls submerged in water, white girls having an near-kiss, white girls

One trend that particularly irks me is white girls in frou-frou dresses:

Granted, one of these books actually has a formal dance as its central plot point but as for the others…

*sigh*

I don’t get it. How in the heck can these characters crush dystopian overlords, navigate social minefields, battle supernatural creatures or come into their witchy/wolfy/vampiric powers buried in four tons of chiffon and lace? It’s as if they think slipping into a poufy gown and staring pensively into space is every girl’s fantasy.

How about this: if the book contains a powerful girl-child on the brink of womanhood show that not some overstyled, princessy glamazon who reflects nothing in the story but everything that publishers, advertisers, producers et al. believe sells products these days: young, white women. That is really the larger issue here.

Publishers are content to keep young adult covers in a Jim Crow state, pandering to the ridiculous notion that no one wants to read or purchase books that don’t have pretty white girls on the covers.  My issue isn’t with white protagonists, it’s with misrepresentation, thinly veiled racism and lack of imagination. This ceaseless parade of same-old, same-old imagery has to end. I’m sick of being cover-bamboozled!

I realize very few authors have control over their covers so I can imagine how frustrating it would be to have your publishing dreams come true and get saddled with a fugly cover, one that whitewashes your characters, or even worse, one that looks like everyone else’s.  But authors, I beg you to keep fighting for those choices any way you can. Your public opposition, and that of your readers, can make a difference.

There’s a lot at stake here. Besides the insidious perpetuation of antiquated racial myths, people (like me) are actually passing over books due to cover fatigue and potentially missing out on great reads.

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24 thoughts on “Apparently Only White Girls Get Invited to YA Prom”

  1. well said.
    i can’t get over the fact that there are books out there whose covers don’t illustrate the story within.
    sometimes a cover illustrates the mood or fragments of a story, as opposed to actually depicting a scene from the tale (A LONG LONG SLEEP by anna sheehan- sp??) or a theme from the story (THE HUNGER GAMES). but they are still representative of the story.
    what doesn’t make sense is post-apocalyptic fancy dresses… unless the society has rebuilt itself to include such a thing.
    i am in the process of starting my own freelance illustration business (with a focus on book cover art) and i have a bit of a different perspective on this.
    right now, i’ve done the art for two covers, and am working on a third. and each cover has a white girl on it. but the stories were written about white girls.
    that’s one issue. there is a shortage of YA representing anything other than thin, beautiful, white, healthy, straight girls.
    another issue is price.
    many cover artists (including the ones hired by big publishers) use stock photography… because there is honestly some A-MAZING stock photos out there, and they are SUPER CHEAP to purchase. but then they are also reusable by anyone and everyone who pays the tiny sum for the rights. but MORE IMPORTANTLY, you might win the lottery. you might come across a photo or a few that you can manipulate together and actually have a girl that looks like the MC… or you might settle for less. because less is key. less money. less time. less effort.
    i’m not saying that doing quality photo-manipulations is easy, because it is not. it is an art-form, and can produce wonderful results.
    what i am saying is that publishers want cheap art. and doing what i do- finding a model that i think looks like the character, setting up a photo-shoot, doing the photography, finding the settings or props or costumes or jewelry or make-up… etc. those things take SO much more time that scanning through stock images. and they cut into profits… considerably. and you have to work, work, work to try to have any kind of profit.
    i’m not complaining, because this is my dream! and i love doing it!
    but it has to be your dream, you have to be passionate about quality and THE STORY YOU ARE ILLUSTRATING!
    ugh!
    not representing a story with its cover art is inexcusable.
    it’s a lie to the readers.
    a cheat to the author.
    and a disservice to the story.
    and moreover, white-washing? how is that even conceivably acceptable? ever?
    UGH!
    sorry for the soapbox! just something i feel strongly about!

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    1. No worries about the soapbox! Your response is thoughtful and caring and it’s nice to hear the perspective of someone who creates covers.

      I have no problem with white girls on YA covers if that’s what the story is about. I would be just as annoyed if the story was about a white girl and then a girl of a different ethnicity was on the front of the book. Yes, I would love more stories about all kinds of different people but it would be nice to have covers that actually represent the story.

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  2. Oh, I know! I wish I could remember the book title, but I remember reading an article about a novel that had a black girl as the protagonist, but there was a white girl on the cover. What?

    All of the covers are starting to look the same, too. Some even have the same stock photography. Come on, seriously?

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    1. Justine Larbalestier’s LIAR was a recent victim of that madness. Racial issues aside, I do wish that there was more variation in general because as you mentioned, covers are becoming so interchangeable in many genres, not just YA.

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  3. I’m catching up on blogs post-Vegas and just read about a similar post from Ellen Oh on the lack of Asians on YA covers (full disclosure: I haven’t read her post yet; I’ve seen it linked and Tweeted a NUMBER of times).

    Prom dresses and white girls. Sigh. This white girl NEVER A) had a dress like that for prom, B) would never have been able to afford a dress like that, and C) was never remotely small enough to fit in a dress like that. Where are all the size 12s and higher girls?

    VERY interesting post, Ade. Thanks for writing it.

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  4. Thank you for the link! I so agree with you on both the need for diversity on book covers (I actually posted about some of the reasons this happens here: http://trac-changes.blogspot.com/2010/02/we-arent-as-pretty-or-interesting-why.html) and my total exhaustion with the “prom dress” cover trend. I think it’s important that buyers make what they want clear by refusing to buy books with covers that play into these tropes, that marketers and salespeople remain open to changing opinions and even try to mold them themselves rather than beating a dead horse, and that writers write and editors publish books that venture into new realms either diversity-wise or subject-matter-wise (or, please please please, both!) and so lend themselves to new covers.

    That said, and perhaps an agent or editor who frequently negotiates contracts can weigh in here, I have never heard of a contract from a large house which included a clause giving an author the right to approve or reject a cover. Some smaller or independent presses may be more open to this, but by and large publishers very carefully reserve the right to make the call on covers (and given that the art and design is paid for by them, not to mention the fact that it’s their jobs to understand market demands, I think this is actually fair). So please (and I say this as a professional in publishing and as a book buyer), please don’t put the responsibility on the author — put it on publishers and buyers. Publishers need to take risks, and buyers need to use their dollars to show which covers they really want to see.

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    1. You’re welcome! Responsibility for the end product for the cover may rest with publishers who pay for research and design and buyers who drive the market but authors should not act as if they have no power. Some authors are afraid to express dissatisfaction with cover selection because they believe it will kill their careers. It is a delicate balancing act and I am very sympathetic to that. I’m advocating that authors assert themselves and at least ask for something more than being allowed to glance at the cover when it’s too late to make any changes to it. If I wrote a book featuring a black girl as the main character and the cover featured a white girl instead, I would be crushed. I can only speak for myself but I would have to do everything I could to affect a change and end systemic misrepresentation. Successful or not, at least I tried.

      Are such clauses in contracts rare simply because people don’t ask for it? (I don’t know the answer to that BTW). At least if you ask for it and the answer is no, you’re on record as wanting to have some skin in the game. I’ve worked with graphic designers and I respect their talents very much. I’m not naive enough to believe that some huge publishing house is going to turn the entire process over to authors, particularly newbies. I realize someone has to have the last word and my opinion is not sacrosanct but a collaborative process is always more successful.

      Most businesses don’t change unless they feel it in their bottom lines. Perhaps with input from those in the industry who feel as you do and consumers who vote with their feet and dollars, those changes can happen faster.

      http://writerunboxed.com/2010/04/27/do-authors-choose-their-covers/
      http://www.theawl.com/2011/04/six-writers-tell-all-about-covers-and-blurbs

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      1. Oh, I agree, authors should absolutely voice their discontent with whitewashing, and their agents should stand by them to help make sure that the conversation stays civil and that no one needs to feel their career is threatened.

        But I don’t think that those clauses are rare because people don’t ask for it. I think they’re rare because publishers, as business people who invest an enormous amount of time and money into their list (though that’s not to say that authors don’t), are never going to give over creative control of their number one selling tool to someone who doesn’t have their experience in packaging books for a specific market.

        The good news is that the majority of publishers I have known and worked with, and most of my writer friends’ editors, are extremely open to input from their authors on covers. I’ve known my company to stop the press on a cover in order to find a new image that accurately represents the book and friends’ publishers to look very closely at the author’s vision of a character’s appearance when scheduling a shoot or even to entirely base a cover off of the author’s concept for it. But I’ve also known them to say no. Often this is based on their (yes, sometimes biased) perception of what the market wants, which is why it’s so important to have consumers be aware of the prejudices in the covers they’re seeing, and willing to put their money where their mouth is.

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  5. I got my SCBWI bulletin and there was an interesting article on diversity. In 2010, 95% of YA books were written by white americans about white americans. It’s a frightening statistic because the rest of the country isn’t represented. All we can do is represent.

    I wonder what the 2012 statistics will be. This is why I love that Soucebooks went with a fantasy cover. Mermaids don’t wear prom dresses.

    ~Z

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    1. That is terrifying but, unfortunately, not unexpected. I’m not sure if it’s because white authors are just uninterested in writing about people of color or unsure if they could successfully pull it off or just fearful that if they do so, it won’t sell. It could be all of those things.

      I’m hoping the 2012 statistics will reflect a significant change or that people start writing more stories about mythical creatures. 🙂

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  6. This prom dress post had me busting a gut laughing! I always wonder about those covers. Sure, the heroines look dewy but… You couldn’t run too fast from a demon or fanged fantasy monster in any of those! As to your other lament, check out Renee Watson’s gorgeous new cover for What my Momma Left Me, and Kekla Magoon’s cover on The Rock and the River. Amazing & beutiful black faces on each! Plus they are both talented authors!

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    1. Obviously, those ladies have no intention of doing any of those things. Silky fabrics in a dystopian futureworld are too hard to come by!

      Thanks for the book suggestions. I had Renee Watson’s book on my to-read list but I wasn’t aware of Kekla Magoon’s.

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    1. I’m sure a lot of authors are afraid of being labeled difficult, hard to work with, not team players, etc. but I think expressing your thoughts is very important. I would hate to put so much time into the work and then have the cover be in direct conflict with what you’ve written.

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