Saturday, July 25, 2009


For weeks I have been intending to write about the cover of Strange Angels by Lili St Crow, and make a comment about how often cover models don't match the characters inside books. In this case, the tangle-haired Glamazon cover model looks nothing like the fabulously grouchy, dirty, pimply, bruised, tomboyish Dru Anderson that lives inside. But I'm going to let that slide. Because a related brouhaha has arisen over the US cover for Justine Larbalestier's Liar, which features a white girl coyly hiding behind her hair; a strange choice by her publishers when the main character describes herself as nappy-haired and African American. 

There has been a proliferation of blog posts, statements and opinions about the issue of race and book covers, all of which make thought-provoking and important reading. No doubt there are countless PhD's to be written on the subject. Justine Larbalestier's original post is here, and fellow YA author E.Lockhart has also described her own cover struggles, with the conclusion (which I second), that publishers need to be braver. Anecdotally, I think that (white) people's reluctance to buy `ethnic' book covers may be overstated slightly; a good seller at my work is Dragonkeeper by Carole Wilkinson, which I am pleased to see often in the hands of teenage boys who definitely cannot identify themselves on the cover. 

So I'm going to drop my cover discussion, as it is already being discussed rigorously elsewhere, with far more eloquence than I can muster and on far more critical grounds than Glamazon vs. tomboy. But some of the comments made about the Liar cover have made me think about the issue of representation on book shelves. Larbalestier herself made the point that black teens are hardly going to feel welcome in the YA section of a bookstore/library if all the covers feature white teens. 

I've blogged before about Adrian Tomine's work, and how comforting I find it to see Asian faces depicted in his work. I don't need all the books I read to have Asian themes or covers or characters (in fact, I'm used to the majority not being so), but it is nice to stumble across someone who resembles myself occasionally. Everyone likes to see themselves represented on the pages of a novel. It might be their experiences or emotions represented, or it might be their appearance, racial identity or sexual orientation. I think this is particularly important in the teenage years, when identity feels like a very fluid and confusing concept, that needs to be explored, experimented with and in some cases battled.  

I was very interested in JJ's post on the matter (which I stumbled across in a very roundabout fashion via a comment on a Twitpic), not least because she had a slightly different reaction to the cover than others, and because we share a similar ethnic background (half-Asian, raised in a mostly whitebread fashion). JJ feels most drawn to books which are `incidentally' ethnic, and I think my preference falls in line with hers. Which is not to say that there isn't a place for books that place ethnicity and race and racial identity very firmly at the centre of the action. 

The one thing that really discomfited me in Strange Angels was the Eurasian character, Graves. I should be pleased about my kind being in there, right? Yet I felt uncomfortable with the constant references to Grave's appearance and ethnicity. Repeated references to the`epicanthic folds' of his eyes and the `ethnic boy'  just felt plain awkward, and at times, a bit - I struggle for a word here - rude? blunt?  I wondered whether perhaps there's a cultural difference between the words Americans and Australians use to denote race? In any case, writers no doubt constantly visualise their characters and have very clear ideas on appearance and ethnicity. How to indicate that subtly in their prose is a very difficult, and probably quite thankless, task.  

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