Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Fading Colors

As I waded through my morning Twitter feed (which consists of animal pictures, swearing and book news in equal measures) I came across a tweet from literary agent Jen Laughran that got me thinking a bit about cover art. Recently, Laughran found herself in an airport bookshop on a quest to find a Young Adult work by an author of color which also featured a person of color on the cover. Unfortunately, this proved to be a vain search.

I thought to myself that it must be the bookshop's location- an airport shop is going to have a limited selection compared to an indie. So, when I arrived at work today at The Curious Iguana, I thought I'd go on my own hunt. Surely, I thought, with our shop's focus on social and global issues, we could do better.

But after about 10 minutes of searching through the shelves, I realized that while we had a good deal of works by authors of color, the cover art didn't reflect the content.

These were the only four covers I could locate where the characters of color in the stories were depicted in the front artwork. Laughran herself pointed out that YA covers tend toward the abstract as well as graphic fonts, but I found it hard to believe that these were really the only four. (It's worth mentioning that the talented Robin Talley is not an author of color, but a member of the LGBTQ community. Her novel focuses on two teens on opposite sides of the civil rights struggle in 1956 Virginia.)

On wandering into our mid-grade section, the cover-art situation seems to be a little rosier. Titles in mid-grade tend to have much more literal art, so that the reader can easily identify things of interest. Books with characters of color have those characters displayed prominently. Just in middle grade fiction (excluding early reader, graphics and series) I found 45 titles with characters of color on covers.

Obviously, publishers of mid-grade lit want kids to be able to readily identify with the story inside. It's easier for a child to look at a picture and say, "That looks like me," and want to read it. I found myself wondering if teens might not benefit from the same concept.

Being a teenager is hard. Being a teenager of color is harder. In an environment where you may already feel isolated, wouldn't it be lovely to be able to walk into a bookstore and see your face staring back at you from the shelf?

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